The Medical Account of the Crucifiction

In this paper, I shall discuss some of the physical aspects of the
passion, or suffering, of Jesus Christ.  We shall follow Him from
Gethsemane, through His trial, His scourging, His path along the Via
Dolorosa, to His last dying hours on the cross...
This led me first to a study of the practice of crucifixion itself; that
is, the torture and execution of a person by fixation to a cross.
Apparently, the first known practice of crucifixion was by the Persians.
Alexander and his generals brought it back to the Mediterranean world -
Egypt and Carthage.  The Romans apparently learned the practice from the
Carthaginians and (as with almost everything the Romans did) rapidly
developed a very high degree of efficiency and skill in carry it out.  A
number of Roman authors (Livy, Cicero, Tacitys) comment on it.  Several
innovations and modifications are described in the ancient literature; Ill
mention only a few which may have some bearing here.  The upright portion
of the cross (or stipes) could have the cross-arm (or patibulum) attached
two or three feet below its top - this is what we commonly think of today
as the classical form of the cross (the one which we have later named the
Latin cross); however, the common form used in Our Lords day was the Tau
cross (shaped like the Greek letter Tau or like our T).  In this cross the
patibulum was placed in a notch at the top of the stipes.  There is fairly
overwhelming archeological evidence that it was on this type of cross that
Jesus was crucufied.

The upright post, or stipes, was generally permanently fixed in the ground
at the site of execution and the condemnded man was forced to carry the
patibulum, apparently weighing about 110 pounds, from the prison to the
place of execution.  Without any historical or biblical proof, medieval
and Renaissance painters have given us our picture of Christ carrying the
entire cross.  Many of these painters and most of the sculptors of
crucifixes today show the nails through the palms.  Roman historical
accounts and experimental work have shown that the nails were driven
between the small bones of the wrists and not through the palms.  Nails
driven through the palms will strip out between the fingers when they
support the weight of a human body.  The misconception may have come about
through a misunderstanding of Jesus words to Thomas, Observe my hands.
Anatomists, both modern and ancient, have always considered the wrists as
part of the hand.

A titulus, or small sign, stating the victims crime was usually carried at
the front of the processions and later nailed to the cross above the head.
This sign with its staff nailed to the top of the cross would have given
it somewhat the characteristic form of the Latin cross.

The physical passion of the Christ begins in Gethsemane.  Of the many
aspects of this initial suffering, I shall only discuss the one of
physiological interest; the bloody sweat.  It is interesting that the
physician of the group, St. Luke, is the only one to mention this.  He
says, And being in agony, He prayed the longer.  And his sweat became as
drops of blood, trickling down upon the ground.

Every attempt imaginable has been used by modern scholars to explain away
this phrase, apparently under the mistakes impression that this just
doesnt happen.

A great deal of effort could be saved by consulting the medical
literature.  Though very rare, the phenomenon of Hematidrosis or bloody
sweat, is well documented. Under great emotional stress, tiny capillaries
in the sweat glands can break, thus mixing blood with sweat.  This process
alone could have produced marked weakness and possible shock.

We shall move rapidly through the betrayal and arrest; I must stress that
important portions of the passion story are missing from this account.
This may be frustrating to you, but in order to adhere to our purpose of
discussing only the purely physical aspects of the Passion, this is
necessary.  After the arrest in the middle of the night, Jesus was brought
before the Sanhedrin and Caiphas, the High Priest; it is here that the
first physical trauma is inflicted.  A soldier struck Jesus across the
face for remaining silent when questioned by Caiphas.  The palace guards
then blindfolded Him and mockingly taunted Him to identify them as they
each passed by, spat on Him, and struck Him in the face.  

In the morning, Jesus, battered and bruised, dehydrated, and exhausted
from a sleepless night, is taken across Jerusalem to the Praetorium of the
Fortress Antonia, the seat of government of the Procurator of Judea,
Pontius Pilate.  You are, of course, familiar with Pilates action in
attempting to pass responsibility to Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Judea.
Jesus apparently suffered no physical mistreatment at the hands of Herod
and was returned to Pilate.

It was then, in response to the cries of the mob, that Pilate ordered
Bar-Abbas released and condemned Jesus to scourging and crucifixion.
There is much disagreement among authorities about 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 claimed to be the
King of the Jews.

Preparations for the scourging are carried out.  The prisoner is stripped
of His clothing and His hands are tied to a post above His head.  It is
doubtful whether the Romans made any attempt to follow the Jewish law in
this matter of scourging.  The Jews had an ancient law prohibiting more
than forty lashes.  The Pharisees, always making sure that the law was
strictly kept, insisted that only thirty-nine lashes be given.  (In case
of a miscount, they were sure of remaining within the law.)  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 heavy thongs cut through the
skin only.  Then, as the blows continue, they are 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.

The half-fainting Jesus is then undied and llowed to slump to the stone
pavement, wet with Hiw own blood.  The Roman soldiers see a great joke in
this provincial Jew claiming to be a king.  They throw a robe across His
shoulders and place a stick in His hand for a scepter.  They still need a
crown to make their travesty complete.  A small bundle of flexible
branches covered with long thorns (commonly used for firewood) are plaited
into the shape of a crown and this is pressed into His scalp.  Again there
is copious bleeding (the scalp being one of the most vascular areas of the
body.)  After mocking Him and striking Him across the face, the soldiers
take the stick from His hand and strike Him across the head, driving the
thorns deeper into His scalp.  Finally, they tire of their sadistic sport
and the robe is torn from His back.  This had already become adherent to
the clots of blood and serum in the wounds, and its removal, just as in
the careless removal of a surgical bandage, causes exruciating
pain...almost as though He were again being whipped - and the wounds again
begin to bleed.  

In deference to Jewish custom, the Romans return His garments.  The heavy
patibulum of the cross is tied across His shoulders and the procession of
the condemned Christ, two thieves and the execution detail of the Roman
soldiers, headed by a centurion, begins its slow journey along the Via
Dolorosa.  In spite of His efforts to walk erect, the weight of the heavy
wooden cross together with the shock produced by copious blood loss, is
too much.  He stumbles and falls.  The rough wood of the beam gouges into
the lacerated skin and muscles of the shoulders.  he tries to rise, but
human muscles have been pushed beyond their endurance.  The centurion,
anxious to get on with the crucifixion, selects a stalwart North African
onlooker, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the cross.  Jesus follows, still
bleeding and sweating the cold, clammy sweat of shock.  The 650 yard
journey from the fortress Antonia to Golgotha is finally completed.  The
prisoner is again stripped of His clothes - except for a loin cloth which
is allowed the Jews.

The crucifixion begins, Jesus is offered wine mixed with Myrrh, a mild
analgesic mixture.  He refuses to drink.  Simon is ordered to place the
cross on the ground and Jesus is 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 too
tightly, but to allow some flexibility 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 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, fiery pain shoots along the fingers and up the arms to
explode in the brain - the nails in the wrists are putting pressure on the
median nerves.  As He pushes Himself upward to avoid this wrenching
torment, He places His full weight on the nail through His feet.  Again
there is the searing agony of the the tearing through the nerves between
the metatarsal bones of the feet.

At this point, another phenomenon occurs.  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 was undoubtedly during these periods that He uttered the seven short
sentences which are recorded:

The first, looking down at the Roman soldiers throwing dice for His
seamless garment, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

The second, to the penitent thief, Today thou shalt be with me in
Paradise.

The third, looking down at the terrified, grief stricken, adolescent John,
(the beloved Apostle), He said, Behold thy mother, and looking to Mary,
His mother, Woman behold thy son.

The fourth cry is from the beginning of the 22nd Psalm, My God, my God,
why hast thou forsaken me?

Hours of this limitless pain, cycles of twisting joint- rending cramps,
intermittent partial asphyxiation, searing pain as tissue is torn from His
lacerated back as He moves up and down against the rough timber.  Then
another agony begins.  A deep crushing pain deep in the chest as the
pericardium slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart.

Let us remember again the 22nd Psalm (the 14th verse), I am poured out
like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax, it is
melted in the midst of my bowels.  It is now almost over - the loss of
tissue fluids has reached a critical level - the compressed heart is
struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the tissue - the
tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to draw in small gulps of air.
The markedly dehydrated tissues send their flood of stimuli to the brain.

Jesus gasps His fifth cry, I thirst.

Lut us remember another verse from the prophetic 22nd Psalm: My strength
is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou
has brought me into the dust of death.

A sponge soaked in Posca, the cheap, sour wine which is the staple drink
of the Roman legionnaires, is lifted to His lips.  He apparently does not
take any of the liquid.  The body of Jesus is now in extremis and He can
feel the chill of death creeping through His tissues.  This realization
brings out His sixth words - possibly little more than a tortured whisper.

It is finished.

His mission of atonement has been completed.  Finally He can allow his
body to die.

With one last surge of strength, he once again presses His torn feet
against the nail, straightens His legs, takes a deeper breath, and utters
His seventh and last cry, Father into thy hands I commit my spirit.

The rest you know.  In order that the Sabbath not be profaned, the Jews
asked that the condemned men be dispatched and removed from the crosses.
The common method of ending a crucifixion was by cruxifracture, the
breaking of the bones of the legs.  This prevents the victim from pushing
himself upward; the tension could not be relieved from the muscles of the
chest, and rapid suffocation occurred.  The legs of the two thieves were
broken, but when they came to Jesus they saw that this was unnecessary,
thus fulfilling the scripture, not one bone shall be broken.

Apparently to make doubly sure of death, 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 John: And immediately there came out blood and water.
Thus there was an escape of watery fluid from the sac surrounding the
heart and blood from the interior of the heart.  We, therefore, have
rather conclusive post-mortem evidence that Our Lord died, not the usual
crucifixion death by suffocatin, but of heart failure due to shock and
constriction of the heart by fluid in the pericardium.

Thus we have seen a glimpse of the epitome of evil which man can exhibit
toward man - and toward God.  This is not a pretty sight and is apt to
leave us despondent and depressed.  How grateful we can be that we have a
sequel:  A glimpse of the infinite mercy of God toward man - the miracle
of the atonement and the expectation of Easter morning!

Contact: Daniel de Sailles
Email: hbeng151@csun.edu
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