After I mentioned in a previous blog that many of my students would be in tears when I taught them about ancient crucifixion, what Jesus had to endure on the Cross, someone asked what it was like.  While I don’t have room to go into all of it, I can highlight three things that give a pretty good sense of how awful it was.  Fair warning: even though this is just a written description, it is quite graphic.  It may bring you to tears too.

The Romans had a number of methods for crucifying people, but in Jesus’ case they followed the most expedient and, therefore, intensely painful route—because the following day was a Sabbath, they had to kill him by sundown that Friday to prevent rioting.  In these cases, the first thing they did was to scourge or whip the condemned. 

After stripping them and tying them down, a Roman soldier would use a whip that consisted of a handle, essentially a stick of wood, with three leather straps attached to it.  Tied to the end of each leather chord was a small metal “dumbbell”—basically, a piece of metal with two balls fashioned at each end of the crossbar for maximum effect.  In some cases, jagged pieces of animal bone were used instead, or were placed along the leather straps in addition to the metal. 

The soldier would stand alongside the victim and, in a wide, arcing motion, violently strike the back so that the leather straps wrapped around the opposite side, sometimes even all the way around to the front of the body.  As the metal and bone dug into the flesh, he’d rip the whip straight across the back so that it tore the skin right off and ripped out chunks of flesh.  This would continue for eighty to one-hundred and twenty times, up and down the body, from shoulder level down to the calves. 

Scourging left a massive amount of exposed flesh and even some bone.  When it was over, the victim’s backside was completely shredded, covered with ribbons of exposed flesh.  Scourging alone could kill somebody.  The blood loss, shock, and trauma was more than enough.  But, sadistically, Roman soldiers assigned to do the scourging were expert at bringing their victims right to the brink of death without killing them—the soldiers themselves could be put to death if they did.  The Romans wanted the condemned alive for the public spectacle of crucifixion, which was meant to be the main deterrent.   

Following the scourging, the heavy wooden, and likely splintered, crossbeam would be placed across the victim’s (now exposed) upper back.  Their hands would be tied, spread eagle, up around and behind the beam.  Then they would be led to the place of crucifixion, where they would be hoisted into place and nailed to the vertical post.  In Jesus’ case, the distance from where he was scourged, the Praetorium, to where He was crucified, Golgotha, was about a quarter of a mile. 

At this point, the condemned was delirious from being scourged and could barely stand.  They would often fall a number of times during their short journey.  But the way the Romans had them carry the crossbeam, they couldn’t break their fall.  Adding insult to injury, they would fall flat forward, doing a face-plant into the dirty, dung infested, rocky pathway. 

Whether or not the Shroud of Turin is the actual burial cloth of Jesus, it is accurate in this regard: there is evidence in the image of bruising on the knees and face consistent with such a fall.  The swelling and deformation around the nose and cheekbones could be the result of being struck in the face, but could just as easily be the result the face striking the ground with this kind of force, which was designed to add to the cruelty and humiliation of it all.

Once they had the condemned at the site of crucifixion, they would throw them down on the ground  (again, right on top of the ribbons of exposed flesh all along their backside), stretch out their arms, and nail their wrists to the front of the crossbeam.  Most crucifixes, which show the nails through the hands, have this wrong.  The hands couldn’t support the body weight—the flesh between the fingers would rip right out.  The nail had to be driven between bone, at the point where the hand meets the wrist.  (By the way, both the Hebrew and Greek works for hand can include everything from the elbow to the tip of the middle, i.e., longest, finger, so the Gospels aren’t inaccurate about this detail.)  Then, with all their exposed flesh, they’d pull the victim up along the (splintered) vertical beam and finally nail their feet.  

Probably the worst thing about crucifixion was that the 5 to 7 inch metal nails used on the wrists were driven right through the median nerve, causing unimaginable pain to radiate up the arms into the upper torso.  This created a condition called “causalgia” and the slightest movement, even a breeze, would result in waves of throbbing, shock-inducing pain.   As one doctor versed in the forensics of crucifixion describes it, the sensation would be the same when a limb is blown off.  The pain is so unbearable, a number of soldiers who’ve had this happen in combat have reportedly begged their buddies to shoot them. (For more, see David Yonke, “The Cruelty of Crucifixion”, Toronto Blade, April 12, 2003)

It’s no wonder why crucifixion required a new word to describe how unimaginably horrific it was: excruciating.

In fact, the torture was so over-the-top brutal, the Romans, who reserved crucifixion for non-citizens in the first place, discontinued the practice in the second century (perhaps less for humanitarian reasons and more because this brutality was backfiring—instead of serving as a deterrent, it often inspired more resistance and instigated violent upheaval)

You don’t have to be a believer to accept that this is what Jesus endured.  Ancient crucifixion is part of the historical record—just the straight-up facts. 

However, if you do believe in Jesus, this goes way beyond facts.  

If this description made you cry, good.  The reason I taught my classes about ancient crucifixion was so that they would see just how exceedingly much God loves them.  Meditating on the graphic, vicious, demonic reality of what Jesus went through enables us to see the stunning breadth and depth of His love for us. 

And this wasn’t the worst part.  Aside from the psychological and emotional trauma of being betrayed, misunderstood, humiliated, and rejected, the worst pain for Him was the abandonment He experienced—the infinite pain of separation from the infinite love of the Trinity, a pain we can never begin to understand.

Especially as we enter Holy Week, contemplating what He went through will enable you to experience deeper and deeper levels of His love for you.  He didn’t hold anything back.  This is how much He loves you.

So, if you were God, would you go through this to save humanity?

Let me know what you think by going to the “Contact E.J.” page of the Raising Jesus website.  And please “Like” our Facebook page, subscribe to our YouTube channel, and tell your friends about us.  Thank you and have a blessed Easter!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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