Description of Crucifixion by David Terasaka, M.D.
The following description of the crucifixion is by David Terasaka, M.D. For an even more detailed overview of the crucifixion, click here.
The procedure of crucifixion may be summarized as follows. The patibulum was put on the ground and the victim laid upon it. Nails, about 7 inches long and with a diameter of 1 cm ( roughly 3/8 of an inch) were driven in the wrists . The points would go into the vicinity of the median nerve, causing shocks of pain to radiate through the arms. It was possible to place the nails between the bones so that no fractures (or broken bones) occurred. Studies have shown that nails were probably driven through the small bones of the wrist, since nails in the palms of the hand would not support the weight of a body. In ancient terminology, the wrist was considered to be part of the hand. (Davis) Standing at the crucifixion sites would be upright posts, called stipes, standing about 7 feet high (Edwards). In the center of the stipes was a crude seat, called a sedile or sedulum, which served a support for the victim. The patibulum was then lifted on to the stipes. The feet were then nailed to the stipes. To allow for this, the knees had to be bent and rotated laterally, being left in a very uncomfortable position. The titulus was hung above the victim’s head.
There were several different types of crosses used during crucifixion. In Jesus’ time, it was most likely that the cross used was a T shaped (or tau cross,), not the popular Latin, or t shaped cross which is accepted today (Lumpkin).
Having suffered from the beatings and flogging, Jesus suffered from severe hypovolemia from the loss of blood. The verses above describe His dehydrated state and loss of His strength.
When the cross was erected upright, there was tremendous strain put on the wrists, arms and shoulders, resulting in a dislocation of the shoulder and elbow joints (Metherall). The arms, being held up and outward, held the rib cage in a fixed end inspiratory position which made it extremely difficult to exhale, and impossible to take a full breath. The victim would only be able to take very shallow breaths. (This may explain why Jesus made very short statements while on the cross). As time passed, the muscles, from the loss of blood, last of oxygen and the fixed position of the body, would undergo severe cramps and spasmodic contractions
With the sin of the world upon Him, Jesus suffered spiritual death (separation from the Father ). Isaiah 59:2 says that sins cause a separation from God, and that He hides His face from you so that He does not hear. The Father must turn away from His Beloved Son on the cross. For the first time, Jesus does not address God as His Father (Courson).
- Shallowness of breathing causes small areas of lung collapse.
- Decreased oxygen and increased carbon dioxide causes acidic conditions in the tissues.
- Fluid builds up in the lungs. Makes situation in step 2 worse.
- Heart is stressed and eventually fails.
The slow process of suffering and resulting death during a crucifixion may be summarized as follows:
“…it appears likely that the mechanism of death in crucifixion was suffocation. The chain of events which ultimately led to suffocation are as follows: With the weight of the body being supported by the sedulum, the arms were pulled upward. This caused the intercostal and pectoral muscles to be stretched. Furthermore, movement of these muscles was opposed by the weight of the body. With the muscles of respiration thus stretched, the respiratory bellows became relatively fixed. As dyspnea developed and pain in the wrists and arms increased, the victim was forced to raise the body off the sedulum, thereby transferring the weight of the body to the feet. Respirations became easier, but with the weight of the body being exerted on the feet, pain in the feet and legs mounted. When the pain became unbearable, the victim again slumped down on the sedulum with the weight of the body pulling on the wrists and again stretching the intercostal muscles. Thus, the victim alternated between lifting his body off the sedulum in order to breathe and slumping down on the sedulum to relieve pain in the feet. Eventually , he became exhausted or lapsed into unconsciousness so that he could no longer lift his body off the sedulum. In this position, with the respiratory muscles essentially paralyzed, the victim suffocated and died. (DePasquale and Burch)
Due to the shallow breathing, the victim’s lungs begin to collapse in small areas causing hypoxia and hypercarbia. A respiratory acidosis, with lack of compensation by the kidneys due to the loss of blood from the numerous beatings, resulted in an increased strain on the heart, which beats faster to compensate. Fluid builds up in the lungs. . Under the stress of hypoxia and acidosis the heart eventually fails. There are several different theories on the actual cause of death. One theory states that there was a filling of the pericardium with fluid, which put a fatal strain on the ability of the heart to pump blood (Lumpkin). Another theory states that Jesus died of cardiac rupture” (Bergsma). Another says the cause of Jesus’ death “may have been multifactorial and related primarily to hypovolemic shock, exhaustion asphyxia and perhaps acute heart failure” (Edwards). A fatal cardiac arrhythmia may have caused the final terminal event (Johnson, Edwards).
The average time of suffering before death by crucifixion is stated to be about 2-4 days (Tenney). There are even reported cases where the victims lived for 9 days (Lipsius). Jesus died a relatively quick physical death. In fact, Pilate was surprised that He had died so soon (Mark 15:44). While many of the physical signs preceding death were present, Jesus did not die from physical causes.
Jesus gave up His life of His own accord. All of the final statements that Jesus makes on the cross leave one with the impression that Jesus chose His time to die. His last statement, “Into your hands I commit my Spirit” shows that Jesus’ death occurred by giving Himself up. John’s gospel records Jesus’ death in this way: “With that He bowed His head and gave up His spirit” (John 19:30b). Matthew writes: “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, He gave up His spirit” (Matthew 27:50).
Earlier in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus made it clear that only He has the power to lay down His life (John 10:17-18). He proved His power over death by His resurrection. Jesus gave up His life of His own accord.
Historical Evidence of Crucifixion