THE CRUCIFIXION OF JESUS
—Resonates yet in the world’s torture chambers
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
Crucifixion is among the most barbaric and agonizing methods of capital punishment devised by the mind of man. The most widely recognized crucifixion is that of Jesus of Nazareth. Each year at this time, many of us remember his sacrifice and honor his name. According to the Roman historian Tacitus and the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, Jesus was executed by order of Pontius Pilate, Prefect of the province of Judea. Many Biblical scholars suggest that the incident occurred in the spring of 33 CE, during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. Sadly, Jesus was not the world’s first crucifixion victim, and he was far from the last.
The definition of crucifixion is to torture and torment. The word “excruciating” is derived from it. By some accounts, the practice was first used by Lucius Traquinius Priscus, an early Roman monarch. Other sources attribute it to the Phoenicians, from whom the Romans may have adopted it. It became standard practice in the Mediterranean region by 260-160 BCE, although there is some evidence that it was used as early as the Sixth Century BCE. The Roman leadership, never known for sensitivity when dealing with offenders or dissidents, desired a slow, painful method of execution that would serve to discourage onlookers from criminal or anti-government activity. Crucifixion was generally reserved for the most despised of offenders, in accordance with the mores of the time, rebels, murderers, political and religious dissidents, pirates.
Herodotus reports that the Persian king Darius I had 3000 political rivals crucified in 519 B.C. Flavius Josephus reports that the Roman Emperor Titus had 500 Jews per day crucified during the siege of Jerusalem between 66 and 70 CE Earlier, Alexander the Great is said to have crucified 2000 of the enemy during the siege of Tyre. Perhaps the most infamous mass crucifixion involved 6000 followers of the slave general Spartacus, who were suspended from crosses along the road from Rome to Capua in 71 BCE, an incident vividly described in Howard Fast’s historical novel, later adapted by Dalton Trumbo to a film (Spartacus) starring Kirk Douglas. The psychopathic Emperor Nero had his living crucifixion victims drenched with oil and set ablaze to light his nocturnal orgies and garden parties.
Death came slowly to most victims, whose ordeals could last up to three days. Five to seven inch iron spikes were, driven through the median nerves in the wrists and through the plantar nerves in the feet, causing some of the worst agony imaginable, the equivalent of having non-stop bolts of lightning shooting up the arms and legs. With the pectoral muscles paralyzed, the victim was forced to heave himself up onto his feet in order to breathe. The feet were either nailed flat against the cross or crossed over one another and impaled on a single spike. Loss of blood caused extreme dehydration and thirst. Carbon dioxide built up in the system, causing severe muscle cramps. Afterward, the bodies were frequently left to decay on the cross before being thrown into a heap to be fed upon by dogs and vultures.
Unlike most victims, Jesus did not survive beyond the very day of his crucifixion, not surprising when one considers the brutal treatment he received at the hands of his tormentors before he even began the slow, agonizing trek to Calvary.
According to the writings of St. Luke, a physician, Jesus literally sweat blood in anticipation of his coming ordeal, while he prayed in the Garden of Gesthemane on the night of his arrest. This rare condition, known as hematidrosis, occurs when a person is under such incredible emotional stress that blood vessels hemorrhage inside the sweat glands. The loss of blood would have weakened Jesus’ system prior to his arrest.
Wishing to pacify the mob demanding his execution, Pilate, who could find no fault in Jesus, ordered him scourged. Scourging involved multiple lashes with the Roman flagrum, a whip consisting of three or more leather thongs with lead balls, like buckshot, or pieces of sheep bones at the ends. This form of torture sometimes fractured ribs, as the flagrum bit down through skin and muscle to the bone, causing extreme hemorrhaging. Jewish law limited such punishment to forty lashes, but the actual number depended more upon the caprice of the Roman soldiers. Many victims died of pain, shock, dehydration and loss of blood, requiring no further punishment or execution.
Most depictions of crucifixion, including that portrayed in the movie produced by Mel Gibson, are in error on a number of important points. The Romans utilized three or more types of cross. Most came in two parts, the upright post, called the stipis crucis, and the crosspiece, called the patibulum. It would be highly unlikely that a victim would carry both pieces of the cross, as so often appears in illustrations and movies. Typically, the prisoner would carry the patibulum, weighing 50-60 pounds across his shoulders. The entire cross could weigh up to 200 pounds, too heavy for a prisoner who had already been tortured to a condition of near death. The stipis crucis would remain permanently anchored in the ground at the place of execution. Once nailed to the patibulum, the prisoner was then hauled atop the stipis Crucis.
Jesus most likely succumbed to traumatic and hypovolemic shock, causing cardiac and respiratory arrest. If a victim endured too long on the cross, a soldier would break his legs, to prevent any further attempts to breathe. In Jesus’ case, the soldiers arrived to find that he was already dead but pierced his side with a lance in order to be certain.
There are eleven hypotheses regarding the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side when the lance was driven between his ribs. Probably the most accurate explanation is that the right atrium of the heart was penetrated causing the blood flow and that the water was a result of pleural effusion from his earlier scourging.
Christians as well as most non-believers are familiar with the rest of the story of Jesus.
Constantine I banned crucifixion throughout the empire in 341 CE, but it has resurfaced many times since. Twenty-five Jesuit and Franciscan priests were crucified by Japanese authorities in Nagasaki in 1597. The Mexican revolutionary Emilio Zapata was accused of crucifying landowners on telegraph poles. The Nazis were reported to have crucified prisoners at the infamous death camp of Dachau during World War II. As recently as the 1990’s, there have been reports of crucifixions in the Sudan. On May 25, 2013, three men in Darfur were sentenced to hanging and crucifixion.
Each year at Easter time, Christians and many others remember the torture and execution of Jesus and honor his memory. Crucifixion is no longer in vogue as it once was. Other forms of torture, however, are still prevalent. Masters of the old Soviet Gulag, third world generalissimos and even apologists for democratic societies that have abandoned their principles bury the realities of torture beneath a blanket of evasions, euphemisms and Newspeak. It would require extreme moral and ethical gymnastics to pretend that the process known as waterboarding does not constitute torture. And yet, a recent US vice president assured the world that it was merely an “enhanced interrogation technique.”
Even as the frenzied obscene consumerism that has debauched Christmas infects the Easter season, those who profess to follow the teachings of Jesus bear a heavy obligation to oppose cruelty in all its manifestations. Remaining ignorant or acquiescent is not an option. As Jesus says, “As you have done unto the least of these, you have done unto me.”