April 12, 2006
by John W. Whitehead
While the New Testament Gospels are the primary source for accounts of Jesus Christ’s suffering, crucifixion and death, his ordeal at the hands of Roman soldiers has been the topic of scholarly research for years.
Certainly, the torture Jesus endured was agonizing. Yet while much has been written about his physical suffering, questions remain. For example, why was he forced to undergo such intense torment? Why did the Roman soldiers torture him? And what was the point of it all?
As Jesus paced in the Garden of Gethsemane, awaiting his betrayal and death, he was already experiencing great mental and emotional anguish such that the Luke 22:44 reference to his sweat turning to blood is probably not an exaggeration. According to Mayo Clinic medical scholars, under situations of extreme mental and emotional stress, blood vessels underneath the skin can rupture and bleed through skin and sweat.
The Gospels recount how, after Jesus’ arrest, temple guards brought him to the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas, who declared him guilty of blasphemy. He was then ushered before the Sanhedrin, a Jewish council, which sought permission from the Romans to execute him. Whether an actual “trial” took place before Jesus was handed over to the Romans is uncertain. But more than likely, as he was moved from place to place, he was spat upon and beaten.
The mob must have played a key role in Jesus’ condemnation, although there is little extensive historical evidence to support the scene played out in films and movies in which Pontius Pilate asks the crowd to choose between Barabbas the robber and Jesus. Most likely the pressure to appease the masses would have forced the Romans to act. As author A. N. Wilson writes, “If the crowds could be pacified by the release of Barabbas, they could perhaps be cowed into submission by a cruel public display of what happens to Jews who use words like ‘kingdom’…to the Roman governor.” Surrendering to the people’s will, Pilate granted an execution by crucifixion.
But why did the Romans choose to make an example of Jesus? According to the Gospel accounts, the Romans did not even know themselves. Since none of Jesus’ followers were arrested, it’s doubtful that it was politically motivated. Thus, the motivation for the cruel scourging and killing remains unclear.
Matthew 27:26 indicates that Jesus was severely whipped in accordance with a Roman requirement that there be a scourging before each execution (except for those involving women, Roman senators or soldiers). A Roman flagrum, a leather whip consisting of three thongs, each ending with two lead balls designed to tear flesh, was the weapon of choice for inflicting scourgings. The Romans may have even used a similar instrument, a flagellum, in which small rocks or bone fragments were also attached on the end of the thongs. This instrument was typically used to tenderize a piece of meat.
Mayo Clinic scholars note that repeated floggings to the upper and lower back with iron balls that cut deeply into his flesh would have caused Jesus to nearly go into shock from blood loss: “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 on the cross.”
In addition to the scourging, Jesus was also crowned with thorns. Scholars have observed that the thorns digging into his scalp “probably severely irritated major nerves in his head, causing increasing and excruciating pain for hours.”
The crucifixion itself, usually reserved for slaves, non-Romans, revolutionaries and the worst criminals, was not only a common method for execution by Romans but was also the most feared.
Medical experts speculate that the iron spikes used to nail Jesus to the cross measured from 5 to 7 inches long (the size of railroad spikes). The spikes were driven through his wrists (between the radius and the ulna and the carpals in his forearms), not his palms, and between the second and third metatarsal bones of his feet in order to support his body weight. Though the spikes were not nailed through major blood vessels, they were designed to sever major nerves, rupturing other veins and creating great pain. Added to this, hanging on the cross would have made it agonizingly difficult to breathe.
Doctors generally conclude that a combination of factors contributed to Jesus’ death on the cross: He had already lost an incredible amount of blood. He was exhausted from the beatings and from carrying his cross. Because he could only attempt to breathe by pushing his body upward with his knees and legs (often, Roman soldiers would break their victims’ legs with clubs), death by asphyxiation was inevitable. However, their most critical observation is that Jesus was already dead when Roman soldiers thrust the spear into his side.
In his historical study of Jesus Christ, N.T. Wright asks, “Did Jesus expect to die?” Although it is easy to give both historical and theological answers to the question of Jesus’ death, Wright concludes that studies of his personality and character indicate that “Jesus took his own story seriously.” Thus, both can be used for an explanation.
Not only did Jesus believe he was the messiah, Wright says, “he would defeat evil by letting it do its worst to him.” Though the Romans condemned Jesus and crucified him, the historical Jesus willingly accepted upon himself the judgment of God and Rome. As a result, Christians believe he made peace on the behalf of humanity with an angry God.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at email@example.com.Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.
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