By Mike Willis
Capital punishment is still practiced in America and that in compliance with the revealed will of God. The Lord revealed, “Whosoever sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man” (Gen. 9:6). Executing murderers in American society is done in as painless a manner as men can devise, and that without regard to how much suffering the criminal caused his victim. We use lethal injection, the electric chair, hanging, and the firing squad. All of these methods of executing a criminal result in virtually instant death and relatively little pain to the one put to death.
When the first century Romans executed a man, they wanted the victim to suffer and they wanted his death to be a public spectacle to the community to prevent others from committing the same crime. One manner of executing criminals used by the Romans was crucifixion, which they borrowed from the Phoenicians.
Jesus’ Death by Crucifixion Was the Fulfillment of Divine Prophecy
Crucifixion was not used by Jews in putting a person to death. Among the methods for execution employed by the Jews were stoning, burning, beheading, and strangling (Mishnah, “Sanhedrin,” 7:1). When Jesus prophesied the manner of his death, he foretold to his disciples that the Jewish leaders would deliver him to the Gentiles (Mark 8:33). Matthew records Jesus’ prophecy of his death when he said, “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again” (20:18-19). John records Jesus’ foretelling his crucifixion saying, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (12:32). “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (3:14).
In addition to Jesus’ words prophesying specifically of his crucifixion, there are several Old Testament allusions to it (Zech. 9:9; Ps. 22; Isa. 53).
The Suffering of Crucifixion
We are impressed by the brevity of the New Testament accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus. Matthew simply says, “and they crucified him” (27:35); Mark says, “and when they had crucified him” (15:24); Luke says, “there thy crucified him” (23:33); and John, “. . . where they crucified him” (19:18). Those who lived in the first century were fully aware of what these words meant, of the suffering that accompanied such a death — even as we understand death by the electric chair — which might not be understood by someone in another culture and time.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1939 edition) describes death by crucifixion for us:
The suffering of death by crucifixion was intense, esp. in hot climates. Severe local inflammation, coupled with an insignificant bleeding of the jagged wounds, produced traumatic fever, which was aggravated by the exposure to the heat of the sun, the strained position of the body and insufferable thirst. The wounds swelled about the rough nails and torn and lacerated tendons and nerves caused excruciating agony. The arteries of the head and stomach were surcharged with blood and a terrific throbbing headache ensued. The mind was confused and filled with anxiety and dread foreboding. The victim of crucifixion literally died a thousand deaths. Tetanus not rarely supervened and the rigors of the attending convulsions would tear at the wounds and add to the burden of pain, till at last the bodily forces were exhausted and the victim sank to unconsciousness and death (II:761).
The length of the agony of crucifixion “was wholly determined by the constitution of the victim, but death rarely ensued before thirty-six hours had elapsed. . . . Death was sometimes hastened by breaking the legs of the victims and by a hard blow delivered under the armpit before crucifixion” (ISBE II:762).
The Skeletal Remains of a Victim of Crucifixion
Our understanding of how crucifixion was administered has also been enhanced by archaeology. In 1968, fifteen limestone ossuaries were found in three burial caves at Giv‘at ha-Mivtar, Jerusalem. Among the 35 skeletal remains that were found was that of a victim of crucifixion (tomb I, ossuary 4). From a study of these skeletal remains one can confirm several biblical references to crucifixion and learn how crucifixion was practiced in the first century. The crucified body is that of a male, 24-28 years old. The skeletal remains include the heel bones that were “found transfixed by a large iron nail. The shins were found intentionally broken” (N. Haas, “Skeletal Remains at Giv‘at ha-Mivtar,” Discoveries and Studies in Jerusalem 1970, 42). These remains are presently in the custody of the Israel Museum and are the only extant remains from antiquity known to be evidence of crucifixion.
In the remains at Giv‘at ha-Mivtar, the crucifixion victim’s heels show that they had been nailed to a cross. A wooden plaque, in a well preserved state, was situated below the head of the nail, between it and the bones. A single nail pierced the wood, through the right heel, through the left heel and into the cross, where it apparently struck a knot in the wood and bent. The board was used to prevent one’s freeing his legs (intentionally or unintentionally) by pulling the nail through his bones.
The victim apparently suffered the breaking of the leg bones mentioned in John 19:31 and experienced by the two thieves crucified with Jesus. The right tibia and the left calf bones (tibia and fibula) were broken in their last third. Haas wrote, “The fracture of the right tibial bone (the fibula being unavailable for study) was produced by a single, strong blow. . . . This same blow had had indirect repercussions on the left angle bones. The percussion, passing the already crushed calf bones, was a harsh and severing blow for the left ones, attached as they were to the sharp-edged wooden cross” (57). Judging by the position of the break, scholars concluded that the knees were semi-flexed. The position of the body on the cross is described as follows: “the feet were joined almost parallel, both transfixed by a single nail at the heels, with the legs adjacent; the knees were doubled, right one overlapping the left; the trunk was contorted; the upper limbs were stretched out, each stabbed by a nail in the forearm” (58).
The weight of the body on the cross was supported by a sedecula, a piece of wood attached to the upright beam on the cross, which in the body at Giv‘at ha-Mivtar supported the right buttock.
In the body from Giv‘at ha-Mivtar, a post mortem amputation of the feet occurred, which scholars believe occurred only after several abortive attempts had been made to extract the nail. The curved shape of the nail suggests that the nail struck a knot in the wood of the cross and bent. When those trying to remove the body from the cross could not remove the nail, they cut off the feet and then removed the nail, plaque of wood and feet from the cross for burial.
Jesus and Crucifixion
From this knowledge of crucifixion, we have a rather clear understanding of what Jesus endured at Calvary. After being scourged by Pilate’s soldiers (see article on scourging in this issue), Jesus was led away to be crucified. His scourging was so intense that he was unable to bear his cross the full distance to Golgotha and stumbled underneath its weight. Simon of Cyrene was compelled into service by the Roman government to bear Jesus’ cross (Matt. 27:32). Jesus was taken to Golgotha (Mark 15:22), also known as Calvary (Luke 23:33).
When the party arrived at Golgotha, the ritual of crucifixion began. The soldiers offered Jesus a narcotic to deaden the pain, which he refused (Matt. 27:34). The vertical post of the cross was placed in the ground. To it was attached a board, a sedecula, to support the weight of the body. The process of crucifixon usually began by nailing the victim’s arms to the cross. Sometimes the nail was placed in the forearm, although Scripture seems to indicate that the nails penetrated Jesus’ hands (John 20:27). Sometimes ropes were used to secure the body to the cross, to prevent one from ripping his hands free from the nails. Then the body attached to the cross beam was raised and attached to the vertical post. At this point, the feet were nailed. A large metal nail, that had already been driven through a board, was nailed through one’s ankles. The wounds of crucifixion were not mortal, although they were painful. Jesus’ rather quick death, after only six hours, points to the severity of his scourging as hastening his death (Matt. 27:45-50).
One may distance himself from the full impact of these descriptions of death by crucifixion. They are the cold words of mere type on a page. I must relate this to myself in some manner. On two occasions, I have fainted when I was given a shot, a mere needle inserted just below the surface of the skin and then quickly withdrawn. If my flesh flinches and cringes from such minor pain, how could I endure having a nail intentionally driven through my hands and feet? And, given the power to prevent it, as Jesus the omnipotent God possessed and had at his disposal (Matt. 26:53; cf. John 10:18), would I willfully choose to endure it for someone — yea, anyone — else? Imagine the first stroke of the hammer against the nail being driven into one’s hand! One would blurt out an involuntary scream of pain. One would wince and grimace. And, then imagine the next hand being penetrated in the same manner. Oh, the sensations as the rawed nerves rubbed against the rough nail as they raised his body and attached the cross beam to the vertical post. The pain of the nails through the hands was probably less than that of the nail driven through the ankle bones. Trying to support one’s body on the cross without aggravating the pain around the nail holes would be impossible. Locked in one position, unable to move, no doubt produced cramps in various parts of the body. Slowly the life oozes out, until in welcome relief the spirit departs the flesh. Such was the death experienced by our blessed Savior, Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate God.
- Jesus knew what was involved in crucifixion. Since crucifixion was commonly used as a form of capital punishment, Jesus was familiar with the humiliation and suffering that attended to that. Nevertheless, he voluntarily chose death on the cross that we might be saved from sin.
- Jesus rejected the narcotic drink. Matthew relates, “They gave him vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink” (27:34). The drink was designed to dull one’s senses so that he would not be so sensitive to the pain he endured. Jesus refused the drink, choosing to suffer all of the agony of crucifixion with clear senses.
- Jesus suffered the humiliation of the cross. The cross was not an emblem of honor to be worn about the neck, as is the case with modern crucifixes. Rather, the cross had the same connotation in the first century as hanging and the electric chair have in this period. Furthermore, the Old Testament said, “And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance” (Deut. 21:22-23).
- Jesus endured mockery as he hung on the tree. Matthew records,
And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, and saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross. Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God (Matt. 27:39-43).
The humiliation Jesus experienced at the hands of sinful men caused Peter to exclaim, “Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23). Even before crucifixion, Jesus was treated derisively, being spit upon, slapped, and buffeted (Matt. 26:67). This abuse makes his statement of intercession, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” even more remarkable.
Jesus endured all of the pain and agony of the crucifixion. He suffered this even though he was not guilty of any sin. He suffered in our place. His death was an atonement for sin, not the worthy punishment administered by the state to criminals guilty of capital offenses. As we read of the suffering Jesus experienced on the cross, we are moved with compassion, sympathy, and empathy even as we are when we read of anyone’s suffering such pains, deserved or undeserved. When we realized he suffered without sin for a crime he did not commit, we are indignant at the injustice of his death. When we think that it was an atonement of sin, the blood of God the Son being shed as the atonement for the sins of the world, we are drawn to him by love — to think that he would endure such agony for me, a sinner. John said, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing” (Rev. 5:12).
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