The Crucifxion of Jesus - An Historical, Procedural, and Pathological Approach

by William J. Tsamis, M.A.

1. Crucifixion in Antiquity

Perhaps the most horrendous form of execution ever known to man, crucifixion was practiced from very ancient times, although in several different forms. In one form or the other, whether "impalement" or "crucifixion proper," it was utilized by the Egyptians, the Hindus, the Assyrians, the Scythians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the SeljukTurks, the Saracens, and even the Japanese.1 It is remarkable how widespread this practice was in the ancient world. According to Herodotus (ca. 485-25 BC), the Greeks probably adopted "crucifixion proper" from the Persians, and in the post-Alexander era (i.e. after 325 BC), it became normative in the Mediterranean world. Accounts of Muslim crusaders crucifying their captives, and non-Christian peoples crucifying missionaries (e.g. the Japanese) have to do with the "mockery" that captive crusaders or missionaries had to incur. For the most part, at least in the Greco-Roman world, "crucifixion proper" was perfected by the Romans as a method of prolonged torture, with profound psychological influence upon the masses. It was used primarily upon peoples of the lower classes, especially criminals and rebels in the provinces, yet sometimes it was also used upon high Roman officials who were accused of "treason."

At any rate, crucifixion had become so perfected as a method of torture and execution that it is was regarded as an "utterly vile death" (Origen), indeed "hideous" and "barbaric." Even the Roman statesman Cicero (106-43 BC) deplored it as "a most cruel and disgusting punishment." And further, he would remark, "To bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him is an abomination, to kill him is almost an act of murder; but to crucify him is what? There is no fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed . . . "2

The brutality of crucifixion is well attested in ancient literature. For instance, after Alexander the Great conquered Tyre in 332 BC, he ordered the crucifixion of two-thousand Tyrians, a grave consequence for their seven month resistance. However, Alexander's actions would pale in comparison to the wrath of the Roman general Titus, who, during the seige of Jerusalem in AD 70, stripped the entire Judean hillside of nearly every tree so that the wood could be used for the making of crosses.3 And four years prior, during the governorship of Florus, at the outset of the Jewish War against the Romans, the practice was even imposed upon innocent men and women, while children and infants were subjected to wholesale slaughter.4 So outrageous was the aggressive policy of Florus on the Jerusalemites, that Josephus would comment that Bernice, sister of Herod Agrippa II (fl. AD 40-70), before whom the Apostle Paul testified (Acts 25:14-17), was horrified at the site and immediately sent messengers to Florus, begging him for clemency,5 but the pleas of the Herodian princess fell on deaf ears. Roman military brutality intensified, and crucifixion became prevalent because of its punishing and psychological efficacy. The Roman intolerance of Jerusalem was now final; thus, victims were even crucified on the walls of Jerusalem, and also on various shaped crosses in every position imaginable.

Although the Roman practice of crucifixion was intended to be a method of torturous execution for criminals and political revolutionaries, there was also a profound psychological effect which was to serve as a deterrent. Thus, as the roads of Syria/Palestine were donned with the bodies of dying revolutionaries as they hung on their respective crosses, it is fair to say that no one in that territory was immune from the gruesome vision and stench of a crucified victim. Martin Hengel states it perfectly when he says:

"The chief reason for crucifixion was its allegedly supreme efficacy as a deterrent; it was, of course, carried out publicly . . . . It was usually associated with other forms of torture, including at least flogging . . . . By the public display of a naked victim at at a prominent place -- at a crossroads, in the theatre, on high ground, at the place of his crime -- crucifixion also represented his uttermost humiliation, which had a numinous dimension to it."6

Interestingly, one feature of crucifixion that is often overlooked is that the victim, in many cases, provided a feast for the birds of prey, ultimately until the guards would take down the body and throw it to the carrion dogs in the wilderness so that they might consume the remains. This is one of the reasons archaeologists cite for the dearth of crucified skeletons. So, crucifixion was not simply a "just" execution carried out as a consequence of criminal offense; crucifixion was a method of barbaric and heinous torture which ultimately resulted in brutal death. Many Greco-Roman writers would comment on the procedure by using phrases like "grim pickings for the dogs" and "hung alive for the wild beasts and birds of prey."7 So, whenever we posit the idea of "crucifxion" in our minds, we must graphically envision the execution sites with their numerous crosses, the Roman guards standing watch to ensure that families or sympathizers would not try to save their crucified love ones from the endless torture; and we must remember that crucifixion sites were darkened by a host of vultures circling over the site, as well as the carrion dogs waiting patiently at a safe distance for their sustainers to provide them their ration.

Moreover, we must appreciate "what it meant for a man in antiquity to be refused burial, and the dishonours which went with it."8 Although some cultures practiced ritualistic cremation, most cultures in the Ancient Near East practiced burial rituals and funerary rites, which included sacred readings, mourning, preparation of the body, procession, and finally interment. In the Roman era, especially, the subjected peoples perceived crucifxion as an unfair abomination because it was a form of execution used only on the conquered subjects -- Roman citizens were exempt from crucifixion. Thus, crucfixion was regarded as an imperial form of oppression -- indeed, a disregard by the suzerain for the peoples of the provinces. Anyway, throughout the Roman period crucifixion was a terror which was reserved for criminals of the worst sort; and after the Jewish War (AD 70) and the rise of Christianity during the persecutions, crucifixion was one of many methods of toruturous exections imposed on Christians. It would not be until the reign of Constantine (306-337) that this horrid method of execution would be abolished. Most likely, it was Constantine's reverence for the cross which moved him to abolish crucifixion from the earth.

2. The Procedure of Roman Crucifixion

After a criminal had been sentenced to the cross, he would be stripped of his clothes and tied to a post in the tribunal. Then, a most cruel and severe form of scourging would begin. The whip, called a "flagrum," was an instrument with many lashes, to which pieces of sharp bone and metal were attached. One expert in pathology describes the torture as such:

"Over an over again the metal tips dug deep into the flesh, ripping small vessels, nerves, muscles, and skin. The victim writhed, rolled, wrenched and his whole body became distorted with pain, causing him to fall to the ground, only to be jerked up again. Seizurelike activities occurred, followed by tremors, vomiting, and cold sweats." 9

Of this gruesome torture, the early Church historian Eusebius wrote: "The veins were laid bare, and the very muscles, sinews, and bowels of the victim were open to exposure." According to the Law of Moses, as stipulated in the Book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites limited the number of lashes to forty (Deuteronomy 25:3). (It is important to note that the Israelites never used any whip-like instrument which resembled the Roman "flagrum.) But since Jesus was subjected to the Roman system of justice, the limitation of forty lashes did not apply. In connection with this, it is interesting to note that many researchers who have examined the "Shroud of Turin"10 have detected over one hundred scourge wounds on the burial cloth. This excessive pre-crucifixion torture seems to be consistent with the Gospel accounts which seem to imply that, Pontius Pilate, in hoping to spare Jesus the cross, had Him severely scourged in order that the wrath of the Jewish mob might be quenched by such an awful spectacle of a "Man." However, Pilate's attempt to incite the pity and sympathy of the crowd were all to no avail. The rabid mob cried out with even more venemous contempt and fury: "Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!" (John 19:15).

In considering the pre-crucifixion suffering of Jesus, which was, no doubt, more intense that the typical victim, something must be said about the "crown of thorns" that was forced upon the head of Jesus. Many experts agree that the "crown" was made from either the "zizphus spina" or the "paliuris spina," both members of the buckthorn family with thin, one-inch thorns. 11 Medical experts have commented about the nerves with regard to the area of the scalp. Essentially, any laceration of the small blood vessels would result in severe pain and significant bleeding.12 Although the physical pain caused by the "crown of thorns" must have certainly been excruciating, the sorrow, grief, and mockery must have caused Jesus even more pain.

After the fateful sentence was pronounced, "Ibis ad crucem," ("You shall go to the cross"), the victim was forced to carry his cross, or usually just the crossbeam (which could weigh a hundred pounds), to the site of execution, which in Jesus' case would have been just outside the walls of Jerusalem, probably along one of the main roads leading into the city. The purpose for exposing crucified victims to passers-by, as we saw in Hengel's remarks, was to fortify the impression of Roman military power in the minds of incoming Jewish pilgrims. And above the infrastructure of the numerous crosses, vultures would be circling, waiting to pick away at the dying carcasses hanging on the Roman crosses. Outside of Jerusalem, in the nearby wilderness, wild carrion dogs would be waiting in hope that the Roman executioners would dispose of the bodies in the wilderness; thus, providing the carnivorous canines with a ready meal.

Anyway, after the words "Ibis ad crucem" were uttered by the prefect (Roman military governor), the victim would take up his cross (or crossbeam), a herald would sometimes walk ahead of the victim announcing the crime while holding up the placard (i.e. the wooden plate placed above the victim's head on the cross) with the criminal charges written upon it. At other times, the placard would be hung around the victim's neck as he staggered through the streets, all the while being goaded along by the spears of the attending soldiers. Indeed, it was this placard, placed above Jesus' head on the cross, with His crime written upon it: "King of the Jews."

At the site of execution, the victim would be nailed through the wrists (7 inch spikes) to the crossbeam, and then, drawn up by ropes, the crossbeam would be fastened to the vertical beam. Then, with allowing some flexibility at the knees, the executioner would hammer the third spike through the victim's feet, or sometimes a spike would be hammered through each heel. (There was no uniformity or precise methodology with regard to crucifxion.) Interestingly, some scholars believe that the skeleton of a crucified victim named Yohanan, unearthed in 1967, shows that one long spike was driven through the "heel" bones of his two feet which were crossed over. If this is the case, then this particular detail becomes alive with symbolism in the case of Jesus, of whom it was prophesied in the protoevangelium: "You (Christ) shall crush his (Satan's) head; though he (Satan) will bruise your (Christ's) heel" (Genesis 3:15).

3. The Cause of Death - Pathology

In most crucifixions, the victim was "tied" to the cross, instead of being nailed, and he was allowed to hang there for days. Historical records tell us of instances where some victims survived on the cross for as many as nine days. In these cases, the bodies were left to rot on the cross, while the carrion birds feasted on the dead carcasses. During the imperial persecutions of Christians (ca. 64-312), stories were told of women martyrs who were crucified upside-down, naked, and allowed to hang there until their deaths. Eusebius would comment that this was "the most shameful, brutal, and inhuman of all spectacles to everyone watching."

In the case of Jesus, who was "nailed" to the cross, after incurring the previously described pre-crucifixion torture (i.e. the severe scourging), the death process, though swifter than the use of ropes, was excuciatingly more painful. One author describes it as such:

"The lacerating veins and crushed tendons throbbed with incessant anguish; the wounds, inflamed by exposure, gradually gangrened; the arteries, especially at the head and stomach, became swollen and oppressed with surcharged blood; and while each variety of misery went on gradually increasing, there was added to them the intolerable pang of a burning and raging thirst."13 Accompanying the overwhelming pain was an extreme complication in the normal respiratory function. One expert pathologist, in researching the medical cause of Jesus' death, temporarily suspended himself upon a model cross, and subsequently stated: "The deltoid (shoulder) and pectoral (chest) muscles promptly assume a state of spasm, and the victim so suspended is physically unable to make use of this thoracic (upper body) muscles of respiration."14 In order for the victim to breathe, he had to push himself up by his feet, which were nailed to the vertical beam, thus taking advantage of the flexibility allotted to him by the executioner. However, the pressure on his feet became unbearable, and he would once again collapse into the hanging position, thus putting an intolerable tearing pressure on the affixed hands (wrists). Also, the intense pain caused by the scourging would become aggravated during this "up and down" motion, due to the frictional contact between the victim's back and vertical beam.

After the victim had endured for several hours on the cross (from the Gospel records we can deduce that Jesus hung on the cross for at least six hours), the Roman soldiers, in order to hasten the death process, would smash the lower leg bones; an action called "crucifragium." Crucifragium made it impossible for the victim to move "up and down," thereby affixing the victim in the collapsed position and inducing death through repiratory malfunction. Interestingly, the skeleton of Yohanan reveals that the legs were shattered by one powerful blow.

Of course the Gospels tell us that crucifragium was not necessary in Jesus' case because He was already dead. This was in fulfillment of the prophecy that not one of His bones would be broken (Psalm 34:20). However, the Scriptures also tell us that one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear (not an unusual practice) to certify in fact that He was truly dead. One expert points out: "If Jesus had been alive after the spear wound, the soldiers as well as others at the site would have heard a loud sucking sound caused by breath being inhaled past the chest wound."15

Modern medical pathology has concluded, therefore, after a careful and intense examination of the facts, that the cause of Jesus' death was "cardiac and respiratory arrest due to cardiogenic, traumatic, and hypovolemic shock due to crucifixion."16 Indeed, these conclusions were affirmed in an intense study by the prestigious "Journal of the American Medical Association" (reference link below). Perhaps the best depiction of Jesus' suffering and death on the cross was best described by the Shroud expert, Frederick Zugibe:

"He was almost totally exhausted and in severe pain. Sweat poured over his entire body, drenching him, and his face assumed a yellowish-ashen color . . . The burning, exquisite pains from the nails, the lacerating lighting bolts across the face from the irritation by the crown of thorns, the burning wounds from the scourging, the severe pull on the shoulders, the intense cramps in the knees, and the severe thirst together composed a symphony of unrelenting pain.  Then he lifed his head up to heaven and cried out in a loud voice, 'It is consummated.'  Jesus was dead."17

Go directly to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) article


1. Ian Wilson, The Blood and the Shroud. New York: Free Press, 1998, p. 207.
*In the case of the Seljuk Turks (Muslims) and Japanese, the purpose for crucifixion was one of mockery - i.e. a mockery of the death of Christ. During the Crusades, the Turks would crucify some of the crusaders whom they succeeded in capturing. The ridicule and mockery incurred by these crusaders was simply riotous joy to the Muslim enemy. In the case of the Japanese, there is strong witness that a great number of Christian missionaries were crucified in Nagasaki in 1597.

2. John Stott, The Cross of Christ. Downers Grove:InterVarsity, 1986, p. 24. (Quoting Cicero in his Against Verres II. v64, para. 165. (Interestingly, the Apostle Paul was not crucified (but rather, "beheaded," according to tradition) because he was in fact a Roman citizen, and Roman citizens were exempt from crucifixion) -- cf. Cicero., Verr. Act., I, 5; II, 3, 5; III, 2, 24, 26; IV, 10 sqq.; V, 28, 52, 61, 66).

3. Josephus, War 2. 306-08

4. Josephus, War 5.447-51

5. Ibid.

6. Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message
of the Cross.
Philadephia: Fortress, 1977.

7. John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.
San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994. (Here, Crossan is quoting from Hengel).

8. Hengel, Crucifixion.

9. Kenneth E. Stevenson and Gary R. Habermas, The Shroud and the Controversy. Nashville: Nelson, 1990, p. 105. *A quote from Frederick Zugibe's, The Cross and the Shroud, NY: Angelus, 1982.

10. *Watch for my coming article on "The Shroud of Turin."

11. Stevenson/Habermas, p. 105.

12. Ibid., p. 105.

13. Ibid.

14. Robert Bucklin, Legal and Medical Aspects, 24.
*Quoted in Stevenson/Habermas, p. 109.

15. Stevenson/Habermas, quoting Frederick Zugibe, p. 113.

16. Ibid., quoting the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

17. Frederick Zugibe, The Cross and the Shroud. NY: Angelus, 1982