New Crucifixion Evidence Sheds Light on the Death of Jesus Christ
An investigation into crucifixions reveals evidence using the latest medical technology on how the horrific form of execution was slow and excruciating, providing new insights into the death of Jesus Christ.
An Excruciating Death
A new TV documentary on the Smithsonian Channel called Crucifixion Mystery discusses the latest theories by medical experts. Dr. Per Lav Madsen, a Danish cardiologist believes the whole process was to cause immense suffering before death. “Crucifixion was a horrible way of killing people because it took so long. It was a slow way of dying and that’s the reason they used crucifixion in the first place.”
The length of time and suffering varied, according to Dr. Kristina Killgrove. “Someone might have survived on the cross for as long as four or five days until they died of dehydration.”
Rare Skeletons Provide Insights Into Death of Jesus
The documentary also investigates two rare examples of skeletons believed to have been crucified.
The most recent archaeological discovery was in 2007, when a construction team in northern Italy’s Gavello municipality accidentally uncovered an isolated skeleton from a Roman-era burial. Scientists believed the man who was in his thirties was crucified. Using the latest technological advances to study the skeleton, this could offer up new insights into the death of Jesus Christ.
Grave of the man from Gavello during excavation by the provincial archaeological superintendency. (Soprentendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio Per Le Province Di Verona, Rovigo e Vicenza)
The research team included Emanuela Gualdi-Russo, Ursula Thun Hohenstein, and Nicoletta Onisto from the University of Ferrara and Elena Pilli and David Caramelli from the University of Florence. They extracted DNA from the remains and were able to rule out an accidental origin for a hole in the calcaneus – the heel bone.
The hole was circular, passing from the inside of the foot to the outside, with evidence showing it was caused at the time of death. “In our interpretation,” the archaeologists wrote in A multidisciplinary study of calcaneal trauma in Roman Italy: a possible case of crucifixion?: “We found a particular lesion on the foot of a skeleton from an isolated Roman burial discovered by excavation in 2007 in northern Italy. Here we suggest crucifixion as a possible cause of the lesion.”
Right calcaneus from 1st c AD Gavello, Italy, showing possible evidence of crucifixion. This archaeological evidence has provided new clues to the death of Jesus. (Emanuela Gualdi-Russo & Ursula Thun Hohenstein / University of Ferrara)
The researchers believed that “the type of lesion found on the right calcaneus from Gavello is compatible with a position of the body [...] contorted to the right with legs and feet in contact to allow a single nail to pierce both heels, [or with] knees in an open position and feet with heels overlapping and fixed on the medial side by a single nail.”
The skeleton was dated to the Roman era as archaeologists discovered fragments of typical Roman bricks and tiles nearby, which places this crucifixion on or near the time of Christ’s death.
Why did the Romans Use Crucifixion as a Form of Punishment?
This form of execution was reserved for the lowest of the low - slaves, disgraced soldiers, Christians, foreigners and political activists.
During the 1st century AD, large numbers of rebels against Rome were crucified in Palestine. It’s believed that Christ was crucified on the pretext that he instigated rebellion against Rome, who were ruthless in suppressing political dissent.
The first example of possible crucifixion came from an excavation in 1968 of a cemetery in Giv’at ha-Mivtar just outside of Jerusalem. It revealed a heel bone with a nail still skewered through it. Yehohanon ben Hagkol is the name on the tomb – and he may also have been a political activist like Jesus Christ.
The calcaneus of Yehohanon ben Hagkol, with transfixed nail, which provided insights into the death of Jesus. (Israel Museum / Ilan Shtulman)
Even the Romans themselves thought crucifixion was barbaric. The Roman orator Cicero noted that “of all punishments, it is the most cruel and most terrifying.” He added that it was the most “extreme and ultimate punishment for slaves.”
Seneca, the Roman philosopher, described the various ways in which crucifixion took place. “I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in different ways: some have their victims with their head down to the ground, some impale their private parts, others stretch out their arms,” he wrote in 40AD.
The victim could have also had their eyes pulled out or their tongue excised. One of the worst cases of sadism was recorded by Josephus during the reign of Antiochus IV, where the condemned man’s strangled child was placed around his neck.
The Lex Puteolana tablet reveals the ritual and economics of crucifixion in the Roman world. The 2,000-year-old tablet, now housed in a medieval castle on the Bay of Naples, was found in the town of Puteoli. It’s the only inscription which details the precise practice of crucifixion. The inscription tells us how much the workers who flogged the slaves to be crucified were paid – as well as the executioner. The standard fee for an execution team was four sesterces each – the price of a glass of wine.
In an ironic twist, during later rebellions, the Romans were themselves crucified. According to historians, in AD 9 local Germanic tribes crucified many of the Roman general Varus’ defeated soldiers. In AD 28, the detested Roman tax collectors also met the same fate at the hands of Germanic tribesmen.
How did Jesus Christ die?
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is believed to have taken place in Jerusalem under Roman rule between AD 30-36. No confirmed archaeological evidence of that event has been found, although Christ is mentioned by Jewish and Roman historians.
Tacitus mentions that Christ was executed while Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect in charge of Judaea (AD26-36), during the reign of Tiberius. According to biblical accounts, Jesus died after six hours, nailed to the cross. The two thieves who died with Christ were Gestas who was on the left and Dismas on the right.
In Roman law, a person condemned to crucifixion was scourged first, usually with a wooden stave. Short whips with studded leather thongs were also used to flay the skin. The person was stripped naked, tied to an upright wooden post and then flogged across the back, buttocks and legs by Roman legionnaires.
A depiction of Jesus Christ being scourged. (Hans Leonhard Schäufelein / CC0)
Death may have been due to cardiac arrest after the scourging or dehydration. Many scientists have come to the conclusion that it was progressive asphyxia caused by impairment of respiratory movement. The Roman guards were only allowed to leave once the victim had expired. Due to impatience, the soldiers may have sped up matters by breaking their legs or stabbing the chest.
- Sir Isaac Newton’s Astronomical Dating of Christ's Crucifixion
- Second (Or Third) Ever Skeleton with Evidence of Crucifixion Discovered
- The Bizarre Crucifixion of Margaretta Peter: The Short Life of a Prodigy and Devoted Christian
Crucifixion in Modern Times
Shockingly, this horrific form of execution is still used today. Amnesty International recorded a case of crucifixion in Yemen in 2012, when an Islamist group found a 28-year-old guilty of planting electronic devices in vehicles. He was executed first and then hung on a cross.
In Iraq during 2016, a man revealed that his brother-in-law was crucified after being tortured for five hours. “My wife’s brother was crucified by Daesh (Isis),” he told the charity ADF International. “He was crucified and tortured in front of his wife and children, who were forced to watch. They told him that “if he loved Jesus that much, he would die like Jesus.” Isis then cut his stomach open and shot him before leaving him to die on a cross.
Every Good Friday in the Philippines (which is 80% Catholic), a man playing the role of Jesus Christ is nailed to the cross. Since the 1980s, Ruben Enaje has had four-inch nails hammered into both his hands and feet and then hoisted on a wooden cross for around five minutes.
In 2016, Enaje decided that would be his last crucifixion. The significance was that this was the Filipino’s 33rd time. According to religious tradition, Jesus was 33 years old at the time of his crucifixion.
Top image: Main: depiction of the crucifixion/death of Jesus Christ and the thieves, Gestas and Dismas. (Andrea Mantegna / Public domain). Inset: The calcaneus of Yehohanon ben Hagkol, with transfixed nail. (Israel Museum / Ilan Shtulman)
Retief, F.P. & Cilliers, L. 2003. History of Medicine: The history and pathology of crucifixion. The South African Medical Journal. Available at: <http://www.samj.org.za/index.php/samj/article/view/2462/1710>
Zaninotto, G. N.D. The Penalty of the Cross According to the Tabula Puteolana. Shroud. Available at: <https://www.shroud.com/pdfs/ssi25part3.pdf>
Killgrove, K. 2015 . This Bone Is The Only Skeletal Evidence For Crucifixion In The Ancient World. Forbes: <https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2015/12/08/this-bone-provides-the-only-skeletal-evidence-for-crucifixion-in-the-ancient-world/#18b95194476d>
Borschel-Dan, A. 2018. How Jesus died: Extremely rare evidence of Roman crucifixion uncovered in Italy. The Times of Israel. Available at: https://www.timesofisrael.com/extremely-rare-archaeological-evidence-of-roman-crucifixion-uncovered-in-italy/