Anatomy of the Crucifixion

Dr. Huggins spoke Thursday night about what Jesus suffered on the cross. | Photo from Reconciling Ministries Network

Students, biology and non-biology majors alike gathered in the PAC on Thursday night to hear Dr. James Huggins give a lecture called the Anatomy of the Crucifixion about what Jesus went through physically on the cross.

Huggins, who is a biology professor as well as a pastor, has taught at Union for 30 years. Although he has given this lecture several times before, he is still impacted by the message.

“I have done this a few times, but it never fails to affect me pretty deeply,” Huggins said.


Huggins began by mentioning various historians and philosophers, Christian and non-Christian, who have written about crucifixion, including Seneca, Pliny the Younger, Suetonious, Thallus, Phlegon and Flavius Josephus. Thallus and Phlegon, who do not come from a Christian worldview, detailed Christ’s death and the darkness that covered earth during the third hour.

Huggins continued by outlining the pattern of events during Jesus’s Passion, the events leading up to His crucifixion. Jesus was born between 4-6 BC and was crucified either April 6 or April 7, 30 AD, although there is still a considerable debate about the exact year that He was born and exact date that He was crucified.

The Passion began with the Lord’s Supper in the upper room, where Jesus predicted to the disciples who would betray Him. After Judas left to betray Him, Jesus showed His servanthood by washing his disciples’ feet. Jesus then went with his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane, where He sweated drops of blood while praying. Huggins said that this excessive sweating has been scientifically documented as hemihidrosis.

“When people are under great, great stress, they often will rupture capillaries around their sweat glands, and the blood will seep out into the sweat, and it will appear as red,” Huggins said.

After Jesus was arrested, He stood before Annas, a high priest of the political Sanhedrin. He then went on to appear before the religious Sanhedrin, followed by Pilate, who sent Him to Herod Antipas, the political head of Galilee. Jesus was finally sent back to Pilate, who reluctantly sentenced Jesus to death at the behest of the Jews.

Jesus had had no sleep the previous night due to all of these events. The Jewish people held Jesus’s trial during the night because they wanted to get Jesus killed before the Passover, but they ended up breaking the Jewish law that said they could not try a man during the dark hours. Jesus spent six hours on the cross from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. In the hours leading up to His death, He was flogged, beaten, spit upon, mocked, insulted, stripped, given a crown of thorns and crucified.

Excruciatus, where we get the word excruciating from, means “out of the cross.”

Crucifixion was first developed by the Persians and was also used by Alexander the Great, Egypt and Carthage. However, the Romans took it further.

“The Romans made this an art of torture,” Huggins said. “What they wanted to do was to have you hanging on that cross as long as possible, hurting as long and as badly as possible.”

According to Mark 16:15, Jesus was stripped of His clothes and hung on a pole. Roman legionnaires would volunteer to whip the subject with a whip that contained small bone and glass to make contusions and cuts. The Hebrews couldn’t whip a subject over 40 times, but the Romans had no limit (although they weren’t allowed to kill the person). The back side and legs of the person being whipped were often described as “quivering ribbons of flesh.”

While most people think of Jesus carrying the whole cross, He may have actually carried the patibulum, which is the crossbar of the cross. The patibulum weighed about 75 to 125 pounds.

When the person being crucified would reach the crucifixion site, they would be thrown on their back, and nails would be driven in to their wrists and feet. The nail would be driven in between the carpals in the wrist and would hit the median nerve. Every time Jesus would pull up, a shooting pain would be sent up the nerve. The Romans would miss the radial and ulnar arteries, so the victim would not bleed out and so the victim could still be tortured.

The feet of the victim would be crossed, and a single nail would be driven between the second and third metatarsals.

In order for the person on the cross to breathe, he would have to pull himself up. Huggins said that the process of breathing is reversed, in that exhalation becomes active and inhalation becomes passive.

“Every time our Lord went to breathe or to say something, He had to pull himself up with that shooting pain,” Huggins said. “You’re also pushing with your legs, shooting pain up the legs.”

A person could spend anywhere from three or four hours to three or four days on the cross. If the person was beaten severely, he typically died more quickly. Other problems faced by victims included insects that would go after abrasions and wounds as well as birds of prey and other predatory animals.

Crurifragium, or skelokopia, usually hastened death, as in the case of the two thieves. The victims’ legs would be broken with a club so they could not push up, causing asphyxiation.

Huggins said that death by crucifixion is multifactorial. In addition to asphyxiation, a victim could succumb to blood loss, dehydration, hypotension (a drop in blood pressure), hypovolemic shock (not enough blood to pump), hypoxemia (a lack of oxygen), hypercapnia (a buildup of too much carbon dioxide), respiratory acidosis, exhaustion asphyxia, arrhythmias (missing or skipping heartbeats), congestive heart failure, pleural effusion, pericardial effusion, thrombotic vegetations and myocardial infarction (heart attack).

The Roman soldiers stabbed Jesus with a spear to ensure that He was dead, and blood and water came out.

“The blood had begun to clot together, and what was left of the plasma without the clotting factors was the water,” Huggins said.

Huggins said that all the factors add up to contribute to an overworked heart and lungs. He said that, from a physical standpoint, it is most likely that Jesus had a heart attack. However, Huggins said that none of this really killed Jesus.

“What really killed Jesus?” Huggins said. “I did. Because He loved me enough to die for me. You did… He could have come down off that cross, but He didn’t because He loved us enough to stay there.”


Brandon Harper, sophomore Christian ministry and missions major, listened intently to Huggins’ presentation.

“It is something that is most properly responded with a long time of lamenting and praying, and that’s the only way we’re ever going to get to a deep appreciation for what Christ went through for us,” Harper said. “We are to blame, but He took that blame for us.”

About Brent Walker 25 Articles
Brent Walker, a member of the Union University Class of 2020, is a journalism major and the news editor for Cardinal & Cream. He loves ice cream, people, and laughter.