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Autopsy of a crucifixion

Drawing on his studies in forensic pathology, David Instone-Brewer explores the science of crucifixion.

During my first week at university, my class was taken into a large, cold room of dead bodies. Over the next two years we learned anatomy by dissecting them with scalpels and forceps. Every tiny piece had to be collected for eventual burial out of respect for these individuals and their families, who had donated such a precious gift to science. This practical process taught us how bodies work, how they go wrong and what happens when we die. Some of us learned to become surgeons, pathologists or family physicians, and I gained a sense of wonder, which eventually took me into ministry.


One day, when we reached the heart, a Christian student exclaimed: ‘Look! It’s just like in the Bible.’

People crowded round in curiosity. He pointed to the blood, which had pooled in the heart. It was in two layers: red at the bottom and white at the top. The corpuscles had sedimented after the blood had stopped moving, leaving clear serum at the top.

‘It’s what John saw,’ my fellow student said (now a bit embarrassed by all the attention). ‘It’s the “blood and water” that flowed out separately when the spear penetrated Jesus’ heart.’ (John 19:34).


This spear thrust was no doubt meant to kill Jesus, just in case he wasn’t dead. It is unlikely that the author or any of his readers would have realised the significance of the separated watery fluid that he records coming out with the blood. For John, this was theologically important; see his other references to water (for example John 3:5; 4:14; 7:38). He didn’t realise he was furnishing proof that Jesus had been dead long enough for his blood to settle, but not long enough for it to coagulate. This incidental detail provides historical evidence that Jesus was dead.


Crucifixion was one of the grizzliest tortures invented; a form of suffocation that was worse than waterboarding. It could last for days and only ended when the person ran out of strength. Breathing becomes more and more difficult when you hang from your arms, unless you raise yourself. But that means pulling on nails through your wrists, or pushing on nails through your ankles. Bones have more pain sensors than skin, and grinding metal on bone is excruciating.

Romans only allowed crucifixion for slaves who betrayed their masters and for non-Romans who were guilty of particularly heinous crimes. They banned it a few centuries later because even though they entertained themselves by watching deaths in the circus, they considered it too barbaric.

The ban didn’t come soon enough to save the thousands of Jews crucified outside Jerusalem when they tried to leave the besieged city in AD70. First-century historian Josephus said that soldiers got so bored they experimented with various modes of crucifixion. This adds credence to the story that Peter asked to be crucified in a different way from Jesus.


Public humiliation was exacerbated by nakedness, but this was the least of the shame suffered during crucifixion. First came urination, caused by fear. Then came defecation, caused by the pain. Worse was to come (and I suggest you skip to the next paragraph unless you have a strong stomach). I learned more than I wanted to know in lectures on forensic pathology.

People are killed and kill themselves in many inventive ways that never make the papers. I was surprised at how many die accidentally though suffocation as a means of sexual gratification. This strange physiological reaction was the final shame of a crucified man: erection and ejaculation due to the slow suffocation.


The early Christians didn’t celebrate Jesus’ crucifixion the way we do. They understood better than we do what Jesus had suffered for them, but it was too shameful to talk about. The earliest Christian art, which survived in the Roman catacombs, depicts Jesus as the good shepherd, or as a fisher of men. They wanted to show him as a very special member of the working classes, but depicting him on a cross would have put Jesus among the worst of all criminals.

The only image of Christ on the cross dating back to the first few centuries is part of a piece of graffiti on a wall in Rome. It pictures someone looking at a cross where a man with an ass’ head is hanging. The caption, ‘Alexamenos worships his god’, reminds us that Christians suffered ridicule and worse for following someone who had been crucified. 


The Jews were equally scathing about anyone who was crucified because their corpse had been ‘hung on a tree’, which meant they were cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:23). Actually, this law warned Israel against following the barbaric practices of surrounding nations, who defiled the corpses of criminals and enemies by displaying them until they rotted. When this text was used against Christians, Paul confounded his critics by embracingit. He basically said: ‘Yes, Jesus was cursed by God, and thereby took the curse of our sins’ (Galatians 3:13).

Respect for corpses is now much more important than ever. Aldous Huxley and other science fiction writers imagined that atheistic societies would use human corpses as fertiliser, but they misunderstood the human psyche. Today, when so many believe there is nothing beyond death, the corpse of a loved one has become more, rather than less, precious. The Alder Hey Children’s Hospital organ scandal resulted in some families holding repeated funerals whenever another small piece of a loved one was discovered. No one predicted that a sense of hopelessness after death would lead to this.

Jesus’ crucifixion led to hope. His corpse was mutilated by a spear and left to rot in a cave because there wasn’t time to properly wrap the embalming spices into the grave clothes. And yet within three days it was reclaimed – by its original owner! What died was despair, because when Jesus reclaimed life he did it on behalf of all who live for him.

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