Horrors of Death By Crucifixion
Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and died on the cross according to all four Gospels. In contradiction, some opposing theories say that even if he was crucified, Jesus did not actually die on the cross. If Jesus did not die by crucifixion, it nullifies the Gospel accounts saying that his manner of death and his resurrection from the dead were both a fulfillment of Messiah prophecy.
Roman capital execution by crucifixion followed a well-honed process. The horrors of crucifixion can be described in no less than graphic terms. In fact, the English word “excruciating” is derived from the word “crucify” or “crux” meaning cross.
Cicero, Josephus and other historical sources of Roman crucifixion have been corroborated through modern medical science. Doctorate and PhD level research in the fields of forensics, pathology and medicine on Roman scourging and crucifixion articulates the horrific impacts to the victim.
First, the victim was flogged or scourged by a multi-tipped whip containing fragments of metal or bone intended to rip the flesh off the victim. It inflicted terrible pain and weakened the victim through loss of blood causing severe dehydration and thirst, induced shock and could even lead to death before the actual crucifixion.
Next, it is believed the condemned were often forced to carry their own patibulum (crossbeams) weighing about 75 to 125 pounds down the long trek to a conspicuous public place of execution outside the city walls. There awaited upright posts or stipes left in place, as historical evidence suggests, because of the frequency of use and scarcity of wood.
Once at the execution site, the fated souls were stripped of clothing by the execution detail; forced down onto the ground in their open wounds; and were affixed to the patibulum by nails possibly along with ropes. The patibulum was then fitted onto the upright stipes where the job was finished by nailing the feet to the stipes.
Crucifixion victims, shredded by flogging, were then faced with enduring a humiliating and slow death. They suffered from severe dehydration, exposure and unspeakable pain.
As if this were not enough, the consequence of hanging by extended arms caused more excruciating pain with each breath. The victim had to push up full body weight on nailed feet while pulling at the nail wounds driven through nerves in the wrists.
Hypothermia would have added to the misery with the average 59° April temperature in Jerusalem at that time of year that ranges from 49°F to highs around 70°F. The Gospels report that the crucifixion process of Jesus began at 9:00am which was shortly after reaching the nightly low temperature. Exposure was compounded by wind chill, moisture from blood and sweat, and the severe injuries inflicted by scourging and being nailed to the cross.
As if the physical torture wasn’t enough, there was the mental torment of humiliation by being stripped of clothing and hanging from the cross at a high traffic location as a spectacle for staring passers-by who, along with the Roman soldiers, shouted insults at the victim. Hanging defenseless and fully exposed on the cross, the sufferer was subject to becoming living carrion for scavenging birds.
Victims most likely died from hypovolemic shock (blood circulation complications) or a combination of other factors. Death was believed to be hastened by breaking the legs of the victim such as mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the two thieves crucified with Jesus.
Roman judicial crucifixions were overseen by an execution squad consisting of a centurion, exactor mortis, and four soldiers known as a quaternion. The centurion was in charge of the execution and responsible for reporting back to the governing authority when the execution had been completed. Failure to complete his duty could have dire consequences – survival of a crucifixion victim was not an option.
Archeological evidence of a crucifixion was found in an ancient cemetery excavated in 1968 by Vassilios Tzaferis of the Israel Department of Antiquities. Pottery shards in the tomb dated to the period that followed King Herod’s dynasty up to 70 AD.
One adult male’s remains, those of “Yehohanan, the son of Hagakol,” were identified by anthropologists to have died by crucifixion, his heel bone pierced by a bent 4.5 inch nail. Remains of the olive wood cross were still attached between the nail bend and the heel bone as well as a remnant of the acacia or pistacia wooden plaque between the head of the nail and outside of the heel bone. The lower leg bones had been splintered by a sharp blow.
Forensic, pathology, and medical research; antiquity historical references; an archeological discovery and anthropology research all remarkably corroborate the circumstances of the crucifixion details in the Gospel accounts.
Considering the historical and scientific information, how believable are the Gospel accounts that Jesus of Nazareth died by means of crucifixion on the cross?
Updated September 15, 2022.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus: Matthew 27:26-56; Mark 15:15-41; Luke 23:20-49; John 19:1-35.
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