WHY JESUS’ CRUCIFIXION SICKENS US
Each year, in Christian churches during Passion Week, the subject of Jesus’ crucifixion is described in elusive terms, but rarely in much detail. Often, there is merely the statement: “Jesus was crucified,” with relevant Scripture passages cited, which itself tells this part of the story rather briefly, again, with sparser details. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday involve vaguer recollections of His suffering, Scripture lessons and melancholic hymns. All of this is obviously necessary and appropriate, but, as I wrote in a previous essay about God’s invisibility, such merely allusive descriptions neither do the horrendous suffering of Jesus any real justice, nor help us to internalize why His crucifixion is so central to our understanding of Jesus’ purpose on earth. His crucifixion is rarely mentioned in churches at any other time of the year, other than in passing. This central, pivotal event, without which our faith would not have blossomed, receives little attention and less clarification by either theologians or the clergy, hence is revered by the rest of us mostly for those who wear crosses around our necks. Those who have seen the Shroud of Turin, either in person or through photographs, have a better sense of Jesus’ suffering, yet even this is a photograph after the fact. Church attendance at either Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services tend to pale in comparison with those of Easter Sunday for a reason: there is no sadness, there is no suffering and we do not feel nauseous. As Dr. Frederick Zugibe, a forensic pathologist, wrote his book summarizing many years of relevant medical research, The Crucifixion of Jesus (2005): “It is profoundly important that the full impact of Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane and on the Cross is not generally recognized among Christians.” This is because we do not know, and do not want to know, since it dredges up the old question: Why did God let Him suffer so?
Gospel accounts that are specifically relevant to crucifixion, contain bits of detail, but move steadily elsewhere toward Jesus’ resurrection. Luke’s Gospel mentions that Jesus sweat blood (hematidrosis) in Gethsemane while asking God to be released from crucifixion, but little else in detail afterward. The other three Gospels mention Jesus being scourged by Roman soldiers, the crown of thorns, being battered by a rod on the head, Jesus carrying His cross to Gologtha and later being pierced in the side with a lance to determine if He was dead. Mocking and spitting, earthquakes and the tearing of Temple veil add dramatic touches, but that is about it. Crucifixion, being such a common occurrence in the Roman world, was familiar to everyone, and so did not need any literary elaboration. Rather it is we who find it hard to conjure this really at all, since crucifixion is unimaginable. In Mel Gibson’s grisly portrayal, The Passion of the Christ (2004), even the flogging goes on for seemingly forever as a prelude to Jesus’ crucifixion, and as such is an emotional overload for nearly anyone. Dr. Zugibe complains about the details of how Gibson portrays the crucifixion, but we are drained nonetheless. This film is the only source I know of that even comes close to the real thing, aside from detailed medical descriptions, such as in Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ (1998), which provoked me to faint many years ago.
I will draw from Dr. Zugibe’s quite detailed medical description of the relevant Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion to amplify my premise as to its “distasteful” qualities. As mentioned, He sweat blood in Gethsemane, which reflects numerous other cases of hematidrosis arising from great acute anxiety, not only while fearing crucifixion, but also from, for example, a sailor being caught in an intense storm or a child frightened by a gas explosion. In addition to sweating blood, Jesus would likely have felt weak, dehydrated and psychologically morose. He was later scourged with a flagrum, a whip-like instrument with leather straps with small metal or bony balls, which would dig into the victim’s flesh with repeated lashings. Roman soldiers could strike the victim many times, often disregarding the Jewish custom of no more than 39 lashes. Jesus would have been (largely) naked and shackled by the wrists to a post. His breathing from the blows would have become labored, with eventual pain in his back muscles and ribs. Tremors, vomiting and seizures may well also have occurred, which in victims tended to produce aspects of shock. The crown of thorns applied by the Roman soldiers was not the simple circular creation often portrayed in paintings or films—-it more resembled a helmet or cap, with long thorns which dug into His scalp, producing extensive bleeding. As the scalp has many blood vessels, this would be almost unbearably painful. Jesus then carried the patibulum, or cross-beam (which weighed ca. 60 lbs.), to Golgotha for perhaps as long as a half-mile, stumbling repeatedly along the way, with no means to break His fall. As the Roman soldiers did not want victims to die on the way to crucifixion, this may be why Simon of Cyrene was enlisted to help Jesus. He would be dehydrated, dizzy and short of breath, as at least one of His lungs may well have collapsed. Catholics rightly memorialize this terrorable journey with their Stations of the Cross in old Jerusalem as well as in all their parishes.
Crucifixion had been used as a persuasive punishment for various crimes since perhaps as early as the Sixth century BCE by various cultures, though it is best known for its pervasive usage by the Romans from the Third century BCE. Only one physical example of crucifixion as ever been found, a heel bone with a nail through it, despite tens of thousands of crucifixions. Iron nails were repeatedly used, as with Jesus, although other victims were also tied to their crosses with ropes. When nails were used to pierce the hands and feet, this created severe pain called causalgia, which does not respond even to morphine. After His lengthy walk to Golgotha, Jesus was thrust to the ground and hoisted upon the cross, which itself was quite painful. He likely screamed out in agony before and after his wrists were nailed, which pinched or severed the medial nerve in His hand, provoking the causalgia. Plantar nerves in His feet would be similarly painful when pierced. Dr. Zugibe suspects each foot was nailed separated out of convenience to the soldiers. Jesus’ heart would have beaten rapidly, with profuse sweating and blood loss, inducing more shock. His body weight against the nails in His hands and feet would have been unbearable. Nearly all scholars and physicians agree that Jesus was crucified for about six hours, an unusually short time for such a punishment, as many victims remained alive on crosses for days or even a week. Dr. Zugibe determined the cause of Jesus’ death to be: “Cardiac and respiratory arrest, due to hypovolemic and traumatic shock.” In essence, Jesus began dying from the scourging onward, having had nothing to eat or drink since the Last Supper.
Dr. Zugibe discounts the commonly-cited cause of death as primarily respiratory distress from the position of His body upon the cross, and he also dismisses the multitude of versions of what is known as “the Swoon Theory”: that Jesus somehow survived the crucifixion, even if He died later. It is clear that only physicians can fully understand the intricacies of medical functioning in relation to how the body is repeatedly compromised during crucifixion. I find this approach helpful, if a little nauseating. It does take us back to the old question, however: Why did God let Jesus suffer so?
A different version of the same question is: why did Jesus have to die by crucifixion, and not some other, less gruesome method, if He had to be killed at all? Let us look at Passion Week first. Prior to that time, He was not in any serious trouble with the Roman authorities, though He had aroused both the curiosity and wrath of His fellow Jewish Temple figures, which swelled in earnest after the raising of Lazurus in the days before Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for the last time. His triumphant entry on a donkey was soon eclipsed by His own provocation at the money changers’ tables, challenging the norms of the Temple, and thus courting retaliation. It is this action, and not so much Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus, that is the primary provocation eventually leading to His crucifixion. Jesus is trying to get Himself killed by His own people, under the auspices of the Romans. I wrote an earlier essay on this subject, and accept that Jesus was clearly doing God’s will in this regard. He knew He would be killed, likely by crucifixion, accepting the necessity of this outcome until His hematidrosis at Gethsemane.
It is mildly important to note that I do not believe in the Trinity. In this context, that means Jesus’ provocation at the Temple, with His clear intent to get arrested, taken under Jewish trial and Roman crucifixion, was made by a young human man, and not by Himself as God. He is “betting” on being resurrected afterward, yet His hematidrosis at Gethsemane and crying out the opening lines of Psalm 22 on the cross do not sound like a god, since gods don’t suffer terrorably and die. I really do not like the old church notion of Jesus’ “victory over death” — there is no such “victory,” as He has to die to get resurrected—as we have seen, a very painful death. It is this death which allows both the Shroud of Turin to be created in the tomb as well as for His resurrection to occur, and clearly reveal the existence of God, really for the first time. It is Mary Magdalene who witnessed Jesus suffering on the cross after His disciples had scattered, and, in John’s Gospel, it is she who later tells them that He has risen. It is she who witnesses His suffering and is also visited by the resurrected Jesus to confirm His transcendence.
It is this combination, the terrorable crucifixion and the radiant resurrection, that serves as the foundation of our Christian faith. Everything that comes later is merely theology and religion, in comparison. To answer the above question: It had to be this way.