And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.
(Matthew 27:33-44 ESV)
Yesterday we saw how Matthew doesn’t provide details about Jesus’ crucifixion. His readers would have been more than aware of what the gruesome process was.
Crucifixion originated in Persia. Its origin came from the fact that the earth was considered to be sacred to the god Ormuzd. Therefore criminals were lifted up from it so as not to defile that which belonged to Ormuzd. Crucifixion spread in various forms throughout northern Africa and southern Europe including Rome, where it was perfected by the Romans who used their understanding of anatomy and psychology to provide the most pain, the most humiliation, over the most amount of time.
The person crucified, who had already been stripped naked before he was forced to carry his cross through town for all to see, was laid on his back on a piece of timber, with a cross-piece nailed to it above where his head lay. His hands were spread out on the cross-piece, and nails were driven through each wrist, permanently fastening them to the wood.
His feet were nailed to the upright part of the cross with his knees slightly bent. All the nails were strategically placed so as to cause minimal bleeding as the point was to keep the victim alive for as long as possible.
Once his body was attached to the cross, the cross was then raised up and dropped into a pre-existing hole in the ground.
The victim then hung, pulled down by gravity, collapsing his diaphragm. In this position he could breathe in but in order to exhale he’d have to lift himself up by straightening his legs (this is why they were placed in a bent position) by pressing against the nails in his feet. This would put pressure on (not to mention damage) the Peroneal and Plantar Nerves causing immense pain.
Simultaneously, he’d have to leverage his weight onto the nails that secured his wrists to the crossbeam. These nails were strategically located so that as he lifted himself up pressure would be placed on the Median Nerve, again sending immense pain throughout his body.
In fact, the pain experienced on the cross was so unique that a new word was invented to describe it. We still use that word today: “excruciating” which comes from the Latin for “from” (“ex”) and “cross” (“crux”): pain from the cross.
Due to this pain the victim could not keep himself raised for very long; perhaps a second or two – just enough to exhale. But as any human being knows, we are constantly inhaling and exhaling. So as soon as he lowered himself he’d have to raise himself up again to exhale. This process, and its accompanying pain – excruciating pain – would be repeated countless times. This is where the scourging that he previously endured came into play.
As the victim raised himself up his back, which had been previously whipped to remove all its skin, would rub against the wood of the upright part of the cross (no, it wasn’t sanded smooth), providing another source of pain. The Romans thought of everything, didn’t they?
He would be provided no food or drink, but likely still had food and drink in his body. So it would not be unusual for him to defecate or urinate while on the cross. Of course, the lack of food and drink would slowly weaken him, making it more difficult for him to raise himself as time went on.
We should also realize that the victim could not sleep during this time else he would die. He would also have to hang there no matter what the weather – scorching sunlight, cold night, rain, snow.
Crucifixion factored in the victim’s inherent will to live. He constantly raised and lowered himself every few seconds despite the pain from the nails in his wrists and feet… despite the pain from the wood scrapping his back.. despite being hungry and thirsty. This continued non-stop until he died, which took at least several hours and very often a few days.
Crucifixions took place on heavily traveled roads to provide as much of a deterrent to other would-be criminals as possible. As such, the victim would have to endure insults from the people who passed by as well as being pelted with objects (e.g. rocks), not unlikely to the face or groin. He’d be helpless to defend himself against such attacks or against the insects and birds who would eat away at his open wounds.
Death by crucifixion occurred slowly, by asphyxiation. As time went on and it took longer for the victim to raise himself, carbon dioxide would build up in his muscles causing intense cramping. As the carbon dioxide built up in his bloodstream, his heart would have to work harder to pump oxygenated blood to the organs to keep them alive – obviously a losing battle. Eventually the victim would not be able to raise himself up any more and he would die.
Crucifixion was designed to be slow, agonizing torture that provided the most pain and the most humiliation. Death was not quick. It was definitely not painless.
This is what Jesus willingly endured. Because of our sin, Jesus experienced hours of excruciating pain, mocking, and embarrassment. Yet, this was not the worst of what He went through on the cross. We’ll learn about that in a few days.
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