The Passion of the Christ

Tortured for our sins!
The following is a medical exposition on the suffering of the beating and crucifixion of Jesus Christ
By  C. Truman Davis, M.D., M. S.
New Wine Magazine, 12/72

A medical exposition on the death of Jesus Christ
By  C. Truman Davis, M.D., M. S.
New Wine Magazine, 12/72

In this article, I shall discuss some of the physical aspects of the passion or suffering, of Jesus Christ, during which we shall follow him from Gethsemane through his trial, his scourging, his path along the Via Dolorosa, to his  last dying hours on the cross.

I became interested in this about a year ago when I read an account of the crucifixion in Jim Bishop's book, The Day Christ Died. I suddenly realized that I had taken the crucifixion more or less for granted all these years and that I had grown callous to its horror by a too easy familiarity with the grim details and a too distant friendship with Him. It finally occurred to me that as a physician I did not even know the actual immediate cause of death. The Gospel writers do not help us very much on this point, because crucifixion and scourging were so common during their lifetime that they undoubtedly considered a detailed description totally superfluous; so we have the concise words of the Evangelist: “Pilate, having scourged Jesus delivered Him to them to be crucified - and they crucified Him.”

I am indebted to many who have studied this subject in the past and especially to a contemporary colleague, Dr. Pierre Barbet, a French surgeon, who has done exhaustive historical and experimental research and has written extensively on the subject.

The infinite psychic and spiritual suffering of the Incarnate God in atonement for the sins of fallen man I have no competence to discuss; however, the physiological and anatomical aspects of our Lord's passion  we can examine in some detail, what did the body of Jesus actually endure during those hours of torture?


This led me first to a study of the practice of crucifixion itself, which is the torture and execution of a person by fixation to a cross. Apparently, the first known practice was by the Persians. Alexander and his generals brought it back to the Mediterranean world, to Egypt and Carthage. The Romans apparently learned the practice from the Carthagians and (as with almost everything the Romans did) rapidly developed a very high degree of efficiency and skill in carrying it out. A number of Roman authors (Livy, Cicero, Tactitus) comment on it. Several innovations and modifications are described in the ancient literature; I will mention only a few which may have some bearing here.

The upright portion of the cross (or stipes) could have the cross-arm (or patibulum) attached two or three feet below  its top. This is what we think of today as the classic form of the cross (the one which we have later named the Latin cross); however the common form used in our Lord's day was the Tau cross (shaped like the Greek letter Tau or like T). In this cross the patibulum was placed in a notch at the top of the stipes. There is fairly overwhelming archeological evidence that it was on this type of cross that Jesus was crucified.

The upright post, or stipes, was generally permanently fixed in the ground at the site of execution and the condemned man was forced to carry the patibulum, apparently weighing about 110 pounds, from the prison to the place of execution. Without any historical or Biblical proof, Medieval and Renaissance painters and most of the sculptors of crucifixes today show that the nails were driven between the small bones of the wrist and not through the palms. Nails driven through the palms will strip out between the fingers when they support the weight of a human body. The misconception may have come about through a misunderstanding of Jesus' words to Thomas, “Behold my hands.” Anatomists, both modern and ancient, have always considered the wrist as part of the hand.

A titulus, or small sign, stating the victim's crime was usually carried at the front of the procession and later nailed to the top of the cross which would have given it somewhat the characteristic form of the Latin cross.

The physical passion of Christ began in Gethsemane. Of the many aspects of this initial suffering, I shall only discuss the one of the physiological interest: the bloody sweat. It is interesting  that the physician of the group, St. Luke, is the only one to mention this. He says, “And being in agony, He prayed the longer. And his sweat became as drops of blood, trickling down upon the ground

Every attempt imaginable has been used by modern scholars to explain away this phrase, apparently under the mistaken impression that this just doesn't happen.

Consulting the medical literature could have saved a great deal of effort. Though very rare, the phenomenon of Hematidrosis, or bloody sweat, is well documented. Under great emotional stress, tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can break, thus mixing blood with sweat. This process alone could have produced marked weakness and possible shock.


We shall move rapidly through the betrayal and arrest; I must stress again that important portions of the Passion story are missing from this account. This may be frustrating to you, but in order to adhere to our purpose if discussion only the purely physical aspect of the Passion, this is necessary. After the arrest in the middle of the night, Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin and Caiaphas. The palace guards then blindfolded Him and mockingly taunted Him to identify them as they each passed by, spat on Him, and struck Him in the face.


In the early morning, Jesus, battered and bruised, dehydrated and exhausted from a sleepless night, is taken across Jerusalem to the Praetorium of the Fortress Antomia, the seat of government of the Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate. You are, of course, familiar with Pilate's action in attempting to pass responsibility to Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee. Jesus apparently suffered no physical mistreatment at the hands of Herod and was returned to Pilate.

 It was then, in response to the cries of the mob, that Pilate ordered Barabbas released and condemned Jesus to scourging and crucifixion. Most Roman writers from this period do not associate the two. Many scholars believe that Pilot originally ordered Jesus scourged as his full punishment and that the death sentence by crucifixion came only in response to the taunt by the mob that the Procurator was not properly defending Caesar against this pretender who claimed to be King of the Jews.


Preparation for the scourging are carried out. The prisoner is stripped of his clothing and his hands tied to a post. It is doubtful whether the Romans made any attempt to follow the Jewish law in this matter of scourging. The Jews had an ancient law prohibiting more than forty lashes. The Pharisees, always making sure that the law was strictly kept, insisted that only thirty-nine lashes be given. (In the case of a miscount, they were sure of remaining within the law.)

The Roman legionnaire steps forward with the flagrum (or flagellum) in his hand. This is a short whip consisting of several heavy, leather thongs with two small balls of lead attached near the ends of each. The heavy whip is brought down with full force again and again across Jesus' shoulders, back and legs. At first the heavy thongs cut through the skin only, then as the blows continue, they cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin, and finally spurting arterial bleeding from the vessels in the underlying muscles. The small balls of lead first produce large, deep bruises which are broken open by subsequent blows. Finally the skin of the back is hanging in long ribbons and the entire area is an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissue. When it is determined by the centurion in charge that the prisoner is near death, the beating is finally stopped.



The half-fainting Jesus is then untied and allowed to slump to the stone pavement, wet with His own blood. The Roman soldiers see a great joke in this provincial Jew claiming to be a king. They throw a robe across His shoulders and place a stick in His hand for a scepter. They still need a crown to make their travesty complete. A small bundle of flexible branches covered with long thorns  (commonly used in firewood) are plaited into a shape of a crown and this is pressed into His scalp. Again there is copious bleeding (the scalp being one of the most vascular areas of the body). After mocking Him and striking Him across the face, the soldiers take the stick from His hand and strike Him across the head, driving the thorns deeper into His scalp. Finally, they tire of their sadistic sport and the robe is torn from His back. This had already become adherent to the clots of blood and serum in the wounds, and its removal, just as in the careless removal of a surgical bandage, causes excruciating pain, almost as though He were again being whipped. The wounds again begin to bleed.


In deference to the Jewish custom, the Romans return His garments. The heavy patibulum of the cross is tied across His shoulders and the procession of the condemned Christ, two thieves and the execution detail of Roman soldiers headed by a centurion, begins its slow journey along the Via Dolorosa.  In spite of His efforts to walk erect, the weight of the heavy wooden beam, together with the shock produced by copious blood loss, is too much. He stumbles and falls.  The rough wood of the beam gouges into lacerated skin and muscles of the shoulders. He tries to rise, but human muscles have been pushed beyond their endurance. The centurion, anxious to get on with the crucifixion, selects a stalwart North African onlooker, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the cross. Jesus follows still bleeding  and sweating the cool, clammy sweat of shock. The 650 yards journey from the Fortress Antonia to Golgotha is finally completed. The prisoner is again stripped of His clothes, except for a loin cloth which is allowed the Jews.


The crucifixion begins. Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh, a mild analgesic mixture. He refuses to drink. Simon is ordered to place the patibulum on the ground and Jesus is quickly thrown backward with His shoulders against the wood. The legionnaire feels for the depression at the front of the wrist. He drives a heavy, square, wrought-iron nail through the wrist and deep into the wood. Quickly he moves to the other side and repeats the action, being careful not to pull the arms too tightly, but to allow some flexion and movement. The patibulum is then lifted in place at the top of the stipes and the titulus reading “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” is nailed in place.



The left foot is pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, a nail is driven through the arch of each, leaving the knees moderately flexed. The victim is now crucified. As he slowly sags down with more weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating, fiery pain shoots along the fingers and up the arms to explode in the brain; the nails in the wrists are putting pressure on the median nerves. As He pushes Himself upward to avoid this stretching torment, He places His full weight on the nail through His feet. Again there is the searing agony of the nail tearing through the nerves between the metatarsal bones of the feet.

At this point another phenomenon occurs. As the arms fatigue, great waves of cramps sweep over the muscle knotting them in deep, relentless throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push Himself upward. Hanging by His arms, the pectoral muscles are paralyzed and the intercostals muscles are unable to act.  Air can be drawn into the lungs but cannot be exhaled. Jesus fights to raise Himself in order to get even one short breath. Finally, carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and the blood stream and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically He is able to push Himself upward to exhale and bring in the life-giving oxygen. It was undoubtedly during these periods that He uttered the seven short sentences which are recorded.

The first looking down at the Roman soldiers throwing dice for His seamless garment, “(Luke 23:34 KJV)    Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.

The second, to the penitent thief,   (Luke 23:43 KJV)    Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.

The third, looking down at the terrified, grief stricken, adolescent John, the beloved Apostle,  (John 19:27 KJV)  Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.

The forth cry is from the beginning of the 22nd Psalm, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me

Hours of this limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rendering cramps, intermittent partial asphyxation, searing pain as tissues are torn from His lacerated back as He moves up and down against the rough timber. Then another agony begins. A deep crushing pain deep in the chest as the pericardium slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart.

Let us remember  
(Psa 22:14 KJV)  I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.

It is now almost over - the loss of tissue fluids has reached a critical level; the compressed heart is struggling 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 markedly dehydrated tissues send their flood of stimuli to the brain.

Jesus gasps His fifth cry,  “I thirst

(Psa 22:15 KJV)  My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.

A sponge soaked in Posca, the cheap, sour wine which is the staple drink of the Roman legionaries, is lifted to His lips. He apparently doesn't take any of the liquid. The body of Jesus is now in extremis, and He can feel the chill of death creeping through His tissues. This realization brings out His sixth words - possibly little more than a tortured whisper.  “It is finished

His mission of atonement has been completed. Finally He can allow His body to die.

With one last surge of strength, He once again presses His torn feet against the nail, straightens His legs, takes a deeper breath, and utters His seventh and last cry.

(Luke 23:46 KJV)  And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.

The rest you know. In order that the Sabbath not be profaned, the Jews asked that the condemned men be dispatched and removed from the crosses. The common method of ending a crucifixion was by crurefracture, the breaking of the bones of the legs.  This prevented the victim from pushing himself upward; the tension could not be relieved from the muscles of the chest, and rapid suffocation occurred. The legs of the two thieves were broken, but when they came to Jesus they saw that this was unnecessary.


Apparently to make double sure of the death, the legionnaire drove his lance through the fifth interspace between the ribs, upward through the pericardium and into the heart.  (John 19:34 KJV)  But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.

Thus there was an escape of watery fluid from the sac surrounding the heart. We, therefore, have rather conclusive post-mortem evidence that our Lord died, not the usual crucifixion death by suffocation, but by heart failure due to shock and constriction of the heart by fluid in the pericardium.

Thus we have seen a glimpse of the epitome of evil which man can exhibit toward  God. This is not a petty sight and is apt to leave us despondent and depressed. How grateful we can be that we have a sequel: A glimpse of the infinite mercy of God toward man - the miracle of the atonement and the expectation of Easter morning.

The greatest miracle of all, this tortured, battered and tormented body, ROSE FROM THE DEAD 3 days later and is NOW seated at the right hand of God the Father praying for you and me. He will come again, in the flesh, to take those who love Him to be with Him forever!

Additional Note from the owner of this web site!
I have had the joy of seeing the movie “The Passion of the Christ!” As I was watching them scourge Jesus, with such torture that I could not even imagine that any man could endure, I wept, and in my heart I said “Lord, I don't know that I could ever endure such torture and pain!” This morning, I read Isaiah 52 and stopped on this verse:

Isaiah 52:14
    As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men:

It was the part that said  “his visage was so marred more than any man” that caught my attention. “More than any man I pondered! It was these words that stuck out! Most of us would simply look at this verse and pass over what it is actually saying. NO OTHER MAN HAS EVER BEEN, NOR EVER WILL, BE MARRED (DISFIGURED) IN COMPARISON TO Jesus!

How is this possible? Haven't other men been tortured in such extremes? Then I began to notice another verse

John 10:17-18
    Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. [18] No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.

No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down

Every man would have died LONG before Jesus. I might be bold enough to say that NO man would have ever lived to the point that Jesus did before dying! Why? Because we have NO POWER over our lives. WE DO NOT HAVE THE POWER TO LAY DOWN OUR LIVES! Men CAN take it from us. But Jesus said “No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down…”

Let me illustrate. Death had NO power over Jesus as it does over sinful man. Because Jesus NEVER sinned, death COULD NOT take his life. JESUS COULD NOT DIE, UNTIL HE CHOSE TO DIE! His body could have been severed into a million pieces, scattered over the earth and still would have remained alive until Jesus gave the authority to let his own body die! While most men would have been dead LONG before reaching the place of the crucifixion on Golgotha, Jesus, having power over his own life, CHOSE to remain alive until everything that was prophesied about him was accomplished! It wasn't until he proclaimed “It is Finished” and “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit” that he willingly gave up the spirit (Matt. 27:50) and died!

So Jesus, willingly chose to endure torture and pain FAR in excess than ANY man has or EVER will endure, by willingly staying alive until he chose to die!

Having this power and authority, he also took the same body, and raised it from the dead 3 days later!

Doesn't THIS give you a new perspective on the extremity of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST!

Some photos used from the movie "the Passion of the Christ"