- Written by Dr. C. Truman Davis
About a decade ago, reading Jim Bishop's THE DAY CHRIST DIED, I realized that I had for years taken the Crucifixion more or less for granted—that I had grown callous to its horror by a too easy familiarity with the grim details and a too distant friendship with our Lord. It finally occurred to me that, though a physician, I didn't even know the actual immediate cause of death. The Gospel writers don't help us very much on this point because crucifixion and scourging were so common during their lifetime that they apparently considered a detailed description unnecessary. So we have only the concise words of the Evangelists: “Pilate, having scourged Jesus, delivered Him to them to be crucified—and they crucified Him.”
I have no competence to discuss the infinite psychic and spiritual suffering of the incarnate God atoning for the sins of fallen man. But it seemed to me that, as a physician, I might pursue the physiological and anatomical aspects of our Lord's passion in some depth. What did the body of Jesus of Nazareth actually endure during those hours of torture?
This led me first to a study of the practice of crucifixion itself; that is, torture and execution by fixation to a cross. I am indebted to many who have studied this subject in the past, and especially to a contemporary colleague, Dr. Pierre Barbet, a French surgeon who has done exhaustive historical and experimental research and has written extensively on the subject.
Apparently, 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 and (as with almost everything the Romans did) rapidly developed a very high degree of efficiency and skill at it. A number of Roman authors (Livy, Cicero, Tacitus) comment on crucifixion, and several innovations, modifications and variations are described in the ancient literature.
For instance, the upright portion of the cross (or stipes) could have the cross-arm (or patibulum) attached two or three feet below its top in what we commonly think of as the Latin cross. The most common form used in our Lord's day, however, was the Tau cross, shaped like the Greek letter Tau, or like our "T". On this cross, the patibulum was placed in a notch at the top of the stipes. There is archeological evidence that it was on this type of cross that Jesus was crucified.
Without any historical or biblical proof, Medieval and Renaissance painters have given us our picture of Christ carrying the entire cross. But the upright post, or stipes, was generally fixed permanently in the ground at the site of execution and the condemned man was forced to carry the patibulum, weighing about 110 pounds, from the prison to the place of execution.
Many of these painters, and most of the sculptors of crucifixes, also show the nails through the palms. Historical Roman accounts and experimental work have established that the nails were driven between the small bones of the wrists and not through the palms. Nails driven through the palms will strip out between the fingers when made to support the weight of a human body. The misconception may have come about through a misunderstanding of Jesus' words to Thomas, “behold my hands.” Anatomists, both modern and ancient, have always considered the wrist as part of the hand.