In 1968 archaeologists in Jerusalem unearthed the skeletal remains of a Jewish man who died in his twenties in the middle of the first century. His remains were inside an ossuary (bone box) within a family tomb. His name was Yehohanan and he was executed for political crimes. We know this because of a single artifact found with his bones: a seven-inch nail driven through his heels. Yehohanan was crucified.[i]

The Jewish nation understood crucifixion. In Jerusalem and Judea, thousands of Jews were executed in this way during the Roman era. In 88 BC the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus crucified 800 Jews in Jerusalem in a single day.[ii] When Herod the Great died in 4 BC Quinctilius Varus, the Roman governor of Syria, crucified 2,000 Jewish rebels in and around Jerusalem.[iii] During the Roman siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, the Roman general Titus executed as many as 500 Jews per day before the wall of the city.[iv]

Because of its extreme nature, crucifixion in the New Testament era was applied only to certain crimes: treason, desertion, robbery, piracy, sedition, and assassination. It was originally for slaves, fugitives, and prisoners of war. It was deemed so horrible a death that Roman citizens were spared this means of execution. Nonetheless, God chose this as the means of death for his Son (Acts 2.23; Philippians 2.8).

The four gospels altogether provide only about three pages of information on the actual crucifixion. Yet they furnish enough details to give us a sense of what Jesus endured for us. 

Fatigue. It’s easy to forget what preceded Jesus’ crucifixion. He had spent the previous week in Jerusalem, often in confrontation with Jewish officials (Luke 19.47-48; 21.37-38). He spent an intense period of prayer just prior to his arrest (22.39-46). His captors tormented and beat him in the night (22.63-65). By morning, he would have been nearly exhausted.

Trials. After his arrest, Jesus was interrogated six times before being formally condemned. He was first brought to Annas the former high priest who briefly questioned him (John 18.12-14, 19-23). This was done out of deference to him although he acted without authority.

Jesus then appeared before the sitting high priest Caiaphas. This hearing was at night, which was illegal, and was a pretext for finding suitable charges. False witnesses were produced, false charges were made, and Jesus was charged with blasphemy for affirming that he was the Christ, the Son of God (Matthew 26.57-68; cf. 16.13-20).

The Jewish council formally charged Jesus at morning by simply rubber stamping the previous two interrogations. They sent him to Pilate the governor of Judea, who had the authority to execute Jesus (Luke 23.66-23.1). He saw through their pretext and pronounced Jesus “not guilty” (23.2-5). They persisted, however, so he sent Jesus to Herod, effectively sending the case to a lower court (23.6-7). Herod continued the mockery and abuse but could find no reason to charge Jesus (23.8-12, 15). 

Pilate again affirmed Jesus’ innocence and tried three times to release Jesus, but to no avail (Luke 23.13-25). The Jews threatened Pilate (John 19.12-16), and when a riot nearly erupted, he gave Jesus into their hands (Matthew 27.24-26).

Scourging. Before being crucified, Jesus was flogged with the Roman flagrum or flagellum, a whip with three to twelve leather straps, each with a lead ball or piece of bone attached to the end. It lacerated the skin and left muscles, bones, and organs exposed.[v] Many prisoners died from this. It caused massive blood loss, excruciating pain, dehydration, and shock. Jesus knew this beforehand (Mark 10.32-34).

Crucifixion. As many as 600 Roman soldiers gathered to mock Jesus just before he was led away from the Praetorium to Golgotha (Matthew 27.27-31). Along the way, Jesus was too weak to carry the patibulum (the 30 to 40-pound horizontal beam of the cross), so the Romans forced a visitor from North Africa, Simon of Cyrene, to help (Mark 15.21). 

At the crucifixion site, they nailed Jesus’ hands (or wrists) and feet to the cross, which was dropped into a hole with Jesus’ feet only a few inches above ground. Victims were close enough to the ground that spectators could spit upon them and strike them. They were usually naked, adding humiliation to pain. While on the cross Jesus’ enemies continued their mocking and derision (Matthew 27.39-44). Often victims would scream and curse at the crowds, but Jesus is seen praying for them (Luke 23.34). 

The Romans supported the victim’s body by a small, pointed seat (sedile) and a footrest (suppedaneum) to prolong the agony and prevent a rapid death. The awkward body position made breathing difficult, and the lacerations on his back would dry and stick to the rough wood of the cross, adding to the pain. The heat and blood loss caused dehydration and produced an intense thirst (John 19.28-29). 

Death. After six agonizing hours, Jesus succumbed to death (Mark 15.25; Matthew 27.45-50). Many victims lasted for days. The mechanism of his death isn’t revealed. It may have been asphyxiation. It may have been shock. It may have been a heart attack. The cause of his death is beyond dispute: he died because of our sins (1 Peter 2.24).

Not surprisingly, the Roman statesman Cicero said, “Let the very name of the cross be far away not only from the body of a Roman citizen, but even his thoughts his eyes, his ears.” For Christians, however, the cross is our only hope. “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6.14). 

The Romans thought that a crucified savior was nonsense. The Jews thought it was blasphemous. Even today atheist Richard Dawkins describes atonement as “barking mad.”[vi] But God used this to save us eternally: “…we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1.23-24). In the cross we see the love, glory, power, and wisdom of God.

“To that old, rugged cross I will ever be true, its shame and reproach gladly bear; then he’ll call me some day to my home far away, where his glory forever I’ll share.

“So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it some day for a crown.”


[ii] Josephus, Antiquities 13.14.2

[iii] Ibid., 17.10

[iv] Josephus, Wars 11.1

[v] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.15

[vi] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion 253