The Crucifixion of Christ

By James M. Rochford

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Cross of Christ.

Paul delivered the message of the Cross to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:1-2), and he explained that it was of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). His language does not refer to the order of speech (i.e. “this is the first thing I need to say…”). Instead, “first importance” refers to the primacy or importance of the Cross (i.e. “this is at the top of the list…”).[1] Earlier Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24). While Paul believed that the message of the Cross was the “power” and “wisdom” of God, he also claimed that it was “foolishness” to Gentiles.

Picture1 (1)The Greek satirist Lucian called the early Christians “misguided creatures.”[2] Pliny the Younger called Christianity a “depraved and excessive superstition.”[3] Tacitus called it a “most mischievous superstition.”[4] In fact, there is a graffito from the second century AD with a picture of a crucified donkey. Beneath the crude drawing read the words: “Alexamenos worships god.”[5] This picture shows the derision with which the early Christians were treated for worshipping a crucified Messiah.

But what really happened at the Cross? The NT authors only offer the terse statement: “They crucified him” (Mk. 15:24; c.f. Mt. 27:26; Lk. 23:33; Jn. 19:16). But what did Jesus’ sacrifice truly entail?

1. Physical Torment

The Romans perfected the art of torture and execution, and their masterpiece was death by crucifixion. This form of torture was so extreme that it usually wasn’t even allowed for Roman citizens. Craig Blomberg writes, “Roman citizens were mostly exempt from this kind of torture; it was generally reserved for the worst of slaves and criminals.”[6] The Roman statesman Cicero referred to crucifixion as “a most cruel and disgusting punishment… To bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him is an abomination, to kill him is almost an act of murder: to crucify him is—What? There is no fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed.”[7] After witnessing crucifixion firsthand, Josephus referred to it as “the most wretched of deaths.”[8] Even our modern term “excruciate” comes from the Latin excruciates, which literally means “out of the cross.”[9] After studying what occurred during crucifixion, it is easy to see why.

Scourging

Before he was crucified, Pilate had Jesus “scourged” (Mt. 27:27; Mk. 15:15; Lk. 23:16; Jn. 19:1). In their 1986 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer explain Roman scourging in this way,

ChristScourgingFlogging was a legal preliminary to every Roman execution, and only women and Roman senators or soldiers (except in cases of desertion) were exempt. The usual instrument was a short whip (flagellum or flagellum) with several single or braided leather thongs of variable lengths, in which small iron balls or sharp pieces of sheep bones were tied at intervals.[10]

As the Roman soldiers repeatedly struck the victim’s back with full force, the iron balls would cause deep contusions, and the leather thongs and sheep bones would cut into the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Then, as the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh. Pain and blood loss generally set the stage for circulatory shock.[11]

Thus before Jesus was even crucified, they conclude that “Jesus’ physical condition was at least serious and possibly critical.”[12] While the Jews only allowed 39 lashes during scourging, physician Truman Davis writes, “It is doubtful whether the Romans made any attempt to follow the Jewish law in this matter of scourging.”[13] We can assume that Jesus’ scourging was gratuitous and gruesome.

Carrying the Cross

Cross1While popular films typically picture Jesus as carrying his entire Cross to Golgotha, it is more likely that he just carried the top, horizontal bar. Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer write, “Since the weight of the entire cross was probably well over 300 lb (136 kg), only the crossbar was carried. The patibulum, weighing 75 to 125 lb. (34 to 57 kg), was placed across the nape of the victim’s neck and balanced along both shoulders. Usually, the outstretched arms then were tied to the crossbar.”[14] Historians estimate the crossbar at roughly 80 lbs, which seems more feasible for a bleeding and lacerated man. Even though the crossbar was only 80 lbs, Jesus was unable to make the trek because of his injuries, which was only 600 yards away (Mt. 27:32; Mk. 15:21; Lk. 23:27).

Crucifixion

Cross1The first recorded act of crucifixion was in 519 B.C. by Darius of Persia.[15] However, while the Romans didn’t invent crucifixion, they certainly perfected this form of torture. The Romans drove the nails through the base of the hand (or wrist) in order to maximize the level of pain. Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer write,

The driven nail would crush or sever the rather large sensorimotor median nerve. The stimulated nerve would produce excruciating bolts of fiery pain in both arms. Although the severed median nerve would result in paralysis of a portion of the hand, ischemic contractures and impalement of various ligaments by the iron spike might produce a clawlike grasp.[16]

Wrists1Because of this strategic insertion of the nail, the individual would live for a very long time. In fact, the Romans nailed the victim in these specific locations, because it avoided rupturing any major arteries, allowing maximal pain. Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer write,

Although scourging may have resulted in considerable blood loss, crucifixion per se was a relatively bloodless procedure, since no major arteries, other than perhaps the deep plantar arch, pass through the favored anatomic sites of transfixion.”[17]

Length of crucifixion

Jesus survived somewhere between three to six hours on the Cross (c.f. Jn. 19:14). However, most victims lasted much longer. Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer write, “The length of survival generally ranged from three or four hours to three or four days and appears to have been inversely related to the severity of the scourging.”[18] It could actually be seen as a sadistic blessing that Jesus was scourged so badly, because it meant a shorter time on the Cross.

Death by crucifixion

Respiration1Crucifixion would eventually kill the individual in one of two ways: asphyxia or by heart failure. Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer write,

The weight of the body, pulling down on the outstretched arms and shoulders, would tend to fix the intercostal muscles in an inhalation state and thereby hinder passive exhalation. Accordingly, exhalation was primarily diaphragmatic, and breathing was shallow. It is likely that this form of respiration would not suffice and that hypercarbia would soon result.[19]

Adequate exhalation required lifting the body by pushing up on the feet and by flexing the elbows and adducting the shoulders. However, this maneuver would place the entire weight of the body on the tarsals and would produce searing pain. Furthermore, flexion of the elbows would cause rotation of the wrists about the iron nails and cause fiery pain along the damaged median nerves. Lifting of the body would also painfully scrape the scourged back against the rough wooden stipes. Muscle cramps and paresthesias of the outstretched and uplifted arms would add to the discomfort. As a result, each respiretory [sic] effort would become agonizing and tiring and lead eventually to asphyxia.[20]

This is why the first-century Seneca spoke of crucifixion victims “drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn-out agony.”[21] In order to hasten the death of the person, the Romans would perform crurifragium: breaking the legs of the individual in order to expedite asphyxia. Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer write, “Crucifracture (breaking the legs below the knees), if performed, led to an asphyxic death within minutes.”[22]

Spear1As we noted above, crucifixion could also end in heart failure. This was how Jesus died. John writes, “One of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out” (Jn. 19:34). Regarding the mention of “blood and water,” Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer write,

The water probably represented serous pleural and pericardial fluid, and would have preceded the flow of blood and been smaller in volume than the blood. Perhaps in the setting of hypovolemia and impending acute heart failure, pleural and pericardial effusions may have developed and would have added to the volume of apparent water. The blood, in contrast, may have originated from the right atrium or the right ventricle or perhaps from a hemopericardium.[23]

2. Psychological Torment

In addition to the physical torment, Jesus experienced tremendous psychological torment as well.

Jesus was stripped completely naked

While modern crucifixes usually depict Jesus wearing a loin cloth, this is much more for our benefit as modern people. Historically, crucifixion victims were given no way of preserving their nudity; Jesus was crucified buck naked.[24] Of course, we need to remember that Hebrew culture was much more modest than today. In our culture, it is regular to see sex and nudity. In theirs, it wasn’t. Therefore, if you can imagine it, this would have been even more humiliating than it is today.

Jesus was crucified in a public place

According to Blomberg, Golgotha was “probably a busy intersection chosen to heighten the effect of the execution as a public deterrent to similar ‘crimes.’”[25] To put this in modern terms, it would be equivalent to being publicly tortured at a shopping mall or busy intersection downtown. The Romans strategically crucified criminals in public places as an incentive to others not to challenge the law of Rome.

Jesus was ridiculed and mocked

The criminals being crucified next to Jesus insulted him (Mt. 27:44). Luke writes, “Even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, ‘He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One’” (Lk. 23:35). Ironically, if Jesus saved himself, he wouldn’t have been able to save the people around him.

Jesus was abandoned by his closest friends

Matthew records that “all the disciples forsook him and fled” (Mt. 26:56). Judas denied Christ for 30 pieces of silver (Mt. 26:15), and Peter denied Christ three times in a row (Lk. 22:54-60). In fact, Jesus even heard his last denial in person (v.61). Many of us have experienced rejection or betrayal from our friends and family. We hardly need anyone to convince us of how painful this is. Jesus experienced this abandonment at the moment when he needed companionship the most.

Jesus was tortured in front of his mother and closest friend

Perhaps the only thing worse than torture is to be tortured in front of your loved ones! John records that Jesus was crucified—fully naked—in full view of his mother and closest friend, John (Jn. 19:25-27). Being stripped naked in front of your mother would be bad, but beaten, whipped, and tortured to death? This must have been horrific.

Jesus anticipated his death for his entire life

Jesus wasn’t surprised by the Cross. He knew beforehand that he was going to die in this way. For instance, Jesus stated, “The Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). Earlier in John, he said, “I lay down My life so that I may take it again. 18 No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (Jn. 10:17-18). Many other passages demonstrate that Jesus was well aware of how he would die—far in advance (Mt. 17:12; Mk. 9:30-32; Lk. 9:44-45). Soldiers in war will often state that the worst part of battle is the waiting. Jesus had to contemplate and think about this awful event far in advance.

Jesus could have ended his torment at any moment

We have all been stuck in suffering before. But Jesus’ suffering was different: he could have ended it at any moment. Jesus said, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt. 26:53).

This psychological torment kept Jesus awake all night; he couldn’t sleep. He said, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Mt. 26:38). His torment was so intense that Luke records, “His sweat became like drops of blood” (Lk. 22:44). While this could be a figure of speech (“His sweat became like drops of blood”), this could also be a sign of hematidrosis. Physician Truman Davis writes, “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.”[26]

3. Spiritual Torment

The physical and psychological torment was no doubt inconceivable. And yet, by far the worst torment that Jesus faced was spiritual in nature. At the Cross, Jesus was separated and judged by God for the sins of the human race. Jesus cried out, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mt. 27:46). At the Cross, Jesus was forsaken by God for the first time in eternity, and he was judged for the sins of the human race. The author of Hebrews writes, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31), and Jesus experienced this terror for us.

Paul writes, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Peter explains, “And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). Isaiah write, “Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all” (Isa. 53:6).

Of course, up until this point, Jesus had never known sin (Heb. 4:15; 7:26; 9:14; 1 Pet. 2:22; Jn. 8:46; 2 Cor. 5:21). However, at the Cross, Jesus became sin for the first and last time in history, when God judged him. Here God gave a visual demonstration of this spiritual judgment on Christ by making darkness fall over the Earth from noon until three p.m. (Mt. 27:45). Of course, in the OT, darkness was a symbol for God’s judgment over the people (Amos 8:9-10; Ex. 10:21-22). During those three hours, Jesus took on the wrath of God.

Why Did Jesus Die?

Why did Jesus go through such excruciating torment?

Paul tells us: “He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13-14). The “written code” (NIV) or “certificate of debt” (NASB) was a legal document that was nailed to the top of the cross of a guilty person. This document had the person’s name and their crime. For example, if the person was a murderer, it would say, “John Doe: Murderer.” Once the person died, their debt was paid to the state. For instance, Jesus had a certificate of debt nailed to the top of his Cross. It read, “Jesus the Nazarene: King of the Jews” (Jn. 19:19). In other words, Jesus was being crucified for claiming to be the king of the Jews.

This becomes interesting when we read that Jesus screamed, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30) from the Cross. This expression (“It is finished”) is the Greek term tetelestai, which literally meant “paid in full.” NT scholar Edwin Blum writes,

Papyri receipts for taxes have been recovered with the word tetelestai written across them, meaning ‘paid in full.’ This word on Jesus’ lips was significant. When He said, ‘It is finished’ (not ‘I am finished’), He meant His redemptive work was completed. He had been made sin for people (2 Cor. 5:21) and had suffered the penalty of God’s justice which sin deserved.[27]

In other words, we all have our certificates of debt nailed to Jesus’ Cross (Col. 2:14), and Jesus claimed that he had paid for this in full “once for all” (Heb. 9:26).

Further Reading

See our earlier article “Defending Penal Substitutionary Atonement.”

Barbet, Pierre. A Doctor at Calvary. Garden City: Doubleday. 1953. Found here.

Blomberg, Craig. Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1997.

Davis, Truman. “The Crucifixion of Jesus: The Passion of Christ from a Medical Point of View,” in Arizona Medicine, March, 1965, pp. 183-187. Found here.

Edwards, William D. Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 255. No. 11. 21 March 1986. Found here.

Jewell, James H. Jr., and Patricia A. Didden, “A Surgeon Looks at the Cross,” in Voice, 58/2, March-April, 1979, pp. 3-5.

Stott, John R. W. The Cross of Christ. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986.

Wassenar, Robert. “A Physician Looks at the Suffering of Christ” in Moody Monthly, 79/7, March 1979, pp. 41-42.



[1] Mare writes, “Some have understood the words translated ‘of first importance’ in the temporal sense of ‘at the first.’ But that seems redundant because at all times Paul’s preaching identified the death and resurrection of Christ with the gospel. The stress is on the centrality of these doctrines to the gospel message.” Mare, W. H. (1976). 1 Corinthians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 10: Romans through Galatians (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (282). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[2] Lucian The Death of Peregrine, 11-13.

[3] Pliny the Younger Letters 10:96.

[4] Cornelius Tacitus Annals 15:44.

[5] John Stott writes, “This is well illustrated by a graffito from the second century, discovered on the Palatine Hill in Rome, on the wall of a house considered by some scholars to have been used as a school for imperial pages. It is the first surviving picture of the crucifixion, and is a caricature. A crude drawing depicts, stretched on a cross, a man with the head of a donkey. To the left stands another man, with one arm raised in worship. Unevenly scribbled underneath are the words ALEXAMENOS CEBETE (sc. sebete) THEON, ‘Alexamenos worships god’. The cartoon is now in the Kircherian Museum in Rome. Whatever the origin of the accusation of donkey-worship (which was attributed to both Jews and Christians), it was the concept of worshipping a crucified man which was being held up to derision.” Stott, John. The Cross of Christ. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1986. 24-25.

[6] Blomberg, Craig. Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1997. 346.

[7] Cicero, Against Verres II.v.64. paragraph 165; II.v.66, paragraph 170. Cited in Stott, John. The Cross of Christ. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1986. 24.

[8] Josephus Jewish War. 7.203.

[9] Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer write, “Death by crucifixion was, in every sense of the word, excruciating (Latin, excruciatus, or ‘out of the cross’).” Edwards, William D. Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 255. No. 11. 21 March 1986. 1457.

[10] Edwards, William D. Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 255. No. 11. 21 March 1986. 1457.

[11] Edwards, William D. Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 255. No. 11. 21 March 1986. 1457.

[12] Edwards, William D. Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 255. No. 11. 21 March 1986. 1458.

[13] C. Truman Davis, “The Crucifixion of Jesus: The Passion of Christ from a Medical Point of View,” in Arizona Medicine, March, 1965. 184.

[14] Edwards, William D. Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 255. No. 11. 21 March 1986. 1459.

[15] Hoffmeier writes, “Herodotus, the fifth-century Greek historian, describes a case in which Darius the Great (522-486 BC) crucified 3,000 Babylonians.” Hoffmeier, James Karl. The Archaeology of the Bible. Oxford: Lion, 2008. 158.

[16] Edwards, William D. Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 255. No. 11. 21 March 1986. 1460.

[17] Edwards, William D. Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 255. No. 11. 21 March 1986. 1461.

[18] Emphasis mine. Edwards, William D. Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 255. No. 11. 21 March 1986. 1460.

[19] Edwards, William D. Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 255. No. 11. 21 March 1986. 1461.

[20] Edwards, William D. Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 255. No. 11. 21 March 1986. 1461.

[21] Epistle 101, to Lucilius, section 14.

[22] Edwards, William D. Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 255. No. 11. 21 March 1986. 1457.

[23] Edwards, William D. Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 255. No. 11. 21 March 1986. 1463.

[24] Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer write, “He was usually naked, unless this was prohibited by local customs.” Edwards, William D. Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 255. No. 11. 21 March 1986. 1459.

[25] Blomberg, Craig. Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1997. 346.

[26] C. Truman Davis, “The Crucifixion of Jesus: The Passion of Christ from a Medical Point of View,” in Arizona Medicine, March, 1965. 184.

[27] Blum, Edwin. John. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck, Ed.). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books. 1985. Jn. 19:30.