The resurrection of Jesus Christ is found at the climax of each of the gospel narratives. This lone event in the life of Christ defines all Christianity, and serves as the basis of all that it represents.[i] The resurrection is so important to the Christian faith that according to the apostle Paul, “… if Christ has not been raised, your faith (In Him) is worthless…” (1 Corinthians 15:16-17). However, in order for one to be raised from the dead and resurrected into a new life, one must first have died. The death that Jesus faces in the gospel narratives is a gruesome one. According to the New Testament, Jesus was beaten and whipped, and then crucified in front of his followers and enemies. As we will later discover, his death was bloody, painful, and humiliating. After mere hours on the cross, Christ died; he was removed from the cross and placed in a new tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. Then he was miraculously raised from the dead on the third day.
Many scholars have debated the death of Christ on the cross and his subsequent resurrection, creating theories in their attempt to shed light on the issues and questions that surround it. One such theory that has come to our attention is that Jesus did not fully die on the cross, and that he merely “recuperated” while in the grave.[ii] If, according to this theory, Christ never died, then the resurrection never happened and our faith, according to Paul, is found meaningless. Since this theory of his actual death holds the very foundation of our faith as Christians in the balance, it will be of great importance to look into the actual death of Christ, by examining crucifixion as a practice, the physicality of his death based on the narratives found in the four gospels, and then investigating several theories concerning his death
Crucifixion as a Roman Practice
Crucifixion was the most brutal and offensive way of killing someone during the time of Christ.[iii] Although most scholars agree that the use of crucifixion as a method of corporal punishment and sacrifice began with barbarian peoples and the Persians, the Romans perfected this act of torture.[iv] The use of crucifixion was so widespread by the Romans, Josephus refers to massive amounts of Jews being crucified during the time when Jerusalem was besieged that “…there was not enough room for all of the crosses and not enough crosses for the bodies.”[v] Because of their extensive use of crucifixion, written accounts of the way in which the Romans carried out this act can be found. From these accounts, it is possible to gain an inside view of the crucifixion of Christ, and give clarity to the events as they are described in the gospels.
It was Roman custom to have a scourging as a part of the crucifixion. The instrument that was used for this practice was called a flagrum, or a flagellum. It was basically a short whip that had several leather strips of different lengths. At the end of each strip pieces of sharp bone, and small pieces of metal were usually attached. After a man had been sentenced to die by crucifixion, he would be taken to the place of scourging, stripped of all of his clothing, and tied to a large pole that was placed upright in the ground. There, with his entire back exposed the lictors would beat the prisoner across the back leaving large stripe-like welts. It was a Jewish law that the number of lashes with the flagrum was to be 39[vi]; however, the punishment of each individual was left up to the executioner.[vii] As the leather straps repeatedly beat upon his open flesh, the metal and sharp pieces of bone would tear deeper and deeper into the skin and underlying tissue of the prisoner. There was always much blood loss, and often this blood loss would lead to a drastically weakened man prone to circulatory shock, and a quick death on the cross.[viii]
After the scourging, the Romans had their prisoners led through the city streets while the prisoner carried their own patibulum, which normally weighed between 75 and 125 pounds. This was an extremely humiliating practice, for often the victim had little or no clothing, and was already weakened and bleeding profusely from the scourging. The prisoners were led outside of the gates of the city to a place where crucifixions took place. This was a common practice, as the stipes were found permanently placed in the ground.[ix]
Once at the site of the crucifixion the prisoner would then be bound by the hands or wrists either by tying or nailing to the patibulum and then raised to the stipes. It is then that the feet would also be bound. For the Romans, this involved the nailing of the wrists to the patibulum, and the nailing of the feet to the stipes.[x] The Romans had perfected the art of crucifixion so precisely they knew exactly how to place the nails in the wrists so that no major arteries were severed and so that no bones were broken.[xi] Because of this exact placement, there would be no bleeding to death as a result of severing major blood vessels in the prisoner. In fact, the actual act of crucifixion was a relatively bloodless procedure as most of the blood found on the body of the victims was from the scourging.[xii]
Crucifixion, though bloodless, was exceedingly painful. The nails that pass through the wrists, though missing major blood vessels, would most likely sever the median nerve located there. The disrupting of this nerve would send shooting pains up and down the arm of the victim on the cross. Likewise, the pain would be increased dramatically as the crucified man struggled to take each breath. Since breathing while on the cross requires a flexion of the elbows, the pain would increase even further with the nails grinding against the crushed median nerve. Breathing also requires the pushing up with the feet in order that one may inhale and exhale. This would place the entire weight of an individual on the bones of the feet and would cause excruciating pain. Also, as the body begins to lack oxygen to send to its cells, hypercarbia and rigid muscle contractions, which resulted, would make respiration even more of a struggle. In addition to all of these difficulties, breathing would further be hindered as every time the victim’s body raises and lowers to breathe, the wounds from the scourging would be re-opened sending blood like streams of water flowing out of the gaping wounds.[xiii] In addition, it was also common for insects and birds of prey to come and eat upon the flesh of the men that were on the cross. This would no doubt add to the pain and discomfort of those helpless victims who hung there unprotected.
Although pain was severe, death did not come quickly to most that were condemned to die on the cross. The time spent on the cross could range anywhere from hours to days.[xiv] The Roman guards had the option to hasten the death of the condemned by breaking his legs. In doing this, the guards would inhibit the ability of the victim to push up with his feet and therefore making the respiratory capability of the individual virtually impossible.[xv] The harder it is to breathe, the less time one will spend on the cross. The Roman’s placed a guard to remain at the cross until the time of death.[xvi]
After death, the body could be left on the cross for several days to be eaten by insects and wild animals. This not only heightened the humiliation, but also proved as a deterrent to others that might try to rebel against the empire. However, the family of the crucified person could, after obtaining permission take down the body of their loved one for burial.[xvii]
The Crucifixion of Christ
The accounts of the scourging of Christ fit very closely with what is described to be the Roman tradition. The humiliation of Jesus began with the mocking of Christ after he had been handed over by Pilate to be crucified and led to his rather harsh whipping. There is no mention of how many lashes were given to him, so it may or may not have been the 39 lawful. We do have written evidence though that the beating was so severe that Jesus was unable to carry his own crossbeam (John 19:17). It is very probable that Christ had been weakened by the great loss of blood, as well as exhaustion from lack of sleep and nourishment. If the scourging of Christ was like the Roman tradition, there is no doubt that Jesus suffered severely both during and after the beating. There are no signs of shock given in the gospel accounts, however, one cannot rule out the possibility of cardiovascular shock as a result of the tearing away of his flesh.[xviii]
The gospels give very little information about this processional through the streets of Jerusalem. As earlier mentioned, because of his weakend state, Jesus could not carry the weight of the patibulum.[xix] As a result, a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, was forced to carry the very heavy cross beam for Jesus (Luke 23:26). From historical records of this procedure, we can conclude that the walk through town was a very humiliating time for Christ. It is likely that crowds followed and mocked him. If the Roman tradition proved true in the case of Christ, a Roman soldier leading the entire group would have held the sign displaying the crime for which he was being punished. It was also common for a sign bearing witness to the crime of the individual to be placed on the cross with him.[xx] Although no new wounds were created on this processional, the mental and emotional anguish that must have followed Christ’s already battered and bleeding body cannot be ignored as a factor that ultimately could have led to his death.
The Biblical accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus again fit very well with what is know to be the Roman norm. When they arrived at the crucifixion site Jesus was nailed to his cross and raised in between two insurrectionists. It was likely that the place where Jesus was crucified was a busy intersection outside of town chosen for the public execution as a way of deterring others who may be considering similar illegal acts.[xxi] The Bible tells is that not one of Jesus’ bones were broken during the act of the crucifixion in order to fulfill the prophecy of Psalm 34 (John 19:33-36). This tells us that the Romans then must have pierced his wrists and feet with the nails in such a way, as no bone was broken. We know from found bodies of those crucified during the time of Jesus, that the Romans understood and practised this procedure.[xxii]
Once on the cross, breathing was difficult for Jesus. The gospels give no direct evidence of this, however, while on the cross Christ speaks only seven times, and each of these seven sayings is relatively short. Because of the briefness and rarity of his sayings on the cross, speaking presumably must have been a painful and laborious process.[xxiii]
After a relatively short time on the cross (only hours) Jesus breathes his last breath and dies. The gospel gives account not only to his death, but also to the confirmation of his death by the Roman soldiers that were present. The soldiers were experienced not only in the act of crucifixion, but also in warfare.[xxiv] Their experience proves that they would know the difference between a dead man, and a man that only appeared to be dead. According to the Roman history, the soldiers would break the legs of the condemned men in order to speed up their death. This practice had become so much of a part of the Roman tradition that some scholars refer to it as the last of three phases of crucifixion.[xxv] The Bible lets us know that when they came to break Jesus’ legs, he was already dead, so there was no need. Instead, they pierced his side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water (John 19:33-34).
It is most likely that the spear was used not to kill the victim on the cross, but as a “coup de grace” to ensure the death of the condemned man.[xxvi] The spear wound is classically thought to be on the right side, but there is no clear way of knowing this to be a fact from the gospel accounts alone.[xxvii] Great controversy has arisen over this wound and the description from John’s gospel of blood and water flowing immediately out of it. For instance, does John literally mean that there was no time lapse from the entering of the spear and the flowing of blood and water? Since the blood and water are mentioned separately, were they two distinct fluids? Was the gospels’ listing the actual order of appearance, or merely a description of the quantities of each fluid? Was this some sort of miracle, or an occurrence that has a scientific explanation?
John does list the two fluids as separate, not as one. The blood would have been a dark reddish colour, and the water would have been a clear liquid. In addition, the writing from the book of John definitely places an emphasis on the fact that there was no lapse between the time of the penetration of the spear, and the flow of these two fluids.[xxviii] Therefore, we must assume this to be fact, as we have no better evidence. However, there is no clear way of knowing whether the blood and water came from the body in that order, or if their order in the gospel merely refer to the quantities of each. In ancient Greece the order of words commonly denoted the later of the two, leading one to believe that perhaps it is written in this order because of quantity; however, it is impossible to tell which.[xxix] Regardless, Jesus was pronounced dead on the cross by a Roman soldier.
After his death, a follower of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea beseeched Pilate for the body of Christ, in order that he may bury it. It was the norm for a man condemned on the cross to be left at the site of execution and refused burial. If family or friends had not claimed Jesus’ body, Jesus quite possibly would have been left there, at Golgotha to be devoured by wild animals. Pilate granted Joseph’s request and Christ was buried in a new tomb.
Theories as to the Cause of Death of Jesus
Having the previous information about the crucifixion practices of the Romans, and the gospel accounts of the death of Christ on the cross, one can now, using medical knowledge attempt to piece together an account of what physically happened to Jesus during his scourging and crucifixion, and attempt to decipher the cause of death. In order to do this however, one must begin before the trial of Christ to gain some information to the physical well being of Jesus before the crucifixion.
The gospel narratives include many travel stories of Jesus. In the reading of the gospels, Jesus is recorded teaching and preaching throughout Palestine, and all of Jesus’ traveling during his ministry would have been done on foot. In order to do this expansive amount of exercise in a period of a little more than three years, it is probable that Jesus was in good physical heath. There is no evidence to preclude that Jesus was in any way sick or injury prone before his trip to the garden of Gethsemane.[xxx] The first mention of anything odd happening to the physical body of Christ was while he prayed in the garden before his initial arrest and trial. It is there in the garden that the gospel of Luke states that Christ was in great agony and that his sweat became like drops of blood.
Another possible explanation is that the drops that fell from Jesus’ brow on that night were not blood at all. The wording of the NASB says that his sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground. The use of the word like implies a simile, where one compares one thing to another. In this case, there was no blood involved in the sweat of Jesus, but the sweat was so profuse, that it beaded up and dropped off of Christ as blood would. Considering the text, the latter is probably a better explanation of the description in Luke. Regardless of this fact, it is clear that Jesus would have suffered severe emotional trauma from the events that he anticipated. This trauma no doubt weakened him physically before the actual crucifixion began.
Other events that led up to his crucifixion could have also played a part in the weakening of Jesus before the actual event. Christ would have not eaten since the Passover meal, and a lack of nourishment would cause dehydration and fatigue. He had been forced to walk nearly two and one half miles through the city during his various trials that were a part of a sleepless night.
At the scourging, one sees a tired, mentally drained Lord who has been abandoned by all who were closest to him on the earth. The scourging of Christ, as mentioned earlier, was particularly harsh and caused severe bleeding, resulting in a great deal of blood loss. This loss of blood would have weakened Christ to the point that his condition even before being nailed to the cross would have been critical.[xxxiv] Once nailed to the cross, Jesus remains alive for only hours.
Knowing of Jesus’ torture and anguish, the short time he spent on the cross, as well as the results of the spear thrust into his side, we can now have sufficient look at probable causes of death. There are several views which have been taken in the past concerning the physical death of Christ. First, a rupture of the heart, second, the theory concerning a blood clot obstructing the normal flow of blood, third the theory of asphyxia, and also that of the acute dilation in the stomach.[xxxv] Another possible cause of the death of Christ is that of hypovolemic shock. This could have occurred due to the extreme circumstances that Jesus found himself in prior to, and while on the cross. In addition to these theories, there are many biblical scholars that feel that Jesus had complete control over his time of death and that he, not the cross, was the ultimate factor in his death.[xxxvi]
The first theory that we will discuss is that of a ruptured heart. Although this theory gives wonderful sermon topics, and the permission to say that Jesus died from a broken heart, this theory is most likely not correct. Through medical knowledge it has been determined that aside from a traumatic injury to the heart, the prerequisite of a heart rupture is a previous heart condition. As Christ could have suffered from a previous condition, this possibility is highly unlikely. As mentioned earlier, his travels throughout his ministry by foot would have most likely placed Jesus in good shape, without any hint to an illness. Also, in documented cases of a rupture of the heart, the process takes place over a period of several days, and only after sections of the heart had already died and hardened as a result of previous disease.[xxxvii] Since Jesus’ death occurred within hours on the cross, it is unlikely that this theory is a plausible one in regards to being the cause of Christ’s death.
Another popular theory is that of an embolism. As with the aforementioned theory however, embolism most often has the precursor of previous disease or injury of the legs or pelvis.[xxxviii] This previous injury could be possible as a result of the beatings that Christ endured on the morning following his crucifixion. If an injury to Jesus had caused a blood clot that then became dislodged and then blocked a smaller blood vessel, then embolism is a possible explanation. However, there are two major difficulties with this theory. First, as mentioned earlier, Jesus had no known condition that would predispose him to embolism. Also, the original theory about the embolism traced its sources to the spiritual agony that was experienced by Jesus in the garden. We know through medical evidence that such trauma can not be the cause of an embolism.[xxxix] Therefore, if Jesus did die as a result from an embolism, it must be from the injuries suffered from the scourging rather than the mental and spiritual anguish that he experienced.
The third theory of the physical death of Christ is that of asphyxia, or the lack of oxygen to the body. This theory tends to be a very popular for the death of Jesus, as well as for others that died while on the cross. We know that on the cross breathing becomes very difficult and painful. While on the cross, breathing becomes shallow and eventually weakness overtakes the victim and breathing ceases altogether. Some authors point to the presence of a sedile, or “seat” that was located midway on the cross to help defer the weight of the victim. If this seat were present, it would prolong death on the cross, by easing the strain to breathe.[xl] Since Jesus died rather quickly on the cross, and this process of asphyxiation usually took a long time to develop it is likely that asphyxiation was not the major cause of death in Christ. Also, since Christ was able to cry out in a loud voice, even at the time of his death, it leads one to believe that breathing was not a significant problem for Jesus before he died.[xli] However, one cannot completely rule out the breathing factor of Christ’s death based on these reasons alone. The beating that Jesus received before the actual crucifixion would have been very severe. This would have weakened him considerably and ultimately led to his quick death on the cross.
Another theory on the death of Jesus is that of the acute dilation of the stomach. This condition has been documented as occurring as a result of surgical shock. In this theory, the stomach becomes distended first with gas, and then with a watery fluid. This fluid would collect in such amounts that it would be vomited up, and if not treated could ultimately lead to death. As this theory could possibly explain the observation of blood and water flowing down after the spear wound, it is highly unlikely that this is the case. Besides the lack of a witness to the vomiting of our Lord, this condition takes place over a period of days after trauma, not a period of hours. It is clear that there was not enough time for this to have taken place while Christ was on the cross.[xlii]
Hypovolemic shock also is a possible cause of the death of Jesus.[xliii] Today, this type of shock is the most common form seen clinically. This shock is most often associated with blood loss, however, the external signs of the loss of blood are not required for hypovolemic shock. In this form of shock, blood does not flow through the body in a normal way and thus the blood and oxygen that it carries does not permeate the body’s tissues in an effective way.[xliv] This type of shock can increase the speed of the asphyxiation that is already a factor, making Jesus’ death on the cross an event that was faster than normal. Although it was not mentioned that Jesus underwent hypovolemic shock, it is assumed that in the scourging he lost much blood. This enormous amount of blood loss would have made him more susceptible to hypovolemia and the shock that it entails.
There are other factors that may have contributed to the death of Christ without being the single cause of death. These factors include hunger, dehydration, stress, and blood loss. Each of these factors may ultimately have played a role in the death of Christ; however, not one of the options alone would have ability to be the solitary cause.[xlv]
In addition to these physical causes of death, there remains some scholars who claim that Jesus died not as a result of the cross, but because he chose to die, and chose when he would die. He could give up his spirit whenever he felt the time was right.[xlvi] The wording in the gospel narratives all imply that Jesus deliberately gave up his ghost and died on the cross. In the narrative found in John, Jesus knew that all things had already been accomplished, and after fulfilling the last part of the scripture by stating his thirst, then he died. This reason alone is the answer to Christ’s short time on the cross. This theory can also be accepted medically, as doctors have documented cases of patients who have died as a result of their losing their will to live.[xlvii]
Ultimately, others argue against this theory on one of two grounds. First, some argue that if Jesus had the ability to give up his own life whenever he wanted, the he was not fully human. R.O. Ball argues in his letter to the Expository Times that not one human has the ability to determine the exact time of death. If this is the case in the death of Christ, then his death was not death as men know it, and his humanity is to be severely questioned.[xlviii] Secondly, G.L. Young, in response to a previous article in the Bibliotheca Sacra states that the attack waged against our Lord that day was a murderous one that was biblically prophesized. He states that the Bible refers to their killing Jesus by crucifixion. He argues that one may say that his death was in his own power, as it was, but that his death was orchestrated as a result of humans beating him, and then nailing him to a cross.[xlix] In other words, he argues that Jesus did not have the ability to choose the precise moment of his death, but he did have the authority to choose whether or not to allow himself to be killed.
So how did my Saviour die that dark afternoon so many years ago? We know that he was beaten and crucified, and that he died quickly on that day. However, it appears that for every theory placed forth on the physical death of Jesus there are several good reasons to reject that theory. Therefore, one must come to a conclusion that either Jesus was in fact in complete control over his death on the cross, or that a variety of physical factors actually played into his death. Either seems plausible, but the latter deserves a little more investigation. The dehydration that he felt while on the cross was so severe that Jesus asks for something to drink just before he died. It is also likely that a great deal of blood would have been lost as a direct result of the scourging. The blood loss and dehydration would have weakened him considerably, therefore hastening death by asphyxiation. As a result of the blood loss and extreme mental and spiritual anguish, hypovolemic shock would have no doubt weakened Jesus even further, as well as hindered his body’s flow of blood and subsequent oxygen supply. This lack of oxygen to the tissues not only would weaken them, but also decreased the time necessary to die from asphyxiation on the cross.
Regardless of the cause of the death of Jesus Christ it is very important to conclude that Jesus did die a physical death that day. The supreme evidence of this account comes when an unbiased soldier rams his spear into the side of Christ. With no response from the man on the cross, Jesus was pronounced dead. Dr. Pierre Barbet in his book, A Doctor at Calvary describes the act of the soldier as the proof to the Jews that Jesus had not merely been unconscious, but that he had in fact died. If not for this horrible and odd aggressive act on behalf of the soldier, the world today might still question the legitimate death of Christ.[l]
The death of Jesus on the cross as a sacrifice for mankind is a direct appropriation of God’s grace and righteousness. Because of the cross, God’s Righteousness becomes available to all mankind.[li] Thanks be to God for sending His son to die on the cross. Because it is by his death, that we receive life, and it is because he died, that all of our sins are forgiven. By looking at the gospel accounts and applying knowledge of crucifixion and medicine one can conclude that there is significant evidence to determine that Jesus Christ did die a physical death.
[i] Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: an introduction and survey (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holeman, 1997), 351-352.
[ii] Pierre Barbet, A Doctor At Calvary ( New York: PJ Kenedy and Sons, 1953), 172-173
[iii] Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 172-173
[iv] William D. Edwards, et.al. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” JAMA 255, no. 11 (1986): 1455.
[v] Hengel, 26.
[vi] Edwards, 1457-1458
[vii] Hengel, 25.
[viii] Edwards, 1457
[ix] Ibid., 1459.
[x] Hengel, 24-25, 31.
[xi] Edwards, 1459.
[xii] Ibid., 1461.
[xiv] Ibid., 1460.
[xvi] Ibid., 1459.
[xviii] Ibid., 1458.
[xix] Hengel, 32.
[xx] Edwards, 1459.
[xxi] Blomburg, 346-347.
[xxii] Edwards, 1460.
[xxiii] Ibid., 1462.
[xxiv] Hengel, 26.
[xxv] A.F. Sava, “The Wound in the Side of Christ,” Catholic Bible Quarterly 19 (1957): 343.
[xxvi] Barbet, 52.
[xxvii] Edwards, 1462.
[xxviii] Sava, 344.
[xxix] Edwards, 1462-1463.
[xxx] Ibid., 1457.
[xxxi] Ibid., 1456.
[xxxii] Ibid., 1458.
[xxxiii] Ibid., 1456.
[xxxiv] Ibid., 1458.
[xxxv] John Wilkinson, “The Physical Cause of the Death of Christ”. The Expository Times 83 (1971-1972): 105.
[xxxvi] Ibid., 107.
[xxxvii] Ibid., 105.
[xxxix] Ibid., 106.
[xliii] Edwards, 1461.
[xliv] James B. Wyngaarden, Et. Al. Textbook of Medicine 19th ed. (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1992), 222.
[xlv] Edwards, 1461.
[xlvi] Raymond E. Brown, The Death of The Messiah Vol. 2. (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 1089.
[xlvii] Wilkinson, 107.
[xlviii] R.O. Ball, “Physical Cause of the Death of Jesus (1) A Theological Comment,” The Expository Times 83 (1971-1972): 248.
[xlix] G.L. Young, “The Cause of Our Lord’s Death,” Bibliotheca Sacra 88 (1931): 206.
[l] Barbet, 172-173.
[li] William Southerland, “The Cause of Christ’s Death.” Bibliotheca Sacra 88 (1931): 485.