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, including a major world religion, claim Jesus did not actually die on the cross…even if he was crucified.[1]

Crucifixion of Jews is a reality meant to kill without survivors. In addition to the four Gospel authors, among others historian Josephus and the great Roman orator and lawyer, Cicero, wrote of crucifixions.

Roman capital execution by crucifixion followed a well-honed process. 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.[2]

Modern medical science has corroborated the effects of a Roman scourging and crucifixion referenced by historical sources.[3] PhD level research in the fields of forensics, pathology, and modern medicine articulate the horrific impacts.[4]

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 on the long trek to a conspicuous public place of execution outside the city walls. Awaiting there were upright posts or stipes left in place, as historical evidence suggests, because of the frequency of use and scarcity of wood.

crucifixion nail

Once at the crucifixion site, the execution detail stripped off the clothing of the victims; forced down to the ground in their open wounds; and were affixed to the patibulum by nails and possibly along with ropes. The patibulum was then fitted onto the upright stipes where the job was finished by nailing their 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.

Consequence of hanging by extended arms with each breath caused more excruciating pain. The victim had to push up full body weight on nailed feet which at the same time pulled at the nail wounds driven through nerves in the wrists.

Hypothermia would have added to the misery considering the average 59° April temperature in Jerusalem. At that time of year, the temperature ranges from lows as far down as 49°F to highs in the 70s°F.

Gospels accounts report the crucifixion process of Jesus began at 9:00am which is soon 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.[5]

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, bloodied 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.[6] 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.[7] In charge of the execution, the centurion was responsible for reporting back to the governing authority when the execution had been completed.[8] Failure to complete his duty could have dire consequences – survival of a crucifixion victim was not an option.[9]

crucifixion nail & heel bone

Archeological evidence of a crucifixion was found in an ancient cemetery excavated in 1968 by Vassilios Tzaferis of the Israel Department of Antiquities.[10] 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 scientific information that substantiates historical references, how believable are the Gospel accounts saying that Jesus of Nazareth died by means of crucifixion ?

 

Updated February 6, 2024.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus:  Matthew 27:26-56; Mark 15:15-41; Luke 23:20-49; John 19:1-35.

[1] Shah, Zia.  “Jesus did not die on the cross!” For Christians, To be Born Again in Islam!  2012.  <https://islamforwest.org/article/jesus-did-not-die-on-the-cross rel=”nofollow”>  Quran 4:157, Pickthall translation.  <http://www.islam101.com/quran/QTP/index.htm > Hill, Kate, “The Physical Death of Jesus Christ: The “Swoon Theory” and the Medical Response.” 2015. Providence College.  <http://digitalcommons.providence.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=faith_science_2015>  Samuelsson, Gunnar.  Crucifixion in Antiquity.  2011.  Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck.  <https://www.academia.edu/4167205/Crucifixion_in_Early_Christianityrel=”nofollow”>
[2] “excruciating.”   Dictionary.com.  2017.  <http://www.dictionary.com>   “crucifixion.”  Merriam-Webster.  2017 <http://www.merriam-webster.com>
[3] Cicero. Secondary Orations Against Verres, Book 5, Chapter LXVI.   Zias, Joe.  Joe.Zias.com. “Crucifixion in Antiquity – The Anthropological Evidence.” 2009. Archive.org. <http://web.archive.org/web/20121211060740/http://www.joezias.com/CrucifixionAntiquity.html>  Josephus, Flavius.  The Life of Flavius Josephus. #75. Google Books. n.d.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
[4] Edwards, William D.; Gabel,Wesley J.; Hosmer, Floyd E. The Journal of the American Medical Association. “On The Physical Death of JesusChrist.” March 21, 1986, Volume 256 <http://hopechurchonline.net/pdf/JAMA_article_The_Crucifixion_of_Jesus_Christ.pdf>  Zugibe, Frederick T., PhD. E-Forensic Medicine. “Turin Lecture:  Forensic and Clinical Knowledge of the Practice of Crucifixion.” 2005. <http://web.archive.org/web/20130925103021/http://e-forensicmedicine.net/Turin2000.htm>  Cilliers, L. & Retief F. P.  U.S. National Library of Medicine|National Institute of Health. “The history and pathology of crucifixion.” Dec;93(12):938-41.  <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14750495>   Maslen and Mitchell. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. “Medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion.” 2006. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14750495
[5] “Weather in April in Jerusalem.” Climatemps.com. <http://www.jerusalem.climatemps.com/april.php>   “Jerusalem.”  HolidayWeather.com. <http://www.holiday-weather.com/jerusalem/averages/april>   McCullough, Lynne, M.D. and Arora, Sanjay, M.D.  AAFP.org. 2004 Dec 15. http://www.aafp.org/afp/2004/1215/p2325.html>  Li, James, M.D. “Hypothermia.” Sep 09, 2016. <http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/770542-overview#a5>  “Ancient Roman “Crucifixion Spike” 1st – 2nd Century AD.” Ancient Resource. photo. 2020. <http://www.ancientresource.com/lots/roman/crucifixion-nails-spikes.html
[6] Cilliers & Retief.  “The history and pathology of crucifixion.”  Zugibe. “Turin Lecture – Forensic and Clinical Knowledge of the Practice of Crucifixion.”  Maslen and Mitchell. “Medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion.”  Alchin, Linda.  Tribunes and Triumphs. “Roman Crucifixion.” 2008. <http://www.tribunesandtriumphs.org/roman-life/roman-crucifixion.htm>  Zias. “Crucifixion in Antiquity – The Anthropological Evidence.”  Champlain, Edward.   Zugibe. “Turin Lecture – Forensic and Clinical Knowledge of the Practice of Crucifixion.”  Geberth, Vernon J. “State Sponsored Torture in Rome: A Forensic Inquiry and Medicolegal Analysis of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.” 2012. Reprint: AAFS Proceedings Annual Scientific Meeting Washington, D.C. February 18-23.  pp 176-177. 2008. <https://r.search.yahoo.com/_ylt=AwrNZs.XOMplcmMnC3wPxQt.;_ylu=Y29sbwNiZjEEcG9zAzEEdnRpZAMEc2VjA3Ny/RV=2/RE=1707780375/RO=10/RU=http%3a%2f%2fwww.practicalhomicide.com%2fResearch%2fRome2012.doc/RK=2/RS=c4KuoiEJ.qGr7k28di3AscjU6i0-> Champlain, Edward. Nero. Harvard University Press. p 1222009. <https://books.google.com/books?id=30Wa-l9B5IoC&lpg=PA122&ots=nw4edgV_xw&dq=crucifixion%2C%20tacitus&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false>  Champlain, Edward. Nero. Harvard University Press. p 122. 2009. <https://books.google.com/books?id=30Wa-l9B5IoC&lpg=PA122&ots=nw4edgV_xw&dq=crucifixion%2C%20tacitus&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[7] Zugibe. “Turin Lecture – Forensic and Clinical Knowledge of the Practice of Crucifixion.
[8] Santala, Risto. The Messiah In The New Testament In The Light Of Rabbinical Writings. Trans. William Kinnaird. “Jesus Before The Representatives of the Roman State.”  1993.  <http://www.kolumbus.fi/risto.santala/rsla/Nt/index.html>   Swete, Henry Barclay.  The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Greek Text with Notes and Indices. 1902.  Google Books.  <https://books.google.com/books?id=WcYUAAAAQAAJ&lpg=PA127&ots=f_TER300kY&dq=Seneca%20centurio%20supplicio%20pr%C3%A6positus&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[9] Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. “Seneca’s Essays Volume I.”  Moral Essays. Book III. “To Novatus on Anger+.” Book I.  The Stoic Legacy to the Renaissance.  <http://www.stoics.com/seneca_essays_book_1.html#ANGER1>   Josephus, Flavius.  Wars of the Jews.  Book VI, Chapter IV,  Chapter VII.  Google Books. n.d. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  Shimron, Aryeh. The U.S. Sun. 2022. photo. Last accessed 12 Sept. 2022. <https://www.the-sun.com/news/1672868/nails-crucify-jesus-fragments-bone/#
[10] Shanks, Hershel.  “Crucifixion Bone Fragment, 21 CE.”  The Center for Online Judaic Studies. 2004.  <http://cojs.org/crucifixion_bone_fragment-_21_ce>  Tzaferis, Vassilios. Bible Archaeology Society. “Crucifixion – the Archaelogical Evidence.” n.d. <https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/crucifixion/a-tomb-in-jerusalem-reveals-the-history-of-crucifixion-and-roman-crucifixion-methods

Cicero’s Prosecution of Murder By Crucifixion

 

Crucifixion is as closely associated with the image of Jesus of Nazareth as any other save perhaps the Nativity manger scene. Still, some dispute Rome’s execution of Jesus by nailing him to a cross.[1]

All four Gospels record that Jesus of Nazareth was scourged, nailed to a cross and killed by crucifixion. Golgatha was the location just outside and overlooking the city of Jerusalem where passersby could see and mock him.

Aside from this, the Gospels describe in limited detail the gory specifics of a crucifixion for one very simple reason – it was not necessary.

“Tacitus (“Annales,” 54, 59) reports therefore without comment the fact that Jesus was crucified. For Romans no amplification was necessary.” – Jewish Encyclopedia

Just about everyone living in the Roman Empire knew about crucifixion – and most likely from firsthand experience.[2] Shouting out “crucify him!” the Jewish crowd at Pilate’s judgement of Jesus certainly knew about it.

Not even Roman historians Josephus, Tacitus or Suetonius found it necessary to explain crucifixion.[3] But, there are a few exceptions…

Cicero

Cicero, commonly regarded as the greatest orator in Roman history, was a Senator and Consul who lived about 100 years before Pontius Pilate was Procurator of Judea.[4] A lesser known fact is that Cicero was a prosecutor, a Roman lawyer.

Secondary Orations Against Verres is a work of Cicero who wrote about his prosecution of Verres charged with premeditated murder by crucifixion of a noble Roman citizen, Publius Gavius.[5] Motive of the murder – punishment for the public crusade by Gavius for freedom and citizenship.

Directed squarely at Verres, the prosecutorial words of Cicero describes in detail to the trial court the crucifixion process Verres used to kill Gavius:[6]

“…according to their regular custom and usage, they had erected the cross behind the city in the Pompeian road…you chose that place in order that the man who said that he was a Roman citizen, might be able from his cross to behold Italy and to look towards his own home?… for the express purpose that the wretched man who was dying in agony and torture might see that the rights of liberty and of slavery were only separated by a very narrow strait, and that Italy might behold her son murdered by the most miserable and most painful punishment appropriate to slaves alone.

It is a crime to bind a Roman citizen; to scourge him is a wickedness; to put him to death is almost parricide. What shall I say of crucifying him? So guilty an action cannot by any possibility be adequately expressed by any name bad enough for it…that you exposed to that torture and nailed on that cross…He chose that monument of his wickedness and audacity to be in the sight of Italy, in the very vestibule of Sicily, within sight of all passersby as they sailed to and fro.”

“…it was the common cause of freedom and citizenship that you exposed to that torture and nailed on that cross.[7]

Scourging whips and a cross were the murder weapons – death by crucifixion. Cicero’s prosecution case described how humiliation, psychological and mental anguish were part of the excruciating, long lasting torment and death of the scourged victim being nailed to the cross.

As a manner of execution, crucifixion was reserved only for slaves at that time in Roman history. Verres was allowed to self-exile to Massalia in southern France, then sentenced in abstentia to an undisclosed fine.

Seneca the Younger was born in Spain about a century later, virtually the same year as Jesus of Nazareth, and educated in Rome. He became a stoic philosopher, statesman and dramatist gaining acclaim as a writer of tragedies and essays.[8]

“Dialogue” is another name for a letter written by  Seneca for which he is known to have written several. Seneca had a penchant for including horror scenes in his tragedies.

Using a metaphor of crucifixion, he included it in a Dialogue written to his embittered friend, Marcia. She had been grieving three years over her son’s death.

Obviously familiar with the gruesome realities of crucifixion, the letter suggests he expected Marcia to be familiar it, too. Describing the mental anguish of people of virtue striving to overcome their own self-imposed tribulations, he wrote:

“Though they strive to release themselves from their crosses those crosses to which each one of you nails himself with his own hand – yet they, when brought to punishment, hang each upon a single gibbets [sic]; but these others who bring upon themselves their own punishment are stretched upon as many crosses as they had desires….”[9]

Generally, a “gibbet” is believed to be a gallows-like structure or an upright pole typically used to hang executed victims’ bodies by chains or ropes for public display as a method of scorn. By comparison, crucifixion involved living victims who were “stretched” out and nailed to crosses.[10]
 
Jewish historian Josephus saw crucifixions commonly used by Rome to punish such crimes as robbery and insurrection. Eventually, he wrote, the practice devolved to the point it became Roman sport.[11]

Josephus made nine references to Roman crucifixions. In one, he wrote of crucifixions by Procurator Florus and in another from his own Roman eyewitness perspective during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD:[12]

“…they also caught many of the quiet people, and brought them before Florus, whom he first chastised with stripes, and then crucified…for Florus ventured then to do what no one had done before, that is, to have men of the equestrian order whipped and nailed to the cross before his tribunal…”[13]

“So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies.”[14]

Common knowledge, in the Roman Empire victims were nailed to the cross as an extreme, tortuously slow physical and psychological means to kill them. Cicero’s description is a mirror image of the crucifixion accounts in the Gospels and consistent with medical science findings.

Are the Gospels credible in saying that Roman crucifixion by being nailed to a cross was the means used to kill Jesus?

 

Updated December 10, 2023.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES

[1] “Jesus did not die on cross, says scholar.” The Telegraph. n.d. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/7849852/Jesus-did-not-die-on-cross-says-scholar.html rel=”nofollow” rel=”nofollow”> Warren, Meredith J.C.  “Was Jesus Really Nailed to the Cross?”  The Conversation. 2016. <https://theconversation.com/was-jesus-really-nailed-to-the-cross-56321 rel=”nofollow”>   Perales, Ginger. “Was Jesus Nailed or Tied to the Cross?”  2016.  <http://www.newhistorian.com/jesus-nailed-tied-cross/6161 rel=”nofollow”>
[2] Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews. Book IV, Chapter V. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[3] Tacitus, Gaius Cornelius. The Annals. Ed. Church, Alfred John and Brodribb, William Jackson. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0078> Perseus Digital Library. Ed. Crane, Gregory R. Tufts University. n.d. Word search “crucified” <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/searchresults?page=4&q=crucified>  Suetonious. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.  “The Life of Augustus.” #57, Footnote “e.” <https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Augustus*.html#ref:no_crucifixions_when_Augustus_entered_a_city>
[4] Linder, Douglas O. Imperium Romanun. “The Trial of Gaius (or Caius) Verres.” 2008. <http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/Verres/verresaccount.html>  Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Cicero; Cicero, Marcus Tillius.” <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624
[5] Cicero, Marcus Tullius. “The Fifth Book of the Second Pleading in the Prosecution against Verres.” Ed. Crane, Gregory R. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0018%3Atext%3DVer.%3Aactio%3D2%3Abook%3D5>
[6] Greenough, James. B.; Kittredge, George; eds.   Select Orations and Letters of Cicero.  1902.  Introduction I.  Life of Cicero. VII. “From the Murder of Caesar to the Death of Cicero.” <http://books.google.com/books?id=ANoNAAAAYAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false>   Quintilian, Marcus Fabius.  Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory. 1856. Book 8, Chapter 4. Rhetoric and Composition. 2011. <http://rhetoric.eserver.org/quintilian/index.html>  “Crucifixion.” JewishEncyclopedia.com < http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4782-crucifixion > “Trial of Gaius Verres – governor of Sicily.” Imperium Romanun. 2021. <https://imperiumromanum.pl/en/article/trial-of-gaius-verres-governor-of-sicily/> Linder. “The Trial of Gaius (or Caius) Verres.”  Sack, Harald. SciHi Blog. “Marcus Tullius Cicero – Truly a Homo Novus.” image. 2020. <https://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http%3A%2F%2Fscihi.org%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2014%2F12%2FCicero-619×1024.png&tbnid=7Et1cliwXqmeIM&vet=10CAQQxiAoAmoXChMIwI731KCFgwMVAAAAAB0AAAAAEA0..i&imgrefurl=http%3A%2F%2Fscihi.org%2Fmarcus-tullius-cicero-homo-novus%2F&docid=iBCg84NfCo2gMM&w=619&h=1024&itg=1&q=images%20of%20Cicero&client=firefox-b-1-d&ved=0CAQQxiAoAmoXChMIwI731KCFgwMVAAAAAB0AAAAAEA0
[7] Cicero. “The Fifth Book of the Second Pleading in the Prosecution against Verres.”
[8] “Seneca.”  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Zalta, Edward N.  2015. <https://plato.stanford.edu>  Mastin, Luke. “Ancient Rome – Seneca the Younger.” 2009. Classical Literature. <http://www.ancient-literature.com/rome_seneca.html>
[9] Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. “De Consolatione Ad Marciam+.” “To Marcia on Consolation.” Moral Essays. Trans. John W. Basore.  1928-1935.   “Seneca’s Essays Volume II.”  Book VI.  Pages xx 1-3.  The Stoic Legacy to the Renaissance.  2004.  <http://www.stoics.com/seneca_essays_book_2.html#%E2%80%98MARCIAM1>   Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. “De Vita Beata+.” “To Gallio On The Happy Life.” Moral Essays. Trans. John W. Basore. 1928-1935. “Seneca’s Essays Volume II.”  Book VII. The Stoic Legacy to the Renaissance. 2004. <http://www.stoics.com/seneca_essays_book_2.html#%E2%80%98BEATA1>
[10] “gibbet.” The Free Dictionary by Farlex. 2022. <https://www.thefreedictionary.com/gibbet>“gibbet.” Merriam-Webster.com. 2022. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gibbet>
[11] “Crucifixion.” JewishEncyclopedia.com.  Ciantar, Joe Zammit. Times Malta. “Recollections on Crucifixion – Part one.” image. 2022. <https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/recollections-on-crucifixion-part-one.861097>  Champlain, Edward. Nero. Harvard University Press. 2009. <https://books.google.com/books?id=30Wa-l9B5IoC&lpg=PA122&ots=nw4edgV_xw&dq=crucifixion%2C%20tacitus&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[12] “FLORUS, GESSIUS (or, incorrectly, Cestius).” JewishEncyclopedia.com. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6200-florus-gessius>
[13] Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews. Book II, Chapter XIV. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[14] Josephus. Wars. Book V, Chapter XI.