Crucifixion of Jesus Christ

Crucifixion of Jesus Christ

Kurt Dahlin 
Crucifixion: The execution of a criminal by nailing or binding to a cross. It was a common form of capital punishment from the 6th century BC to the 4th century AD, especially among the Persians, Egyptians, Carthaginians, and Romans. The Romans used crucifixion for slaves and criminals but never for their own citizens. Roman law provided that the criminal be scourged before being put to death; the accused also had to carry either the entire cross or, more commonly, the crossbeam from the place of scourging to the place of execution. The practice was abolished in 337 by Constantine the Great out of respect for Jesus Christ, who died on the cross.

The four gospel accounts do not describe the crucifixion of Jesus with much detail. Most likely the Roman practice of crucifixion and scourging were so common during their lifetimes, they didn’t considered a detailed description necessary. For that reason we have only a brief summary of events recorded in the NT.

Mark 15:15 - Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. NIV

We have all seen the crucifixion of Jesus depicted on TV specials and movies. Our mission teams have shown the Jesus Film so many times in so many nations that I have had plenty of opportunities to watch a popular presentation of his suffering. However, there has been exhaustive historical and scientific research examining the brutality of crucifixion and cause of death. What did Jesus actually endure during those hours of torture?

The physical suffering of Christ began in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus and his disciples had observed the Passover meal in an upper room in a home in southwest Jerusalem. After dinner, discussion and prayer they traveled to the Mount of Olives, northeast of the city. Jesus, knowing that the time of his atoning death was near, suffered great mental anguish. One of the unique physiological aspects of his early agony was the bloody sweat. Luke, the physician, is the only gospel writer to record the evidence of this immense trauma.  

Luke 22:44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. NIV

Under great emotional stress, tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can break, mixing blood with sweat. The phenomenon of bloody sweat, called hematidrosis, though very rare, is nonetheless scientifically documented. The skin becomes fragile and tender because of hemorrhaging into the sweat glands. This process alone could have produced marked weakness and possible shock (adapted: Dr. Truman Davis. New Wine Magazine, April 1982).

Jesus was arrested at the garden of Gethsemane sometime about midnight and taken to Annas’ house for interrogation. Jesus was struck in the face by an official. He was then taken to Caiaphas’ house for further questioning (John 18:12-24).

John 18:12-14

12 Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus. They bound him 13 and brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. 14 Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it would be good if one man died for the people.


A soldier struck Jesus across the face for remaining silent when questioned by Annas.

John 18:19-24

19 Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching.
20 "I have spoken openly to the world," Jesus replied. "I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. 21 Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said."
22 When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby struck him in the face. "Is this the way you answer the high priest?" he demanded.
23 "If I said something wrong," Jesus replied, "testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?"  24 Then Annas sent him, still bound, to Caiaphas the high priest.   NIV

Between 1 a.m. and daybreak, Jesus was tried before Caiaphas, the high priest, and the political Sanhedrin and was found guilty of blasphemy. Caiaphas had assembled the entire Sanhedrin, teachers of the law and the elders, in an emergency meeting to find a way to kill Jesus.

Matthew 26:57-60

57 Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas, the high priest, where the had assembled. 58 But Peter followed him at a distance, right up to the courtyard of the high priest. He entered and sat down with the guards to see the outcome.

59 The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. 60 But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward.

The Sanhedrin emotionally and physically tormented Jesus. The palace guards then blindfolded Jesus, mocked him to identify them as each passed by to spit on him, and strike him in the face with their fists.

Matt 26:67-68

67 Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him 68 and said, "Prophesy to us, Christ. Who hit you?" NIV

Luke 22:63-65

63 The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. 64 They blindfolded him and demanded, "Prophesy! Who hit you?" 65 And they said many other insulting things to him. NIV


Jesus was imprisoned overnight at a cell in Caiaphas’ house. Early the next day the Sanhedrin met and reached a guilty verdict of blasphemy. Permission for an execution had to come from the governing Romans. Jesus was taken early in the morning by the temple officials to the Fortress of Antonia, the residence and governmental seat of Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judea. Jesus was charged before Pilate as a self-appointed king who would undermine the Roman authority.

Matt 27:1-2

Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death. 2 They bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate, the governor. NIV

Luke 22:66

At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them. NIV



Pilate found no justifiable reason to impose the death penalty. Instead, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Judea without filing any formal charges.

Luke 23:4-7

4 Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, "I find no basis for a charge against this man."

5 But they insisted, "He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here."

6 On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. 7 When he learned that Jesus was under Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.


Pilate discovered that Jesus was from Galilee so he was sent to Herod for another trial. Herod, his soldiers and the Sanhedrin viciously mocked and ridiculed Jesus.

Luke 23:8-12

8 When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. 9 He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. 11 Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. 12 That day Herod and Pilate became friends-before this they had been enemies. NIV


Herod made no official charges against Jesus and sent him back to Pilate. The Jews were adamant that Jesus should be put to death. Pilate had no legal basis for imposing the death penalty against Jesus, but the people persistently demanded crucifixion. Pilate finally caved before their demands and handed Jesus over to be flogged and crucified.

Mark 15:15

15 Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. NIV



During the sleepless night, Jesus had suffered tremendous emotional stress as evidenced by hematidrosis. His closest friends had abandoned him, he was beaten, mocked, emotionally abused and unfairly tried.  He had been forced to walk more than 2.5 miles (4.0km) to and from the sites of the various trials. “These physical and emotional factors may have rendered Jesus particularly vulnerable to the adverse hemodynamic effects of the scourging” (Edwards. The Death of Jesus Christ. JAMA 1986 1457).

Edwards, William D. MD;  Wesley J. Gabel, Mdiv.;  Floyd E. Hosmer, MS, AMI. “On The Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Jama 1986; 255:1455-1463

Scourging Practices (Figure 2)

Flogging 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 (flagrum 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. Occasionally, staves were also used.

For scourging, the man was stripped of his clothing, and his hands were tied to an upright post (Fig. 2). The back, buttocks, and legs were flogged either by two soldiers (lectors) or by one who alternated positions. The severity of the scourging depended on the disposition of the lectors and was intended to weaken the victim to a state just short of collapse or death. After the scourging, the soldiers often taunted their victim.

Medical Aspects of Scourging

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. The extent of blood loss may well have determined how long the victim would survive on the cross.

Scourging of Jesus 
At the Praetorium, Jesus was severely whipped. (Although the severity of the scourging is not discussed in the four gospel accounts, it is implied in one of the epistles – 1Peter 2:24). A detailed word study of the ancient Greek text for this verse indicates that the scourging of Jesus was particularly harsh.)  It is not known whether the number of lashes was limited to 39, in accordance with Jewish law. The Roman soldiers, amused that this weakened man had claimed to be a king, began to mock him by placing a robe on his shoulders, a crown of thorns on his head, and a wooden staff as a scepter in his right hand. Next, they spat on Jesus and struck him on the head with the wooden staff. Moreover, when the soldiers tore the robe from Jesus’ back, they probably reopened the scourging wounds.

The severe scourging, with its intense pain and appreciable blood loss, most probably left Jesus in a pre-shock state. Moreover, hematidrosis had rendered his skin particularly tender. The physical and mental abuse meted out by the Jews and the Romans, as well as the lack of food, water and sleep, also contributed to his generally weakened state. Therefore, even before the actual crucifixion, Jesus’ physical condition was at least serious and possibly critical.

Matt 27:27-31

27 Then the governor's soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. "Hail, king of the Jews!" they said. 30 They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. 31 After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. NIV

Jesus was stripped completely of his garments for flogging. He was tied to a post and beaten. The image on the Shroud of Turin has 160 lash wounds covering the entire back, buttocks and legs. The 160 figure would represent forty lashes with a whip of 4 leather thongs. They put his clothes back on and took him to the Praetorium. The Praetorians were the governor’s body guards and known for their corruption and cruelty. They placed a robe on him and a crown of thorns. The staff was forced into his hand to resemble a king’s scepter. The robe, crown and the scepter were a mockery to ridicule his claim to be king. They repeatedly pounded the thorns into his head, spit on him and mocked him.

They spit on him is plural. The soldiers knelt down in front of him, mocked him and spit in his face. How many times did they spit on him? They placed a crown of thorns on his head. The Greek word for struck (NT: 5180 tupto toop'-to) means to thump, pummel, to strike or beat with a stick, a staff, a whip or the fist by repeated blows (Thayer's Greek Lexicon). The staff would be a heavy walking stick. The words again and again are added to the text by the NIV translators as commentary to assist the reader. They repeatedly beat the crown of thorns into his head. The force of the staff would press the thorns into his head and injure him as well. How many times did the soldiers hammer the thorns into Jesus’ head? The Shroud of Turin shows that the actual crown of thorns may have covered the entire scalp. The thorns may have been 1 to 2 inches long. The blows would drive the thorns into the scalp (one of the most vascular areas of the body) and forehead, causing severe bleeding. The crown was intended to punish Jesus and to render him a pathetic and bloody spectacle.

vas·cu·lar [váskyələr] of fluid-carrying vessels: adj relating to, involving, typical of, or having fluid-carrying vessels, for example, blood vessels in animals or the sap-carrying vessels in plants (Microsoft® Encarta® Reference Library 2003. © 1993-2002 Microsoft Corporation).


Genesis 3:17-18: "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field."

The Bible records that thorns first appeared after the fall as a sign of the curse. The crown of thorns is a painful symbol to show that Jesus took the curse and the sins of the world upon himself (adapted: Terasaka).

Isaiah 50:6: "I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting."

Isaiah 52:14: "..... Just as there were many who were appalled at him -- his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness--"

Understand that the crucifixion was only one part of his suffering. Jesus consented to be ridiculed, tortured and abused with incredible patience. He loved us to death. He was willing to endure such mockery because he could see the grand results that would come from his sufferings.

Then they removed the robe and marched him out of town to be executed.

Matt 27:35-36                                                    

35 When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots.  NIV

John 19:23

23 When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.  NIV


After the beating, Jesus was lead down a narrow street known today as the Via Dolorosa or the "way of suffering." Just like today in Jerusalem the street was probably surrounded by markets and vendors. The total distance to Golgotha has been estimated at 650 yards. (Edwards). He was led through the crowded streets carrying the crossbar of the cross (called a patibulum) tied on his shoulders. The crossbar probably weighed between 80 to 110 pounds.  A guard of Roman soldiers surrounded him.  One of the soldiers carried a titulus, a sign that announced his crime of being "the King of the Jews" in three languages: Hebrew, Latin and Greek. He was unable to carry the heavy wooden beam. Some theorize that he may have fallen while going down the steps of the Antonio Fortress. The Shroud of Turin has scrape marks on the knees and nose, which means he fell down on his face. Simon of Cyrene (currently North Africa: Tripoli), was conscripted to help carry the crossbeam.

The Via Dolorosa was charted in the 16th century as the route over which Christ was led to his crucifixion. The true location of the Via Dolorosa is disputed as is the location of Calvary. Today there are 14 Stations of the Cross remembering the events that occurred on the Via Dolorosa. The Stations of the Cross were established in the 1800's. There is one section of the path where one can walk on the stones, which were used during Jesus time. (Adapted from David Terasaka, M.D. ©1996. Medical Aspects of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ).

Crucifixion was one of the most cruel and humiliating forms of punishment in the ancient world. Josephus, the Jewish historian described it following the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 66-70 as "the most wretched of deaths" (Josephus, Jewish War 7.203). Seneca, in an Epistle 101 to Lucilius, argued that suicide was preferable to the cruelty of being put death on the cross.

The Romans did not invent crucifixion but they perfected it as a form of torture and capital punishment. Crucifixion was designed to produce a slow death with maximum pain and suffering.

Crucifixion Practices (Figure 3)

Crucifixion practices often varied in a given geographic region and in accordance with the imagination of the executioners. The Latin cross and other forms also may have been used.  Peter was crucified upside down on an X-shaped cross (McBirnie, W.S. The Search For The Twelve Apostles. Wheaton. IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1987 66). Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross. He was flogged but only tied to the cross in order prolong his suffering. For two days Andrew proclaimed the gospel and prayed until he died (McBirnie 83). Philip was tied to a cross in Asia Minor and stoned to death (McBirnie 123).

Outside the walls of Jerusalem were located the heavy upright wooden posts/stipes. The crossbeam/patibulum would be fastened by a mortise and tenon joint.

At the execution site the criminal was thrown to the ground on his back, with his arms outstretched along the crossbeam/patibulum. The hands could be nailed or tied to the crossbar, but nailing was apparently preferred by the Romans (Edwards).

When the nailing was completed, the titulus was attached to the cross, by nails or cords, just above the victim’s head. The soldiers and the civilian crowd often taunted and jeered the condemned man, and the soldiers customarily divided up his clothes among themselves.


The Shroud of Turin has documented that the nails were driven through the wrists rather than the palms. It has been shown scientifically that the ligaments and bones of the wrist can support the hanging weight of a body but the palms cannot.

The iron spikes probably were driven between the radius and the carpals or between the two rows of carpal bones, either proximal to or through the strong band-like flexor retinaculum and the various intercarpal ligaments (Fig. 4). Although a nail in either location in the wrist might pass between the bony elements and thereby produce no fractures, the likelihood of painful periosteal injury would seem great. Furthermore, the driven nail would crust 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 claw-like grasp.

The archaeological remains of a crucified body, found in an ossuary near Jerusalem and dating from the time of Christ, indicate that the nails were tapered iron spikes approximately 5 to 7 inches (13 to 18 cm) long with a square shaft 3/8 inch (1 cm) across.

Both arms were nailed to the crossbeam/patibulum.  The victim together with the beam were lifted onto the post/stipes. On the low cross, four soldiers could accomplish this relatively easily. However, on the tall cross, the soldiers used either wooden forks or ladders.


Next, the feet were fixed to the cross by either nails or ropes. The Shroud of Turin shows that the feet were nailed directly to the front of the post/stipes. Ossuary findings show that the feet could be nailed to the sides of the post/stipes or to a wooden footrest (suppedaneum). On a short cross the feet were pushed up and nailed, flexing and rotated the knees laterally.

Most commonly, the feet were fixed to the front of the stipes by means of an iron spike driven through the first or second inter-metatarsal space, just distal to the tarsometatarsal joint.   (Edwards 1461) It is likely that the deep peroneal nerve and branches of the medial and lateral plantar nerves, would have been injured by the nails (Fig. 5).  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.

The major pathophysiologic effect of crucifixion, beyond the excruciating pain, was a marked interference with normal respiration, particularly exhalation (Fig. 6). The weight of the body, pulling down on the outstretched arms and shoulders, would hold the chest/intercostals muscles in an inhalation position and hinder 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. The onset of muscle cramps or titanic contractions, due to fatigue and hypercarbia, would hinder respiration even further. 

Adequate exhalation required lifting the body by pushing up on the feet and by flexing the elbows and pulling the shoulders (Fig. 6). However, this maneuver would place the entire weight of the body on the nerves in the feet/tarsals and would produce searing pain. Furthermore, flexing the elbows would cause rotation of the wrists around 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 post/stipes. Muscle cramps and paresthesias of the outstretched and uplifted arms would add to the discomfort. As a result, every struggle for air would become agonizing and tiring and lead eventually to asphyxia.

In order to breath Jesus was forced to raise his body transferring the weight of the body to the feet. Breathing became easier, but the weight of the body on the feet, increased the pain in the feet and legs. When the pain became unbearable on the feet, Jesus again slumped down with the weight of the body pulling on the wrists and again stretching the chest muscles. Jesus alternated between lifting his body off the in order to breathe and slumping down on the to relieve pain in the feet. Eventually the respiratory muscles essentially paralyzed, Jesus suffocated and died.

(Edwards 1460) 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. However, even if the scourging had been relatively mild, the Roman soldiers could hasten death by breaking the legs below the knees (crurifragium or skelokopia).

Not uncommonly, insects would light upon or burrow into open wounds of the eyes, ears and nose of the dying and helpless victim, and birds of prey would tear at these sites. Moreover, it was customary to leave the corpse on the cross to be devoured by predatory animals. However, by Roman law, the family of the condemned could take the body for burial, after obtaining permission from the Roman judge.

Since no one was intended to survive crucifixion, the body was not released to the family until the soldiers were sure that the victim was dead. By custom, one of the Roman guards would pierce the body with a sword or lance. Traditionally, this had been considered a spear wound to the heart through the right side of the chest – a fatal wound probably taught to most Roman soldiers. The Shroud of Turin documents this form of injury. Moreover, the standard infantry spear, which was 5 to 6 ft (1.5 to 1.8 m) long, could easily have reached the chest of a man crucified on the customary low cross.

The actual cause of death by crucifixion varied according to the factors of each case. The two most prominent causes for Jesus were hypovolemic shock and exhaustion, asphyxia.

Hypovolemic Shock: A condition characterized by low blood pressure and reduced blood flow to the cells and tissues which leads to irreversible cell and organ injury and eventually death.
Other contributing factors included dehydration, stress-induced arrhythmias, and congestive heart failure with the rapid accumulation of pericardial and perhaps pleural effusions. Crucifracture (breaking the legs below the knees), if performed, led to an asphyxic death within minutes. Death by crucifixion was, in every sense of the word, excruciating (Latin, excruciatus, or “out of the cross”) (Edwards).

John 10:17-18 "The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life--only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father."

Luke 23:46 "Jesus called out with a loud voice, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit'." When he had said this, he breathed his last.

The average time of suffering before death by crucifixion is stated to be about 2-4 days  (Tenney), although there are reported cases where the victims lived for 9 days. (Lipsius) The actual causes of death by crucifixion were multifactorial, one of the most significant would have been the severity of the scourging. (Edwards) Jesus died a quick physical death. Pilate was surprised that He had died so soon (Mark 15:44)). While many of the physical signs preceding death were present, one possibility is that Jesus did not die by physical factors alone but that He gave up His life of His own accord. His last statement, "Into your hands I commit my Spirit" shows that Jesus' death occurred by giving Himself up. In John 10, He states that only He has the power to lay down His life. He proved His power over death by His resurrection. Truly, God is the one who has power over life and death (adapted: Terasaka).

HASTENED by the breaking of the legs, so that the victim could not push up to take a good breath.

John 19:32-33: The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.

CONFIRMED by a spear thrust into the right side of the heart.

John 19:34: Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. Death in crucifixion was hastened by the breaking of the legs of the victim. This procedure, called crurifracture, prevented the ability of the victim to take in a good breath. Death would quickly occur from suffocation. In Jesus' case, He died quickly and did not have His legs broken. Jesus fulfills one of the prophetic requirements of the Passover Lamb, that not a bone shall be broken. (Exodus 12:46, John 19:36)

To confirm that a victim was dead, the Romans inflicted a spear wound through the right side of the heart. When pierced, a sudden flow of blood and water came Jesus' body . The medical significance of the blood and water has been a matter of debate. One theory states that Jesus died of a massive myocardial infarction, in which the heart ruptured (Bergsma) which may have resulted from His falling while carrying the cross. (Ball) Another theory states that Jesus' heart was surrounded by fluid in the pericardium, which constricted the heart and caused death.(Davis) The physical stresses of crucifixion may have produced a fatal cardiac arrhythmia. (Johnson)

Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted. The Shroud of Turin supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right ribs, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death (Fig. 7).  Any assertions based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross are at odds with modern medical knowledge and the Bible (adapted: Edwards).

The Roman guard would not leave the victim until they were sure of his death.