The Cross of Christ

by Dr. Andreas Lambrianides
General Surgeon
Brisbane, Australia

Crucifixion was one of the most painful, cruel, and most humiliating forms of punishment ever devised by man. The Jewish historian Josephus describes it as “the most wretched of deaths”, and Seneca argues that suicide is preferable to the cruel fate of being put on the cross. Roman citizens were exempt from crucifixion except in cases of treason. Cicero called it “crudelissimum taeterrimumque supplicium” - a most cruel and disgusting punishment and he further suggested that the very word, cross, should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but also from his thoughts, his eyes and ears, and used only in slaves, “Extremum summumque suplicium”-extreme and ultimate punishment of slaves If the Romans regarded crucifixion with horror so did the Jews. They made no distinction between tree and cross. “Anyone who is hung on a tree is under Gods curse.” Deut.21:23 hey could not bring themselves to believe that the Messiah would die under a curse.

Crucifixion was invented and used by the Persians as far back as 400BC. Alexander the great brought the practice back to Egypt and Carthage, where the Romans learnt about it and developed a high degree of skill and efficiency in its use, by devising various ways in order to achieve maximal deterrent and spectacle effect. Cicero comments on crucifixion and several innovations modifications and variations. This most wretched form of death became widespread across the Roman Empire and continued until the 4th century AD when the practice was discontinued by the emperor Constantine. Crucifixion was uncommon in Jewish culture and except for a few instances, the victim was usually stoned to death first and then hung on the cross according to, “And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree”: Deut 21:22

One exception to this was the case of 800 Pharisees who were crucified first rather than being stoned to death, in 267 BC.

The cross was made of an upright post called, stipes and a horizontal bar called patibulum. Several variations were in existence and crucifixion practices often varied in a given region in accordance with the preferences of the executioners. If the patibulum was attached two to three feet below the top of the stipes, then the cross was called the “low tau” as compared to the “high tau” where the patibulum was attached to the top of the stipes. Actual trees still in the ground whether dead or alive were also used with the branches serving as the crossbar.

An additional block called the suppendaneum was used for the transfixion of the feet in later times. The titulus or small sign, stating the victim’s crime, was usually nailed to the cross above the victim’s head. The final part of the cross was the sedulum a horizontal wooden block serving as a crude seat, and it was attached midway down the stipes. The weight of the entire cross was probably over 300 pounds (136 kg) while that of the patibulum ranged between 75 and 125 pounds(34-57kg) It is highly likely that only the patibulum was carried by the victim and this was placed across the nape of the victim’s neck and balanced on both shoulders.

During crucifixion the arms were outstretched along the patibulum and tied or nailed to the crossbar, but the Romans preferred nailing. The nails were made of iron and were five to seven inches in length, with a square shaft three eights of an inch across. Without much historical or biblical proof, Christians have imagined Christ carrying the entire cross, however, the upright post or stipes was generally fixed permanently to the ground at the place of crucifixion, and the condemned person was forced to carry the patibulum only, which was much lighter (125 pounds) as compared to the weight of the whole cross (300 pounds).

In most paintings the nails are shown to be driven through the palm of the hand which however historical Roman accounts dispute. The nails were in fact driven between the small bones of the hand (carpal bones) and the bones at the end of the forearm (radius and ulna), which make up the wrist joint. A nail through the palm would not support the weight of the human body and therefore would tear, and most importantly placed through the palm would have resulted in fracturing one or more of the carpal bones, without fulfilling the scriptures:

“I can count all my bones, they look and stare upon me”. Ps. 22: 17 and,

“ He keepeth all His bones, not one of them is broken” Ps. 34: 20

Anatomically the wrists are considered part of the hand. The placement of the nail through the wrist joint had two effects. Firstly it ensured that the victim indeed hang on the cross until death and secondly, there was a very good chance of damage to the medial nerve as it passed beneath the flexor retinaculum, across the wrist joint to supply the hand. The effects of severing the nerve would be immediate loss of conductivity affecting motor, sensory and autonomic functions. Severing the nerve would also be followed immediately by severe burning pain in the distribution of the nerve, which is called causalgia. After both arms were nailed to the patibulum the victim and the crossbar together, were lifted onto the stipes. The feet were then nailed to the cross.

They could be fixed to the sides of the stipes or to a footrest, however they were usually nailed to the front, and in order to make this possible, a degree of knee flexion was required.

Survival times depended on a number of factors such as the age and general condition of the victim and the way he was crucified, such as whether the hands were nailed above the victims head or not. Eye witness accounts by Jewish prisoners of war in concentration camps reported that when prisoners where suspended from beams by their hands, expired within a few minutes if their feet where weighed, and significantly later, if the feet where not weighed, as the victim was able to raise himself in order to breath. When the Romans wanted to expedite death they would simply break the legs of the victim, with an iron club, fracturing the tibia and fibula, which caused the victim to suffocate within minutes, as he was no longer able to push himself up in order to exhale.

Shattering the legs this way is called crurifragium. The legs of the two thieves were broken but when the soldiers came to Jesus they saw that he was already dead and this was not necessary,

“But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs.” John19: 33.

By the time the victim was crucified, he would have been flogged by the Roman guards with an instrument called a flagellum, which was a short whip consisting of several heavy leather thongs with small balls of lead attached to the end of each thong. The thongs were 18 to 24 inches long and not unusually in addition to the lead balls there were fragments of metal, bone or glass embedded in the leather. According to Jewish custom a prisoner was flogged 39 times (40 minus 1 was a sign of Jewish mercy). ”Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed: lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee”. Deut.25:3

At first the thongs would bruise the skin only, and then as the blows continued, they would cut into the subcutaneous tissues, finally reaching the muscles, and even the skeletal structures. By this time the skin was shredded, and ribbons of skin could be hanging off. Significant loss of blood was the result, first from the superficial capillaries and vessels of the skin and subcutaneous tissues and finally from larger vessels within deeper structures such as the muscles. The result was hypovolemia (low blood volume) and if severe enough that alone could lead to the death of the victim.

“I gave my back to the smiters and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair, I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” Isaiah 50: 6

“But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him: and his stripes we are healed.” Isaiah 53:5.

With the knees flexed the victim must bear its weight with the lower limb muscles, however this is not easy with the knees flexed. As the muscles of the leg fatigue they give out and the weight of the body must be borne by the arms and shoulders. This can result in dislocation (a joint is dislocated when the articular surfaces are wholly displaced one from the other so that all apposition between them is lost) of both, the shoulder, and the elbow joints, resulting in a significant transfer of body weight to the chest, and therefore impairing respiration.

Respiration means the transport of oxygen from the atmosphere into the cells and in turn the transport of carbon dioxide from the cells to the atmosphere. The process is divided into four stages. Pulmonary ventilation, which means actual inflow and outflow of air, diffusion of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the lungs and blood, transport of gases in the body fluids to and from the cells and finally regulation of ventilation. The two basic mechanisms are, inspiration (breathing in) and expiration (breathing out). Each mechanism is possible by the action of muscles, and there are two sets for the purpose. The muscles of inspiration are the diaphragm, sternomastoid, external intercostal, serratus anterior, scalene muscles and the erectus muscles of the spine. The muscles of expiration are the abdominal muscles (Erectus abdominis and the Internal and External obliques) Together with the internal intercostals. As a result of the position of the body on the cross, with the arms outstretched above the victims head, the rib cage becomes elevated so it assumes the position of inspiration, and in order to breath out, the victim has to support his weight with his lower limbs, thus allowing the muscles of expiration to act.

This produces severe pain in the feet from the nail, which was usually placed between the metatarsal bones, damaging the digital nerves. In addition to the pain caused by the nail, the leg muscles would fatigue and the victim would become unable to push for long and again slumps down with the weight of the body pulling the wrists and elevating the chest wall. The victim alternates between lifting himself up in order to breath, and slumping down to relieve the pain in the feet, and because the muscles have fatigued he can no longer maintain support of the weight of the body. Eventually he becomes exhausted and lapses into unconsciousness, so he can no longer lift his body in order to breath and therefore suffocates. The results of inadequate ventilation will be hypoxia (low oxygen) and hypercapnia (high carbon dioxide). An increase in the carbon dioxide will stimulate ventilation. This is the result of the formation of carbonic acid that follows the reaction between water and carbon dioxide. It is the hydrogen ions in the acid that stimulate the respiratory centre. Similarly low oxygen stimulates respiration resulting in increased ventilation. The net result of the increased ventilation is to restore the balance of the levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood and this is possible under normal conditions. On the cross however, the stimulated ventilation is not possible, due to failure of the mechanisms of respiration and this results in loss of consciousness and suffocation.

Flogging would cause loss of blood and in the presence of inadequate replacement this can lead to circulatory shock. Depending on the severity it can be divided into three stages, the non-progressive, the progressive and the irreversible stage. In cases of crucifixion the victim progressed to the non-progressive, to the progressive and finally to the irreversible stage as the compensatory mechanisms alone are inadequate to compensate for the loss of blood and therefore inadequate to maintain blood flow to the tissues, which would suffer from severe ischemia and loss of function. The cause of death of a crucified person would be multifactorial and related to hypovolemic shock, heart and renal failure, and respiratory insufficiencies.

“And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst. And when Jesus had cried in a loud voice he said, Father into thy hands I command thy spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.” Luke 23:44, 45, 46.

“Jesus when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost” Matthew 27:50

“And Jesus cried with a loud voice and gave up his ghost. “Mark 15:37

“When Jesus therefore had received his vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head and gave up the ghost” John 19:30

John describes piercing of Jesus’ side by one of the soldiers. “But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced His side, and forthwith came there out blood and water”. John 19:34

We are not told whether it was the right or left side. All four evangelists write simply, ”and they crucified him”. They give no details of the crucifixion. They make no reference to the nails, the hammer, and the pain. Mat 27:32-35, Mark15:21-25, Luke23:26-33,and John 19:17-18.

Man presumed to assume it was the right side despite the lack of biblical evidence, and we often see Jesus’ right chest depicted with a spear thrust in to it. Furthermore, man has assumed the spear was thrust into the chest. The word used by John in 19:34, John 20:20, John 20:25,and John 20:27,is the Greek word PLEVRA which means side. The word for chest is THORAX. We are clearly told…”Into his side” There is no mention of the chest. We are not told the exact side, but the flank would be a reasonable side, the spear penetrating through all the layers of the abdominal wall to reach the peritoneal (abdominal) cavity. It is usual for blood stained fluid to be present in the peritoneal cavity after death, commonly secondary to the development of bowel ischaemia setting in at the time of death and in cases of crucifixion even before death, due to hypovolemia, renal, respiratory and cardiac failure, which will eventually lead to infarction (death of the bowel) normally occurring within 18 hours of death due to the lack of oxygen supply to the tissues. Ischaemic bowel is always grossly hemorrhagic and this accounts for the blood in the abdominal cavity. The inflammatory (response of tissues to injury) exudate (plasma) escaping from the blood vessels, as a result of increased vascular permeability, will account for the “water”. The abdominal cavity contents will exit at the side of the penetrating injury.

….”And forthwith came there out blood and water” John19:34.

Again I must emphasize that we are not told the pathway of the spear, so this is just my opinion. “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God.” Deut 29:29

We sacrificed Christ to our greed, to our envy, and to our ambitions. We were all of us standing there. We may try to wash our responsibility, but the blood is still there, on our hands. We have to see the cross as something we have done, otherwise we can no longer claim a share of his grace.

Horatius Bonar says it well;

‘Twas I that shed the sacred blood;
I nailed him to the tree;
I crucified the God of Christ;
I joined the mockery.
Of all the shouting multitude
I feel that I am one;
And in that din of voice rude
I recognize my own.
Around the cross the throng I see,
Mocking the Sufferer’s groan;
Yet still my voice it seems to be,
As if I mocked alone.