For all of our lives, we Catholics have been gazing at Crucifixes. We see them at home, in school, at the hospital, in movies, and in our Churches. Many different presentations of Christ on the cross have been portrayed in art. Because we see these images over and over again, we tend to equate these images with reality — what Jesus really looked like on the Cross. Therefore, it is difficult for us to believe that these Crucifixes may not portray the reality of Crucifixion as practiced in the Mediterranean by the Romans. When I started giving presentations on the medical aspects of Crucifixion in 1986, I taught a much different version of the ‘facts’ than is presented below. After going in depth not only medically but historically, I have come to the following conclusions — it took me ten years of suspecting some of these things before I could bring myself to teach these as the most likely facts regarding Crucifixion, including that of Jesus. It took me that long because the years of teaching one way — and of seeing one way — made it hard to break those patterns of thought, even with mounting evidence to contradict what I once taught.
Myth #1: Crucifixion victims died by suffocation when they got too tired to repeatedly push themselves up on the nail(s) in the feet to exhale (A Doctor at Calvary — The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ as Described by a Surgeon), by Pierre Barbet, 1953).
- One cannot cry out at moment of death if suffocating (Matthew 27:46).
- Dr. Frederick Zugibe’s crucifixion volunteers couldn’t push themselves up even once to straighten their legs, let alone the thousands of times a Crucifixion victim would have had to do so to stay alive for hours or days on the Cross.
- Crucifixion volunteers experienced little, if any, reduction in breathing capacity with their arms elevated 25-35 degrees above horizontal (and in reality, victims’ arms were probably closer to horizontal which would influence breathing even less).
- Church Fathers wrote that they thought Crucifixion victims died of starvation (because they survived on the cross sometimes for days).
- Crucifixion victims were regularly reported to easily speak from the cross, not only in the Gospels
- There are no reports in hundreds of writings on crucifixions in antiquity of victims having difficulty breathing.
Myth #2: Jesus’ blood vessels burst in his skin, the blood flowed into his sweat glands and mixed with his sweat, and bloody sweat came out onto his skin in the Garden of Gethsemane.
- Barbet wrote this in his book with no reference as to how he got this idea.
- Recent cases of hematidrosis demonstrate no rupture of blood vessels when the bleeding skin is biopsied.
- If the blood vessels burst, there would be bruising of the skin, yet no hematidrosis patients have bruised skin.
- The blood seeps out of skin blood vessels, between collagen protein bundles in the dermis, and out through the skin next to hair follicles.
Myth #3: The Roman soldiers regularly broke crucifixion victims’ legs to hasten their death by bringing on suffocation (the victim could no longer push up to exhale).
- There are no other reports of breaking legs of Crucifixion victims in antiquity. Only John 19 reports this.
- The Gospels present a unique situation where the Jewish leaders requested the breaking of the legs to get the bodies off the crosses by sunset.
- Breaking of legs was a separate capital and noncapital punishment in the Roman Empire that Constantine abolished along with crucifixion.
- Breaking of leg bones leads to significant blood loss that leads to death.
Myth #4: Crucifixion victims’ feet were placed on top of each other when nailed to the cross.
- This is not seen in crucifixion art until about 1,000 years after Christ. Think of the oldest Crucifixion depiction most American regularly see, the San Damiano Crucifix, beloved by St. Francis dating from the 12th century. The feet are side-by-side.
- All early depictions of Crucifixion for the first 500 years or more after Christ show the feet side-by-side.
- The only piece of archaeological evidence for Crucifixion shows a nail pounded in sideways through a heel bone – without breaking the bone. Moist, living bone does not necessarily break if impaled.
Myth #5: Crucifixion victims’ hands were above their heads.
- All early (first 500 years after Christ) images of Crucifixion show the arms out to the side.
- Early Greek and Roman descriptions of crucifixion talk about the arms being stretched out to the side.
- Even the Roman word for the cross-bar, patibulum, derives from a verb meaning “to stretch out.”
Myth #6: A foot block was used for the feet to rest on during crucifixion.
- A foot block is never mentioned in crucifixion literature contemporary with the torture by Romans.
- Foot blocks on crucifixes do not appear for centuries after Christ.
Myth #7: Because of its analgesic properties, wine mixed with myrrh was given to crucifixion victims to reduce their pain and suffering.
- Myrrh was a typical wine preservative at small quantities.
- Mark the Evangelist must have mentioned because it was present in higher quantities.
- Myrrh would make the wine as undrinkable as vinegar or gasoline.
- It increased suffering because victims were ridiculously thirsty, and this drink would do the opposite of quenching their thirst.
- Why would torturers want to reduce a victim’s suffering?
Myth #8: The flagrum used by Romans for scourging had both lead balls and pieces of sharp bone on it to increase the pain and suffering of victims.
- Roman flagra have been found with lead balls on the ends, but not with bone.
- Only the Greeks used pieces of bone on their flagra, the Romans never did according to ancient literature.
Myth #9: Because of the importance of Jesus’ death on the cross, early Christians frequently depicted the crucifixion in religious art starting from shortly after Jesus’ death.
- The first image of Jesus on the Cross in religious art is from A.D. 420-430 (Santa Sabina church door and Maskell Passion Ivory found in the British Museum). Jesus is depicted alive on the cross in these images.
- Early Christian religious art (as in the catacombs) depicted hope and delivery from death (like the resurrection of the three young men in Daniel rescued from the fiery furnace)
- The first Christian image of Jesus dead on the cross (according to Dr. Frederick Zugibe) is from the ninth century (I couldn’t find one that old on the internet) look even at San Damiano Crucifix — Jesus alive, arms at side, feet side-by-side — from the 12th century.
Myth #10: The Shroud of Turin has blood flows that show us where the nail went through the victim’s feet
- The Turin Shroud Center website, run by John Jackson, one of the original researchers who spent 120 hours with the Shroud in 1978, states on the TSC website that the Shroud’s blood flows are consistent with blood flowing from either the sides of the heels or the top and bottom of the feet.
- In a phone conversation with official 1978 photographer Barrie Schwortz, he confirmed that from his high-resolution images and work with other researchers, the Shroud does not clearly demonstrate where or how the feet were affixed to the cross.
Myth #11: Jesus carried a complete cross made of two pieces of wood.
- No one in antiquity, of the thousands of crucifixions, was reported to carry a T-shaped cross — they only carried the cross bar (Greek — stauros, Latin — patibulum).
- Many depictions of crucifixion mention condemned men carrying one piece of wood to a place where they were placed with it onto another piece of wood.
Myth #12: Jesus’ crossbar that he carried weighed about 100 pounds.
- The crossbar (purportedly of the Good Thief Dismas) brought back by St. Helena from Jerusalem weighs about 15 pounds.
- Devotional aids to the Crucifixion often picture crosses almost like railroad ties, but we simply have no evidence of what victims carried — except potentially the find of St. Helena.
Myth #13: Jesus’ cross was shaped like a small-letter ‘t.’
- The standard shape of the Cross was ‘T’ like a Greek Tau (both upper and lowercase Tau do not form the shape of a plus-sign).
- The upright post was in place and the victim was attached to the crossbar and then raised onto the upright post.
The Value of Studying the Crucifixion
What is the benefit of studying the Crucifixion of Jesus? Isn’t it enough to know that Jesus suffered for us without knowing the details of how he suffered for us? Yes, I daresay it is enough. But when we love somebody, don’t we want to know every little possible fact about them? If you are married, think about how you and your spouse explored your personalities and histories as you were becoming acquainted. How much more with Christ.
Additionally, when we see Christ on his Cross, we see him exercising his priesthood. What is the essence of priesthood? It is offering sacrifice on behalf of another. On his Cross, Jesus is exercising his priesthood — on our behalf!
And if we are baptized, we each have a priesthood to exercise, for we were each anointed priest, prophet, and king at our baptism. Jesus is the priest par excellence. When we see Jesus on the Cross, his Cross, we see the perfect exercise of priesthood in the specific lived experience of his life. We, too, are called to perfectly exercise our own priesthood in the particular lived experiences of our lives. We exercise our priesthood each time we offer it up, offer our lives, our pains, our struggles, our turning over of our wills to God, for others. This ability to offer it up can change lives - it can affect eternity! It is a greater superpower than any possessed by any of the comic book superheroes. Because Christ unites himself to us, and we unite ourselves to him, our offering of sacrificing has real power. Use it! See Jesus suffering. He is our model. Follow St. Paul’s advice — Imitate me as I imitate Christ.
Dr. Thomas McGovern is a dermatologist/Mohs surgeon and national board member of the Catholic Medical Association who resides in Fort Wayne, Indiana.