On Jesus’ Death, part 3 of 4: Crucifixion

In the first entry in this series of posts, we looked at a few (but not all) early, non-Christian references to the death by crucifixion of Jesus Christ, as well as variations of one popular theory that claims Jesus of Nazareth did not die on a Roman cross. In the second entry, we examined the severe physical trauma that Jesus must have gone through, based on the descriptions of events in the Gospels, before He was even crucified. Today, we will consider the Crucifixion itself.

The Crucifixion:

Over the years and particularly the past few decades, archeologists and historians have gained increasing knowledge about ancient times and the various beliefs and practices. As a result, we now know that some of the details that we thought we knew from medieval paintings and the like are not quite correct. For example, the crosses used in Jesus’ day looked more like a “T”, with the vertical post (or stipes) not showing much, if at all, above the crossbeam (or patibulum). The vertical beam was permanently embedded in the ground and rose only 6 to 8 feet.

jesus-carries-his-crossIt has been confirmed, though, that criminals sentenced to crucifixion were made to carry their own crossbeam (perhaps 75-150 lbs.) on their shoulders out to the place of execution. With the physiological effects of the beating and flogging already described, this would be quite painful and exhausting, especially when the prisoner would stumble and fall to the ground. Between the crossbeam on the shoulders and the occasional fall, clotting wounds would likely be rubbed or impacted, reopened, and subjected to dirt and gravel. From the Gospels (Matt. 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26), we know that, as they led Jesus out of the Praetorium, the soldiers ordered a bystander named Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ crossbeam the rest of the way. This was most likely because Jesus was so weakened from the trauma He had already endured that they knew He didn’t have the strength to do it Himself.

When the place of execution was reached (the hill called “Golgotha”, or “(Place of) the Skull”, in Jesus’ case), the prisoner was again completely stripped. The soldiers were probably none-too-gentle about this. When the garments were removed, the wounds that were stuck to the garments with clotting, dried blood would be reopened and start bleeding out again. This was made worse when He was thrown or forced to the ground for the nailing, causing dirt and gravel to once again be ground into the wounds. Roman centurions were not exactly known for being gentle. Of course, what did they care about a common criminal about to be executed?

The hypovolemic shock, tachycardia and heart failure would all have been aggravated with the trek through the city and up to Golgotha (probably about 1/2 mile), especially with the added burden of the crossbeam (which thankfully was only temporary). There is a strong membrane called the pericardial sac that surrounds the heart and is normally in direct contact with it. As the heart fails, a clear straw-colored fluid begins to separate and collect between the heart and the pericardial sac. This puts more pressure on the heart and further keeps it from functioning properly.

Since being flogged and losing so much blood, Jesus also would have been having trouble breathing, due to His body’s struggling to keep oxygen and carbon dioxide flowing. There is another membrane called the pleura, which basically lines the inside of the rib cage and is folded back onto the surface of each lung. At this point in Jesus’ ordeal, a similar, clear straw-colored fluid would be filling the space between the lungs and the pleura. When He was upright, this pleural effusion would collect at the level of the heart. Acidity of the blood (i.e., acidosis) is also increasing at this time, which will soon cause serious problems.

The arms were stretched out in a straight line along the crossbeam, so that the hands were as far apart as possible when nailed to it. (This will be more significant when we examine the effects of hanging on the cross.) Another point of historical clarification that some are still unaware of is that crucifixion victims were not nailed through the palms of the hands. Indeed, the weight of the hanging body would have caused the iron nails to rip through the palm and out between the fingers. Rather, the nail (which was square and roughly 4-6 inches long, like a railroad spike) was driven through the crease at the wrist, where the forearm meets the base of the palm. Specifically, the nail went through the carpal tunnel where the bones are connected by strong ligaments, making it the only solid anchor point. Back then, the wrist was considered part of the “hand”, so the facts are again entirely consistent with the biblical description.

large square nailsThe median nerve, the largest running through the hand, would be crushed by the nail. The smaller, ulnar nerve is the one that causes the “funny bone” sensation when we bump our elbow just “right”. Now, imagine squeezing your ulnar nerve as hard as you can with a pair of pliers! That is something like the incredible pain experienced by having a huge nail driven through the median nerve. And it would last until the victim died. The pain was so intense (much to the Romans’ delight) that they coined a new Latin term to describe it — ex crux (literally, “from the cross”), which is where the English word ‘excruciating’ comes from.

As for the nailing of the feet, there was a little more variation. Among the remains of the only known 1st century crucifixion victim from Israel is a right heelbone (or calcaneus) with a nail piercing from “outside” to “inside”. The nail is no more than 5 inches long with the point bent over, so it could only attach one heel to the post. The feet were probably nailed one to each side of the post. This does not mean, however, that the traditionally-pictured method — with both feet nailed to the front of the post, usually through the tops of the feet — was not also used. The Gospels give no clues as to which way was used on Jesus, but either way would have caused further damage to nerves and/or bones. We also don’t know if a foot rest (or sedile) was used — not that it would have provided much relief.

As soon as the crossbeam (with victim nailed to it) was attached to the vertical post, gravity started to play a major role. Whichever way the feet were nailed, the knees would have been bent in a half-knee bend position. (Ever tried to support your weight for long like that?) Even someone in good shape can’t sustain this for more than a minute or two. So, basically the whole time someone is crucified, their bodyweight is supported just by their arms. From an engineering standpoint, each arm must provide an “upward component” of force to carry the weight of the body. As time passes, the arms stretch, the shoulder and elbow joints are pulled apart, and the arms lengthen roughly 3 to 6 inches.

The only way to give any relief to the arms is by an extreme effort to push up on the legs. Of course, this causes the feet intense pain, as the nails grind against the periosteum membrane and possibly the tarsal bones. But, it is necessary in order to breathe. (This is why the soldiers would often break the victim’s legs or ankles in order to hasten their death. The 1st century bone remains that I mentioned earlier show evidence of this practice.) Unfortunately, this causes the arms to rotate slightly at the wrists, thus causing the nails to further aggravate the crushed median nerves. Also, with each painful breath, Jesus’ back rubbed up against the coarse wooden post, keeping wounds open and bleeding.

But, why is this necessary to breathe? Normally, when we inhale, the ribs expand on their hinges and the diaphragm muscle contracts and flattens. When a crucified body has all of its weight hanging on its arms and is unable to shift support to the legs for more than a few moments, the weight of the internal organs keeps the diaphragm down. The intercostal and pectoral muscles around the lungs halt normal breathing while the body hangs downward. In other words, the chest remains in an inhaled position. Without the ability to pull their arms down (or their body upward), it is extremely difficult just to *release* a breath. Eventually, the victim becomes too exhausted to continue pushing up on their feet to breathe anymore. Thus, death by crucifixion is usually the result of slow, agonizing asphyxiation.

crucifixion_wristsRemember that blood acidity problem I mentioned earlier that results from an insufficient exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide? Now is when it really starts to get bad. The problem is really the carbon dioxide, which is transported in the blood plasma. When someone hypoventilates (i.e., they aren’t breathing enough), carbon dioxide isn’t expelled fast enough, so it builds up (as carbonic acid) in the blood. This acidosis effect has been accelerating since the scourging and now reaches a stage where Jesus begins to experience cardiac arrhythmias. At this point, He could surely feel the irregular beating in His chest and knew His time was almost up. Shortly, at the appointed hour (i.e., 3pm, when the Passover lambs were slaughtered), He managed one final breath and cried out, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Then He died, quite likely while in full cardiac arrest.

As sunset approached, the soldiers examined the three crucified on Golgotha. The two thieves were still alive, so the soldiers broke their lower legs, ensuring they would expire within minutes. Jesus already appeared to be dead, so they did not break His legs. But, one soldier decided to make sure by piercing Jesus’ side (probably the right frontal part of the chest) with his spear. The speartip would have gone through the chest wall, penetrated the pleural space of the right lung, then entered the pericardial space and finally into the heart. John 19:34 (NASB) says that, “immediately blood and water came out.” The blood, of course, was from the heart. The “water” would have been the clear, slightly straw-colored fluid that had collected in the pleural and pericardial spaces.

Whew! That was another rather graphic post (like the last one) but necessary to explain just how serious Jesus’ physical condition was from a medical standpoint in those final hours. Next post should wrap up the series with additional facts and a bit of speculation.

Until then… Happy Resurrection Day!


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