Crucifixion of Jesus
Years ago I came across the following vivid account by a medical doctor of Christ’s crucifixion. I still cannot read this without shedding tears for what Jesus went through for me.
CRUCIFIXION OF CHRIST
by C. Truman David, M.D., M.S.
In this paper, I shall discuss some of the physical aspects of the Passion, or suffering of Jesus Christ. We shall follow Him from
Gethsemane, through His trial, His scourging, His journey to the cross, to His last dying hours on the cross.
I became interested in this about a year ago when I read an account of the Crucifixion in Jim Bishop’s book, The Day Christ Died. I suddenly realized that I had taken the Crucifixion more or less for granted all these years; that I had grown callous to its horror by a too easy familiarity with the grim details and that, as a physician, I didn’t even know the actual cause of death. The Gospel writers don’t help us very much on this point because crucifixion and scourging were so common during their lifetime and that they undoubtedly considered a detailed description totally superfluous. So we have the concise words of the Evangelists, “Pilate, having scourged Jesus, delivered Him to them to be crucified; and they crucified Him.”
I am indebted to many who have studied this subject in the past, and especially to a contemporary colleague, Dr. Pierre Barbet, a French surgeon who has done exhaustive historical and experimental research and has written extensively on the subject.
The infinite psychic and spiritual suffering of the incarnate God in atonement for the sins of fallen man I have no competence to discuss. However, the physical and anatomical aspects of our Lord’s Passion we can examine in some detail. What did the body of Jesus of Nazareth actually endure during those hours of torture?
This led me first to a study of the practice of crucifixion itself. Crucifixion is a torture and execution of a person by fixation to a cross. Apparently the first known practice of crucifixion was by the Persians. Alexander and his generals brought it back to the Mediterranean world; to
Egypt and to
Carthage. The Romans learned the practice from the Carthagenians and (as with most everything the Romans did) rapidly developed a very high degree of efficiency and skill to carry it out. A number of Roman authors (Liby, Cicero, Tacitus) comment on it. Several innovations and modifications are described in the ancient literature. I’ll only mention a few which may have some bearing here.
The upright portion of the cross could have the cross-arm two or three feet below its top. This si what we commonly think of today as the classical form of the cross (The one which we have later named the Latin cross.) However, the common form used in our Lord’s day was the Tau cross (shaped like the Greek letter Tau or like our “T”). In this cross, the cross-arm was placed in a notch at the top of the upright. There is fairly overwhelming archeological evidence that it was on this type of cross that Jesus was crucified.
The upright post was generally permanently fixed in the ground at the site of execution and the condemned man was forced to carry the cross-arm, apparently weighing about 100 pounds, from the prison to the place of execution. Without any historical or Biblical proof, Medieval and Renaissance painters have given us our picture of Christ carrying the entire cross. Many of these painters and most of the sculptors of the crucifixion today show the nails through the palms. Roman historical accounts and experimental work have shown that the nails were driven through the wrists and not the palms. Nails driven through the palms will strip out between the fingers when they support the weight of a human body. The misconception may have come through a misunderstanding of Jesus’ words to Thomas, “Observe my hands.” Anatomists, both modern and ancient, have always considered the wrists as part of the hand.
A titulus, or small sign, stating the victim’s crime was usually carried at the front of the procession and later nailed to the cross above his head. This sign with its staff nailed to the top of the cross would have given it somewhat the characteristic form of the Latin cross.
The physical passion of Christ begins at
Gethsemane. Of the many aspects of this initial suffering, I shall discuss only one of physiological interest; the bloody sweat. It is interesting that the physician of the group, Luke, is the only one to mention this. He says, “And being in agony He prayed the longer. And His sweat became as drops of blood, trickling down upon the ground.” Luke 22:42
Every attempt imaginable has been used by modern scholars to explain away this phrase, apparently under the mistaken impression that it just doesn’t happen. A great deal of effort could be saved by consulting medical literature. Though very rare, the phenomenon of hematidrosis, or bloody sweat, is well documented. Under great emotional strain tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can break, thus mixing blood with sweat. This process alone could have produced marked weakness and shock. (The problem here is not with the physical possibility, but with the textual evidence in Luke.)
We shall move rapidly through the betrayal and arrest. I must stress again that important portions of the Passion study are missing from this account. This may be frustrating to you, but, in order to adhere to our purpose of discussing only the purely physical aspects of the Passion, this is necessary.
After the arrest in the middle of the night Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin and Caiphas. The palace guard then blindfolded Him and mockingly taunted Him to identify them as they were passing by to spit on Him and strike Him in the face.
In the early morning Jesus, battered and bruised, dehydrated and exhausted from a sleepless night, is taken to
Jerusalem to the Praetorium of the fortress Antonia, the seat of the government of the Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate. You are, of course, familiar with Pilate’s attempt to pass the responsibility to Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Judea. Jesus apparently suffered no physical mistreatment at the hands of Herod and was returned to Pilate. It was then, in response to the cries of the mob, that Pilate ordered Barabbas released and condemned Jesus to scourging and crucifixion. There is much disagreement among authorities about scourging as a prelude to crucifixion. Most Roman writers from this period do not associate the two. Many scholars believe that Pilate originally ordered Jesus scourged as His full punishment and that the death sentence by crucifixion came only in response to the taunt by the mob that the Procurator was not properly defending Caesar against this pretender who claimed to be King of the Jews.
Preparation for the scourging are carried out. The prisoner is stripped of His clothing and His hands tied above His head to a post. It is doubtful whether the Romans made any attempt to follow the Jewish law in this matter of scourging. The Jews had an ancient law prohibiting more than forty lashes. The Pharisees, always making sure that the Law was strictly kept, insisted that only thirty-nine be given. ( In the case of a miscount they were sure of remaining in the Law.) The Roman legionnaire steps forward with the flagrum in his hand. This is a whip consisting of several heavy leather thongs with two small balls of lead attached near the end. The heavy whip is brought down with full force again and again across Jesus’ shoulders, back and legs. At first the heavy thongs cut through the skin only. Then as the blows continue, they cut deeper into the underlying tissues producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin, and finally arterial bleeding from the vessels in the underlying muscles. The small balls of lead first produce large, deep bruises which are broken open by subsequent blows. Finally the skin of the back is hanging in long ribbons and the entire area is an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissue. When it is determined by the centurion in charge that the prisoner is near death the beating is finally stopped.
The half-fainting Jesus is then untied and allowed to slump to the stone pavement, wet in His own blood. The Roman soldiers see a great joke in this provincial Jew claiming to be king. They throw a robe across His shoulders and place a stick in His hand for a scepter. They still need a crown to make their travesty complete. A small bundle of flexible branches covered with long thorns are shaped into a cross and this is pressed into His scalp. Again there is large amounts of bleeding. (The scalp is one of the most vascular areas of the body.) After mocking Him and striking Him across the face the soldiers take the stick from His hand and strike Him across the head driving the thorns deeper into His scalp. Finally they tire of their sadistic sport and the robe is torn from His back This had already become adherent to the clots of blood and serum in the wounds and its removal, just as a careless removal of a surgical bandage, causes excruciating pain- almost as though He were again being whipped- and the wounds again begin to bleed.
In deference to Jewish custom, the Romans return His garments. The heavy cross-arm of the cross is tied to His shoulders and the procession of the condemned Christ, two thieves and execution detail of Roman soldiers, headed by the centurion, begins its slow journey to
Calvary. In spite of His efforts to walk erect, the weight of the heavy wooden beam together with the shock produced by the copious blood loss is too much. He stumbles and falls. The rough wooden beam gouges into the lacerated skin and muscles of the shoulder. He tries to rise, but human muscles have been pushed beyond their endurance. The centurion, anxious to get on with the crucifixion, selects a stalwart North African onlooker, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the cross. Jesus follows, still bleeding and sweating the cold, clammy sweat of shock. The 650 yard journey from the Fortress Antonia to
Golgotha is finally completed. The prisoner is stripped of His clothing except for a loin cloth which is allowed the Jews.
The crucifixion begins. Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh, a mild analgesic mixture. He refuses to drink. Simon is ordered to place the cross-arm on the ground and Jesus is quickly thrown backward with His shoulders against the wood. The legionnaire feels for the depression at the front of the wrists. He drives a heavy square wrought iron nail through the wrist and deep into the wood. Quickly, he moves to the other side and repeats the action being careful not to pull the arm too tightly, to allow for some flexation and movement. The cross-arm is then lifted to its place at the top of the upright and the titulus reading, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” is nailed into place.
The left foot is then placed backwards against the right foot and with both feet extended toes down, a nail is driven through His feet into the cross. Excruciating fiery pain shoots down along the fingers and up the arms to explode in the brain. The nails in the wrists are putting pressure on the middle nerve. As He pushes Himself upward to avoid the torment, He places His full weight on the nail through His feet.
At this point another phenomenon occurs. As the arms fatigue, great waves of cramps sweep over the muscles knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push Himself upward. Hanging by His arms the chest (pectoral) muscles are paralyzed and the intercostal muscles are unable to act (these help expiration). Air can be drawn into the lungs but cannot be exhaled. Jesus fights to raise Himself in order to get even one short breath. Finally, carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically He is able to push Himself upward to exhale and bring in life giving oxygen. It was undoubtedly during these periods that He uttered the seven short sayings which are recorded.
At first, looking down at the Roman soldiers throwing dice for His seamless garment, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34
Second, to the penitent thief, “Today thou shalt be with Me in
Paradise.” Luke 23:43
The third, looking down at the terrified, grief stricken, adolescent John (the beloved apostle), He said, “Behold thy mother.” And looking to Mary, His mother, “Woman, behold thy son.” John 19:26-27
The fourth cry is from Psalm 22, “My God, My God, Why hast Thou forsaken me? Mark 15:34
Hours of limitless pain pass, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation (suffocation), searing pain as torn from His lacerated back as He moves up and down against the rough timber. Then another agony begins: a deep, crushing pain in the chest as the pericardium (the sac around the heart) slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart. Let us again remember the 22nd Psalm, verse 14, “I am poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.”
It is almost over now. The loss of tissue fluid has reached a critical level and the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick sluggish blood into tissues. The tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp small gulps of air. The markedly dehydrated tissue send their flood of stimuli to the brain. Jesus gasps His fifth cry, “I thirst” John 19:28 A sponge soaked in Posca, a cheap sour wine which is a staple drink of the Roman legionnaires, is lifted to His lips. He apparently doesn’t take any of the liquid.
The body of Jesus is now in extremis and He can feel the chill of death creeping through His tissues. This realization brings out the sixth word, possibly little more than a tortured whisper, “It is finished!” John 19:30 His mission of atonement has been completed. Finally He can allow His body to die. With one last surge of strength He once again presses His torn feet against the nail, straightens His legs, takes a deeper breath, and utters His last cry, “Father, into Thy hands I commit my Spirit.” Luke 23:45
The rest you know. In order that the Sabbath not be profaned, the Jews asked that the condemned men be dispatched and removed from the crosses. The common method of ending crucifixion was by curifracture, the breaking of the bones of the legs. This prevented the victim from pushing upward, the tension could not be relieved from the muscles of the chest and rapid suffocation occurred. The legs of the two thieves were broken but when they came to Jesus they saw this was unnecessary.
Apparently to make doubly sure of death the legionnaire drove the lance through the fifth interspace between the ribs, upward, through the pericardium and into the heart. John 19:34 “And immediately there came out blood and water.” Thus there was an escape of the watery fluid from the sac surrounding the heart. We, therefore, have rather conclusive postmortem evidence that our Lord died; not from the crucifixion death by suffocation, but of heart failure due to shock and constriction of the heart by fluids in the pericardium.
Thus we have seen the epitome of evil which man can exhibit toward man and toward God. This is not a pretty sight and is apt to leave us despondent and depressed. How grateful we can be that we have a sequel: a glimpse of the infinite mercy of God towards man, the miracle of the atonement and the expectation of Easter morning.
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