Medical Aspects of the Crucifixion by R. P. Kloepper II, M.D.
The Romans copied the art of crucifixion from Carthage. The cross was not as we usually see depicted in drawings and paintings. It was composed of two separate pieces. The stipes, the vertical portion, was permanently affixed in the ground and was used many times. It was about six feet in height which allowed the wild animals to devour the corpses of the crucified men. The horizontal portion, named patibulum, was the beam the condemned man carried. There were two common types of crosses. There was the kind which we usually envision (+) and another where the patibulum could fit into a mortis atop the stipes to form a cross in the shape of the Greek capital letter Tau (T).
This form of Capital punishment was meant to deter crime. A sign was carried before the condemned man and placed on his cross. Jesus' inscription, written in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, read, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." After Jesus' appearances before Pilate and Herod, He and two other prisoners were readied for the journey to Golgotha. In deference to Jewish custom, Jesus was allowed to be clothed. The patibulum was of rough cypress wood, approximately six feet in length, and weighed twenty five to thirty pounds. The method of carrying it was fairly constant.
Jesus' hands were bound, the patibulum placed on His right shoulder, and the bound hands draped over the anterior portion of the beam with the shoulder serving as the fulcrum. The centurion was worried about Jesus' obviously weakened condition. Christ stumbled several times. As He fell forward, the end of the patibulum struck the ground first, then His knees and elbows. Blood flowed. The rough cypress wood tore at His face. The piece of wood balanced momentarily and then fell across His back reopening the wounds of His scourging. The centurion was displeased. This was to be an orderly Roman execution. The condemned men should be dead by the sabbath. However, He should die on the cross, not on the way to His crucifixion. A North African, Simon of Cyrene, was commanded to carry the cross of Jesus. The pathetic parade moved forward. It was six hundred and fifty yards from Antonio, Pilate's residence, to Golgotha.
The society of charitable women were present when they arrived at the hill. These women assisted poor families in Jerusalem during death,gave gifts at weddings, etc. They offered those about to be executed a drink of wine mixed with myrrh or incense. Some question the analgesic properties of the mixture; however, this was its intended use, to dull the pain. Christ would not drink. He desired to feel the fullness of His suffering, He flinched when His robe was removed for the blood from His beating had caused it to be "scabbed" to his back. The feeling was that of ripping a dressing from a tender wound.
Dr. Pierre Barbet studied crucifixion and did a lot of experimental work with amputated arms and bodies of deceased. As a result of his research, He clearly demonstrated that nails in the palms of the hands will not support the weight of a man when he is suspended. There is adequate anatomical explanation for this since there are no strong horizontal structures in the hands. This of course, would be unsatisfactory for crucifixion. Yet, He was consistently able to drive large nails between the carpal bones of the wrist with radiographic proof of no resulting fractures. There is a natural passageway there between the bones. (See Psalms 34:20, John 19:31-36.) This location is considered to be a part of the hand and for it to be used brought no contradiction of scripture. This placements of nails will adequately suspend a man's weight. So, it was probably this spot that was used by the Roman executioner.
It was about 9:00 a.m. when Simon placed the patibulum on the ground. Jesus was thrown down on top of it striking His head and driving the thorns still deeper. The Roman executioner wore a leather apron which carried five inch spikes. He was adept at his work and soon Jesus was nailed to the patibulum. The wooden beam with the full weight of Christ's body suspended from the nails was lifted by the soldiers and dropped into place in the mortis atop the standing vertical portion of the cross. His knees were flexed and His right foot placed over His left. A spike was driven into the soft tissues between the metatarsal bones of His feet.
He was now suspended on the cross. His arms formed a "V" as His body sagged, and His entire body weight was supported by the nails. He soon became aware of excruciating pain in His arms. The median nerve, which supplies motor function to the flexor muscles of the hand, was stretched tautly over the nails in His wrists. It was partially severed. Each time he moved it was like a bow being dragged across the string of a violin pouring forth a strong chord of agonizing pain.
Think about it, raw nerve against rough steel! Tetanic spasms developed in the muscles of His hands and marched up His arms to the pectoralis muscles of His chest. These muscles of the anterior chest wall are accessory muscles of respiration. They assist forceful inspiration by elevating the rib cage. When these muscles contracted in spasm, it was impossible to exhale. Only small volumes of air could be inhaled. There was inadequate oxygenation, and the carbon dioxide level in the blood increased fairly rapidly. To relieve the muscle spasm and the panicky feeling of shortness of breath, Jesus pushed Himself up the cross and transferred His weight to the nail in His feet. The spasm disappeared, and He was able to breathe more easily.
However, After a short while, leg muscle spasms and the unbearable pain of supporting His full weight on the nail in His feet forced Him to slide back down the cross and once again suspend himself from the nails in His hands. The rough cypress wood clawed at the open wounds on His back as He moved up and down the cross. In the darkness, the insects buzzed around His matted beard and settled on His blood smeared face. They laid their eggs in puss filled wounds. He was helpless to ward them off. Yes, there was nothing pretty about Calvary. The agonizing cycle was repeated again and again as the soldiers beneath Him gambled for His robe. Finally, about 3:00 p.m. He commended His spirit. The earth trembled, and the veil in the temple was rent in twain.
Some crucified men lived as long as two days. Since it was meant to deter crime, the spectacle was no longer useful when the crowds dispersed after several hours. The usual method of death after crucifixion was asphyxiation. When the condemned man no longer had the strength to raise himself on the cross, he soon died from inadequate respiration produced by the chest muscle spasms. The Romans broke the femurs, the large thigh bones, to hasten death. With the broken legs, a man could no longer raise himself on the cross. He soon asphyxiated.
Jesus lived only six hours on the cross. Why? John gave us a clue when he recorded that after the Roman soldier pierced Jesus' side to insure death, blood and water came forth. The cross was six feet in height, A raised spear would enter the chest cavity; only blood from the heart should exit the wound. What was the water? The pericardium is a membrane that surrounds the heart. It is known that fluid can collect in the space between the heart and the pericardium after a non-penetrating blow to the chest (postcardiac-injury syndrome). If this effusion is large enough, cardiac tamponade can occur. This means the heart is constricted and is no longer an effective pumper of blood.
Congestive heart failure and pulmonary edema develop. One's breathing becomes labored as the lungs fill with fluid. Jesus' breathing difficulty described previously was compounded by this condition. This helps to explain His short time on the cross. The pain associated with traumatic pericarditis is torturous. After His death, we have another insight into a segment of His suffering. His heart was broken for me.
That is how Jesus purchased our salvation.
A huge chasm existed at Calvary between the benevolence of God and the gratitude of mankind. God had no guarantee there would be any human response to this supreme act, The Roman centurion may grasp a small segment of the magnitude of the situation and exclaim, "Truly this was the Son of God." Joseph of Arimathea may feel a twinge of guilt and beg for the body of Christ, but what would be the reaction of the human race? God could only hope that in the future someone would catch a glimpse of the unprecedented love exhibited at Calvary and return that love with the devotion of his life. I hope this article helps to bridge the gulf between God's benevolence and each reader's gratitude. I trust it produces a large increase in gratefulness for what was accomplished on a hill called Golgotha.
"When I survey the Wondrous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but lost And pour contempt on all my pride,
"Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all."
R. P. Kloepper II, M.D.
The above material appeared in an April, 1975 issue of The Conqueror.