Crucifixion and the Real Cause of Jesus’ Death

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.

Heel bone of crucified first-century man, with embedded crucifixion nail

Yehohanan’s Heel: In 1968, a first-century Roman crucifixion nail was discovered in a Jewish ossuary on the northeast outskirts of Jerusalem. The bone box bore the name Yehohanan ben Hagkol. The nail was square, tapered and 4.5 inches (11.5 cm) long. Significantly, it was found driven through the right heel bone of a young man. Unquestionably the result of crucifixion, this osteoarchaeological object is the most convincing evidence of the practice found so far. The discovery gives brutal testimony to the Romans’ harsh execution methods and provides evidence to support the Gospels’ account of Jesus’ death.

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).

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).

Josephus and the Siege of Jerusalem, 70 CE

During the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, many Jews were crucified, as attested by first-century historian Flavius Josephus:

When caught [by the Romans] they [the fugitives] were forced to offer resistance, and when the fighting ended it seemed too late to sue for mercy. Scourged and subjected before death to every torture, they were finally crucified in view of the wall [of Jerusalem]. Titus indeed realized the horror of what was happening, for every day 500—sometimes even more—fell into his hands. However it was not safe to let men captured by force go free, and to guard such a host of prisoners would tie up a great proportion of his troops. But his chief reason for not stopping the slaughter was the hope that the sight of it would perhaps induce the Jews to surrender in order to avoid the same fate. The soldiers themselves through rage and bitterness nailed up their victims in various attitudes [or postures] as a grim joke, till owing to the vast numbers there was no room for the crosses, and no crosses for the bodies” (Flavius Josephus, Jewish Wars 5.449–51, translated by G.A. Williamson).

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.

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.

The Physiology of Crucifixion

A 2006 submission to the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine by Matthew Maslen and Piers Mitchell reviewed many articles on the subject of the medical causes of death in crucifixion. Since William A. Stroud’s Treatise on the Physical Cause of the Death of Christ (1847), report Maslen and Mitchell, at least 10 theories have been put forward. They include “cardiovascular, respiratory, metabolic, and psychological pathology.” Some have even suggested that some victims did not die but simply lost consciousness and recovered when taken down. The authors note that those who have written from the medical perspective have generally ignored the important historical and archaeological materials, thus limiting the usefulness of their theories. They conclude, “At present, there is insufficient evidence to safely state exactly how people did die from crucifixion in Roman times.”

And yet we have the evidence provided by biblical precedent and eyewitness testimony in the New Testament that, in the case of Jesus, He did die of a specific, knowable cause.

It was about nine in the morning when Jesus was stretched out on the stake (Mark 15:25). 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 (Matthew 27:45). This was unusual; even Pilate was surprised when he heard the news (Mark 15:42–45). What, then, caused His early death?

Several early Greek manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel give the answer. But that portion of the narrative is missing from most modern Bible translations. It is included as a marginal note in, among others, the Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, International Standard Version and New Living Translation, and within the text of the James Moffatt and Ferrar Fenton translations. When 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 the missing sentence says, “But another taking a spear pierced His side, when blood and water came out” (Fenton). The people were speculating about supernatural intervention from Elijah, but the shocking outcome was sudden death at the hands of a Roman. As a result, Jesus shouted out loudly and expired (Matthew 27:49–50).

Some claim that Jesus could not have died at the hands of a human being but rather had to retain control, willing Himself to die. This is a theological argument based on a misunderstanding of John 10:17–18, where Jesus said that no one could take His life from Him—that He had the power to lay His life down. But this is saying that when the time came, He would willingly go to His death. As the missing verse makes clear, it was the soldier’s spear thrust that caused Jesus to die quickly from loss of blood.

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.

Stumbling Block or Simple Truth?

Attempts to explain the missing clauses in Matthew 27:49 are unconvincing. Noting that “some important manuscripts add the words, ‘And another taking a spear pierced his side, and out came water and blood,’” Roger L. Omanson and Bruce Metzger state, “These words must be regarded as an early addition taken from a similar account in John 19:34” (emphasis added throughout). But just how did this happen? They speculate, “It is probable that some reader recalled similar words from the Gospel of John and wrote what he recalled of them in the margin of Matthew.” They go on to assert, “Later a copyist added these words to the text itself” (A Textual Guide to the Greek New Testament). But there is no concrete evidence of this scenario.

As noted, various modern English Bible translations include the additional material as part of the text or in footnotes. And in their commentary on Matthew, scholars W.D. Davies and D.C. Allison Jr. observe, “This is customarily regarded as an interpolation from John 19:34. But in John the thrust follows the death cry, and inclusion would make Jesus scream because of the lance, a potential stumbling-block. We are almost moved to think the line original.”

Is it not far more reasonable to accept that the words are original since they support what the Old Testament Scriptures typify and prophesy about the manner of the Messiah’s death?