Our present season of Lent looks to the Resurrection. But, before the Resurrection, Jesus had to endure the horrific death upon the Cross. Modern sensitivities and art have sanitized this method of execution. But, as researchers have conclusively proven, this was a torturous and extremely painful way to die. Linguists have shown that the word “excruciating” was coined by the Romans to describe the pain endured by the condemned man. There is little evidence suggesting that women were crucified.
Crucifixion has a long history and seems to be related to the method of execution known as “impalement”. “Longitudinal” impalement, a method of torture and execution, is the penetration of a human by an object such as a stake, pole, spear, or hook, often by the complete or partial perforation of the torso. Otherwise, there was a “horizontal” or “transversal” impaling in which the spike or pole would be placed at a perpendicular angle to the torso, going through the heart and vital organs. Survival time was, usually, several minutes with this type of execution. The practice was known throughout the ancient near east, with the earliest record being dated to 1772 BC,
Crucifixion was a more elaborate form of punishment that was also used as a deterrent because bodies were left upon crosses for hours, days, or until they rotted. Crucifixion was used extensively by the Persians, Romans, Carthaginians, and Macedonians. The practice comes onto the scene prominently beginning in the 6th century BCE and continues until the 4th century CE, ending with the Emperor Constantine. According to the National Academy of Medicine; The Romans perfected crucifixion for 500 years until it was abolished by Constantine I in the 4th century AD. Crucifixion in Roman times was applied mostly to slaves, disgraced soldiers, Christians and foreigners--only very rarely to Roman citizens. Death, usually after 6 hours--4 days, was due to multifactorial pathology: after-effects of compulsory scourging and maiming, hemorrhage and dehydration causing hypovolemic shock and pain, but the most important factor was progressive asphyxia caused by impairment of respiratory movement. Resultant anoxemia exaggerated hypovolemic shock. Death was probably commonly precipitated by cardiac arrest, caused by vasovagal reflexes, initiated inter alia by severe anoxemia, severe pain, body blows and breaking of the large bones. The attending Roman guards could only leave the site after the victim had died, and were known to precipitate death by means of deliberate fracturing of the tibia and/or fibula, spear stab wounds into the heart, sharp blows to the front of the chest, or a smoking fire built at the foot of the cross to asphyxiate the victim.
Many crucifixions attached the condemned man by ropes and nails. The nails were placed through the wrists, palms could not handle the weight of a man, causing irritation of the median nerve. Latest research suggests that the feet were attached directly to the upright, with the nails going through the ankle bones. The nails in both the feet and legs would cause “causalgia”, an intense burning or pain, which would shoot pain down the limbs. Jesus did not have the fracture of the lower limbs done, as He was already dead. This, customarily, was done to hasten death, as the condemned man would press up on his feet to help breathing. Asphyxiation entailed the build-up of toxins because the man could exhale properly. The fracturing, crurifragium, broke the legs and quicken the asphyxiation. The “crown of thorns” seems to be singular to Jesus, to mock Him. Forensic studies suggest that this inflamed the Trigeminal Nerve, the three-branch nerve which serves the skull. The pain from this is known to be paralyzing, which is probably the reason Jesus fell several times.
Did Jesus have to carry the entire cross to Golgotha? Most historians say no. In the bigger cities, like Jerusalem, there were uprights at a designated place of execution, usually on the outskirts of town. The condemned man had to drag the crossbeam, patibulum, to the uprights. At that point, the man was nailed and/or tied to the crossbeam and hoisted in place. The crossbeam was attached and a placard was placed over the man’s head defining the crime. With Jesus it read, JESUS OF NAZARETH, KING OF THE JEWS., in Latin, Greek, and Aramaic. The soldiers had to make sure Jesus was dead. He seemed to have expired when they reached him. They were surprised, but they should not have been. Jesus was awake for over 24 hours, had not eaten in over 12 hours, was beaten by the people around the High Priest, had lost much bodily fluid with the scourging, crown, and nails. Lasting for as long as He did was sign of physical power, not weakness. The Roman guard plunged a lance, not a spear through Jesus’ side. A spear was a throwing weapon, a lance was held with a double-edged blade of 1-2 feet and designed to do a great deal of damage. He drove in the lance; probably between the ribs, and water and blood gushed forth. Many see this as a precursor to the Eucharist. Medically, it was caused by a fluid buildup in the chest cavity called Pleural Effusion.
Jesus died in, what forensic experts call, a “symphony of pain”. There was no place of respite on the gibbet of the Cross. We must be mindful of the harsh details even though, as some clerics rant, this image of brutality is now a fashion statement. With the horrific details in the background, we must remember that Jesus endured this agony for us.