A.B. Hoek-van Kooten (translated by the Rev. P. Pellicaan)
On Good Friday we remember the death by crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. From childhood we have heard about it and maybe for that reason each year we listen to the story more or less unmoved. We knew already of the crucifixion and we are no longer appalled by it. We regard death on the cross as a form of wilful killing, in the same way as it nowadays happens in America by the electric chair or by hanging in the East.
Few people, however, realise the torture and agony that was involved. There is not much literature about it. One professor, though, Dr B. Smalhout, has extensively studied it in a scientific way. The following is an outline of his work.
The most common cross in the form of a T consisted of two parts: a vertical pole ('stipes'), a permanent fixture on the place of crucifixion; and a detachable crossbeam ('patibulum'), which could easily be fixed on top of the vertical pole. As a rule, the condemned man had to carry that crossbeam to the place of execution. Not the whole cross as is commonly believed, because the weight (100-150kg) was too much for one person to carry. As a rule, the arms were tied to the crossbeam, and the crossbeam rested on the disks of neck and back. If the man stumbled he would fall cruelly on his face because he could not use his hands. The arms were tied to the cross wither with ropes, with thongs, or with iron nails, 15-20cm long. They were square and 8-9mm thick.
These nails were not piercing the palm of the hand, as is usually pictured, because then the weight of the body would be too much, and the hands would rip. No, the nails were driven through the carpals, there the lower arm is connected with the hand. Extremely painful because there is also a major nerve. This nerve serves the movement of the thumb. As a result there is a tremendous cramp situation, and also a horrible pain in the whole hand. And thus the condemned man with the crossbeam was lifted with the crossbeam on top of the vertical pole where it was fixed. Then a nail was driven through both feet. And because the feet were nailed down the suffering lasted much longer, many hours, and often 'til the next day.
Someone hanging is pulled by gravitation force. The muscles of the upper body are under terrible tension. The ribs are pulled up and as a result it becomes extremely difficult to breathe. After about ten minutes the crucified man is in terrible agony. The muscles of the upper body are seized with awful spasms. Great quantities of lactic acid are produced by these muscles and make the whole body quite acidic. Because breathing is impeded body cannot get rid of the carbonic acid via breathing, which in turn makes the body even more acidic. All the muscles of the body experience a hellish spasm. The victim then starts to perspire, and will finally suffocate, sometime within half an hour.
Such a quick death was not intended by the Romans, and therefore the feet were also nailed down. That made it possible for the crucified one to push his body somewhat up. The upper body got some relief in that way, he could draw breath and the ashen colour of his face disappeared. But then the full bodyweight rested on the footnail, which caused horrible pain. As a result the body slumped again after some time, hanging again on the upper nails and the suffering, described above, repeated itself. And that went on and on. Hanging on the upper nails and pushing up the body on the footnail alternated until this finally became impossible through exhaustion and the victim died by suffocation.
If it lasted too long and the soldiers became tired, or because the Sabbath was approaching, the process could be sped up, when the legs of the condemned one were shattered by an iron rod. The body could then no longer be pushed up by the legs, and death occurred usually within a quarter of an hour. With the lord Jesus that was not necessary and the words "not one of his bones will be broken" (John 20:36 cf. Ex 12:46; Num 9:12; Ps 34:20) was fulfilled.
We should keep in mind that shortly before He was flogged with the Roman whip, and instrument with two leather thongs that had at the end lead bullets as big as hazelnuts. The skin was lacerated, and the muscled under the skin bruised.
So terrible was death by crucifixion that all the classical authors, like Cicero and Seneca, agreed it was the most horrible way of execution.
The Chief Point
The physical suffering of Jesus is described in the gospels in a straightforward, penetrating, but never sensational way. At the same time we have to realise that the spiritual suffering of Christ was immeasurably heavier. His physical suffering could be compared with the suffering of others who bore similar suffering. Yet in the spiritual sense the suffering of Christ Jesus was completely unique and incomparable. He did not suffer as a martyr but as the Mediator (Heidelberg Cat. A. 37).