This week's question is not for the young or for those with queasy stomachs: what was the crucifixion of Jesus like?
I am indebted to an article in the Journal of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama by Dr. Truman Davis on the physiological descriptions of a crucifixion.
Before the crucifixion Jesus was scourged. Now a scourge is only remotely like a whip of our movies. Although it looked like a whip, at the end of it were twelve thongs with lead balls, bits of bone, and stones attached. Jesus was sentenced to 40 lashes.
Dr. Davis describes the scourging: "Preparations . . . are carried out. The prisoner is stripped of his clothing and his hands tied to a post above his head. The Roman legionnaire steps forward with [the scourge].... The heavy whip is brought down with full force again and again across Jesus's shoulders, back, and legs [thirteen stripes across each shoulder, and thirteen across his back and legs]. At first the heavy thongs cut through the skin only. Then, as the blows continue, they cut deeper into the... tissues, producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin, and finally spurting arterial bleeding from vessels in the underlying muscles. The small balls of lead [bone, and stones] first produce large, deep bruises which are broken open by subsequent blows. Finally the skin of the back is hanging in long ribbons and the entire area is an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissue. When it determined by the centurion in charge that the prisoner is near death [or the sentence is carried out], the beating is stopped." Many weaker men died under the scourge, but Jesus was strong enough not only to survive, but to carry the 110 pound crossbar of the cross (the patibulum) some distance towards the site of his death.
Crucifixion itself is a gruesome deed. All but those of Jewish descent in the Roman Empire were required to be crucified naked, but early negotiations allowed Jews to wear a loin cloth. But the pain and the humiliation of the crucifixion begins even before the first nail is driven.
"The prisoner is hurled to the ground and a Roman soldier puts his foot in the armpit of Jesus. Grasping the limp arm, it is compressed and then yanked with such force the shoulder is dislocated and the prisoner is helpless to fight the soldier as he readies the spikes. The operation is repeated for the other arm and for each leg. Jesus is left totally helpless and in agony as the soldier takes his wrist and deftly drives a spike through it to the cross bar. The Roman legionnaires who drove the executionary spikes were such experts that they drove the spikes through the cartilage of the wrists with nearly no blood loss. Finally Jesus is attached to the cross, each arm spiked and his feet nailed together with his legs flexed slightly. The cross was lifted and it slid into its waiting hole with a resounding thud that jarred Jesus' body with a jerk. His sagging body pulls down on the nails in his wrists and he pushes up to relieve the pressure, but now the pressure is on his nailed feet."
According to Dr. Davis, as the arms become fatigued, great waves of cramps swept over the body and Jesus was unable to pull himself upward. The diaphragm muscles became paralyzed and air could be admitted into the lungs, but could not be expelled. Fighting for breath, Jesus forced himself up for tiny bites of air. Finally carbon dioxide would fill the lungs and the bloodstream causing the cramps to subside. Jesus could then pull himself up to gasp a few life-sustaining breaths of oxygen, but as the oxygen entered the bloodstream the cycle of cramps would begin again.
As the end drew near, the heart struggled to pump the thickened blood of the dehydrated Jesus and fluids began to fill the chest, constricting the already overworked heart. It is this fluid that escaped when the legionnaire speared Jesus' side. A few moments later Jesus died from shock, dehydration, and heart failure.
Obviously, crucifixion is a ghastly sentence of death both to describe and to endure. As Good Friday and Easter Sunday approach, may we remember the tenacity of Jesus, his strength in life and death, and his mission of love, peace, and unity for the world.