Spring 2015

Religion and Spirituality

Crucifixion and the Real Cause of Jesus’ Death

David Hulme

For most in the Christian world, references to crucifixion bring to mind the fact of Jesus Christ’s death, but little more than that. A closer look not only reveals a bigger picture but also sheds light on what actually caused Christ to die.

Crucifixion. The Roman orator Cicero termed it “a most cruel and ignominious punishment,” “the most miserable and most painful punishment appropriate to slaves alone.” It was considered the summum supplicium, the extreme penalty—worse than live cremation, decapitation or being thrown to wild animals.

Roadside crucifixions were not uncommon in the Roman world. Though Emperor Constantine eventually banned the practice, for hundreds of years in the republican and imperial eras victims were deliberately positioned along main routes on stakes and crosses for all to see and take warning. It was relatively rare that a Roman citizen would die this way, but many slaves, non-Roman offenders and wartime opponents certainly did. Treason and violent opposition to the state—even the emperor’s whim or desire for personal amusement—meant crucifixion and an agonizing death that could take several days.

This gruesome method of execution was not a Roman invention, however. The word certainly comes down to us from Latin (crux, “cross”; and figere, “to fix, fasten”), but Persians, Greeks and other ancient peoples had long crucified those who opposed them. According to Greek historian Herodotus, Darius the Mede ordered the crucifixion of about 3,000 Babylonians. Alexander the Great assigned defeated opponents to the same death; Roman writer Quintus Curtius Rufus, basing his account on earlier Greek sources, records that in Alexander’s siege of Tyre about 2,000 people were crucified.

Whether the Carthaginians influenced the Roman adoption of crucifixion is an open question. . . . In any case, the Romans were possibly inspired to a certain extent by Carthaginian practice.” 

John Granger Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World

The Romans may have learned the method not from the Greeks but from the North African Carthaginians. Accordingly, when in 71 BCE the gladiator and slave leader Spartacus suffered defeat and death at the hands of the Roman general Crassus, about 6,000 of his supporters were crucified along a 120-mile (200 km) section of the Via Appia from Capua to Rome.

Even Among the Jews

Crucifixion had not gone unpracticed in Jewish society either. Yet the Torah indicates putting only a dead body on display: “If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:22–23). Nevertheless one Jewish king, the pro-Sadducean high priest Alexander Jannaeus (ca. 126–76 BCE), sentenced about 800 opposing Pharisees, though fellow Jews, to be crucified alive, thus suffering what the Jewish historian and Roman sympathizer Josephus termed “a most miserable death.”

It was not so strange, then, that about a century later the Jewish religious leadership should ask the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, to execute Jesus by the same method. It clearly had both Jewish and Roman antecedents. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death at the hands of the local religious and political powers certainly ring true.

But why was Jesus, whom Josephus (writing about 60 years after Christ’s death) referred to as “a wise man, . . . a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure,” condemned by Pilate to the cross? Josephus does not say except to note that an accusation was brought against Him by “the principal men amongst us.”

A recent authoritative book on the subject notes, “The longest surviving narrative of anyone crucified by the Romans in antiquity is that of Jesus of Nazareth” (Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World). Thus, for more detail, we must turn to that narrative, the four Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Do they also ring true in this regard?

For the men of the ancient world, Greeks, Romans, barbarians and Jews, the cross was not just a matter of indifference, just any kind of death. It was an utterly offensive affair, ‘obscene’ in the original sense of the word.” 

Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World

What Was Jesus’ Crime?

The apostle John records that the “principal men” mentioned by Josephus became concerned for their own privileged livelihood in light of Jesus’ growing popularity: “The chief priests [Sadducees] and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, ‘What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.’ . . . From that day on, they plotted to put Him to death” (John 11:47–48, 53).

The scheme included several attempts to incriminate and silence Jesus. They first required the public to reveal Jesus’ whereabouts so that He could be secretly arrested (verse 57); they attempted entrapment by getting Jesus to publicly oppose Roman taxation and Caesar (Luke 20:20–26); they planned to take Him by deceit and kill Him privately (Matthew 26:3–5); they took advantage of Judas Iscariot’s willingness to betray his teacher for money (Mark 14:10–11); they arranged for Jesus’ illegal arrest under cover of darkness (verses 44–50); they allowed false witnesses against Him (verses 55–60); and they falsely accused Him before Pilate of encouraging opposition to Caesar (Luke 23:1–2).

In the end, their insistence on His crucifixion won the day, but not because Pilate believed they had a case. “He knew that the chief priests had handed Him over because of envy” (Mark 15:10). Rather, having washed his hands of complicity in Jesus’ conviction and death, and despite finding no basis for the charges of inciting people to rebellion, Pilate caved in and handed Jesus over for execution at the urging of the chief priests, the rulers and the mob (Luke 23:13–25).

The Romans frequently employed the sadistically cruel and utterly shameful death by crucifixion to uphold civil authority and preserve law and order against troublesome criminals, slaves, and rebels.”

Gerald G. O’Collins, “Crucifixion,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary

What was Jesus’ crime? According to the Gospel accounts based on eyewitness testimony, there was none. Those records are accurate in many physical details, so why should they not be trusted when it comes to the real reasons for Jesus’ crucifixion: the envy and self-interest of the religious leaders of the day? If the biblical account of the world’s best-known example of crucifixion is factually correct according to what secular history tells us of the practice among the Romans, why should we doubt that it took place as stated and that its victim was Jesus of Nazareth? After all, even the pro-Roman Josephus wrote that Pilate “condemned him [Jesus] to the cross.”

Degraded Step by Step

What we read in the four Gospels provides a credible account of crucifixion in Roman times. It was designed to be the ultimate in humiliation and suffering.

When we crucify criminals the most frequented roads are chosen, where the greatest number of people can look and be seized by this fear. For every punishment has less to do with the offence than with the example.” 

Quintilian (First-Century Roman Rhetorician), The Lesser Declamations 274 (translated by David R. Shackleton Bailey)

As was common, Jesus was first scourged or flayed with a multi-thonged whip made from leather strips embedded with hard, sharp objects to rip the flesh to the bone. Mark records, “So Pilate . . . delivered Jesus, after he had scourged Him, to be crucified” (Mark 15:15).

The soldiers next stripped Jesus and put a reddish-purple royal robe on him, jamming a crown of thorns onto his head. They knelt in mock submission before “the King of the Jews,” spitting on Him and repeatedly beating His head with a stick.

Clothed again with His own garments, He was made to carry the crosspiece of his stake toward the execution place outside the city walls, until wearied, perhaps, and another man—Simon of Cyrene—was forced to help (Mark 15:16–23).

Stripped naked once more, Jesus was fastened to the stake by nails through hands and wrists and feet. Sometimes a sharp seat and narrow footrest on the upright served to prolong the agony. Two other men, convicted thieves, were crucified alongside Jesus. Roman accounts show that victims could live for three days or more as the body slowly succumbed.

The Soldier’s Spear

There have been many attempts to explain in medical terms what happens during crucifixion, and in particular what caused the death of Jesus. The authors of a 2006 review of more than 40 medical studies note, however, that “on more detailed examination most of these hypotheses regarding crucifixion are unsubstantiated by the available data.” It is interesting, therefore, that when read carefully, the biblical accounts do tell us precisely how and why Jesus died. And it’s for reasons that none of the above studies mention.

Crucifixion was a punishment in which the caprice and sadism of the executioners were given full rein.”  

Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World 

A key understanding in the early New Testament Church was that Jesus’ death was a substitutionary sacrifice for human sin. The Passover lamb in Old Testament times was killed by the shedding of its blood (Exodus 12). That blood, daubed on the Israelites’ doorways, assured protection from death on the original Passover night.

When Jesus came, John the Baptist recognized Him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Paul expressed the belief of Jesus’ first followers by saying, “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Peter, linking crucifixion with sacrifice for sin, put it this way: “[He] bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

In the hours before His death, Jesus ate a last Passover meal with His disciples and initiated the memorial of bread and wine, symbolizing His flesh and blood about to be sacrificed. Of the wine, He said, “This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). To meet the prophetic expectations of His sacrifice, Jesus knew that His blood had to be poured out. Isaiah had long before foretold the Messiah’s death “as a lamb to the slaughter” and that “He poured out His soul [in Hebrew nephesh, “life”] unto death, and He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:7–8, 12). No doubt Jesus’ scourging and nailing to the crucifixion stake spilled some blood, but it was not enough to kill Him.

It was about nine in the morning when Jesus was stretched out on the stake. As we’ve seen, this form of execution was meant to last for some time, so immediate death was to be avoided. But six hours later, He was dead. What, then, caused His early death?

The crucifixion took place on the preparation day for an annual holy or “high” day related to Passover. Because the religious authorities did not want the bodies of Jesus and the two thieves to be on display on the annual Sabbath, they asked the soldiers to hasten their deaths (John 19:31–33). The customary method was to shatter their lower legs with an iron club. This they did with the two thieves. Their bodies would have slumped downward, making breathing more difficult, and the further trauma and pain would have induced more shock, leading to death. But coming to Jesus, they saw that He had already died. This was unusual. Even Pilate was surprised when he heard the news (Mark 15:42–45). How had Jesus died so soon?

Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.” 

John 19:31 

Early Greek manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel give the answer. A portion of the narrative is missing, however, from modern Bible translations, except those by Ferrar Fenton and James Moffatt. When at one point bystanders mistook Jesus’ anguished words as a call for Elijah, some of them called out, “Let Him alone! Let us see whether Elijah will come and save Him!” At this point Fenton’s version adds, “But another taking a spear pierced His side, when blood and water came out. Jesus, however, having again called out with a loud voice, resigned His spirit” (Matthew 27:49–50). Here we see that a soldier’s spear caused Jesus to lose sufficient blood to quickly die.

In John’s Gospel, the account seems to say that Jesus was already dead when the soldier stabbed the spear into His side: “Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who was crucified with Him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out” (John 19:32–34). Yet careful attention to the Greek verb nysso, meaning “pierced” or “stabbed” (in the aorist tense, which signifies that an event has occurred but gives no clue as to when), and the preposition alla, “but,” supports the chronology we have just seen in Matthew’s account. We can know when the stabbing took place from Matthew, not from John.

The sense, then, of John’s statement would be as follows: “But as opposed to what had happened to the other two victims, whose legs were broken, Jesus was already dead, because one of the soldiers had stabbed His side, and immediately blood and water came out.”

If Jesus was not already dead, the soldiers would have broken His legs. Since He was already dead, there was equally no reason to stab Him. Therefore the stabbing took place earlier, as Matthew recorded.

The cause of Jesus’ death, then, is known, and the facts fit perfectly the scriptures that typified it, prophesied it and verified it. As the book of Hebrews tells us, “without shedding of blood there is no remission [of sin]” (Hebrews 9:22). Uniquely in Jesus’ case, the death of the sinless for the sinful has changed the future for humanity. By His willingness to endure a “most cruel and ignominious punishment,” and by pouring out His life’s blood, He has opened the door to life forever for all.