Many beliefs about Jesus’ physical suffering have become firmly transfixed in our minds because of the numerous crucifixes we have seen, homilies we have heard, articles we have read, and movies we have watched. Unfortunately, most of these accounts are not based on the best ancient history and current medical research.
Myth #1. Jesus carried a two-part cross. Many movies show Jesus carrying a two-part cross, but in all the available crucifixion references starting with the earliest recorded Greek and Persian crucifixions around 490 B.C., there is no instance of a condemned person carrying a two-part cross. All carried a single beam of wood to the place of crucifixion where they were affixed to an upright post. And based on the size of the beam of the ‘good thief’ displayed in a Rome church, the beam that Jesus carried weighed about 15 pounds — the weight of a bowling ball.
Myth #2. Jesus’ feet were nailed one on top of another. Very commonly, crucifixes and paintings of the Crucifixion depict three nails used – one for each hand, and one through both feet. However, the earliest crucifix depicting one foot on top of the other dates to the 11th century, 1000 years after Christ died. All of the earliest images show the feet either on the outside of the upright post – or even with the knees bent to the outside with the bottom of the heels touching at the upright post. And indeed, two archaeologic findings have found nails through the heel bones that support both positions.
Myth #3. Jesus and other crucifixion victims died of suffocation. My Mayo Medical School mentor, Dr. William Edwards, popularized this theory based on the book A Doctor at Calvary, written by French surgeon Pierre Barbet in 1950. Dr. Barbet’s friends told him that World War I torture victims had their wrists bound together, raised above their heads, and then tied to a beam above them so that their feet did not touch the ground. They would soon yell “aufbinden” (German for “un-tie”) because of the great muscular and respiratory discomfort. Within 30 minutes, victims would suffocate with their muscles fixed in cramps.
Dr. Barbet thought that the cause of death from aufbinden and crucifixion were the same, and Dr. Edwards popularized this in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1986.
However, in crucifixion reconstructions, volunteers experience minimal to no breathing difficulty, and no ancient manuscripts refer to difficulty breathing on the cross, although many mention victims yelling and spitting from the cross. Third, the suffocation theory requires that victims pushed themselves up on the nail(s) through the feet to exhale, but when volunteers in crucifixion reconstructions are asked to push themselves up by straightening their legs, they can’t do it even once — let alone the thousands of times required for survival for longer than a day — as many victims did. Finally, and most damaging, the Gospels tell us that Jesus cried out in a loud voice at the moment of death. No one can yell if they are suffocating to death.
Jesus most likely died of traumatic shock – significant blood loss due to the trauma of the beating in the house of Caiaphas the night before and the scourging on Good Friday. In the end, a shock-induced fatal heart rhythm probably caused a rapid-onset weakness and light-headedness that warned Jesus of his impending death so that he could cry out in a loud voice at the end.
If you want to learn about more Crucifixion myths and further detail about what our Lord endured in his Passion, please use the link below, and remember during this Lent that what Jesus did, He did for you.
bit.ly/DoctorDoctorShow – episodes #11 and #12
DR. THOMAS MCGOVERN is a Legate and Mohs Surgeon in Fort Wayne, IN who has been researching and speaking on the Passion of Christ for over 30 years. He hosts the Doctor, Doctor radio show and podcast and serves on the national board of the Catholic Medical Association.