Warning! This article is not for the faint of heart, it is graphic!
Matthew 26:17-27:61, Mark 14:12-15:47, Luke 22:7-23:56, John 13:1-19:42
With the popular move "The Passion" coming out many people are wondering what really happened to Jesus in those last 12 hours. Perhaps you are wondering too? We are going to take a real hard look at the Crucifixion of Jesus from a Medical Point of View.
When I was in college, more than a few years ago, I was a pre-med student studying biochemistry. This was around 1982 when I was also a fairly new youth pastor and about to give one of my first sermons. Being also a Christian in a secular university, I was inundated with callous remarks and pondering questions about my faith. I sought for a different direction in the typical Lent teaching (I was in an high Liturgical Episcopal church at this time), aspiring to teach my youth what had happened to Jesus, physically, while He was on the cross. And, because I was studying anatomy and physiology, I was also curious about what had happened to Jesus.
I was amazed and fixated on one thing that kept going through my mind as I researched, wrote, and taught on this subject. Jesus did this for me! He hung on that cross, and went through all this heinous, physical agony of the worst and most intense pain ever devised as torture that a human could conceive and be subjected to. He did this all for me; He took my place; He endured, as an innocent Person, what I deserved as a sinner. He accomplished, by Grace, what I should have born myself. And even now, mere words cannot convey my thoughts, my wonder at this fact. So, I recently rehashed my old paper, and added a lot of new insights that have come onto the scene since. I even discovered a major medical paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which is one of the biggest and most prestigious medical publications in existence. "Where were these when I needed them?" I thought.
I grew up in a church where I saw the crucified Lord hanging on a cross every week. We reenacted His death and suffering in our Liturgy every Sunday. The events leading up to the cross were played out every Lent, year after year. Most of us just said the words without any thought, almost a form of rhetoric, without any deep meaning. Even though those words were infused with beautiful poetic words fully explaining why, and what our Lord did, I only knew that He was crucified, but not what that entailed. In my research, I realized that I took what Jesus did for granted. I never really thought it through what He went through, what He did for me, either as a med student, or as a Christian. I did not realize what that cross really meant. It was a device meant for punishment and pain, used for redemption and salvation.
First of all, when we look upon the cross as a symbol of our faith and the crucifixion it represents, we have to realize it is an icon for what was, at one time, the most brutal torture ever conceived. It was a symbol of absolute terror. The Romans, who acquired the practice from the Arabians, Carthaginians, and Persians, would set these crosses up within the city limits of pre-conquered areas and randomly crucify some of their inhabitants, just to keep the rest in line. This caused the rest of the people to be fearful, thus easily conquerable. The Romans, under Alexander the Great, perceived this as a good idea, adopted and even improved on it. Subsequently, they instituted the same practice and used it as the primary penalty for non-Roman people accused of a crime. It was most effective!
What the Crucifixion looked like
After the procession, the victim was nailed to the crossbeam. His arms may have been tied down, also. Then the person, attached to the crossbeam, was lifted, and the crossbeam was placed in the notched cutout toward the top of the pike part of the cross, and then tied in. Now we have our quintessential Easter scene, the end of the Passion of our Lord, and the beginning of His saving grace in us.
The Events Of Suffering, Leading Up To the Words, "It is finished."
This "blood sweat" of stress and intense prayer happened during the middle of the night. While His disciples did not have the courtesy to wait up with Him, a mental trauma of anguish and betrayal occurred (Matt. 26:36-45). The Roman soldiers and government officials came, by means of Judas' lead, to arrest our Lord by the hour of darkness (Luke 22:52; Eph. 6:12; Col. 1:13). Further betrayal. Jesus was then brought before the Jewish rulers, the Sanhedrin, at the home of the High Priest, Caiphus. He was subjected to more physical trauma--this time by the hands of others--people whom He created and loved! When Jesus remained silent at the questioning of Caiphus, a soldier brutally struck Him across the face. Then our Lord was subjected to more humiliation. He, being God incarnate, was mocked by the extraordinarily inferior palace guards, who blindfolded Him, contemptuously teasing and making sport of Him. Then, all took turns hitting and spitting upon Him. This continued from the late hours of the night to the early hours of the morning.
Scourging was a long process of whipping, where the victim's clothes were torn off (cloth was the most expensive possession in those times--equal to a car for us--showing an economic loss, too), then His hands were tied to a pike above His head (1 Peter 2:24). Most commentators insert that the Jews had a law prohibiting more than forty lashes. However, it was the Romans who inflicted the punishment and they had no regard for Jewish law; they did as they saw fit. Our Lord Jesus Christ, Savior of our souls, was brutally whipped with a flagellum, a "cattail" which was a short whip of several heavy tentacles where the ends were tied with small balls of lead, rocks or bone fragments. At first, the whipping action would pound the shoulders, back, and legs, as a butcher would tenderize a piece of meat. It produced deep, large, painful bruises, intense pain, and appreciable blood loss from another form of hematidrosis, and most probably would have left Jesus in a pre-shock state. As the whipping action continued, it would cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, thus producing a discharge of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin and then causing stripe-like lacerations, finally spurting arterial bleeding from larger vessels in the underlying muscles. This action literally tears the flesh off His back, exposing the muscles, and maybe a rib or two. The flesh from the back would hang in long ribbons and would look like a mass of torn, bleeding muscle. The person(s) doing this torture was a trained centurion, and when the victim was near death, the beating would be stopped. They were also careful not to puncture a lung, as that would have killed the victim and ended the intended, prolonged agony.
The Roman soldiers placed Jesus' torn clothes back on Him, picked up the crossbeam, and tied it to His arms, across His shoulders. He was in excruciating pain and perhaps still drifting in and out of consciousness, as He not only had received no sleep for over twenty-four hours, but also had been subject to constant torment and torture, along with mental and spiritual exhaustion. He was led into the procession carrying the heavy patibulum of the cross, perhaps alongside the two thieves. This is called "The Journey along the Via Dolorosa," meaning "The Way of Suffering." Jesus would have continued to bleed because of the pressure from the weight of the rough wood of the heavy crossbeam gouging into what remained of His skin, causing lacerations in the skin and muscles of the shoulders, and more copious blood loss. Thus, His muscles were pushed beyond their endurance into hypovolemic shock. He then stumbled and fell under this agony, in spite of His efforts to walk straight. The centurion, who was perhaps anxious to get on with the crucifixion, enlisted some help. As the Scriptures tell us, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him (Luke 23:26). Jesus was unable to carry the load. His body would at this time, if not before, have been going into a state of severe trauma and shock. Keep in mind--He was a "man's man," very fit as a carpenter in a time of no power tools, and was always walking. He would have been in top-notch physical condition. He was no weakling, as some have suggested!
His pectoral muscles would have been paralyzed and the intercostal muscles unable to act, virtually every muscle in His body would have begun to cramp and fatigue until He was unable to push Himself upward, and hypercarbia would result. Towards the end, He would only be able to get one, short breath at a time. Carbon dioxide would build up in the lungs, forcing His body to convulse to try to get more oxygen. During this period, our Lord had sympathy for the soldiers who were casting lots (as in throwing dice) for His garment, and He said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." Then, as the two thieves were arguing, one acknowledged who He was, and Jesus told him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." He saw His mother and the beloved disciple, John, and asked John to take care of His mother (John 19:25-27). Even while in extreme agony, Jesus' concern was for others: a criminal, and His mother!
Because it was nearing Passover, the soldiers broke the legs of the two thieves to expedite their deaths. But, when the soldiers came to Jesus, they saw that He was already dead. Jesus was on the cross for only three to six hours, and His quick death surprised even Pilate. Perhaps Pilate did not take into consideration all the wounds and trauma Jesus endured on the way to the cross. The fact that Jesus cried out in a loud voice and then bowed his head and died suggests the possibility of a catastrophic terminal event.
The general method of ending a crucifixion was by crurifracture, which is to break the persons leg bones. That way, they can no longer lift themselves up and they die from asphyxiation. The soldiers discovered, as they were about to break His legs, that He was already dead. However, to make darn sure, one of the soldiers, out of rage or sport, thrust a lance-a spear--into His side. The probable path of the spear would have been the right cross-section of the thorax, at level of plane (logical direction of impact from physics) piercing His heart through the fifth interspace between the ribs, upward through the pericardium, and into the heart, where blood and water flowed out (John 19: 34). This proves Jesus was not in a coma, but dead. Some scholars debate over whether Jesus died from the spear, from a heart attack, or of suffocation. To put to rest this controversy--the wound was far away from the abdominal midline, even though some suggest that the spear killed Jesus, and the water was urine. The Greek word for water and urine are not the same! But, the important aspect is not how Jesus died, but that He died for you and me.
Next time you look upon a crucifix, even if you are a Protestant as I am, perhaps you can see what our Lord did for you!
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent. Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel. In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed. But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: "He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him." Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you even at my mother's breast. From birth I was cast upon you; from my mother's womb you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing. But you, O LORD, be not far off; O my Strength, come quickly to help me. Deliver my life from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs. Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild oxen. I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you. You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows. The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD will praise him-- may your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations. All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him-- those who cannot keep themselves alive. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn--for he has done it. (NIV)
- Interviews with Physiologists in a university and medical school 1982.
- Consulted medical anatomy and physiology textbooks.
- The Resurrection Factor, San Bernardino, McDowell J: Ca, Here's Life Publishers, 1981.
- Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith & Evidence That Demands a Verdict, McDowell J. San Bernardino, Ca, Here's Life Publishers, 1979.
- On death by crucifixion, American Heart Journal, Tenney S. M: 1964; 68:286-287.
- A doctor looks at crucifixion, Christian Herald, Bloomquist E. R. March 1964. "A Physician Testifies About the Crucifixion" by Dr. Pierre Barbet, a French surgeon Doubleday Image Books Garden City, NY, 1953, pp 12-18 37-147,159-175, 187-208."Medical Account of Crucifixion" Dr. C. Truman Davis "an American Ophthalmologist Ariz Med 1965; 22:183-187
- Researched into ancient Christian, Jewish, and Roman texts that provide additional, firsthand insights concerning first century Jewish and Roman legal systems and the details of scourging and crucifixion:
· Seneca, Livy, Plutarch refer to crucifixion practices· Roman historians Cornelius Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Suetonius· Non-Roman historians Thallus and Phlegon· The satirist Lucian of Samosata· The Jewish Talmud· Jewish historian Flavius Josephus· The Shroud of Turin although not proven authentic gives considerable insights
- "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ"William D. Edwards, MD; Wesley J. Gabel, M Div; Floyd E. Hosmer, MS, AMI 1986
- "Death by Crucifixion" De Pasquale NP, Burch GE American Heart Journal 1963; 66: 434-435
- JAMA Journal of the American Medical Association and the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN 55905 (Dr. Edwards) March 21, 1986
Additional research sources:
- "A case of haematidrosis" Scott CT: Br Med. J 1918;1:532-533.
- "The chest wound in the crucified Christ" Mikulicz-Radeeki FV:Med News1966; 14:30-40.
- The physical suffering of Christ, Lumpkin R: J Med. Assoc Ala 1978,47:8-10,47.
- Medical and cardiological aspects of the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, the Christ, Johnson CD: Bol Assoc. Med. PR 1978;70:97-102.
- Did Jesus die of a broken heart? Calvin Forum, Bergsma S: 1948; 14:163-167.
- Word Studies From the Greek New Testament, K. S. Wuest, Eerdmans Publisher 1973.
Richard Joseph Krejcir is the Director of "Into Thy Word Ministries," a missions and discipling ministry. He is the author of the book, Into Thy Word, and is also a pastor, teacher, and speaker. He is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena California (M.Div.) and studies in London England (Ph.D, Doctor of Philosophy in Practical Theology). He has garnered over 20 years of pastoral ministry experience, mostly in youth ministry, including serving as a church growth consultant.
© 1982, revised 2003 R. J. Krejcir, Ph.D. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership, www.churchleadership.org/