The first century historian Josephus wrote that crucifixion was the most wretched of deaths. But the savagery of crucifixion was only part of the cruelty. Many were first brutally flogged with a leather whip. Embedded with sharp objects, it was designed to rip open the flesh down to the bone.
Crucifixion was not new to the Roman world. Earlier cultures practiced it, including the Persians, the Greeks and even the Jews. About a hundred years before the time of Christ, the Jewish king and high priest Alexander Jannaeus, a Sadducee, had 800 rival Pharisees executed in Jerusalem by crucifixion. At about the same time period, the gladiator Spartacus led an uprising of slaves against Rome. He was defeated, and his conqueror then crucified about 6,000 of the remaining rebel slaves along a 120-mile stretch of the road leading to Rome.
But is there any physical evidence of crucifixion from the time of Jesus? New Testament scholar Craig Evans explains what we know: “We’ve learned things about how crucifixion took place, who was crucified. . . . We’ve found skeletal remains; the most spectacular is of the right heel of a man named Yehohanan, probably crucified by Pontius Pilate, according to our dating, in the 20s CE. The iron spike is still embedded in his heel. We have found 138 iron nails in tombs and ossuaries, many of them with calcium still embedded in the nail, suggesting that some of these crucifixion victims were buried with the nails still in embedded their wrists, hands, feet and so on.” Crucifixion was a slow, excruciating death, often taking two or three days with most dying from exhaustion and suffocation.
The biblical accounts do tell us precisely how and why Jesus died. A key understanding in the early New Testament church was that Jesus’ death was to be a sacrifice for human sin. The Passover lamb in Old Testament times was killed by the shedding of its blood. That blood, when smeared on the Israelites’ doorways, provided 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.” And Paul expressed the belief of Jesus’ first followers by saying, “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us.”
In the hours before His death, Jesus ate His last Passover meal with the 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.” To meet the prophetic requirements 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 unto death.” The Hebrew word for soul is nephesh, which means “life.” The book of Leviticus tells us “the life of the flesh is in the blood.”
In the early morning hours, Jesus experienced a brutal scourging. By about nine in the morning he was stretched out on the stake. As mentioned, this form of execution was meant to last for some time. But six hours later, Jesus was dead. What exactly caused His early death?
On that day, the Jewish authorities were preparing to celebrate the Passover. They didn’t want the bodies of Jesus and the two thieves to be on display on the annual holy day, which began at sunset, so they asked the soldiers to hasten their deaths. This was usually done by shattering their lower legs with a special iron club. That’s what happened to the two thieves alongside Jesus. Their bodies would have slumped downwards, making breathing more difficult, and the added trauma and pain would have induced more shock leading to death. But coming to Jesus, they saw that He was already dead. This was quite unusual; even Pilate was surprised when he heard.
So how had Jesus died so soon? The earliest Greek manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel provide the answer. The following statements have gone missing from most modern Bibles, except for the Fenton and Moffatt translations. The critical missing comment, according to Fenton, states plainly, “But another [i.e., another soldier] 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, Ferrar Fenton Bible).
Here we see that a soldier’s spear caused Jesus to lose sufficient blood so as to die quickly. If Jesus had not been dead already, the soldiers would have simply broken His legs as they did with the other two. Since He was dead, there was no reason to do so, or to stab Him. The stabbing with the spear took place earlier, as Matthew accurately recorded.
The cause of Jesus’ death is clear. The facts fit perfectly with the scriptures that typified it, prophesied it and confirmed 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 crucifixion, pouring out His life’s blood, He has opened the door to life—forever, for all.