This past Sunday at Ephesus I touched on the physical realities of death by crucifixion. I want to give a little more of the details on this form of execution which was first practiced by the Persians and possibly learned by the Romans from the Carthaginians. The reality is that crucifixion, while horrific and violent, was fairly common during the Roman Empire. It was reserved for non-Roman citizens for crimes in which the government desired to make a very public mockery of the victim. While the crucifixion of Jesus is certainly the most recognized instance of this form of execution there are several other instances where execution occurred on a large scale. Notably the crucifixion of Spartacus and his followers during the slave rebellion of the First Century BC. There were upwards of 6000 crucified along a major Roman highway as so admirably portrayed by Kirk Douglas in the great man-movie Spartacus. The noted Jewish historian, Josephus, recorded many Jews were crucified following the failed Jewish revolt around AD 70. It is also tradition, although not with authoritative records, that Peter was crucified upside down. He made this request, because he felt he wasn’t worthy to die the same way as Jesus. All of this being said, crucifixion was a very horrific way to die, and very few survived crucifixion, and then only because they were shown mercy for some reason or another and taken off the cross or pole before they succumbed. Bottom line, either you died on the cross or the Romans very intentionally allowed you to live. No one ever accidentally survived. There has been some debate as to whether Jesus truly died on the cross or merely “swooned” or “almost died.” There is simply no historical evidence that this happened, nor is it realistic that it could have happened. Not only did the Roman executioners ensure death, because their own lives depended on them properly completing their job, but Jesus certainly was in a state of extreme trauma when laid in the tomb where he was wrapped in over 100 pounds of linens and without food or water for 3 days. You just don’t get up and walk out of a situation like that.
Next, I’d like to detail the physical realities of crucifixion. Much of this is taken from an article written in the March 21, 1986 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
First there was flogging
- A flog is a leather whip of braided leather straps with metal balls and small pieces of bone in them
- These bits of bone and metal were used to rip open the flesh on the back of the victim often exposing the spine and internal organs
- When whipped, these bits would grab hunks of flesh and tear them off the victim
- After being flogged Jesus would most likely go into shock which correlates with his collapsing while carrying the cross and being thirsty due to blood loss on the cross.
- This would lead to something known as hypovolemic shock. This is shock caused by the loss of large amounts of blood. It has 4 major effects
- The heart races to try and pump blood that is no longer in the body
- the blood pressure drops leading to fainting or collapse
- the kidneys stop producing urine so as much blood as possible can be maintained
- extreme thirst as the body needs more fluids to replace the lost blood
Next was the journey to the place of execution.
- Jesus would have had to carry the crossbar of the cross which weighed between 75-125 pounds outside of the city to to the site of crucifixion
- This rough hewn piece of wood would be resting on his ripped open back
Once at the site of the crucifixion:
- There would be the upright portion of the cross already in the ground
- Jesus would then be thrown to the ground which allowed dirt to get into his torn back with his arms outstretched across the crossbar
- He would then be nailed through the wrists to the cross by 5-7 inch long metal spikes. These spike would go right through the median nerve in the wrist causing pain similar to, but far beyond, something experienced when we hit our “funny bone” in the elbow as this nerve was crushed by the spike.
- The nail went between the two bones in the wrist to hold the victim to the cross.
- traditionally it has been said that the nails went through the hands, but the palms would tear from the weight of the victim
- At that time the wrist was considered part of the hand in common usage
- Jesus was then lifted to the upright portion of the cross where his ankles were nailed to the cross again through the major nerve leading to the feet
- At this point his arms would have been stretched an additional 6 inches and both shoulders dislocated
- While on the cross Jesus’ back, still ripped open would be scraping across the rough wood of the cross
- Then began the slow process of asphyxiation as the position of the body on the cross made breathing impossible except by pushing up on the nails in the feet to release the tension on the lungs and allow breathing again.
- All the while the exposed back is tearing across the wood of the cross
- To add to the insult of this act was that individuals were stripped naked and often times lost control of their bodily functions resulting in urine, feces, blood and sweat pooling at the base of the cross
- Eventually the combination of all these factors led to exhaustion and an inability to lift up and breath.
- At this point the victim would die.
- those that did not die in the necessary timeframe would have their legs broken to quicken asphyxiation as the person could no longer lift themselves up.
- This is why we read in the bible of the Roman executioner nearly breaking Jesus’ legs but realizing he is already dead.
- The spear to the heart would have released pericardial effusion around the heart and pleural effusion around the lungs giving the appearance of water when punctured by the spear
- These would have been caused by the hypovolemic shock and resulting cardiac failure
- This would have only occurred after the death of the victim
The bottom line is Jesus died a horrible, gruesome death at the hands of experienced executioners. But the ending of the story is that 3 days later He was no longer lying in that tomb!
Additional reading :
“Vintage Jesus” Mark Driscoll, & Gerry Breshears 2008
“The Case for Christ” Lee Strobel 1998
“On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ” JAMA, Vol. 255, Number 11, March 21, 1986 Edwards, et al
“The Science of the Crucifixion” http://www.apu.edu/infocus/2002/03/crucifixion/
Vol. 255 No. 11, March 21, 1986