How did Jesus die on the cross?


Christian Life

Joe-Lize Kruijsse-Brugge, CNE.news

People erect the wooden cross during the Czech Easter rattling ritual to mark Good Friday, that recalls for Christians the crucifixion of Jesus Christ ahead of Easter Sunday. Photo AFP, Michal Cizek

The story of Jesus’s crucifixion is well-known, especially among believers. However, how does crucifixion lead to death? A reconstruction from a medical perspective.

Many people think Jesus died because of blood loss, professor Bob Smalhout from the Netherlands argued. “They think that it is probably the nails with which he was nailed to the cross. But regularly, construction workers shoot large pins with nail pistols through their hands. But they do not die from that”, he told the Evangelische Omroep.

Professor Smalhout (1927-2015) is well-known for an article about the crucifixion that he wrote in March 1985. This article is still referred to as a medical analysis of what happened on Calvary. “After almost two thousand years, only a few people probably realise how terrible the death struggle was for someone condemned to death by crucifixion.” A reconstruction from a medical perspective.

What is crucifixion?

Crucifixion is the cruellest method to carry out a death sentence. Originally, the method was not invented by the Romans, but by the Phoenicians from Carthage, among others. However, the Romans are known for “perfectioning” the death sentence so that the condemned victim would suffer as long and severely as possible before he or she died. The practice was so horrible that Roman citizens were protected by law against this manner of execution.

Most often, the crosses used for were T-shaped. The prisoner was forced to carry the crossbeam to the place of execution. This piece of wood weighed between 30 and 50 kilograms, professor Smalhout points out. The standing beams were permanently placed on the place of execution. There, the prisoner was nailed to the cross beam and hung on the standing beam.

According to the Nederlands Dagblad the method of crucifixion was not only extremely painful, but also constituted a form of sexual abuse. People at the time believed that someone lost his masculinity if he was stripped naked in public. And this was exactly what happened to those who were crucified.

In the late night of April 2, in the year of 33, the severest part of Jesus's suffering on Earth is to begin. Around 9 o’clock, He and eleven disciples leave the room where they celebrated Passover. After about two kilometres of walking, they arrive in the Garden of Gethsemane. There, Jesus, knowing the extent of His suffering that is about to begin, gets deeply distressed. His disciples are unable to keep awake and thus, the Saviour has to suffer all alone. Well-known is the Bible passage that speaks about His sweat turning into large drops of blood. According to professor Smalhout, who, as anaesthesiologist, is a medical expert himself, this phenomenon is very rare, but can happen in case of extreme motions.

After His arrest, Jesus is taken to be questioned by the Sanhedrin under the leadership of high priest Annas. There, the physical abuse begins, as Jesus is beaten by the servants of the Jewish clergy, while being accused of blasphemy.


The Jewish leaders then bring Jesus to Pilate, who, as the Roman authority has the power to sentence Jesus to death. This happens sometime between 6 and 8 in the morning. And even though both Pilate and king Herod do not find guilt in him, Pilate orders Jesus to be scourged. That, too, means severe suffering for Jesus.

Christian Orthodox pilgrims carry a cross during a Good Friday procession on the Via Dolorosa, in Jerusalem's old city. Photo EPA, Atef Safadi

The Roman scourge existed of leather straps with either lead balls or pieces of sheep bones at the ends. Prisoners were stripped naked and tied to a post with their hands above their heads. They were then beaten up by two soldiers from their shoulders to their lower legs. The Romans did not have any rules that limited the amount of blows and often. This depended on how much a prisoner could endure without dying. Scourging was a standard punishment that was carried out prior to a death sentence.

The scourge tears Jesus's skin into pieces. The lead balls cause bruising that is torn open by the sharp pieces of sheep bone, Jason Pierce states. Smalhout compares the severity of the wounds to deep burns that can be deadly within a few hours when left untreated.

This treatment is even worsened by the scorn of the soldiers when they dress the Saviour up as a king. The crown of thorns penetrated the skin of His head, and the blood must have streamed down His face.

Yet, this is not enough to cause pity by the public. And Pilate gives in. Jesus must be crucified. Thus, the procession through the Via Dolorosa follows. In total, this could be a walk of 12 minutes, since the distance is only 600 metres. However, that does not mean that it is easy for Jesus. Through the narrow streets, He has to carry the crossbeam on His wounded shoulders, while being followed by a large crowd of people.


Around 9 or 10 o’clock, the procession halts at Golgotha, the place of execution. Jesus refuses the wine with vinegar that the soldiers offer Him. Then, His clothes are torn from His body. This, too, must have caused excruciating pain, as the blood from the wounds of the scourging has dried and His skin is torn open again.

Next, the crucifixion itself is painful beyond imagination. The pins are nailed into His wrists, because His palms would not have been able to bear the full body weight. The crossbeam is then attached to the cross and one long nail is driven into both of His feet.

According to professor Smalhout, the hanging on the cross causes the breathing muscles to be pulled upwards. That means that someone can breathe in, but not breathe out. As a result, Jesus must have been very short of breath. And if a person does not get enough oxygen, his body will acidify.

This could lead to a quick death, but the nail in the feet of the prisoner prolongs the suffering. Because it enables the victim to push himself up to get some air. However, that movement causes excruciating pain as well, not only because the wood chafes his bruised and bleeding back, but also because of the nail in his feet, Christianity.com writes.

That means that Jesus must choose between breathing and severe pain in his feet and back. Meanwhile, His body temperature rises, until the sweat drips of His body. The loss of fluids results in a lower blood pressure and a faster heartbeat. And when the heart begins to fail, fluid enters the lungs, breathing becomes difficult, and thirst becomes unbearable.


In conclusion, what would be the exact cause of Jesus's death, taken all the above together? Most academics agree that suffocation is the most likely cause of Jesus's death. After hours, or even days, the body becomes too exhausted to push itself up to be able to breathe.

The Romans knew this too. So, when they wanted to end the execution, they broke the legs of criminals, so they would not be able to push themselves up anymore either. They would die within the next 15 minutes.

There are also other theories about the cause of Jesus’s death. Some think it was heart failure, and others do not believe that Jesus died at all. Instead, they are convinced that He was resuscitated on Easter Sunday. This theory, however, has been rejected by most academics. Again, others believe that it was the spear of the Roman soldier that pierced Jesus’s side that killed Him.

Most people believe that Jesus died before the moment He was pierced by the spear, but it is difficult to determine the exact cause of His death.


At the same time, Christians should not remain stuck on the terribleness of the crucifixion only, like the daughters of Jerusalem did in Jesus's days. They wept about the pain of the suffering Lord, but were rebuked by Jesus Himself. Instead, the period of Lent and the day of Good Friday should bring us to meditate upon the deeper reasons why Jesus had to undergo these unspeakable sufferings.



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