This article appears in the August 2004 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly
Anatomical, Physiological and Historical Aspects of the Crucifixion and Death of Jesus.
In the present study the best existing copies of the original Greek texts of the New Testament are used as the primary source material in an attempt to explain Jesus' cause of death and the brevity of his remaining alive on the cross.
Crucifixion was a common form of capital punishment in Roman times for rebels, traitors and slaves. The victim was placed hanging from the horizontal part of the cross on which his extended arms 'were nailed. A special mention is made about the exact place where the nails were introduced.
The procedure for Jesus' execution started on Friday at 9:00 o'clock: he died at 15:00. He remained alive, therefore, on the cross for six hours, which is considered a very short time for a young man to die by crucifixion.
Many researchers have expressed different theories concerning the probable cause of his death, such as: traumatic shock due to exhaustion, horrible pains and blood loss; cardiac rupture and asphyxia.
According to the writer's opinion, the death of Jesus was caused by asphyxia, but the exact time of his death was selected solely by himself by abandoning all further efforts to breathe, because he believed that his mission had been accomplished.
The trustworthiness of the books of the Greek New Testament has been a source of disagreement and controversy. Many scientists have nevertheless deduced that they are both authentic and accurate. Sir William Ramsay (1914), an archeologist of international reputation, had many doubts to begin with; but after the excavations he carried out in Asia, he admitted that the information provided by the gospel writer Luke, a historian of the first rank, is accurate.
Crucifixion was considered the most cruel and torturing method of execution. Cicero himself characterised it as the crudelissimum et teterrimum supplicium, the most cruel and atrocious punishment (Barbet 1953).
The crucifixion of Jesus has been a subject of study through the centuries, not only for Christian believers, but also for artists, historians and medical doctors.
In this regard, numerous hypotheses have been proposed to explain the brevity of Jesus' ordeal on the cross. In the present investigation, this issue will be addressed using the Biblical texts in their original Greek language and the existing medical literature on this topic.
Crucifixion is a way of execution first practised by Persians (Barbet 1953, Holoubek and Holoubek 1995). Alexander the Great took it from them and, through his extensive conquests, it was transferred to Egypt, Carthage and Rome (Holoubek and Holoubek 1995). Romans made some modifications to the shape of the cross and used it to execute slaves, traitors and war prisoners (Holoubek and Holoubek 1995). It is well known that when slaves under the leadership of Spartacus revolted and were defeated, 6000 crosses were set up from Capua to Rome (Barbet 1953) The Jewish historian Josephus reported also that during the siege of Jerusalem in 71 A.D., 500 Jews were crucified every day outside the walls of the town (Barbet 1953).
In 341 A.D. the Emperor Constantine outlawed crucifixion (Holoubek and Holoubek, 1995). However, the same authors report some sporadic cases of crucifixion, such as a Turk in Damascus in 1247, and some Christian missionaries who where crucified in Nagassaki because of their faith in 1597. They also mention an English 'captain named Claperton in 1824, who narrated that crucifixion was still put into practice in Sudan, and Reverend McElder's statement that this kind of punishment was also in use in Madagascar during the 19th century.
During the first world war, a kind of crucifixion called Aufbinden was used by the Austrian-Hungarian army (Holoubek and Holoubek, 1995), according to which the victim was tied with a rope from his wrists and hanged some centimetres off the floor. In order to breathe he had to lift himself up by the arms, but after some time he became exhausted, could not make any more efforts and died from asphyxia.
During the second world war, Germans remembered this kind of crucifixion and used it in the camp of Dachau. Barbet (1953) reports the testimony of two prisoners who had witnessed it several times.
Prior to crucifixion the victim was subjected to scourging (Barbet 1953, Holoubek and Holoubek 1995).
The technique of crucifixion used for Jesus, in which the Roman executioners were very well trained, due to its repeated use, consisted in placing the victim hanging from the horizontal mobile part of the cross (patibulum) by putting a nail in each wrist of his extended upper limbs. Then the patibulum was lifted from the ground at the top of the stirpes (the upright post of the cross), which was generally permanently fixed in the ground. Finally, one or two nails were driven through the feet and the crucifixion was complete (Holoubek and Holoubek 1995).
In repeated experiments that Barbet (1953) carried out on corpses, it was proven that no matter in which point of the wrists the nail was put in, once the nail had passed through the soft parts and entered fully into the wrist, it was automatically guided in such a way that it emerged through the skin at the back of the wrists, at about one centimetre above the point of entry passing through a free space enclosed by the capitate, the lunate, the triquetral and the hamate bones, without fracturing any one of them. If the nails were positioned among the metacarpal bones, because of the weight of the body, the tissues would be torn and the body would fall head down, held back only by the nail or nails that were pinned in the feet between the second and third metatarsal bones. The only point in a man's hand where a nail can be introduced is the wrist, because its bones are connected with numerous strong ligaments (Gray's Anatomy, 1973) that can hold the weight of the body.
The crucified person's most burdensome symptom is the inability to breathe and particularly to exhale (Davis 1965, Edwards et al. 1986). This is due to the fact that, because of the downward pull of the weight of the body, the contraction of the respiratory muscles (diaphragm and thoracic muscles which connect adjoining ribs) becomes impossible. Thus the crucified person is obliged to rest on the nail/nails of the feet in order to lift up his body. By this action, the respiratory muscles can contract, in spite of the terrible pains caused by the nail/nails. This is repeated continuously until, exhausted, he cannot lift himself up any more and dies from asphyxia.
Nevertheless the seriousness of suffocation depends very much on the position that the arms have on the patibulum. The closer the arms are to the stirpes the more severe becomes the suffocation. Surely the Romans well knew the results of positioning the hands and used this knowledge to achieve their desired results (Barbet 1953, Ball 1989). Another symptom is the excruciating pain due to the damage of the, median nerve lacerated by the nail (Barbet 1953, Davis, 1965, Edwards etal. 1986, Ball 1989) each time the victim tries to change his wrists' position in order to find some relief. Terrible cramps seize the muscles worsening even more the victim's effort to breathe.
For the duration of the victim's life on the cross, the positioning of the feet is of even greater importance. If he can push up his body and breathe, he can prolong his life for some time; if not, life will be accordingly shortened. Each time though he makes an effort to lift up and because of the weight of the body that is transferred on the tarsal bones, terrible pains will be produced.
The Romans divided the day in twelve hours beginning from 6:00 in the morning until 18:00 in the evening (other terms were used for dividing the night). So starting from 6:00 o'clock in the morning the 3rd hour is 9:00 for us, the 6th is 12:00, the 9th is 15:00 and the 12th is 18:00.
Jesus was crucified at the 3rd Roman hour (Mark 15/25), that is 9:00 o'clock for us; this means that he remained alive on the cross for six hours.
The usual time for a crucified man to die on the cross was approximately 24 to 36 hours (Barbet 1953). However, Cooper (1883) states that according to Origin a married couple, Timotheus and Mavra, who were crucified about 286 AD, during the persecutions under Diocletian, remained on the cross for nine days and nights and died on the tenth day. Six hours then is considered a very short time for a young man, as Jesus was at the time, to get completely exhausted and die. Further evidence that his quick death was unexpected and astonishing arises when Joseph of Arimathea, after the death of Jesus, went to Pilate and asked if he might take away the body in order to bury it. Pilate marvelled that he was already dead and summoning the centurion asked him if he had been dead for some time. When he confirmed it (Mark 15/43-45), he granted the body to Joseph.
Jesus suffered not only on the cross but also before it. He was in such great fear and appalling agony that, as stated by Luke (22/24), His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. Many scientists (Barbet 1953, Davis 1965, Micca 1969, Edwards et. al. 1986, Ball 1989) maintain that Jesus presented the very rare phenomenon of hematidorsis.
Many views have been expressed as far as the quick death of Jesus was concerned:-
Traumatic shock or circulatory collapse due to exhaustion, pains and haemorrhage (Tenny 1964, Zugibe 1984). But in this case Jesus would not be able to think and speak expressing with clarity his last wish to his Mother and John (19/26-27). On the contrary, he maintained his mental ability till the last moment.
Cardiac rupture (Davis 1965, Ball 1989) but this takes place in an unhealthy organ suffering from an infarct or fatty degeneration (Barbet 1953, Becker and van Mantgem 1975, Trigano et al. 1987, Batts et al. 1990) and there is no reason to accept that there was any pathological condition inthe heart of 33 years old Jesus. Even more, cardiac rupture occurs in people over 60 years of age, rarely over 40 and, according to Becker's and van Mantgem's studies (1975), no case was found in people less than 40 years of age. Holoubek and Holoubek (1995) also doubt that heart rupture was the cause of death.
Asphyxia (Barbet 1953, DePasquale and Burch 1963, Micca 1969, Zias and Sekeles 1985, Holoubek and Holoubek 1995).
According to the writer's opinion, asphyxia was the most probable cause of death, but the exact time of death, by abandoning any further effort to lift up his body and breathe, was decided solely by Jesus.
This can be supported also from the clinical point of view. When somebody is totally exhausted, not being able to make the necessary effort to lift his body up and breathe, it means that he has reached such a state that it is almost impossible to speak and have lucidity of mind. This, however, did not happen with Jesus on the cross. He appeared suffering but not exhausted. He had lucidity of mind, was thinking and speaking with clarity. Just before his end, he expressed to his mother and John his last wish. Jesus said to his mother "Woman behold your son; then he said to John behold your mother" (John 19/26,27).
Furthermore, according to John (19/28), Jesus knew that all written in the Scriptures about him was already accomplished. Finally, to complete the prophecies, he said "I thirst"and a sponge with sour wine was put on hyssop and put into his mouth. When Jesus received the sour wine, abandoning any further effort to lift up his body and breathe he said "It is finished" and bowing his head he gave up his spirit (John19/28-30).
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The Gospel according to:
John: p 1065: 19/26-31, 19/36
Luke: p 1036: 22/44
Mark: p 1000-1001: 15/25, 15/34, 15/37, 15/43-45 Kalamaras M. 1999. What is Christ? 7th Edition, p30-40. (Greek)
Micca G. 1969. Il quadro clinico dell'agonia di Gesu ed it meccanismo di morte per crocefissione. Minerva Medica 60 (24): 1112-1115. (Italian)
Ramsay WM. 1914. The bearing of recent discovery on the trustworthiness of the New Testament. 4th Edition. London. Hodder and Stoughton Ltd. p222
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Zias J, Sekeles E. 1985. The crucified man from Giv'at ha-Mivtar: A reappraisal. Israel Explor. J. 26: 22-27.
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Dr. Papaloucas is a physician at the General State Hospital, Kimi 34003, Greece. Correspondence: 14, Moschonission Street, Athens 11252, Greece. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org