On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ


Christianity is unique among the religions of the world for many reasons, but one of the most important is that it can be disproven. The fundamental event of Christianity is the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:3, 4). There is no claim in the Koran that Mohammed physically rose from the dead after his death; neither is there a similar claim for Moses, the Buddha, or any founder of a major religion in the world today. The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, if they actually happened, separate Christianity from all other religions, and make Christ unique among religious leaders.

Anyone who wants to refute Christianity and make the Church wither and die simply has to prove that Jesus Christ did not die, at least not in the way that the Bible records, and did not physically rise again. In the two millennia since Jesus’ life, many skeptics have tried to disprove the Bible on this issue. None have succeeded thus far, but there are many theories about how Jesus did not really die as the Bible suggests.

A Common View in Islam

Islam was founded by Mohammed in the early 7th century AD. He was familiar with both Christians and Jews on the Arabian Peninsula and knew of the Bible’s claims about Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Koran holds Jesus to be a prophet, just as Moses and others were, but does not teach that He is the Son of God. Sura 4 157-158 mentions the Biblical claims of Jesus final moments: “and they (the Jews) have said, ‘Verily we have slain Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the apostle of God’. But they slew him not, neither crucified him, but it seemed to them as if. They did not kill him with certainty. No, God took him up unto himself.”

There are various ways that this can be interpreted. It is possible but unlikely that no one was crucified. One thinks that the Romans or the Jews would have noticed. It is possible that Jesus was crucified but did not die (see the Swoon theory below). A common interpretation is that they mistook someone else for Jesus and subsequently crucified that unfortunate man. The Gospel of Barnabas, dating from the late Middle Ages, suggests that it was Judas. Other suggestions include Peter, Simon of Cyrene, Barabas, and Satan. Assuming that the Biblical text is reliable, at least in this area, this interpretation would be difficult if not impossible to sustain. If the Biblical text is not reliable, then neither believers nor skeptics have enough data to draw any conclusions at all.

The Swoon Theory

If Jesus did not die on the cross, but rather only passed out, then some people hold that He could have revived in the cool of the tomb. As we shall see later, given the severity of Jesus’ beating and the description of His wounds, it is impossible that He was alive when taken off of the cross. Interestingly, in 66 AD the Jewish historian Josephus, “Discovered three of his friends being crucified. He asked the Roman general Titus to reprieve them, and they were immediately removed from their crosses. Still two of the three died any way” (McDowell, Resurrection, p.49).

A Perspective from Judaism

Matthew 28 provides an explanation from the mouth of the high priest himself. They do not doubt that Jesus died but doubt that He rose again. The story that he devised, in collaboration with the Roman soldiers who tried to guard the tomb, was that grave robbers, probably the disciples, overpowered them, rolled away the stone, stole Jesus’ body, and hid it in some undisclosed location. Since this is not an objection to His death but to His resurrection, We will address it elsewhere.

We must note that according to the Law of Moses, anyone who hangs on a tree is accursed of God. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 says “And if a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God)…” Under Jewish law most criminals deserving death would be executed by stoning (see the execution of Stephen in Acts 7). Crucifixion was not used by the Jews. The fact that the members of Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Council, wanted Jesus crucified suggests that because they saw Him as a blasphemer, they wanted Him not only dead but also seen as accursed of God.

Other Views

Some people reject the story outright, Herman Stieglecker noted “The idea of the Christians, that God could have humiliated himself to such a degree that his enemies, the vulgarest mob, could mock, deride and ill treat him like an idiot or a fool and that he eventually suffered the most shameful and painful death like a criminal between two real criminals, that is an outrageous disgrace.” He is absolutely right. What Jesus suffered because of the wickedness of man was an outrageous disgrace, which makes it all the more amazing that God the Father and God the Son did it for us.

Others use Mark 15:34 (“My God, my God, why has Thou forsaken me?”) to suggest that Jesus was crucified against His will. Others suggest that Paul added the idea that Jesus was crucified from heathen religions. Finally, the view most prevalent in my experience is that the Gospel (Biblical) accounts are unreliable (“Higher Criticism”) and therefore nothing can be learned by reading them. We will address the reliability of the Bible in a different forum.

Our Assumptions, Objectives, and Sources

As Christians, we assume that Jesus Christ was a real historical figure and that the narratives written about his death in the Biblical and nonbibilical accounts are generally reliable. We also assume that archaeology give evidence about Roman crucifixion practices. Our objective is to examine the available evidence and see if it proves beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus Christ died.

Jesus is mentioned by several non-Biblical writers, including Roman historians Cornelius Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Suetonius. Non-Roman historians mentioning Jesus include Thallus, Phlegon, and Lucian of Samosata. Jewish sources include the Talmud, and Flavius Josephus. The preponderance of evidence, however, comes from the biblical authors in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

When Did This Occur?

Since the calendar has changed over the centuries, the years of Jesus’ birth and death are controversial. Jesus likely was born in either 4 or 6 B.C. and died between 27 and 30 A.D. During the Passover observance in 30 A.D., the Last Supper would have been observed on Thursday, April 6 (Nisan 13). Jesus would have been crucified on Friday, April 7 (Nisan 14).

The Sequence of Events
• The Passover feast
• The Mount of Olives (Garden of Gethsemane)
• Jewish trials
• Roman trials
• Scourging
• Crucifixion

The Passover Meal

After eating the Passover meal in Southwest Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples walked 1.5 to 2 miles and gained several hundred feet in altitude to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. Since Jesus was a carpenter by trade and traveled hundreds of miles by foot during his ministry, he probably had no major medical problems and was in good physical condition.

The Garden of Gethsemane

Jesus looked with pain and dread on the ordeal that was before Him. Luke the Physician wrote “And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.” (Luke 22:44). This description could be a simile for intense normal sweating but is more likely to be a literal description coming from the eyewitness accounts of Peter, James, John, or a combination. This condition, called hemohidrosis, is very rare but may occur in highly emotional states or in patients with bleeding disorders. Hemohidrosis comes from hemorrhage into the sweat glands, and as a result the skin becomes fragile and tender.

Jewish Trials

Shortly after midnight, Jesus was arrested at Gethsemane by temple officials. He was taken to trial before the high priest Caiaphas soon afterward, before the people of city would awaken at dawn. Jesus was tried before the full council of the Sanhedrin, the political and religious ruling council in Jerusalem, shortly after daybreak. He was convicted of blasphemy – a charge punishable by death. During this time the guards blindfolded Jesus, spat on him and struck Him in the face with their fists.

Roman Trials

Since the Romans were the governing powers in Judea at the time, they had to give permission to execute Jesus. Such permission, however, did not specify the mode of execution. The Romans could have given the Jewish leaders permission to stone Him, or they could have stoned Him as a mob, as was done several months later with Stephen (Acts 7). Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the province of Judea at the time, would have had no interest in Jewish religious affairs and the charge of blasphemy. Therefore, the Jewish leaders’ charge against Jesus was undermining Roman authority. Neither Pilate nor Herod Antipas (the nominal king of Judea) found any basis for any charges. However, Pilate was a politician who owed his position to the will of Tiberius Caesar, the Emperor of Rome. He needed to keep the peace in his restive province, and if allowing the Jews to kill a wandering rabbi of seemingly small account would do it, so be it. Pilate figuratively washed his hands of the whole thing. Bowing to pressure from the crowd, Pilate ordered Jesus scourged and crucified.

Scourging

Despite the fact that Pilate tried to exonerate himself, Jesus’ execution was a Roman affair. Scourging was a legal preliminary to every Roman execution. It was considered a cruel punishment and women, soldiers (except for desertion) and Senators were exempt. In the process, the victim was tied naked to a wooden post. A short leather whip with small iron balls and pieces of sheep bone tied to it was used to beat the victim’s back, buttocks and legs on both sides. As the soldiers struck the victim with full force, the iron balls would cause deep bruises and the leather thongs and sheep bones would cut into the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Further lacerating the underlying muscle would produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh. Pain and blood loss could put the victim into shock.

The Greek words used in 1 Peter 2:24 indicate that Jesus scourging was especially harsh. We do not know if the number of lashes was limited to 39 (in accordance with Jewish law). The Romans had no such limit. After the scourging, the Roman soldiers put a robe on Jesus’ shoulders and a crown of long thorns on His head. A little while later, when the soldiers tore the robe from Jesus back, they probably reopened the scourging wounds.

Jesus’ Physical Condition before the Crucifixion

• He had been without sleep for over 30 hours (approximately 0600 Thursday to 1200 Friday).
• He was under extreme emotional stress.
• He had walked over 2.5 miles.
• He had not had food or water since the Last Supper, over 12 hours before.
• He had been severely beaten and scourged.
• He was probably in a preshock state.

Crucifixion

Crucifixion originated with the Persians 3rd-4th Cent BC. Alexander the Great introduced crucifixion to Egypt and Carthage during his conquests, and the Romans learned crucifixion from the Carthaginians. After the famous and abortive slave revolt of Spartacus, 6000 of his slave followers were crucified by Romans along the Appian Way in 71 BC. Crucifixion was intended to maximize pain and suffering, and was reserved for slaves, foreigners, revolutionaries, and the vilest criminals. The modern word excruciating comes from the Latin “out of crucifixion”.

There was extensive literary but not much archeological evidence of the practice of crucifixion in Judea for many years. Since the bodies of crucified victims were left on the cross to be devoured by insects and animals, this is not surprising. However, in 1968 the partial remains of a man who had been crucified were found in Jerusalem. The family had procured a normal burial for him and the ossuary containing the remains was labeled ‘Yehohanan, the son of HGQWL (probably pronounced Hagakol)’

The Procession to Calvary (Via Dolorosa)

The condemned man was forced to carry his own crossbar (75-125 lb) from the flogging post to the crucifixion site. The entire cross probably weighed over 300 lbs and in the case of Yehohanan mentioned above, was made of olive wood. The victim was naked unless prohibited by local law; it is unclear if Jesus was naked or not. A guard of Roman soldiers and a centurion led the processional to the site where the victim would be crucified. One soldier carried a sign with the victim’s name and crimes.

The Cross at Calvary

The crossbar was attached to an upright at Golgotha. The upright may have been permanent or may have been dropped into a permanent hole in the ground dug and maintained for this purpose. A wooden board serving a semi-seat was sometimes attached to the upright. This prolonged the crucifixion. The condemned was given a bitter drink of wine mixed with myrrh, which would serve as a mild analgesic. Jesus refused this drink.

Securing the Victim

The condemned was thrown to the ground and his arms were secured to the crossbar by nailing through the wrist with long spikes or by tying. The Greek word in John 20:25 translated “hands” actually refers to hands and arms. Nails through the palms cannot support a hanging body; the nails would simply rip through the soft tissues and the person would fall off the cross. At this point the crossbar with the victim attached was attached to the upright. The victim’s feet were secured to the upright by nailing through the top or tying. Once the victim was affixed to the cross, the charges written on a board (the titulus) was attached to the cross. The victim’s clothes (if any) were divided among the soldiers.

During the Crucifixion

A normal human can survive up to 3-4 days of crucifixion, depending on his physical condition, environmental conditions, and other factors. During this time, insects would land on and burrow into open wounds and eyes, ears and nose of the victim and birds of prey would tear at these sites. Soldiers could hasten death by breaking the legs below the knees.

Medical Aspects of Crucifixion

The pain of crucifixion was breathtaking. Each breath would scrape the open sores on the victim’s back and buttocks against the rough wood of the cross. The nails in the wrists would crush or sever the median nerve, causing severe bolts of fiery pain. The nails in the feet would injure the deep peroneal and plantar nerves, causing further severe pain.

The biggest problem for the victim during crucifixion, however, was breathing. In a normal person, inhaling is active and exhaling is passive. In crucifixion, the weight of the hanging body impairs exhalation. To exhale, the victim must lift the body by pushing up with the feet and flexing the elbows. Breaking the legs prevented this and caused death from suffocation within minutes. This was both excruciating & exhausting.

The Crucifixion of Jesus

Jesus’ scourging was so severe that He was unable to carry his cross. As noted above, He refused the analgesic drink. Jesus spoke seven times from the cross. Because exhalation is so difficult, these were short and agonizing phrases. The words of the thieves who were executed with Him would have been equally staccato.

Cause of Death during Crucifixion

When death finally came, mercifully to a crucified man, it came from two primary causes. The blood loss from beatings and scourging and the pooling of blood in the lower extremities eventually causes hypovolemic (low blood volume) shock. The body loses the ability to get blood to critical organs like the heart and brain and they begin to die. The second cause is exhaustion asphyxia. The tremendous work of breathing exhausts the already weakened body and the victim suffocates.

The Death of Jesus Christ

The Gospel of John states that Jesus’ legs were not broken but that a sword pierced Jesus’ side (pleura – Gk). This could have been a Roman short sword or even an infantry spear. This implies a chest wound between the ribs and lateral to the midline, typically on the right side. John states that “blood and water” came out of the wound. The water was probably pleural (around the lungs) and perhaps also pericardial (around the heart) effusion. The blood was probably from the right heart chambers, the right atrium and ventricle. After death, water pools in the lungs as the air pressure in the small lung sacs (alveoli) is not high enough to keep fluid from the small blood vessels in the lungs (pulmonary capillaries) from filling them.

At least a moderate sized gush must have come out for John to have noticed it at a distance. Roman soldiers would keep bystanders far enough away so that they could not rush forward and try to save the victim. It is likely that John and the others would have been at least 20 feet away.

Since Jesus cried out with a “loud voice” and died after only 3 hours on the cross, he could have had a catastrophic event like a heart attack (embolic transmural myocardial infarct) and subsequent cardiac rupture. It is more likely, however, that he died of hypovolemic shock and exhaustion asphyxia as noted above.

Disposition of the Body

As noted above, the corpse would usually be left on the cross and devoured by predatory animals. The family could ask the Roman judge for the body and, if granted, take it for burial. The body would not be released to the family until the soldiers were sure that the victim was dead.

Conclusion – Did Jesus Die?

The Gospel account of Jesus crucifixion is consistent with known medical and historical facts about crucifixion. The wounds sustained by Jesus, including the sword wound to the heart, are not consistent with life. The appearance of blood and water from the sword wound demonstrate the Jesus was dead. Jesus did not lose consciousness or feign death on the cross, only to be taken down alive, resuscitated and portrayed as rising again. Jesus died on the cross.

Other Reference – Edwards, et al. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ”, JAMA, 21 Mar 86, Vol 255, No 11, pp 1455-1463

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