The Romans had perfected the art of crucifixion in order to maximize the painâ€”and they knew how to prolong the horror without permitting the victim to lapse into a state of unconsciousness that might relieve the pain. The victim of crucifixion would experience waves of nausea, fever, intense thirst, constant cramps, and incessant, throbbing pain from all parts of the body. Sleeplessness, hunger, dehydration, and worsening infection all took their toll on the victimâ€™s body and spirit as the process of crucifixion dragged onâ€”usually for three days or so. The feeling of utter hopelessness, the public shame, and the ever-increasing trauma to the body all intensified as the hours dragged on. One author wrote,
The unnatural position made every movement painful; the lacerated veins and crushed tendons throbbed with incessant anguish; the wounds, inflamed by exposure, gradually gangrened; the arteriesâ€”especially at the head and stomachâ€”became swollen and oppressed with surcharged blood; and while each variety of misery went on gradually increasing, there was added to them the intolerable pang of burning and raging thirst; and all these physical complications caused an internal excitement and anxiety, which made the prospect of death itselfâ€”of death, the awful unknown enemy, at whose approach man usually shudders mostâ€”bear the aspect of a delicious and exquisite release.1
The emperor Tiberius is said to have preferred crucifixion as a method of punishment, precisely because it prolonged the victimâ€™s agony without granting relief by death. He believed death was an escape, so in his view execution was really no punishment, unless the victim had as much mortal agony inflicted as possible before death.
Death normally came from slow suffocation. The victimâ€™s body would hang in such a way that the diaphragm was severely constricted. In order to exhale, he would have to push up with the feet so that the diaphragm would have room to move. Ultimately fatigue, intense pain, or muscle atrophy would render the victim unable to do this, and he would finally die from the lack of oxygen. Truman Davis, a medical doctor who studied the physical effects of crucifixion, described how this would have occurred in Jesusâ€™ crucifixion:
As the arms fatigue, great waves of cramps sweep over the muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push Himself upward. Hanging by His arms, the pectoral muscles are paralyzed and the intercostal muscles are unable to act. Air can be drawn into the lungs, but cannot be exhaled. Jesus fights to raise Himself in order to get even one short breath. Finally, carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically He is able to push Himself upward to exhale and bring in the life-giving oxygenâ€¦ .
Hours of this limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, searing pain as tissue is torn from His lacerated back as He moves up and down against the rough timber; then another agony begins. A deep crushing pain in the chest as the pericardium slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart.
It is now almost overâ€”the loss of tissue fluid has reached a critical levelâ€”the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the tissuesâ€”the tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. The markedly dehydrated tissues send their flood of stimuli to the brain.2
Once strength or feeling in the legs was gone, the victim would be unable to push up in order to breathe, and death would occur quickly. That is why the Romans sometimes practiced crucifractureâ€”the breaking of the legs below the kneesâ€”when they wanted to hasten the process (cf. John 19:31).
Dehydration, hypovolemic shock, and congestive heart failure sometimes hastened death as well. In Jesusâ€™ case, it seems likely that acute exhaustion was probably another major contributing factor.
1 Frederick Farrar, The Life of Christ (New York: A. L. Burt, n.d.), 499.
2 â€œThe Crucifixion of Jesus: The Passion of Christ from a Medical Point of View,â€ Arizona Medicine, vol. 22, no. 3 (March 1965), 183â€“87.