Holy Trinity Cathedral - Feasts and Saints

On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ

Archpriest George M. Benigsen

Christ is risen!

Dear friends,

In the Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 255, No. 11, March 21, 1986) a scientific article was published under the heading "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ." It was written by a group of medical scholars of the famous Mayo Clinic. This article has left me with a very deep and touching impression. Once more, it witnesses what an expensive price was paid for our salvation. I believe it acquires a special meaning during this season of Holy Week and Christ's Resurrection. Therefore, I have decided to bring it to your attention in a condensed version.

After the Last Supper, on Holy Thursday, Jesus and His Disciples walked to the Mount of Olives. There, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus began to suffer great anguish because He knew that the time of His betrayal and death drew near. When Luke describes our Lord's sweat as becoming like blood, he is not exaggerating. Although it is rare, under conditions of great emotional stress, blood vessels in skin can rupture and cause bleeding through the skin and sweat.

In the middle of the night, Jesus was arrested and brought before the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas, who pronounced Him guilty of blasphemy. The temple guards then blindfolded Jesus, spat on Him and hit Him with their fists. Soon after dawn Jesus was tried again before the Sanhedrin, again found guilty, and condemned.

Permission for an execution had to be obtained from the Romans, so Jesus was then taken before Pontius Pilate. Pilate was unable to formerly charge Jesus with any crime, so he sent Him to Herod. Herod sent our Lord back to Pilate, who finally bowed to the persistent demands of the people and condemned Jesus to death by crucifixion.

The Romans did not invent crucifixion (the Persians did), yet they did refine it as a technique for torture that would lead to a slow and extremely painful death. When we say pain is "excruciating" we are actually saying, according to the root meaning of the word, that the pain is "from the cross." So severe and disgraceful was crucifixion that it was usually reserved only for slaves, non-Romans, revolutionaries and the worst criminals.

Before the crucifixion, however, came the scourging. Every Roman execution (except those of women and Roman senators or soldiers) was preceded with scourging. Our Lord was stripped of His clothing and His hands were tied to an upright post. The whip consisted of several short braids of leather thongs with small iron balls or sharp pieces of sheep bones tied at intervals along the length.

Quoting from the medical article: "The upper and lower back and legs were flogged either by two soldiers or by one who alternated positions. The severity of the scourging depended on the disposition of the soldiers and was intended to weaken the victim to a state just short of collapse or death. After the scourging, the soldiers often taunted the victim. As the Roman soldiers repeatedly struck the victim's back with full force, the iron balls would cause deep contusions and the leather thongs and sheep bones would cut into the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Then, as the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh. Pain and blood loss generally set the stage for circulatory shock. The extent of blood loss may well have determined how long the victim would survive the cross."

We know from the Gospels that the scourging of our Lord was especially harsh. The soldiers were quite amused by the fact that Jesus claimed to be a king, so they wrapped Him in a robe and placed a crown of thorns on His head. Then they spat on Him and struck Him in the head with a wooden staff.

The harsh scourging, with its intense pain and considerable loss of blood, put our Lord almost in a state of shock. He no doubt grew weaker and weaker. Remember, He had not slept the night before, nor had he eaten since the previous evening. The doctors say that even before the crucifixion, our Lord's "physical condition was at least serious and possibly critical."

Jesus was so weakened by His ordeal that He was unable to carry the crossbar of His cross from the sight of the scourging to Calvary. The doctors take this as further evidence of how close to collapse and death the scourging had brought Him, since they believe that Jesus was in good physical shape before His punishment began. The normal rigors of our Lord's ministry demanded a healthy, physically fit person.

Jesus was accompanied from the scourging to Calvary by a complete Roman military guard. The guard was charged with staying with the crucifixion victim until they were certain of His death.

At the sight of the crucifixion, our Lord tasted and then refused the bitter drink of wine fixed with gall. The drink was intended as a mild pain-killer to prolong the agony of crucifixion. Jesus was then thrown to the ground and His arms were stretched out along the upper bar of the cross. At this point, the wounds on His back and legs reopened, bled again, and were rubbed in the dirt.

Tapered iron spikes from 5 to 7 inches long were then nailed through our Lord's wrists, not his palms, and into the cross. While the bones of the wrist are strong enough to support the body's weight, the bones of the palms are not. Drawings, paintings, and Scriptural descriptions of the Crucifixion show or mention the nails in the palms because the people of that time considered the wrists to be part of the hands, along with the palms.

The nails passed between the major long bones of the wrist and through the median nerve - thus producing sharp, stabbing bolts of fiery pain through His arms. No major blood vessels were punctured by the nails, however. After the wrists were nailed to the cross, our Lord and the top bar of the cross were lifted by the soldiers and attached to the upright section of the cross, which was already in the ground.

Then Jesus' feet were nailed to the upright section of the cross. The spike was driven between the second and third metatarsal bones of the foot, in such a way that the weight of the body could be supported on the spike. Again, the nail would not cut through any major blood vessel - but major nerves would be severed, thus producing great bolts of pain.

When the nailing was complete, the "titulus," or wooden plate inscribed with the victim's crime ("Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews") - which He had carried with Him through the streets to Calvary - was attached to the cross. The soldiers and the crowd then taunted Him and the soldiers divided up His clothes, as was the custom.

The major physiological effect of crucifixion was to make breathing - particularly exhaling - extremely difficult and painful. Victims usually died of either the loss of blood or by suffocating. The weight of the body pulling down on the outstretched arms and shoulders pulled the breathing muscles into a state of inhalation. Exhaling could only be accomplished with conscious effort, and even then breathing would be very shallow and not adequate. Muscle cramps and convulsions occurred.

The only way Jesus was able to breathe on the cross was by lifting His body up by pushing down on the nail through His feet and pulling Himself up on the nails in His wrists. This would allow the breathing muscles to stretch in their normal fashion. But it also produced searing bolts of excruciating pain through His arms and legs. The bleeding ribbons of torn flesh on His back scraped against the rough cross and bled once again. Each breath was not only agonizing, but extremely tiring.

Jesus spoke seven times from the cross. Since one must exhale in order to speak, even His brief words must have been extremely tiring and painful. The Gospels tell us that at about 3 PM that Friday afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, bowed His head, and died. The soldiers and onlookers witnessed and recognized His moment of death.

Victims of crucifixion generally lasted from 3 or 4 hours to 3 or 4 days before dying. The more severe the scourging, and the greater the loss of blood, the shorter would be the period before death. The Roman soldiers were trained to hasten death by either breaking the legs of the victim below the knee or stabbing the chest with a lance. Though the legs of the two thieves crucified along with Jesus were broken, the soldier pierced Jesus' side with his lance. The Gospel tells us that blood and water came forth from the wound. The doctors tell us that the lance in all probability pierced our Lord's right lung and then His heart, and the water which came forth was fluid from the lungs and heart. The accumulation of this fluid is normal in cases of heart failure and extreme blood loss. The lance thrust alone would have been fatal.

The doctors write that there are several possible explanations for the exact cause of our Lord's death. His sudden crying out in a loud voice just before He died suggests "a catastrophic terminal event" such as a heart attack or, as some suggest, an actual rupturing of the heart muscle. The doctors believe, however, that Jesus' crying out could have been caused by a fatal heart attack or sudden loss of normal heart rhythm. They believe that the cause of death, like that of other victims of crucifixion, was caused by many things, including the shock of extreme blood loss, exhaustion, suffocation, and heart failure. So weakened by the brutal scourging was our Lord, that this normally healthy, physically fit man in the prime of His life died after only 3 or 4 hours on the cross.

The exact cause of Christ's death is not the important point the doctors want to make, however. As they conclude: "The important feature may not be how He died but rather whether He died. Clearly the weight of medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to His side was inflicted. Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge."

I wish you to be spiritually nurtured by the wonderful services of Holy Week and to welcome the Holy Pascha with joy of heart.

With love in the Risen Christ,

Archpriest George M. Benigsen

April 7, 1986

Last modified: April 13, 2001 - webmaster@holy-trinity.org.