The powers of the human body to survive physical injury are truly extraordinary. Crucifixion is one form of capital punishment which it is commonly believed the body can least sustain for any length of time.
And when it is preceded by scourging and other insults to the body, and by a period of tremendous emotional stress, and when food and water have been denied, and when, in addition to these things, the body is secured to the cross not only with ropes as was common but with nails driven through the feet and hands, then it is hard to believe that a human being could long survive the ordeal.
And yet, amazing though it may seem, the simple fact is that men have lingered for days and, upon a few extraordinary occasions, have been taken down and have recovered from the ordeal.
As a matter of fact, part of the very ignominy of this particular form of capital punishment was due to the long process of dying.
It is not without significance, therefore, that it is said of the Lord that He not only "endured the Cross," but that He "despised its shame" (Hebrews 12:2).
And it is most important to realize that He need not have "endured" at all, for He could easily have dismissed His life far sooner than He did. Because He had the power to lay down His life at will (John 10:l8), Jesus could, had He wished to do so, have terminated life at once without lingering indefinitely, for He was not subject to natural death as we are, but made after the power of an endless life (Hebrews 7:16), and no man had the power to take His life from Him.
The point here is that Jesus remained alive on the Cross as long as He did in order to fulfill certain requirements prerequisite to our redemption.
We shall return to this circumstance subsequently. In the meantime, it is important to realize that no other form of capital punishment, such as might have been employed by the Roman authorities (drowning, poisoning, beheading, strangling, and so forth) would have provided the stage upon which this divine drama could be enacted. Crucifixion was the required form of punishment for the fulfillment of God's purposes.
As we have already said, the Lord died on the Cross, but not because of it.
Although we can certainly assume that the Lord could have sustained Himself indefinitely on the Cross, such an event would have been a miracle from the physiological point of view.
But it is also true that His dying so soon was equally exceptional, and it will be useful to review in this connection some of the known cases of prolonged survival on a cross, and even of recovery when removed after several days.
For much of the following information I am indebted to William Stroud, M.D. (3)
In 1617 Jacobus Bosius published a work in Antwerp entitled Crux Triumphans et Gloriosa (The Cross Triumphant and Glorious) in which he told of the crucifixion of the apostle Andrew who is said to have lived on the cross for two days. (4)
He referred also to the crucifixion of Victor, Bishop of Amiterna, who although crucified with his head down, a circumstance most unfavourable to the continuance of life, survived in like manner for two days.
Bosius noted that according to Origen and other early Fathers this seems to have been commonly the period of survival when death was not hastened by other means.
Bosius also repeated the well-known story of Timotheus and Maura, a married couple who suffered in the year A.D. 286 during the Diocletian persecution.
After being horribly tortured, these two godly souls were crucified together and according to many dependable witnesses actually survived nine days while mutually exhorting each other in the faith, expiring on the tenth day.
Stroud rightly observes that this may well be an exaggeration, nevertheless there are many accounts of people surviving for two or more days.
In the year A.D. 297, by the order of Emperor Maximian, seven Christians at Samosata were subjected to various tortures and then crucified. According to Alban Butler, (5)
Hipparchus [one of them], a venerable old man, died on the cross in a short time. James, Romanus, and Lollianus, expired the next day being stabbed by the soldiers while they hung on their crosses.
Philotheus, Habibus and Paragrus, were taken down from their crosses while they were still alive. The emperor being informed that they were alive, commanded large nails to be driven into their heads -- by which they were at length dispatched.
There are a number of cases in which men were cruelly tortured, and then crucified head down, yet surviving for 24 hours or more.
Much more recently, a Captain Clapperton reported on capital punishment in the Sudan in the year 1824. (6)
He speaks of beheading as being reserved for Mohammedans, and impaling and crucifixion for "unbelievers."
He states that he was told, merely as a matter of curiosity, that these poor wretches who are crucified generally linger for three days before death puts an end to their sufferings.
Impaling was, if anything, an even more horrid form of capital punishment, a punishment not infrequently used even in modern times by the Turks.
In this, the condemned man may be thrown from some height onto a sharpened stake.
Dr. Stroud found a report by H. Maundrell who, while travelling in the Middle East, was actually a witness on one such occasion. (7)
It is almost unbelievable, yet these are his words: "The criminal 'sitting' on the stake remained not only still alive but drank, smoked, and talked as one perfectly sensible, and thus continued for some 24 hours."
But, he remarks, generally after the tortured wretch has remained in this deplorable and ignominious posture an hour or two, one of the bystanders is permitted to give him a "gracious stab to the heart" to put an end to his inexpressible misery.
Referring to numerous executions which took place in Constantinople in 1829, a Mr. A. Slade wrote: (8)
"In many shapes death triumphed during this terrible fortnight. Two wretches, convicted of attempting to fire the new seraglio at Beglerbey on the Bosporus, were impaled; one still breathed on the following day."
Dr. Stroud even referred to one man who survived so long that birds were beginning to peck out his eyes before he was dead, he being unable to protect himself. (9)
He also mentioned another report by a Bishop Wiseman, written in 1828, in which a young man possessed of great physical strength was crucified under the walls of Damascus for murdering his master.
The Bishop reported that though he was nailed to the cross in hands and arms and feet, he remained alive from midday on Friday to the same hour on Sunday. (10)
Stroud also mentions an extraordinary case where a man, moved by religious impulse, attempted to commit suicide by crucifying himself.
He was 46 years of age, a native of Venice and had succeeded in nailing his feet and one hand to the cross.
He was unable to complete the crucifixion, of course, but hung in this position, equally unable to undo what he had done.
He was taken down by some passerby and subsequently died in a lunatic asylum, approximately one year later. (11)
Although Stroud's work is long out of print and hard to obtain, the reader will find in it many illustrations with full documentation of the fact that crucifixion does not normally bring a quick end to the sufferer, even after the condemned man has suffered the most terrible mutilations.
Men have been broken on the wheel, stretched on the rack, hung by their thumbs, and even partially burned, and after all this, been crucified and yet survived for many hours on the cross.
Some cases have even been reported from the Far East during World War II.
It is not surprising, then, that Pilate found it difficult to believe that Jesus had died so soon (Mark 15:44,45).
I am convinced that the cause of Jesus' death was not crucifixion per se, though certainly it was the object of those who were responsible that this was what should happen.
The Jewish people, as well as Pilate and the Roman authorities, were quite aware of the recognized Jewish law that no one should be allowed to hang on the cross after six o'clock in the evening of that particular day since the following day was a holy day.
Unlike with ourselves, the Jewish day begins at six o'clock in the evening.
It was therefore necessary to insure death before that time, and for this reason the Roman soldiers took steps to guarantee that all three condemned men would die very shortly.
Breaking the legs of the two other men had the effect, presumably, of putting all the strain on the arms and on the chest muscles so that suffocation would soon put an end to life.
I think it is noteworthy that those responsible for this unpleasant task of hastening death did not move along the line, as might have been more natural, but left Jesus till the last as though they were afraid to touch His body.
Perhaps it was with some genuine relief that they found Him already dead, for there can hardly be any doubt that the common man who had no reason for religious hostility must have looked upon Jesus with respect.
But one of those in a position of higher authority, fully persuaded that Jesus was dead, seems to have felt that he would not be fully performing his duty unless he made absolutely sure.
We are told that he plunged his spear into Jesus' side, apparently penetrating just under the rib cage which would be a prominent feature in the circumstances, intending thereby to effect a heart wound.
The result must have been somewhat unexpected.
As far as the centurion was concerned, he had probably performed this particular duty on a number of occasions previously and he would therefore be aware of the fact that under normal circumstances a corpse does not bleed.
From a physiological point of view, the body of the Lord was now simply a corpse, but when the centurion's spear penetrated, we are told that "there came out blood and water" (John 19:34).
The situation was an exceptional one and bears examination.
As medical knowledge has increased, it has come to be believed by a number of commentators that only one circumstance could account for the flow of blood and water from a corpse wounded in this way: namely, a ruptured heart.
"Heart break" is considered by most people to be more psychological than physiological, a subject more worthy of poetry rather than medicine.
The fact is, however, that the phenomenon has been observed on a number of occasions, and it is now apparent that the heart may rupture without always causing the immediate death of the victim.
Indeed, there may be a delay of many hours. We shall consider the evidence for this below.
In the circumstances surrounding the Lord's final hours of suffering it is not at all surprising that His heart should have been broken, and the question which has to be asked is, Do we have any clear indications as to whether this occurred on the Cross or some hours before?
This is an important question: but there is another one of equal importance, namely, Was this the cause of His death; Was this the reason that He was so soon dead?
I think there is evidence which allows us to determine with some measure of certainty when the rupture of His heart actually occurred, and I think that a careful analysis of the original terms used in describing the unusual circumstances of His expiration allow us to say with some measure of assurance that heart break was not the immediate cause of His death.
He died with a ruptured heart, and not because of it; just, as we have already seen, He died on the Cross, but not because of it.