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How Painful is Crucifixion ?

When Jesus was crucified 2,000 years ago, crucifixion were very normal occurrences. Crucifixion has been used as a form of execution for almost 1000 years before the Romans adopted it as a form of slow torture. The Romans crucified slaves, foreigners and criminals, but at the time it was seen as too barbaric for Roman citizens. So Jesusí crucifixion of itself was a routine event and unremarkable.

Soldiers prepared condemned men for the cross by scourging - 39 lashes from a whip called the "Cat-o-nine-tails." This was a rod about a foot long with nine leather straps. Attached to the end of each strap was a piece of broken bone or rock with sharp edges. The aim of the scourging was to remove every bit of flesh from the back without killing the man. This was done to intensify the pain and torture of the crucifixion.

After the scourging, the soldiers taunted Jesus, making fun of Him for claiming to be the King of the Jews so they formed a crown out of reeds of thorns. The thorns were 1 to 2 inches long. They pressed the crown on His head so hard the scripture says the thorns pierced His skull. The soldiers then placed a scarlet robe on His back to simulate the robe of a king.

During the Roman period the most usual cross was T-shaped, so the top bar was nailed to the upright pole at the execution ground. The top crossbar would have weighed 75-125lbs, about as heavy as a bag of cement. Jesus was forced to carry part of the cross, to the place of execution. This was an added torture for Jesus for he had to carry it almost half a mile from Pilateís palace to Golgotha, through narrow winding streets. Jesus would already have been quite weak after being flogged at the pillar and crowned with thorns. He may not have eaten since the Last Supper with the apostles. Jesus would then have been offered a mixture of wine containing myrrh and gall. This was considered a pain reliever to deaden the pain as the nails were driven into the victim. Jesus refused it.

Nails would have been driven into Jesusí palms, wrists and feet. It is unlikely that his body-weight could have been supported if the nails had been driven through the palms of the hands alone since it is likely they would tear open. However, nails driven through the wrist bone would cause dislocation but the nails would still hold. A single nail would be driven through both feet and then into the upright cross. Through experimentation and the study of anatomy the Romans had discovered the Medial nerve located just above the wrist joint and the centre of the foot. The weight of the body caused the nail to press against this nerve shooting horrific pain throughout the nerves of the body. A notice with the name of the criminal and his crime was pinned to the cross.

Crucifixion did not cause the victim to lose a lot of blood but the pain was agonising. Nailed to the cross the body of the victim would have sagged downwards, causing agonising pain and severe cramp on the arms, shoulders and chest. He would then have found it difficult to breathe and in an attempt to buy some time, he would have pushed himself up by the nails in his feet and stretched his legs which would have enabled him to breathe, but at the same time caused unbearable pain. The weight of the body, pulling down on the outstretched arms and shoulders, would tend to fix the intercostal muscles in the position of inhalation. The only way the man could exhale was to lift with his arms and push with his legs to hold himself up for a few seconds to allow the air to escape from his lungs. To avoid suffocation the man was forced to cause his own excruciating pain by putting more pressure on the medial nerves. It was only a matter of time before the victimís heart would fail and his lungs would fill with fluid. Sometimes the executioners would nail a small ledge on the cross below the feet which allowed the victim to briefly lean and relieve the stress on the body. However, this only prolonged the agony and inevitable death.

The average life span of a person on the cross was three to four days. The executioner could shorten the ordeal by smashing the victimís legs, making it impossible for the dying man to push himself up to breathe and as a result the muscles in the shoulders would lock and the man would die from exhaustion asphyxia or suffocation.

As we read in the gospel: Then the Jewish authorities asked Pilate to allow them to break the legs of the men who had been crucified, and to take the bodies down from the crosses. They requested this because it was Friday and they did not want the bodies to stay on the crosses on the Sabbath, since the coming Sabbath was especially holy. So the soldiers went and broke the legs of the first man and then of the other man who had been crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus they saw that he was already dead, so they did not break his legs. One of the soldiers, however, plunged his spear into Jesusí side and at once blood and water poured out. (John 19:31-34)

Out of the wound came blood and water. Medical scientists today tell us that this could only happen when the aortic valve ruptures due to the formation of thrombotic vegetations in the valve. This condition is caused by extreme emotional trauma.