I’ve never been a stellar student. However, one lecture from a guest professor early in college, Dr. Truman Davis, glued itself to my brain’s hippocampus, and has not disappeared. The professor was a former ophthalmologist who quietly and graphically explained the medical responses of Christ’s body under crucifixion. I’ll never forget we entered the classroom as a raucous group of freshman but left feeling as if we’d just sat through the funeral of our most beloved friend.
Dr. Davis first described the flogging of Christ – Christ was tied to a post, his back stretched taut, face staring down at the dust. The Roman guard, using a weapon called The Cat of Nine Tails, slowly began to beat upon the back of his prisoner.
This Cat of Nine Tails was an instrument of torture, invented by Roman guards who specialized in pain, and contained long leather straps imbedded with rock, lead, and sharp glass. As the weapon was brought to bear upon the victim, the sharp nodules would lodge into the person’s flesh, gripping tightly, so that with each subsequent backswing, flesh would rip further, eventually leaving the back akin to ground hamburger. With each new blow, the fragments cut deeper into subcutaneous tissue, eventually spurting arterial blood, often causing death.
With the skin hanging in long shreds, and internal organs exposed, the Roman guard would finally allow the half-dying victim to fall onto cobblestone, mired in his own blood. Normally, the naked individual would then be scooped up and given back to his family. But for Christ this was when sadistic soldiers sarcastically placed a crown of Lodi thorns atop his head, driving 1-inch thorns down between the skin and skull. Their final ploy was to place a dark robe on his back, mocking him as royalty. We can be sure the robe adhered to the clotting blood, so that when it was ripped away hours later, the bleeding began anew.
The heavy crossbeam of the Tau cross was lowered across Christ’s already torn shoulders. He was commanded to march, carrying his own instrument of torment. Along the Via Dolorosa, swarms of angry protestors cursed and mocked his bloody mane, chanting demonic slogans, and raining their spit down on him. The weight was too much. He stumbled and fell. The rough timber gouged into the torn skin of his shoulders.
At Golgotha, the timbers were set aground and Jesus was quickly pushed backward so that his shoulders squared with the crossbeam. The Legionnaire first stretched one arm taut, looking for the slight depression between radial and ulna (you can feel yours by pinching between the two bones of your wrist just before the base of your hand). Aligning his 7-inch wrought iron peg with the wrist, he quickly raised the hammer, and with one smashing blow, sent rusty metal penetrating through the wrist and into wood. As the victim screamed, he moved to the other side, repeating the action, allowing the arms enough room to stretch for movement upon the cross.
The guards at Christ’s feet would then push the left foot backward over the right foot, leaving both feet extended, toes pointing down, heels flush with the cross, for a nail to be driven through the arch of each foot (it is too difficult to send one nail through two feet as often pictured by antiquarians). Quickly the hammer fell. Two more nails sent through the metatarsals of each foot! As Christ pushed himself upward to instinctively avoid the burning pain at his feet, he would place full weight on the nail there, and searing agony would course from the feet, up through the calves, and into the torso.
The guards would next step back and slowly slide the base of the cross toward the 2 ft. posthole. Two guards with ropes then slowly raised the front of the cross vertically, so that the cross quickly slid into the hole. With a dull thud, the cross lands in the hole, jarring the body of Christ, so that all his weight can fall upon the nails of each hand and foot, raping his already mutilated back along raw timber. Immediately, Christ’s lungs would collapse and he would find it impossible to breathe due to the hanging posture of his arms and tension upon his pectoral muscles. So, for each subsequent breath he must pull himself up by the arms (pushing also with the legs) to inhale, exhaling as he sinks back down, waiting only moments, and then performing the same feat again. Every breath now becomes a literal-life threatening agony.
Finally, the arms fatigue and cramps spread over the muscles. The victim is overwhelmed by pain from every part of their body, and the brain fights to remain conscious. Jesus must fight ardently to pull from his shoulders and pectoral muscles, which makes every spoken statement, especially his seven from the cross, crucial signatures of love! Hour after hour, this cycle of twisting agony continues, partially asphyxiated, searing bursts of pain, until suddenly a deep crushing pain deep in the chest begins, as the pericardium slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart!
According to Dr. Davis, the heart now struggles to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the tissues – the tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. The dehydrated tissues send their flood of stimuli to the brain and Jesus gasps, “I thirst.” At last, the chill of death creeps in. With one last surge of strength, Jesus presses his torn feet against the nail, straightens his legs, takes a deeper breath, and utters His seventh and final cry, “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit.”
But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5
To read more, see Dr. Truman Davis “A Physician’s View of the Crucifixion”