A Physician and Physiologist View the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ
Dr. C. Truman Davis and
Dr. Stephen Newdell
WARNING: This article is for a mature audience.
At the foot of Golgotha Hill (The hill of the skull) lies a deep pit called Hell. It is where the garbage is burned night and day endlessly. Criminals who died there were often thrown into the burning pit and anyone who knew them knew they were gone forever, never to reach God. Their prayers, suffering, and work had all been for nothing.
What actually did they do to Jesus and what happens in a Crucifixion?
The answers are terrible, but if you want to know, and especially before Easter, this article between Dr. Davis and I will give you a clearer answer.
We have only the concise words of the Evangelists: “Pilate, having scourged Jesus, delivered Him to them to be crucified — and they crucified Him.” I have no competence to discuss the infinite psychic and spiritual suffering of the Incarnate God atoning for the sins of fallen man. But it seemed to me that as a physician I might pursue the physiological and anatomical aspects of our Lord’s passion 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; that is, torture and execution by fixation to a cross. 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.
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 apparently learned the practice from the Carthaginians and (as with almost everything the Romans did) rapidly developed a very high degree of efficiency and skill at it. A number of Roman authors (Livy, Cicer, Tacitus) comment on crucifixion, and several innovations, modifications, and variations are described in the ancient literature.
For instance, the upright portion of the cross (or stipes) could have the cross-arm (or patibulum) attached two or three feet below its top in what we commonly think of as the Latin cross. The most common form used in our Lord’s day, however, was the Tau cross, shaped like our T.
In this cross, the patibulum was placed in a notch at the top of the stipes. There is archeological evidence that it was on this type of cross that Jesus was crucified. Without any historical or biblical proof, Medieval and Renaissance painters have given us our picture of Christ carrying the entire cross. But the upright post, or stipes, was generally fixed permanently in the ground at the site of execution and the condemned man was forced to carry the patibulum, weighing about 110 pounds, from the prison to the place of execution.
Many of the painters and most of the sculptors of crucifixion, also show the nails through the palms. Historical Roman accounts and experimental work have established that the nails were driven between the small bones of the wrists (radial and ulna) and not through the palms. Nails driven through the palms will strip out between the fingers when made to support the weight of the human body. The misconception may have come about through a misunderstanding of Jesus’ words to Thomas, “Observe my hands.” Anatomists, both modern and ancient, have always considered the wrist as part of the hand.
A titulus, or small sign, stating the victim’s crime was usually placed on a staff, carried at the front of the procession from the prison, and later nailed to the cross so that it extended above the 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.
But, of course, the physical passion of the Christ began in Gethsemane. Of the many aspects of this initial suffering, the one of greatest physiological interest is the bloody sweat. It is interesting that St. Luke, the physician, 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.” Every ruse (trick) imaginable has been used by modern scholars to explain away this description, apparently under the mistaken impression that this just doesn’t happen. A great deal of effort could have been saved had the doubters consulted the medical literature.
Though very rare, the phenomenon of Hematidrosis, or bloody sweat, is well documented. Under great emotional stress of the kind our Lord suffered, tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can break, thus mixing blood with sweat. This process might well have produced marked weakness and possible shock. Again, The Bible proves itself to be trustworthy.
After the arrest in the middle of the night, Jesus was next brought before the Sanhedrin and Caiphus, the High Priest; it is here that the first physical trauma was inflicted. A soldier struck Jesus across the face for remaining silent when questioned by Caiphus. The palace guards then blind-folded Him and mockingly taunted Him to identify them as they each passed by, spat upon Him, and struck His face.
In the early morning, battered and bruised, dehydrated, and exhausted from a sleepless night, Jesus was taken across the Praetorium of the Fortress Antonia, the seat of government of the Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate. You are, of course, familiar with Pilate’s action in attempting to pass 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 Bar-Abbas released and condemned Jesus to scourging and crucifixion. Barabbas was a gang leader, a thief, and possibly a murderer.
There is much disagreement among authorities about the unusual 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 allegedly claimed to be the King of the Jews.
Preparations for the scourging were carried out when the Prisoner was stripped of His clothing and His hands tied to a post above His head. It is doubtful the Romans would have made any attempt to follow the Jewish law in this matter, but the Jews had an ancient law prohibiting more than forty lashes. The Roman legionnaire steps forward with the flagrum (or flagellum) in his hand. This is a short whip consisting of several heavy, leather thongs with two small balls of lead attached near the ends of each. The heavy whip is brought down with full force again and again across Jesus’ shoulders, back, and legs.
At first the thongs cut through the skin only. Then, as the blows continue, they cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin, and finally spurting arterial bleeding from 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. Sometimes the flagrum was dipped into blood and then into a box of broken shards of pottery and perhaps small bits of iron. These stuck to the leather and when they struck the skin tore chucks from it.
The half-fainting Jesus was untied and allowed to slump to the stone pavement, wet with His own blood.
The Roman soldiers saw a great joke in this provincial Jew claiming to be king. They threw a robe across His shoulders and placed a stick in His hand for a scepter. They still needed a crown to make their travesty complete. Flexible branches covered with long thorns (commonly used in bundles for firewood) were plaited into the shape of a crown and this was pressed into His scalp. Again there is copious bleeding, the scalp being one of the most vascular areas of the body.
After mocking Him and striking Him across the face, the soldiers took the stick from His hand and struck Him across the head, driving the thorns deeper into His scalp. Finally, they tired of their sadistic sport and the robe was torn from His back. Already having adhered to the clots of blood and serum in the wounds, its removal caused excruciating pain just as in the careless removal of a surgical bandage, and almost as though He were again being whipped the wounds once more begin to bleed. In deference to Jewish custom, the Romans return His garments.
The heavy patibulum of the cross was tied across His shoulders, and the procession of the condemned Christ, two thieves, and the execution detail of Roman soldiers headed by a centurion began its slow journey along the Via Dolorosa.
In spite of His efforts to walk erect, the weight of the heavy wooden beam, together with the shock produced by copious blood loss, is too much. He stumbled and fell. The rough wood of the beam gouged into the lacerated skin and muscles of the shoulders. He tried to rise, but his muscles had been pushed beyond their endurance. The centurion, anxious to get on with the crucifixion, selected a stalwart North African onlooker, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the cross. Jesus followed, still bleeding and sweating the cold, clammy sweat of shock, until the 650 yard journey (about 1,000 steps) from the fortress Antonia to Golgotha is finally completed.
Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh, a mild analgesic (pain killing) mixture. He refused to drink. Simon was ordered to place the patibulum on the ground and Jesus was thrown backward with His shoulders against the wood. The legionnaire felt for the depression at the front of the wrist. He drove a heavy, square, wrought-iron nail through the wrist and deep into the wood. Quickly, he moves to the other side and repeated the action, being careful not to pull the arms too tightly, but to allow some flexion and movement. The patibulum was next lifted in place at the top of the stipes and the titulus reading, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” is nailed in place.
The artist rendering of a nail through hands is wrong. The nail would be driven through the Carpals — the bones as you see before they connect to the forearm. The nail would go approximately through the Capitate.
Likewise the foot, these small block bones behind the longer ones are above the arch of your foot. The nail will be run through there.
The left foot is next pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, a nail is driven through the arch of each, pinning the two feet together, leaving the knees moderately flexed. The Victim is now crucified.
As He slowly sagged down with more weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating pain shoots along the fingers and up under the armpit into one of the many nerve plexuses. A nerve plexus is a bundle of nerves, you can think of it like a yester-years telephone switchboard. Many small nerves run in, big nerves run out. These nerve bundles connect to the spinal cord, to the brain, and to one another.
The nails in the wrists are putting pressure on the radial and median nerves, and the pain runs into an axillary plexus (under the arm) and the pain level is so strong that it spills over to the nerves controlling the diaphragm, which is the muscle that flattens, pulling the lungs and drawing in air. As the muscle in normal function relaxes the breath flows out. But, in this situation, the diaphragm can tension and pull air in, so the victim is likely to cease breathing because he cannot relax and allow air to breath out.
The victim would then die within 2 or 3 minutes. That is not what the first Persians (who made a science of terrorism) wanted. They wanted the victim to suffer as long and miserably as possible, and terrorize the locals viewing this such that they would never commit any crime. After the victim died they might skin the man and hang the skin to a wall as a long lasting momento to further terrorize people, “Don’t break our laws because this might happen to you!”
Because the Persians and Romans specialized in cruelty, it was common to place a small block of wood on the upright stipes just behind the coccyx, which is the true tail bone, the tiny bone just above the anus. As the victim rode up and down over this it first aggravated and finally destroyed the tissue causing intense pain and more bleeding, down the legs with more pain rising up into the pelvis.
We have the picture of a man pushing on his feet to breathe but the pain in his legs and pelvis, abdomen and low back are so terrible he must release them. Now the pain in his arms and chest is so terrible he cannot breath. The man, usually crucified just a few inches above the ground is seen by his onlookers rising up and down continually.
A strong man might torture himself automatically for so long as a week! Thus the nail through the feet. If he can push himself up to relieve the pain running down his arms, he’ll be able to release the diaphragm and exhale, and perhaps get a full breath. The natural inclination of a body is to survive, so it will go into an automatic effort to continue breathing even without food, water or sleep running for days! Even if the man is essentially unconscious the body will be seen rising up and down, up and down. Crows may light and peck out its eyes. Still the body rises and falls until it runs out of energy and stops and finally dies.
As the crucified victim pushed Himself upward to avoid the pain in his arms and his stretching torment, He places His full weight on the nail through His feet. Again there is the searing agony of the nail tearing through the nerves between the metatarsal bones of the feet, and the pain runs up the Great Sciatic nerve into the sacral plexus, the pudendal plexus and so on into the Vegus nerve.
What that means to you non-anatomy students is, his pain rushes into the pelvis, the genitals, the abdomen, the low back and up the vegus nerve into organs. His body is screaming in pain, but if he can endure for a few seconds he can release the diaphragm and take a breath. This is a very powerful reflexly operated motivation. Only Satan himself could have invented this!
The victim will after a few of these cycles have “taught” the nervous system what it must do to continue breathing. The man will now automatically torture himself to death while friends and family pray, watch, cry, turn away because they can’t look any more, sleep beside the cross, awaken, cry more, and watch this poor man suffer endless torment until there is no energy left with which to continue. The victim dies, but those who loved him suffer emotionally over this often for years, perhaps for life.
Contrary to the artist’s paintings, the cross was not tall. Often the victim’s feet were just a few inches, above the ground, so the family saw him face to face, eyes to pleading eyes.
When Jesus was beaten and scourged he was so covered in blood and swollen about the face he was unrecognizable. The blood on his face and running off his scalp had probably finally blinded him, covering his eyes with brown scabs, or sealed them shut. There was then more discomfort of itching, wishing to have an end to this, a bath and recovery time but that was only a fantasy.
Hanging as he was 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 pectoral (big chest) muscles are paralyzed and the intercostal muscles (between the ribs) are unable to act. 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 the life-giving oxygen.
It was undoubtedly during these periods that He uttered the seven short sentences recorded:
The first, looking down at the Roman soldiers throwing dice for His seamless garment, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
The second, to the penitent thief, “Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”
The third, looking down at the terrified, grief-stricken adolescent John — the beloved Apostle — he said, “Behold thy mother.” Then, looking to His mother Mary, “Woman behold thy son.”
The fourth cry is from the beginning of the 22nd Psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus experienced hours of unimaginably limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, searing pain where tissue is torn from His lacerated back as He moves up and down against the rough timber.
Then another agony begins — a terrible crushing pain deep in the chest as the pericardium (the sac around the heart) slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart. A liquid cannot be compressed, and of course the pericardial sac is strong, and this creates hydraulic pressure against the heart reducing its efficiency, causing exhaustion of the heart muscle and the feeling of a weight pressing against one’s chest.
One remembers again the 22nd Psalm, the 14th verse: “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.” (In that day “bowels” was a word used to mean all of the organs. “My insides.”)
The body cannot continue this way much longer. The loss of tissue fluids has reached a critical level; the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood against the pressure of the fluid around it. The thicker blood is damaging heart muscle and valves.
The tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. The markedly dehydrated tissues send their flood of stimuli to the brain. Jesus gasps His fifth cry, “I thirst.” One remembers another verse from the prophetic 22nd Psalm: “My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou has brought me into the dust of death.”
A sponge soaked in posca, the cheap, sour wine which is the staple drink of the Roman legionaries, is lifted to His lips, sometimes in this cased mixed with myrrh or perhaps some other sedative herbal medicine that might hasten death. It is reported he refused to drink.
He may have felt the chill of death creeping through His tissues. This realization perhaps brought out His sixth words, possibly little more than a tortured whisper, “It is finished.” His mission of atonement has completed. Finally He could allow his body to die.
This is contradicted by the Gospel of Luke, chapter 23: which appears to have some of the sequence a bit mixed up.
44It was now about the sixth hour, and
darkness came over the whole land until
the ninth hour,
45for the sun stopped shining. And the
curtain of the temple was torn in two.
46Jesus called out with a loud voice,
“Father, into your hands I commit my
spirit.” When he had said this, he
breathed his last.
Comparing this account to others, Jesus died, there was the darkening of the sky, the earthquake, the curtain over the Holy of Holys torn down the middle, and then the realization of a few that surely, this man who died must have indeed been The Son of God! (Oh, What have we done?!)
But apparently he mustered one last surge of strength, he once again pressed His torn feet against the nail, straightened His legs, took a deeper breath, and uttered His seventh and last cry, “Father! Into thy hands I commit my spirit.”
As I have been given to understand, this was the day before the start of Passover (which will begin with sunset!) So we had two Sabbaths. A Friday sunset coming and the Jews wanted to be done with all work by then, and probably the Romans wanted them all off the streets anyway as a curfew.
If you place yourself on the scene (and if you’ve ever lived through a powerful quake, as I have) you know the entire community is upset.
In the midst of this it is the 6th hour. That is to say, according to the reckoning of a 12-hour day, it is noon. Jesus died at or very close to 12-noon – mid day. And the sun went dark. The Lord God, it appears to me, was telling the world they had killed the light of the world!
The disciples wanted Him off the cross. One of them ran to report to Pilot and requested permission to have the body. Pilot found the death all in one day a bit unbelievable so he required a centurion to go there, see for himself and return. No one broke his knees (which was done as a merciful form of ending the torture sooner.) He just died and to be sure he was dead, the centurion drove his bladed weapon, “the lance” through the abdominal wall, through the ascending aorta, through the large vagus nerve, and into the pericardium, which gushed serum and blood.
Let no one ever attempt to tell you he was taken from the cross alive and later recovered and raised a family in France. That sort of lie was published in the 1970’s. It is blasphemous and ridiculous. I have just shown you the impossibility of the argument. No one could survive what a trained soldier with a lance can do. Those blades were long and wide as a butcher’s cleaver, and the soldiers were well trained killing machines. The lance blade was certainly not sterile, thus, even if a man’s aorta, liver and heart were not stabbed (unlikely) the infectious process that followed would surely kill him. But no. Jesus was dead.
The centurion had to walk back to Pilot and report the news. All of this might have taken nearly 2-hours. Likely, the body came off the cross around 2:30 or 3PM. It was early spring. The sun will set around 5 or 5:30. They have just two hours to do what they can before the Sabbath and the curfew begin.
By custom they must wash and redress the body and cover it with herbs, but there is little time to do all of this. They might not normally work on Passover week, but another law supersedes this, that being that a body must be buried within 24-hours of death. The believers must have hurried with the help of Rabbi Joseph of Arimathea to settle the body into the tomb Joseph had arranged to be carved into the stone hill for himself. It was probably 4 or 5 PM before the best these people can manage to do is leave the corpse of The Living Word of God who walked amongst us. They watch as strong men rolled a stone across the entry and secured it further with many crossings of rope.
There is more detail to this story. Pilot is pressed by the temple rabbis to be certain no one will steal the body, because the rabbis already have admitted he was from God. Nicodemus said as much when he visited Jesus under the cover of darkness.
John chapter 3: (NIV)
3Now there was a man of the
Pharisees named Nicodemus, a
member of the Jewish ruling council.
2He came to Jesus at night and said,
“Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who
has come from God. For no one could
perform the miraculous signs you are
doing if God were not with him.”
So we can conclude, some of this high rabbinate was afraid that in some way this Jesus would perform another miracle and be taken or might have awakened and walked out of the tomb! If that happened they would be the ones running for their lives!
Pilot assigned a large contingent of guards to stand 3 feet apart and several rows deep, guarding that tomb cover. I imagine them standing there hour after hour after sunset, watching that rock, some facing the other directions watching for anyone coming. And then suddenly an Angel appeared, knocked them all down and unconscious, lifted the stone not to the side but UP the hill several feet, and in the early morning the disciple women came to find the empty tomb, and the guards were also missing. What power could have lifted that stone 20 or more feet up the hillside? They feared Pilot and feared the power of God even more!
Pilot’s best efforts were foiled. The Rabbi’s were in terror over what happened. Those who had slapped, beaten, ridiculed, and scourged Jesus, and gambled for his clothing, were left in shock over what they had done and to whom. But, this is only the beginning. God will have yet more for them, and for you and me to know and see.
But let’s return to the analysis of the bodies for a moment more.
In order that the Sabbath not be profaned, the Jews asked that the condemned men be dispatched and removed from the crosses.
These men were the gang members who had been led by Barabbas, who deserved to die but Jesus took his place.
The common method of ending a crucifixion was by crurifracture, the breaking of the bones of the legs. This prevented the victim from pushing himself upward; thus 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 the soldiers came to Jesus they saw that this was unnecessary, as he had already died.
Apparently, to make doubly sure of death, the legionnaire would customarily drive his lance through the fifth interspace between the ribs, upward through the pericardium and into the heart. In battle a frontal attack would drive the blade through the diaphragm and up to the heart.
The 34th verse of the 19th chapter of the Gospel according to St. John reports: “And immediately there came out blood and water.” That is, there was an escape of water fluid from the sac surrounding the heart, giving postmortem evidence that Our Lord died not the usual crucifixion death by suffocation, (which would have taken several days) but of heart failure (a broken heart) due to shock and constriction of the heart by fluid in the pericardium.
Thus we have had our glimpse — including the medical evidence — of that epitome of evil which man has exhibited toward Man and toward God. It has been a terrible sight, and more than enough to leave us despondent and depressed. How grateful we can be that we have the great sequel in the infinite mercy of God toward man — at once the miracle of the atonement (at-one-ment) and the expectation of the triumphant Easter morning.
Jesus indeed rose from the dead. The cloth covering him has been analyzed several times and there is considerable proof that it was imprinted by energy that came out of that body! It wasn’t ink and no one can duplicate it.
Are you moved by what Jesus did for you on the cross? Do you want to receive the salvation Jesus purchased for you at Calvary with His own blood?
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