THE CRUCIFIXION OF JESUS CHRIST
Over two thousand years ago, on one of the darkest, yet most glorious days in human history, Jesus Christ was sentenced to death. It wasn’t to be just any death; the sentence was for Christ to be crucified. While Jesus Christ was not the first, nor the last person to be crucified by the Romans, this crucifixion would mean more to humanity than all the others throughout history; for this was not just another person to be cruelly executed by the Romans, this was the Son of God.
As we explore Christ’s crucifixion, we’ll visit scriptures that prophesy as to the horrible death the Savior would experience hundreds of years in the future from the time they were written. We’ll take a look at the history of death by crucifixion; and we’ll also see what happens to the body while going through this time of horrible torture. What we’ll find is that Jesus Christ didn’t just die on a cross. He chose to step down from his rightful place in heaven as Creator of the universe, live as a man, and give His life as a sacrifice for many in one of the most horrific and terrifying forms of human torture and death ever devised by mankind.
Old Testament Prophecies of the Crucifixion
As we delve into Christ’s crucifixion, let’s begin by taking a look at some of the Old Testament prophecies concerning our Savior’s earthly fate. In Isaiah chapter 53, we see a clear prophecy of what would eventually take place on the cross.
“But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth: He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He opens not His mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare His generation? For He was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of My people was He stricken. And He made His grave with the wicked, and with the rich in His death; because He had done no violence, neither was any deceit found in His mouth. Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him;”
(Isaiah 53:5-10a, KJV)
Here we see a picture of the Savior, who would die for the sins of the world; and Isaiah is prophesying of this very fact. But we also see a prophecy of the events taking place at Christ’s trial and crucifixion. When Isaiah states, “as a lamb to the slaughter”, and “He opens not His mouth”; these events are very clearly documented in the New Testament accounts of Christ. Being crucified between two thieves and buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb clearly would account for, “made His grave with the wicked, and with the rich in His death”. One more prophecy in this passage alone would be, “because He had done no violence, neither was any deceit found in His mouth”. Pontius Pilate himself declared, “Why, what evil has he done?”; and just a few verses later, “he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see you to it” (Matthew 27:23,24b, KJV).
Isaiah was inspired by God to write the words of chapter 53 above approximately 714 BC. That is somewhere around 737 before this event took place. In his book, All the Messianic Prophecies of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer states:
Of all the Old Testament prophets who gave witness to the redemptive ministry of the coming Messiah, David and Isaiah are most conspicuous, as the following references show. Apart from the gospels, with their actual description of the cross, there is nothing in Calvary literature comparable to the climax of anguish David gave almost a thousand years before the cross; and then the portrait of archetypal sorrow minutely sketched by the hand of Isaiah some 700 years before Christ was born to die. Both psalmist and prophet, by the Holy Spirit, dealt with the deepest humiliations and woes as the prelude to an assured and glorious victory”. (Lockyer, 1973, p. 147)
As we see in the Psalms, David was also inspired by the Holy Spirit to write about the crucifixion of Christ. “1My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Why are You so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? 7All those who see me mock me; they hurl insults at me, shaking their heads. 8He trusts in the Lord, let the Lord rescue Him, Let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him. 14I am poured out like water, all my bones are out of joint. My heart is turned to wax; it has melted away within me. 15My 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. 16Dogs have surrounded me, a band of evil men has surrounded me; they have pierced my hands and my feet. 17I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat at me. 18They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” (Psalm 22:1,7-8,14-18 NIV)
David is clearly writing of a crucifixion here; but the most amazing part is this is centuries before the first crucifixion would ever happen; and while Psalm 22 is probably the most widely know Psalm to prophesy the crucifixion of Christ, it’s certainly not the only one to speak of it.
“False witnesses were suborned to witness against Him, to put Him to death, and He was tried at night, which was an illegal action. Words of reason and justice on the part of Pilate had no influence. In the Roman court, Pilate gave verdict that he could find no fault in Jesus, but the lying mob prevailed and the innocent prisoner was put to death. That trial was the most despicable miscarriage of justice in the annals of all history. Forecast: “False witness did rise up; they laid to my charge things I knew not” (Psalm 35:11).
“They have spoken against me with a lying tongue” (Psalm 109:2) Fulfillment: “The chief priests…sought false witness against Jesus” (Matt. 26:59).
(Lockyer, 1973, p. 149)
The references in the Old Testament to the illegal trial and brutal execution by crucifixion of Jesus are too many to list in one paper; but this gives clear indication that the Holy Spirit was very much at work in prophesying about the payment for sin our Savior would accomplish.
The History of Crucifixion
While throughout history, the Romans are most credited with crucifixion, they are by no means to the only ones to use it as a form of punishment. The Egyptians, Persians, Assyrians, Scythians, Indians, Germans, and the Greeks also used this process to deter crime. As far as the Romans were concerned, crucifixion was a punishment reserved for the worst type of criminals; in fact, Roman citizens were exempt from this form of punishment.
The process of crucifixion was horrible in and of itself. It would start with a scourging. The whip would have nails, glass or pieces of bone imbedded in it to produce more pain. Many died from the scourging and never made it to the cross. (http://www.allaboutjesuschrist.org/history-of-crucifixion-faq.htm)
Depending on who you speak to, some will say that Jesus was not crucified on a “cross”, but on a stake. Some believe that crosses were never used for crucifixions, but there is plenty of archeological evidence to prove otherwise. In fact, a minimal amount of research will show that both were used for crucifixions, depending on which culture was doing the crucifying.
A lot has been debated as well as to the location of the nails:
For the sake of expediency, the victim was probably affixed to the cross by ropes, nails, or some combination of the two. In popular depictions of crucifixion, possibly derived from a literal reading of the description in the Gospel of John, of Jesus' wounds being "in the hands", the victim is shown supported only by nails driven straight through the feet and the palms of the hands. However, the flesh of the hands cannot support a person's body weight, so some other means must have been used to support most of the weight, such as tying the wrists to the cross beam.
Another possibility, that does not require tying, is that the nails were inserted just above the wrist, between the two bones of the forearm (the radius and the ulna). The nails could also be driven through the wrist, in a space between four carpal bones which is the location shown in the Shroud of Turin. As some historians have suggested, the Gospel words that are translated as "hands" may have in fact included everything below the mid-forearm. Another possibility, suggested by Frederick Zugibe, is that the nails may have been driven in on an angle, entering in the palm in the crease that delineates the bulky region at the base of the thumb, and exiting in the wrist, passing through the carpal tunnel. (http://www.thenazareneway.com/details_history_of_crucifixion.htm)
It is also widely known that the victim of crucifixion usually died of asphyxiation. Crucifixion was designed to be a brutal deterrent to crime. The administers did not want their victims to die quickly. They wanted all onlookers to see exactly what was happening to their victim, so as to paint a picture in their mind of what they did not want to go through; therefore they would put a little “stand” under the feet of the victim, so they could push up and get a breath. Eventually, the person no longer had the strength to push up and would suffocate and expire. Sometimes this happened rather quickly depending on how bad the scourging was, coupled with the method of crucifixion. Sometimes it might take days for a person to die on their cross. In addition, if the administers needed their victims to die sooner rather than later, it was a common practice to break their knees, thereby eliminating their ability to push up and breath. Either way, the person was not coming down off of the cross until they were dead, so the ones who died quickly would have to be considered lucky.
One note here; as the bible teaches, Jesus did not die of asphyxiation on the cross, neither did they break His legs; He willingly gave up the ghost and died in our place when He determined “it is finished”: “The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the Sabbath Day, (for that Sabbath Day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Then came the soldiers, and broke the legs of the first, and of the other which was crucified with Him. But when they came to Jesus, and saw that He was dead already, they broke not His legs.” (John 19:31-33, KJV)
The Jews approached Pilate and asked to break their legs so they could have them expire more quickly, and then get them down from their crosses before the Sabbath started. Ironically, they were worried more about keeping God’s law than they were about whom they were crucifying. Either way, the fact that Jesus “gave up the ghost”, and chose the timing of His death when all biblical prophecies had been accomplished has been both a mystery and a stumbling block for some.
“In sum, the death of Jesus will be examined in itself; in the interpretation of its significance by those who first reckoned it a religious mystery and later by scoffers at such an absurd conceit; in its theological and iconographic development; and in its pieties, impieties, and perplexities that have always attended it” (Sloyan, 1995 p.8)
Death on a Cross
We have only touched on certain aspects of the death of a person who is crucified, giving a general description of events as the process of crucifixion was developed through history. Dr. David A Ball, M D, in his book, The Crucifixion and Death of a Man Named Jesus: From the Eyes of a Physician, gives a detailed description of the march toward death of a person being crucified:
“First, let me say that I agree with most students of crucifixion-the primary cause of death was usually asphyxiation or suffocation. (The author will use asphyxiation and suffocation as synonyms.) This is a result of both wrists being fixed to the crosspiece so that when the victim slumps, his arms assume a raised position over his head. This movement elevates the rib cage and expands the chest so that a negative pressure is created in the lungs, resulting in a “passive” inhalation, which traps air in the lungs. The victim cannot effectively exhale in this position. In order to exhale so that fresh air can be inhaled, the victim must push himself up on the cross so that his arms are not over his head. With the arms in this “neutral” position, the victim and exhale and inhale at will. But he cannot sustain this elevated position for long because his thigh muscles simply fatigue and give out. He therefore slumps in order to relieve the leg muscles and immediately feels the fire shoot out into his hands as the median nerve is traumatized. When he can bear the pain no longer and has to have a fresh breath of air, he musters all the strength he can and pushes himself back up on the cross, exhales, and then takes a deep breath. The obvious problem with this process of lifting oneself up and down on the cross is that it requires a significant increase in energy expenditure just to breath; an impossibility by design” (Ball, 2009, pp. 104, 105)
We can clearly see here what a horrible death this would be for anyone to endure. Jesus,living in His day would have to know what this process would look like, as crucifixions were quite common. It’s no wonder that He would asked God, “Saying, Father, if You be willing, remove this cup from Me” (Luke 22:42a, KJV); but the good news for us was the next part of this verse, “nevertheless, not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42b, KJV)
Reverend John Wilkinson gives a bit of insight to the fact that Luke, being a physician,in his gospel account is a little more concerned with the manner in which Christ died.
“The gospel record summarized the physical aspect of the death of Christ in two short phrases. In Luke’s version these are, “they crucified Him” (23:33), and “He breathed His last” (23:46 RSV). The rest of the New Testament writers are concerned with the theological significance of His death. It is sufficient for them that He died, and apart from the humiliation implied in the way He was put to death, they are not interested in the physical details of His death. This has been true of Christian thinking since the early years of the Church, and in modern theology any book concerned with the death of Christ can be presumed to deal with its theological significance and not with its physical details. There have been attempts to deal with the physical details in the interest of Christian devotions, but these do not belong to the more healthy and orthodox Christian tradition” (Wilkinson, 1972, p. 104).
The manner in which Christ died on the cross is of great importance, not only to Christians, but also to scientists. While the modern science field certainly does not see Jesus as the Messiah, they have been somewhat infatuated with His manner of death; some even going so far as to claim that since there is no official instructions in Roman history as to how to crucify someone, Christ was never crucified, or at least not in the manner given in the Gospel accounts.
An interesting article by writers Maslen and Mitchell in the Journal of The Royal Society of Medicine gives some insight into studies that have been performed on crucifixion and their findings:
Over the years a number of researchers have tried to test both the physiology and the symptomatology of crucifixion. Zugibe has been the most recent, and the most thorough, with his humane experimental recreation of certain aspects of crucifixion.12 The volunteers were attached to the cross in a safe and temporary way, were carefully monitored, and the study terminated at the time of their request. The fact that none of the re-enactment research has actually crucified people means that these studies have only limited relevance to genuine cases. The absence of whipping, carrying a heavy cross, being nailed to it, the dehydration from water deprivation and hot sun, and the anxiety of their imminent death might all have resulted in somewhat different findings in the modern groups and crucifixion victims 2000 years ago. Furthermore, re-enacted crucifixions have typically placed their volunteers in the head up position displayed in Christian churches, and not in the wide variety of positions recorded in the written records from Roman times. (Maslen/Mitchell, 2006 ppg. 185-188)
As we can see from the above, as much as science would try to re-create crucifixion, there are a multitude of factors they must leave out for fear of actually killing the volunteers. They couldn’t scourge them, nail them, dehydrate them or leave them in the sun for hours or perhaps days in order to get accurate data.
Still others, while accepting all the eye witness accounts and writings on crucifixion, still refuse to attribute the glorifying aspect of this death to Jesus, assuming that His manner of death was only later given over to His “sacrificial Lamb” status, because it “fit”.
Chapter Four collects proverbial stories and possible images of crucifixion. Philo utilizes crucifixion to create horribly vivid images. Rabbinic anecdotes similarly employ stories of crucified people (especially brigands), often without sympathy for their plight. Indeed,
God may even be portrayed as the analogue of the crucifier. Nonetheless, in a few places crucifixion was associated with the binding of Isaac and with the roasting of the paschal lamb. These likely represent two Jewish ‘latent images’ (images not necessarily initially connected with crucifixion, but which later could be used as figures of the cross by Christians and Jews). (Chapman, 2000, pp. 313-316)
One last point to look at here from the detractors is the “Swoon Theory”. The Swoon Theory denotes the idea that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross, but merely fell asleep or went unconscious, and later was revived on His own in the tomb or by His disciples.
“Early proponents of this theory include German Karl Friedrich Bahrdt, who suggested in around 1780, that Jesus deliberately feigned his death, using drugs provided by the physician Luke to appear as a spiritual messiah and get Israel to abandon the idea of a political messiah. In this interpretation of the events described in the Gospels, Jesus was resuscitated by Joseph of Arimathea, with whom he shared a connection through a secret order of the Essenes—a group that appear in many of the "swoon" theories.” (Wikipedia, 2010)
Apparently, even though the swoon theory has gained some ground in the last 200 years, it was around in the Apostle Paul’s day as well, as he addresses this very thing in First Corinthians.
“13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
20But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1Cor 15:13-22 NIV)
Just a thought here in response to the detractors; just like atheists, people around the world for centuries have spent a lot of time and effort in an attempt to disprove something they themselves swear don’t exist. If what we believe as Christians is just folly, then leave us to our insanity, we’ll be fine. But we as Christians also have to remember that their problem is not necessarily with us, but with God himself. All the way back to Cain and Abel, we can see the rebellion of man and the results of religion. Cain brought the fruit of the land; things he had tilled and grown on his own, even though God had obviously revealed to Cain and his brother how they were to sacrifice to Him. His sacrifice was rejected. Instead of reconciling with God and bringing a proper sacrifice, Cain got mad and killed his brother; setting a course for mankind and religion that is still very evident today. The detractors of the crucifixion of Christ are merely rebelling against God, in essence saying, “We don’t like the manner of reconciliation You have provided, we have our own way”. Unfortunately, their way, like Cain’s will never suffice for God’s provision.
The most important part of all of this is the Resurrection. Our faith hinges on this very fact. As Paul said in I Cor. 15:17“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins”. It is in Jesus’ crucifixion and death that He paid for our sins as the sacrificial Lamb of God. It is in Jesus’ resurrection that He forever defeated death and gave us the promise of eternal life forever with the Father. In her book, author Paula Fredrickson makes a good point I think that Jesus’ mission of paying for our sins was accomplished on the cross; but was the start of another mission.
“Jesus’ mission ended on the cross. The mission that was to spread His name, however, in a sense begins at this point. Within days of His death, to certain of His close companions, Jesus appeared, risen from the dead. This small company, which had followed Jesus in the Galilee and, in panic, deserted Him in Jerusalem at the moment of His arrest, regrouped in radically new circumstances. For two of the prime promises of the messianic age, the resurrection of the dead and the vindication of the righteous had been realized in the person of their executed leader.” (Fredrickson, 2000, p. 133)
In summary, we have seen that God, through His glorious word, the Bible, told us about the coming Messiah and the manner of death in which He would pay for our sins and reconcile a lost and wayward people to Himself. We have explored the gruesome manner in which one expires while hanging on a cross. We have visited some views from the detractors who, even if they admit that Jesus did in fact exist and die on a cross, state that it really means nothing for you and me, or for all humanity for that matter.
Regardless of the view a person chooses to take, the Bible states that Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, left His rightful place in heaven, was born as a child, grew to manhood, healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, made the lame walk and through His death, burial and resurrection, gave eternal life to all who would believe on His name. God Himself came to earth to die one of the most de-humanizing and horrible deaths ever know to mankind to redeem us to Himself; submission unto death, even death on a cross.
Ball, David M. M D The Crucifixion and Death of a Man Called Jesus: From the Eyes of a Physician 2009 p. 104 Crossbooks Bloomington, IL 47403
Fredrickson, Paula From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Christ p. 133 2000, Yale University Press Publications
Lockyer, Herbert All the Messianic Prophecies of the Bible 1973 p. 147, Zondervan
Grand Rapids MI 49530
Sloyan, Gerard Stephen The Crucifixion: history, myth, faith 1995 p. 8, Ausburg Fortress Publishers Minneapolis, MN 55440
Chapman, David W. Perceptions of Crucifixion among Jews and Christians in the Ancient World 2000, pp. 313-316 Tyndale Review
Maslen, Matthew W. / Mitchell, Piers D. Medical Theories and the Cause of Death in Crucifixion 2006 pp. 185-188 Journal of The Royal Society of Medicine
Wilkinson, John Rev. The Physical Cause of the Death of Christ p. 104 The Expository Times
Vol. 83, No. 4
Wikipedia The Swoon Hypothesis 2010
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- Recommended Reading
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