The Agony Of Calvary – Medical Aspects Of The Crucifixion

By: R. P. Kloepper II, M.D.

Article 1

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 stripes, 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 stripes 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.”

(The above material appeared in an April, 1975 issue of The
Conqueror.)

A LOOK AT CALVARY

Article 2

Crucified! No death was so thorough; no shame was so complete. First, there was the scourging. The scourging post was two feet high. An iron ring, placed close to the top, projected from two sides.

Clothing was ripped away from a prisoner so that he stood naked. Roman lictors were professionals. They confined their labors to the fine, brutal art of scourging, and they could beat a victim until only the
barest spark of life remained.

Wrists were firmly shackled to the iron rings. Then the victim was stretched, face down, with his feet pointing away from the post.

The Roman scourge was a “flagra,” a short-handled whip consisting of several thin, iron chains which ended in small weights.

Scourging was called the “little death.” It preceded the “big death,” crucifixion.

Even the tension of awaiting the first blow was cruel. The body was rigid. The muscles knotted in tormenting cramps. Color drained from the cheeks. Lips were drawn tight against the teeth.

As the whip descended, the chains fanned out across the back, and each link cut through the skin and deep into the flesh. The weights crashed with bruising force into the ribs and curled bitingly around the
chest.

When a man was scourged there was pain beyond the memory of pain. Sweat burst from the brow and stung the eyes. At the stroke of the flagra, a victim’s body twitched. The second stroke patterned the back
and half of the chest with a V-shaped network of small cuts. Only the Son of God could hold back the high-pitched wail of unbearable agony.

There was only the blinding, burning pain as cruel whips whistled again and again through the air and across the back and shoulders.

Under the Hebrew law the strokes were limited to thirty-nine. Roman punishment was not so limited. There was only one rule for the lictor who scourged a man to be crucified: HE MUST NOT DIE. A spark of life must be sustained for the agony on the cross.

Men have bitten their tongues in two under such beatings.

Only blessed unconsciousness could bring relief.

The limp body of a victim was cut away from the post. His wounds were washed but not otherwise medicated. The next step was the parade to the execution ground.

Roman politicians preferred to make examples of condemned men. The long, slow parade along public streets was designed to serve as a warning to others that Rome dealt quickly and mercilessly.

A centurion usually served as the executioner or carnifex servorum.”

While four soldiers held the prisoner, he placed the harp, five-inch iron spike in the dead center of the palm of the hand. A skillful, experienced blow would send it through to the wood. Four to five more
strokes would hammer the spike deep into the rough plank, and a fifth turned it up so that the hand could not slip free.

A small projection, resembling a rhinoceros horn and known as the “sedile,” fitted solidly through the crotch. This was fitted so as to take most of the weight off the condemned man’s hands. Then a nail was
driven through each foot.

IT WAS A DEATH RESERVED FOR SLAVES, THIEVES, AND TRAITORS.

The wounds in the hands sent fire down through the arms.

Fainting only relieved temporarily.

It was darkness and pain, pain and darkness. The pain in the back, arms, hands, feet and crotch was a dull, throbbing, horrible, endless pain. The pain built up. It multiplied. It was cumulative. There was
not a moment of respite.

The cross was planted so that the greatest amount of sunlight would pierce the prisoner’s eyes.

Below, the curious waited, fascinated by the torture. The ghastly scene was played out slowly. Dying should be a private thing, not a public spectacle. There is something obscene about having a mob of
people standing around waiting for you to die.

Then the THIRST began.

The lips were dry. The mouth was parched. The blood was hot. The skin was fevered. The greatest of all needs at the moment was a drop of cool water.

At the foot of the cross, the death squad watched the dying man to add to his mental torment. The sun shone directly into the eyes of the crucified. Even when the lids were closed, a red glare penetrated. THE
TONGUE THICKENED. What once was saliva was now like unloomed wool. Swelling began in the hands and the feet. The sedile dug deeply in the crotch. It was impossible to turn, to change one’s position. Muscles began to twitch.

The real horror was only beginning.

One by one the muscles of the back gathered in tight, knotty cramps. There was no escaping them, no pulling out of them, no gentle massaging hands to ease them away. They moved across the shoulders and
the chest. They moved down into the abdomen.

After two hours on a cross, every muscle in the body was locked in solid knots and the agony was beyond endurance. MEN SHRIEKED THEMSELVES INTO INSANITY.

The pain and symptoms were identical to tetanus (lockjaw, or a state of a muscle when undergoing continued contraction).

Man, with all his genius, has never devised a crueler nor more agonizing death than that of tetanus–THE SLOW, STEADY CONTRACTION OF EVERY MUSCLE. Death by crucifixion made the agony last as long as possible.

Each hour was an eternity.

At times the cramps made the neck rigid and the head was held flush with the vertical beam. A man longed for death. It was his only ambition.

There were the flies, insects, and the yelps of dogs with the smell of blood in their nostrils. Birds of prey, scavengers of the skies, circled lower and lower.

Prayers seemed to mock a man, but you either prayed or cursed. As the hours passed, the tiny blood vessels which fed the nerves were squeezed flat, and with the lack of circulation came a numbing
paralysis.

On the cross there was no end of suffering. It was only the manner of suffering that changed and the degree that changed.

As the hours passed, soldiers were inclined to hasten death. They began breaking bones. Standing on a ladder, a practiced legionnaire would swing the mallet in a short arc and shatter the right thighbone
instantly. A second, sharp blow would shatter the left thigh. These were new pains.

The mucous membrane–that thin, slippery tissue which lines and lubricates much of the human body–dried on the cross to the consistency of fine gravel and scraped the tender tissues of the posterior opening of the alimentary canal. They tore at the tortured throat. They lay like stones in the sinuses. They ripped layers of tissue from the eyes every time the pupil was moved or blinked. Could there ever be more intense suffering this side of hell?

CHRIST WAS CRUCIFIED. He died the most brutal death ever devised by man.

He took my place.

(The above material appeared in a March, 1975 issue of the Pentecostal Herald.)

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