THE FACTS OF CRUCIFIXION
Crucifixion is said to be the cruelest, most painful, wretched, and inhumane form of punishment ever devised in the history of mankind. And Jesus willingly went to the cross for you—because of you.
Often crucifixion or artistic presentations of Jesus on the cross portray a clean white body, arms outstretched, hands and feet securely affixed with nails, the body displayed in a visually inoffensive pose. In reality, Jesus’ body would have been torn from the scourging, covered with blood, and twisted into a visually offensive posture by its attachment to the cross.
Why is Jesus on the cross pictured in an almost sterile manner? Perhaps it is because we do not want to face the reality that humanity rejected the Son of God and perpetrated such a cruel death.
Romans put crucifixion first (worst) in their list of approved forms of the death penalty. Other acceptable and frequently practiced forms of capital punishment included burning, decapitation, and exposure to wild beasts. The Romans, though disgusted with the horrifying cruelty of crucifixion, took it for granted that criminals had to be executed in this manner. Crucifixion was widespread and frequent in the ancient world, but the cultured literary world wanted little or nothing to do with it and as a general rule kept quiet about it. This is one of the leading reasons so little is seen about crucifixion in ancient literature.
Roman-era crosses consisted of two pieces of rough unfinished wood. Because lumber most likely was of great value in the Near East, it can be assumed that each piece was used for numerous crucifixions. The two pieces of wood consisted of the upright post (stipes) and the horizontal crossbeam (patibulum). These were not finished pieces of wood and may have resembled railroad ties. The stipes of the “Latin cross” extended well beyond the victim’s head, while that of the “tau cross” extended only a short distance beyond the crossbeam. It is believed that the tau cross was the type used in Palestine during the period of Christ’s crucifixion.
A banner (titulus), carried by one of the Roman guards from the crucifixion detail, announced the offenses or crimes of the condemned man. The titulus was affixed to the extension of the stipes beyond the patibulum at the time of the crucifixion. In Jesus’ case, this titulus announced Jesus’ offenses in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek—at that time the three primary languages of the land.
The stipes most likely remained at the place of the crucifixion permanently. It had to be secured sufficiently so it remained upright while a man was hung on it, writhing in pain, struggling to free himself. It is believed that the patibulum, which weighed approximately one hundred pounds, was the only part of the cross to be transported by the condemned victim to the place of death. After being scourged or beaten, the patibulum would be placed across the top of the victim’s shoulders. His arms and hands, outstretched in a manner similar to being crucified, were tied to the crossbeam with ropes. Then the centurion and the Roman crucifixion detail would lead the victim through the streets (often up to 3 miles) for all to see. If the victim fell during this procession, he could not protect himself with his hands, so he would fall to the ground face first, the weight of the crossbeam pushing down on his head, neck, and upper back.
Death came slowly and with a great deal of pain and suffering. Roman executioners became experts in the process of scourging and honed the art of causing the most pain over the longest period of time. The norm for crucifixion, and most other capital punishments, included scourging (flogging or beating) beforehand. Then the victim was forced to carry the crossbeam, and sometimes the entire cross, to his place of crucifixion. The form of execution varied considerably, depending on the whim of the executioner. Crosses and victims could be positioned in many different ways: some victims were crucified upside-down with their heads toward the ground (Peter), while some were suspended in awkward forms. Often victims were tortured immediately before crucifixion and subjected to sadistic practices and verbal humiliation while hanging on the cross. Sometimes bodies were burned at sundown as human torches for all to see. At other times, bodies were left hanging for days. After death, the remains were thrown into open pits without burial.
The Process of Crucifixion
What actually happens to a person’s body in the process of dying on a cross? How did Jesus suffer? How cruel was the experience of crucifixion?
Prior to being led to crucifixion, a criminal is traditionally beaten or flogged naked facing a large pillar. A flagrum, a device with a short, wooden handle with leather thongs two to three feet long is used to then scourge the back, neck, buttocks, and legs. Sharp sheep bones and metal balls were attached to the ends of the leather thongs. The metal balls peppered the skin, while the bones would dig into welts and rip open skin. With each lash, skin would be shredded.
Following His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was taken before the Jewish Sanhedrin and accused of crimes against Jewish Law and treason against Rome. During his trials, Jesus was beaten on the head and lashed with reeds. He was blindfolded, given a purple robe and scepter, mocked, and spat upon. With Jesus, the Romans reveled in the chance to humiliate the Jews. The soldiers then placed a crown of thorns on Christ’s head.
Upon arriving at Golgotha (the site of the crucifixion), Jesus was thrown on top of his crossbeam (patibulum), which would have been placed on the ground after being carried to the site by Simon of Cyrene. This action would have forced acidic dirt into the wounds on Jesus’ back, head, and legs, causing his blood to coagulate, harden, and dry. The crown of thorns would have been forced deeper into His scalp, creating excruciating pain and further bleeding.
Large nails about five to seven inches long and an inch in diameter (similar to railroad spikes) would have been driven through the wrists (considered by the Romans to be part of the hand), between the bones of the wrist and the end of the forearm’s radial bone. The placement of these spikes was intended to pass through, or crush, the nerves without disrupting the blood vessels. Placing a nail at the hollow area in the wrist would not break any bones and would provide full weight-bearing ability. The nail would have crushed, or partially severed, the median nerve, causing intense and continuous pain. The nail used to affix the feet would have been the same length as those in the wrists and would have been placed as strategically as they were. The nail would have passed between the second and third tarsal bone and no damage to arterial blood flow would have occurred from spikes driven into the body in this area. Thus rapid blood loss was avoided, serving to prolong the agony of crucifixion. If nails were placed correctly, there would be no need for ropes tied around to support the arms, legs, and body. As with the arms, the damage to the nerves of the feet would have created lightning-bolt flashes of pain along the entire length of Jesus body. His weight and any movement around the square nails would intensify the pain.
The Romans used the act of crucifixion as a show of force and deterrent to crime and rebellion. The victim’s body would hang on the cross anywhere from three hours to three days, even after death occurred. The victims were suspended off the ground on a high point in the city or along a busy road so citizens and those passing by would witness this demonstration of force and intimidation. The Romans were already frustrated with the activity of the Jews, and when they had a chance to demonstrate power of a man called “the King of the Jews,” the Romans held back nothing. The Romans were experts at crucifixion and knew how to cause the most pain with the least amount of blood loss, making this the most painful and drawn-out process of humiliation, suffering, and death imaginable.
Breathing on the Cross
The greatest impact of crucifixion was on the victim’s breathing. What killed victims, was not the trauma of being scourged, or even nailed. It was the combination of dehydration and suffocation. When inhaling, a person normally activates the muscles of the chest and the diaphragm to bring air into the lungs. During exhalation, a person relaxes the chest muscles and diaphragm and air moves out. During crucifixion, this process is reversed. The position of the body on the cross creates an emphysematous or “barrel-chested” victim, preventing normal airflow.
As a result, the victim is forced to breathe at the upper limits of lung expansion by taking shallow, rapid breaths. For the victim to breathe out, he would have to push himself up into a more regular chest position, allowing air to move. This could only be accomplished by rotating his nailed wrists and pushing up on his nail-driven feet. As fatigue set in, breathing took longer and became increasingly difficult. With each breath, the open sores and the torn flesh and muscle on His back would have grated against the rough timber of the Cross. No wonder Christ uttered only seven, significant words!
With a buildup of carbon dioxide asphyxiation, heightened levels of body acids, oxygen loss, a contraction of pulmonary blood vessels, and buildup of fluid around vital organs, Jesus faced a life-threatening state of congestive heart failure. In addition to breathing difficulties, and heart failure, repetitive trauma to the back during scourging would have injured the lungs, as well as cause kidney failure. Anemia would have contributed to Jesus’ quick death. Prior to crucifixion, Jesus was repeatedly beaten and whipped across the face and head (up to 150 times), with reeds and bone-covered chains. His scalp was punctured by multiple thorns. The muscles and flesh on his back were shredded and left gaping and bleeding. The emotional suffering Jesus’ endured in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before led to extreme sweating (severe diaphoresis), and the severe stress that caused a rare form of hemohidrosis (sweating blood). The skin of an individual under the level of stress Jesus faced would be rendered extremely tender, and as blood vessels become ruptured they would mix with sweat glands under the skin. Jesus sweated profusely, both during His agony as He prayed to His Father and as He hung on the cross. While He was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, under an extreme level of mental exhaustion brought on by lack of sleep, Jesus undoubtedly experienced a fear and apprehension so emotionally and physically unsettling that He suffered hemohidrosis and felt it necessary to ask His Father to take his suffering from Him.
The physiology of dysfunctional respiratory activity and congestive heart failure—compounded by extreme fatigue, hypovolemia (low body fluid), severe anemia, electrolyte abnormalities, and subsequent kidney failure—contributed to a cascade of life-ending changes in Christ’s normal body functions.
Death on the Cross
If the crucified criminal was still clinging to life, a centurion could choose between two methods to complete the process of dying. The first method was to break the legs of the individual, immediately causing shock and suffocation. The second method of assuring death was a “death thrust” of a spear into the chest cavity. This blow would have opened up the lung cavity causing a swoosh of air that followed with a flow of blood from the heart cavity, and lastly with a subsequent trickle of water that leaked from around the heart. Often both methods would be employed. Since Christ had already died, the second method was only necessary.
The actual cause of Jesus’ death was most likely a combination of physiologic conditions. The most probable was a combination of hypovolemic shock and exhaustion asphyxia. Amidst his stress, He had a low volume of body water and circulating blood combined with a concentration of carbon dioxide and a lack of oxygen in his body. He had not consumed water since the Last Supper, had suffered an excessive loss of water from perspiration, and lost a tremendous amount of blood in scourging. But what finally caused Christ to give up his Spirit, was the unkindest cut of them all: the taking up of our sin.
In this most hideous, and malicious death, we see most clearly our own sin and hatred. Yet in this cruel, grotesque death, we receive the kindness and beauty of Christ’s holy life and are restored to God’s favor. Christ’s resurrection certifies the Father’s acceptance.
He is risen indeed, Alleluia!!!