Posts Tagged ‘the physicality of crucifixion’

Here on Easter Eve, there are many thoughts about the crucifixion running through my head. Coming off of Holy Week, it’s kind of hard not to think on the whole event.

Several years ago, as part of a devotional, I detailed what happens to the human body during crucifixion. One thing that important to note, too, is that Jesus wasn’t just crucified, but he was also scourged before they finally nailed him to the cross for 6 hours and left him to die up there.

Now’s probably the time to click away if this sort of thing bothers you deeply.

I think, as a Christian, it’s easy to fall into the “He died for my sins” bit and not really have a truly sound grasp of what that means. Yes, we all know death was the outcome. It’s easy to sanitize it all and just focus on the end result of His death and our salvation.

But do we ever stop and think about the scourging and the physicality of what it’s like to hang on a cross until you die?

Crucifixion death comes by suffocation. That’s right- suffocation. In those days, it wasn’t a quick death; it could literally take days. You’ll see why below. Many times, the legs of the crucifxee were broken, to hasten the suffocation.

Before he was crucified, Christ was scourged. What exactly does that mean?

Most people think of it just as a whipping. According to what I’ve found, an ancient Roman flagrum {flagellum} not only had the whips, but there were pieces of either bone or metal attached to the end; the point of which was to flay (remove the skin of) the recipient. This is what one looked like:

We’ve all seen images of Jesus carrying the cross, blood running down his face from the crown of thorns. But I don’t know that we all want to think about how bloody his back was by that point- exposed muscle; shreds of skin and muscle hanging off His body.

*“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.”

After the scourging- of which there may have been **three different kinds, the crown of thorns was mashed onto His head and he was forced to try to carry the cross 650 yards to the final location in Golgotha. It was at this point that Simon of Cyrene was selected to pitch in and help carry the cross.

*”Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh, a mild analgesic mixture. He refuses to drink. Simon is ordered to place the patibulum on the ground and Jesus quickly thrown backward with His shoulders against the wood. The legionnaire feels for the depression at the front of the wrist. He drives a heavy, square, wrought-iron nail through the wrist and deep into the wood. Quickly, he moves to the other side and repeats the action being careful not to pull the arms to tightly, but to allow some flexion and movement. The patibulum is then 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 left foot is now pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, a nail is driven through the arch of each, leaving the knees moderately flexed. The Victim is now crucified. As He slowly sags down with more weight on the nails in the wrists excruciating pain shoots along the fingers and up the arms to explode in the brain — the nails in the writs are putting pressure on the median nerves. As He pushes Himself upward to avoid this 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.

At this point, as 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 muscles are paralyzed and the intercostal muscles 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 is thought that it was at this time, Christ uttered his final seven sentences. But wait- there’s more.

To make sure Jesus was really dead,

*”…the legionnaire drove his lance through the fifth interspace between the ribs, upward through the pericardium and into 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, but of heart failure (a broken heart) due to shock and constriction of the heart by fluid in the pericardium.”

I don’t know about you, but when I think of what Jesus endured that day- the scourging; hanging on the cross for 6 hours; the taunts, the sneers, the mocking- the taking on of the sin of the whole world- the separation from God for those last 3 hours, as darkness enveloped the world– I have no choice but to look at the crucifixion differently than I did before.

It’s not so easy to ignore His suffering. It’s not so easy to focus on the end result.

I don’t think it’s quite so easy to gloss over the whole deal and to not imagine in great detail the extent of His suffering.

There’s a lot of music, and a lot of focus on the resurrection. And the resurrection IS important. It just would have never happened if not for the crucifixion; for Judas’ betrayal; for all the parts that equaled the whole of the event.

When I think about what it must have been like, in those final moments, I shift to the crucifixion scene from Jesus Christ, Superstar (Andrew Lloyd Webber, of course). This is the best depiction I’ve seen.

Close your eyes, even, to just listen:

And the requiem (obviously, there was no bus; no main characters in 70s era clothing, etc):


Does really understanding the physicality of crucifixion affect your perceptions of the sacrifice on our behalf?  Leave me a comment and tell me what you think.

* A Roman Crucifixion


Jesus’ Suffering and Crucifixion From a Medical Point of View

Darkness at the Crucifixion- Metaphor or Real History?

Jesus’ Death: Six Hours of Eternity on the Cross

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