The Passion of Jesus Christ

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What did Jesus of Nazareth suffer on the day of His crucifixion?

 First, let’s study the practice of crucifixion itself, that is, the torture and execution of a person by fixation to a cross. Historically, the first known practice of crucifixion was by the Persians. Alexander and his generals brought it back to the Mediterranean world, to Egypt, and to Carthage. The Romans apparently learned the practice from the Carthaginians (as with almost everything the Romans did) and rapidly developed a very high degree of efficiency and scale in carrying it out. A number of Roman authors (Livy, Cicero, Tacitus) comment on it in their writings. Several innovations and modifications are described in the ancient literature. Here are only a few which may have some bearing here. The upright portion of the cross could have the cross arm (or patibulum) attached two or three feet below its top. This is what we commonly think of today as the classical form of a cross (the one that we have later named the Latin cross), however, the common form used in our Lord’s Day was the Tau cross (shaped like the Greek letter Tau, or our T). In this cross, the patibulum was placed in a notch at the top of the post. There is fairly overwhelming archaeological evidence that it was on this type of cross that Jesus was crucified. The upright post, or stipes, was generally permanently fixed in the ground at the sight of execution and the condemned man was forced to carry the patibulum, apparently weighing about 110 pounds, from the prison to the place of execution. Without any historical or Biblical proof, medieval and Renaissance painters have given us our picture of Christ carrying the entire cross. Many of these painters, and most of the sculptures of crucifixes today, depict the nails driven through the palms. Roman historical accounts and experimental work have shown the nails were driven between the small bones of the wrist, and not through the palms. Nails driven through the palms will pull out between the fingers when they support the weight of the human body. The misconception may have come about through a misunderstanding of Jesus’ words to Thomas: “Observe my hands.” Anatomists, both modern and ancient, have always considered the wrists as part of the hand. A small sign stating the victim’s crime was usually carried at the front of the procession and later nailed to the cross above the head.  This sign, with its staff nailed to the top of the cross, would have given it the somewhat characteristic form of the Latin cross.

The physical passion of the Christ began in Gethsemane. Of the many aspects of this initial suffering, I shall only discuss the one of physiological interest: the bloody sweat. It is interesting that the physician of the group, Saint Luke, is the only one to mention this. He says, “And being in agony, He prayed the longer, and his sweat became as drops of blood, trickling down on the ground.” Every attempt imaginable has been used by modern scholars to explain away this phase, apparently under the mistaken impression that this just doesn’t happen. A great deal of effort could be saved by consulting the medical literature. Though very rare, the phenomenon of hematiarosis, or bloody sweat, is well documented. Under great emotional stress, tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can break, thus mixing blood with sweat. This process alone could have produced marked weakness and possible shock.We shall move rapidly through the betrayal and arrest. I must stress again that important portions of the Passion story are missing from this account. This may be frustrating to you, but in order to adhere to our purpose of discussing only purely physical aspects of the Passion, this is necessary. After His arrest in the middle of the night, Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin and Caiaphas, a high priest. It is here that the first physical trauma was inflicted. A soldier struck Jesus across the face for remaining silent when questioned by Caiaphas. The palace guards then blindfolded Him and mockingly prompted Him to identify them as they each passed by, spat on him, and struck him in the face.

 In the early morning, Jesus, battered and bruised, dehydrated, and exhausted from a sleepless night, was taken across Jerusalem to the Praetorium of the Fortress Antonia, the seat of government of the Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate. You are, of course, familiar with Pilate’s action in attempting to pass responsibility to Herod Antipas, the Tetrach of Judea. Jesus apparently suffered no physical mistreatment at the hands of Herod and was returned to Pilate. It was then, in response to the cries of the mob, that Pilate ordered Barabbas released and condemned Jesus to scourging and crucifixion. Preparations for the scourging were carried out. The prisoner was stripped of His clothing and His hands tied to a post above His head.  It is doubtful whether the Romans made any attempt to follow the Jewish law in this matter of scourging. The Jews had an ancient law prohibiting more than 40 lashes. The Pharisees, always making sure that the law was strictly kept, insisted that only 39 lashes be given. (In case of a miscount, they were sure of remaining within the law.) The Roman legionnaire stepped forward with the flagrum (or flagellum) in his hand. This is a short whip, consisting of several heavy, leather thongs with two small balls of lead attached near the ends of each one. The heavy whip was brought down with full force again and again across Jesus’ shoulders, back, and legs. Initially, the heavy thongs cut through only the skin. Then, as the blows continued, they cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries in the veins of the skin, and finally spurting arterial bleeding from vessels in the underlying muscles. Striking the body with small balls of lead creates large, deep bruises, which are broken open by subsequent blows. Finally, the skin of the back is hanging in long ribbons, and the entire area is an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissue. When it is determined by the centurion in charge that the prisoner is near death, the beating is finally stopped. The half-fainting Jesus was then untied and allowed to slump to the stone pavement, wet with His own blood. The Roman soldiers saw a great joke in this provincial Jew claiming to be a king. They threw a robe across his shoulders and placed a stick in His hand for a scepter. They still needed a crown to make their travesty complete. A small bundle of flexible branches covered with long thorns (commonly used for firewood) were plaited into the shape of a crown and this was pressed into His scalp. Again there was copious bleeding (the scalp being one of the most vascular areas of body). After mocking Him and striking Him across the face, the soldiers took the stick from Jesus’ hand and struck Him across the head, driving the thorns deeper into his scalp.  Finally, they tired of their sadistic sport and the robe was torn from Jesus’ back. The robe had already become adhered to the clotted blood and serum in His wounds, and its removal, just as in the careless removal of a surgical bandage, caused excruciating pain, almost as though Jesus were again being whipped and His wounds again began to bleed. In deference to Jewish custom, the Romans returned Jesus’ garments. The heavy patibulum of the cross was tied across his shoulders, and the procession of the condemned Christ, two thieves, and the execution detail of Roman soldiers, headed by a centurion, began its slow journey along the Via Delarosa. In spite of His efforts to walk erect, the weight of the heavy wooden beam, together with the shock produced by copious blood loss, was too much; He stumbled and fell. The rough wood of the beam gouged into the lacerated skin and muscles of His shoulders. He tried to rise, but His human muscles had been pushed beyond their endurance. The centurion, anxious to get on with the crucifixion, selected a stalwart North African onlooker, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the cross. Jesus followed, still bleeding and sweating the cold, clammy sweat of shock. The 650-yard journey from the Fortress Antonia to Golgotha was finally completed. The prisoner was again stripped of his clothes except for a loin cloth, which is allowed for Jews.

 The crucifixion began. Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh, a mild analgesic mixture. He refused to drink. Simon was ordered to place the patibulum on the ground and Jesus was quickly thrown backward with his shoulders against the wood. The legionnaire felt for the depression at the front of Jesus’ wrist.  He drove a heavy, square, wrought iron nail through it and deep into the wood. Quickly, he moved to the other side and repeated the action, careful not to pull Jesus’ arms too tightly and allow for some flexion and movement. The patibulum was then lifted into place at the top of the stipes, and the sign reading “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews” was nailed in place. Jesus left foot was pressed backward against His right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, a nail was driven through the arch of each, leaving His knees moderately flexed. The victim was now crucified. As He slowly sagged down, with more weight on the nails in His wrists, excruciating, fiery pain shot along His fingers and up His arms to explode in His brain the nails in His wrists were putting pressure on His median nerves.  As Jesus pushed himself upward to avoid this stretching torment, He placed His full weight on the nail through His feet. Again, there was the searing agony of the nail tearing through the nerves between the metatarsal bones of His feet. At this point, another phenomenon occurred. As Jesus’ arms fatigued, great waves of cramps swept over His muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain.  With these cramps came the inability to push Himself upward. Hanging by His arms, His pectoral muscles became paralyzed and His intercostal muscles were unable to function. Air could be drawn into His lungs, but could not be exhaled. Jesus fought to raise Himself up in order to get even one short breath. Finally, carbon dioxide built up in His lungs and in His blood stream, and the cramps partially subsided. Spasmodically, He was able to push himself upward to exhale and bring in life-giving oxygen. It was undoubtedly during those periods that He offered the seven short sentences, which were recorded. Looking down at the Roman soldiers throwing dice for his seamless garment, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Next, He said, to the penitent thief, “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” Then, looking down at the terrified, grief-stricken, adolescent John (the beloved apostle), Jesus said, ” Behold my mother,” and looking to Mary, His mother, “Woman, behold thy Son.” The fourth utterance is Jesus’ cry from the beginning of the 22nd Psalm: “My God, my God, why hast you forsaken me?”

 Jesus endured hours of this limitless torture, cycles of twisting, joint-wrenching cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, and searing pain as tissue was torn from His lacerated back when He moved up and down against the rough timber. Then another agony began: crushing pain, deep within His chest, as His pericardium slowly filled with serum and compressed His heart. Let us remember again the 22nd Psalm, verse 14: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.” Jesus’ agony was almost over – the loss of tissue fluids reached a critical level, His compressed heart was struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into His tissues, and His tortured lungs made a frantic effort to fight for small gulps of air. His markedly dehydrated tissues sent their flood of stimuli to His brain and Jesus gasped his fifth cry, “I thirst.” Let us remember another verse from the prophetic 22nd Psalm: “My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaves to my jaws; and you have brought me into the dust of death.” A sponge soaked in Posca, the cheap, sour wine, which was a staple drink of the Roman legionnaires, was lifted to Jesus’ lips. He apparently didn’t take any of the liquid. The body of Jesus was now in extremis, and he could feel the chill of death creeping through his tissues. This realization brought out his sixth cry, possibly little more than a tortured whisper. “It is finished.” Jesus’ mission of atonement had been completed. Finally He could allow His body to die. With one last surge of strength, He once again pressed His torn feet against the nail, straightened His legs, took a deep breath, and uttered His seventh and last cry, “Father, into thy house I commit my spirit.”

 The rest of the story you know. In order that the Sabbath not be profaned, the Jews asked that the condemned men and be removed from their crosses. The common method of ending a crucifixion was crucifracture, or breaking the bones of the legs. This prevented the victim from pushing himself upward; the tension could not be relieved from the muscles of the chest, and rapid suffocation occurred. The legs of the two thieves were broken, but when they came to Jesus, they saw that this was unnecessary. Apparently, to be certain of His death, a legionnaire drove his lance through the fifth interspace between Jesus’ ribs, upward through His pericardium, and into His heart. As it is written in chapter 19, verse 34 of the Gospel, according to Saint John: “And immediately there came out blood and water.” The escape of watery fluid from the sac surrounding Jesus’ heart and blood from the interior of His heart provides rather conclusive postmortem evidence that our Lord died, not through the usual crucifixion and death by suffocation, but from heart failure due to shock and constriction of the heart by fluid in the pericardium. This is what the Lord Jesus suffered in our place on the cross at Calvary, so many years ago. Today, His blood still redeems all those who call upon His name, and apply the name of the Lord Jesus Christ everywhere.


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