Many of the secular arguments against the resurrection of Jesus Christ actually relate back to a misunderstanding on what crucifixion was like. In this episode, we look at various historical references to crucifixion to see what the ancients thought of it. After getting a better understanding of how the people within that culture understood crucifixion, it seems obvious that it was horrific, and that no one survived it.
Music from Uppbeat (free for Creators!)
Audio of the Ultimate Questions Podcast is found anywhere podcasts are available.
Hello and welcome to the Ultimate Questions podcast. Lately we’ve been looking at counter arguments to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the past couple of episodes we focused in on the “swoon theory” argument, which says Jesus didn’t actually die, so when He came back, everyone thought He had risen from the dead, when in reality He had just recovered from His wounds. In the last episode we began looking at a specific version of this argument by philosopher Bradley Bowen, who attempts to make a case that Jesus had several weeks to recover in-between His crucifixion and His first appearance to anyone. Because of this, He would have had enough time to recover, thus giving the illusion of a resurrection. In the last episode we looked at the logical problems with this position, but I ended the podcast by pointing out that there was one huge problem still left unaddressed in this debate. The biggest problem with arguments that claim Jesus could have survived is that they don’t appreciate how bad crucifixion was. The idea behind the swoon theory, or in Bowen’s case, a focus on the simple idea that Jesus could have survived, is that crucifixion is not the type of thing someone just walks away from. For this episode of the Ultimate Questions podcast, I want to show how bad crucifixion was, and that it’s not possible for someone to recover enough within a few weeks, or even ever, to the point that people could be deceived into thinking a crucifixion survivor had actually been resurrected from the dead. To do this we will be looking at the historical data, showing how the ancients during those times understood crucifixion, to show the severity of this form of execution. In the next episode we’ll be looking at the medical and scientific information as a way of showing how bad crucifixion was. So for now, let’s jump right into the problems with the swoon theory by looking at the historical sources regarding crucifixion.
One of the big things Bowen focuses on is his idea that perhaps Jesus was let off the cross early, for whatever reason. This could have been either deliberate on the part of the Romans involved, or accidental. If it were deliberate, perhaps it was that the guards were bribed, or threatened, or tricked, or they were drugged, or drunk, or just distracted. In these sorts of cases, the big problem is how determined the Romans were to do their job, and the consequences of what would happen if they didn’t do their job. To remove the easy one first, Roman guards, if threatened, would obviously respond with force, squashing the opposition, as Rome had always done. The very idea of a few non-military Jews threatening the Roman guards seems laughable.
Secondly, in terms of bribery, the first problem with that is that centurions were paid very well. Rome was quite generous to their military men, so that they would be more loyal, so some Jews offering a Roman some cash wouldn’t be that tempting, because he was already paid well. Another problem with bribery is that the consequence for this would be quite severe. The centurion would obviously lose his job, which means the bribe money wouldn’t be tempting anyways, but also, if he deliberately shirked his responsibilities like that, he could face a very harsh punishment. When a Roman soldier would enlist, they would recite an oath called the “Sacramentum”, which was basically swearing loyalty to Rome, the senate, the people, and the emperor. Part of the oath was that they would fulfill their duties on pain of punishment, which could include the death penalty. So the idea of taking a few bucks to let someone off a cross just doesn’t make sense, since he would lose his job, and possibly his life, if he was caught. Add to this the fact that Romans looked down on the Jews, and it just doesn’t seem reasonable to think a well-paid Roman military man would take money from some Jewish fishermen.
Next, regardless of how it works out, whether they were drunk, drugged, distracted, or tricked, again, if the Roman guards failed at their job, they would have been severely punished, and possibly killed. Regardless of how it happened, the Romans had a simple job to do; kill this person by crucifixion. They had weapons, armor, and training. They did this sort of thing regularly. The Romans were famous for squashing opposition wherever it presented itself. Furthermore, Jesus’ crucifixion was public, and just outside Jerusalem, which was heavily populated. The idea that anything could have stopped the Romans from completing their job, without anyone noticing, seems quite impossible.
Lastly, and this is where a lot of our focus will be, perhaps the Romans accidentally let Jesus off the cross early, and Jesus was able to survive. In this scenario, they might have thought Jesus had died, when in fact He was still alive, which is the normal way the Swoon Theory is presented. This is a popular idea among uninformed secular people trying to challenge Christianity, but it’s just not possible. We’ll go into the physical abuse Jesus went through for most of this episode of the podcast, but beyond that, there is literally no case, in all of the historical accounts, of anyone ever surviving a Roman crucifixion. However, there is one example that skeptics will use at times, and this will actually help shine some light on the situation. This example comes from Josephus and his autobiography, section 75. In this section, Josephus describes travelling with the future emperor, Titus, and they entered a city called Thecoa. He writes, “I saw many captives crucified, and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician's hands, while the third recovered.” The skeptic will quickly point out that in this case we have one person who was crucified, and ended up recovering! Firstly, it’s important to point out, again, that this is literally the only account in all of history of anyone surviving a Roman crucifixion. So the odds are one to countless thousands that you’ll survive, not giving Jesus very good odds. But it gets worse than that, because this survivor was deliberately let down off the cross before his crucifixion had been completed. This is incredibly important, because the job wasn’t done. It would be like executing someone by lethal injection, but quickly after injecting them you give them the antidote. Would that be a fair assessment of how deadly lethal injections are? Or if someone was executed by suffocation, and while they were gasping for air they were released before they died. Again, would that be a fair assessment of whether suffocating someone kills them? Similarly, if this survivor of crucifixion was let down early, then this doesn’t give us any reason to think someone could normally survive being crucified. To make matters even worse, the other two people that were let down early still died, even after receiving the best medical care available! So the survivor wasn’t even fully crucified, and even then, two others still died even after being let down. Rather than giving an example of a survivor of crucifixion, this actually shows us just how severe the punishment was, where people could still very likely die, even if the Romans let you down early for whatever reason.
To further the point even more, since Josephus describes a situation where it looks like there were many people being crucified, it’s quite different from how Jesus was crucified. In Jesus’ case, there were only three of them, and they had been judged criminals in a court of law, and given a proper sentence. As we’ll see later in this episode, from a Roman standpoint this implied a flogging, which would have been quite severe. While the men in Josephus’ story were likely just nailed to the beams of their crosses and left there, Jesus wouldn’t have been so lucky. This means we have to add the severity of the beatings to Jesus as well, which would drastically reduce His chances of survival. The fact that this is the only case ever of someone getting off the cross and living, that the crucifixion wasn’t even finished, that the others still died, and that Jesus would have been flogged as well, all of this together shows that it’s not reasonable to think that Jesus could have been let off the cross early and survived.
Another big point Bowen focuses on is the wounds of Jesus. Multiple times in his article Bowen refers to the “alleged wounds” of Jesus, and attempts to cast doubt on both the severity, and even the existence of the wounds of Jesus we read about in Scripture. His goal is to downplay how badly Jesus was tortured, in order to make it seem as though crucifixion wasn’t that bad, so that the possibility of Jesus surviving can go up. In order to critique this, we’re going to look at what the ancients wrote regarding crucifixion, to see whether the Gospels sound like they’re giving good descriptions of what a crucifixion would have looked like. The information that we’ll be able to glean helps us get a grasp of the real problem with anything that even resembles the swoon theory. We have quite a bit of information regarding the history of Roman crucifixions, and needless to say, they weren’t pretty. By looking at the historical details, we’ll see that the idea that someone could have even possibly survived this procedure ends up being ridiculous. This is the reason no historians hold to the swoon theory, and why only people like Bowen, who’s credentials are irrelevant to history, are willing to try and advocate for a view where Jesus survived crucifixion. So, let’s take a look at the history of crucifixion to get a better idea of what we’re dealing with, and why any sort of argument that assumes Jesus could have survived crucifixion must ultimately fail.
Again, Bowen refers to the torture Jesus endured multiple times, and uses the phrase “alleged” wounds, repeatedly. His goal here is obvious; he doesn’t believe Jesus’ suffering was actually all that bad, so it’s possible He could have survived it. This is a common problem among people who haven’t studied crucifixion. If you’ve never read or heard anything about the nature of this form of execution, it doesn’t really look “deadly”. Even though it would be very painful to have nails driven into your hands and feet, it doesn’t seem like the type of thing that would kill a person. When asked about how crucifixion kills, many people will say that it’s probably only due to blood loss. To a certain extent, it’s understandable that a layperson might come to this conclusion, since in the Gospels we find that Pilate marvelled that Jesus died so quickly. If he was surprised by how quick Jesus died, maybe He just appeared to be dead, and the executioner made a mistake. Some skeptics will even make their critique saying that the entire resurrection of Jesus completely hinges upon a single centurion’s word that Jesus had died. We’ll go over the scientific and medical aspects of dying by crucifixion next time on the podcast, but for now, I want to focus on the historical aspect. We’re going to look at how crucifixion was viewed by the cultures that witnessed it, to see how bad they understood it to be, to show that Jesus not dying is completely unreasonable. Crucifixion was understood as the “summum supplicium”, or, the supreme type of torture, because of just how terrible it was to die this way. Crucifixion didn’t just give minor wounds, and it wasn’t merely a form of execution either. The Romans were known to be brutal, and crucifixion was one of the ways they scared people into submission. Probably the main purpose of crucifixion was the fact that people were being publicly tortured and killed in a gruesome way, so it acted as a deterrent against anyone else committing that same crime as the criminal. So now, I want to look at some primary material, mostly from Romans and Greeks, to see how they viewed crucifixion, so I can show you that Bowen’s idea that crucifixion “wasn’t that bad” shows an extreme ignorance about what it was like.
Firstly, in case you didn’t know, Rome didn’t actually invent crucifixion. While crucifixions in other cultures before Rome served different purposes, Roman crucifixions were usually given to non-Roman slaves, criminals, and instigators. Before they actually crucified someone, it was normal practice to give them a flogging. We see many cases of this in other ancient literature, for example, when Josephus wrote about the Jewish uprising in 70ad, in his Wars of the Jews 5.11, he said that the Romans would first whip and torment them with all sorts of tortures before crucifying them, which is also what we read in the Gospels’ description of Jesus’ crucifixion. The flogging process in and of itself was horrific. We see in that same work in 6.5.3 an example of a Roman flogging, where he describes it by saying “he was whipped until his bones showed”. So the process of a Roman crucifixion would have been a gory and bloody sight, even before the person was put up on the cross.
Now, as I said before, crucifixion was meant as a deterrent against other people committing the same offence. Quintillion wrote in Declamations 274, that he even thought crucifixion of criminals was so good, that they should be set up on the busiest roads, to act as the greatest deterrent. So if a slave hurt his master, publicly crucifying him and leaving him out on display for all the other slaves to see would make the other slaves never want to hurt their master. We see examples of this in numerous places. A first example is in the same part of Josephus’ The Wars of the Jews, 5.11, which we just finished looking at. It describes all the horrible things the executioners did to the Jews in this case, and even says that the excessive cruelty was allowed so that, hopefully, the other Jews might see it, be incredibly afraid, and yield at the sight of the cruel treatment. Another example of crucifixion being the main deterrent is in Chariton 4.2.7 where we read that 16 men “were paraded out, chained together by the foot and neck, each carrying his own cross. The executioners added this grim public spectacle to the punishment as an extra deterrent to anyone thinking about committing the same crime.” You’ll also notice that carrying the crossbeam, or “patibulum”, was part of the punishment of crucifixion. We also read about this in other places, one of which being Plutarch’s Sera, 554, which says that in crucifixion “each criminal who goes to execution must carry his own cross on his back”. This is interesting, because we read the same thing in the Gospel accounts.
The next aspect of how horrible crucifixion was is the creativity of the executioners. Part of the excessive cruelty I mentioned just a moment before from Josephus’ passage from The Wars of the Jews was that the Romans would crucify people in contorted positions. This is why in many pieces of artwork with Jesus on the cross, His body is pictured as contorted. We also read this from Seneca, in dialogue 6, 20.3, where he says he saw many crosses, and the victims were all crucified in different ways. Some of them had their heads to the ground, some had their genitals impaled, and some stretched out their arms on the gibbet. We also see another case where the Romans shot arrows at the victim of crucifixion, simply to have fun scaring him. This is all to make the point of showing that the Romans got creative, using various ways to torture their victims.
Another aspect of crucifixion, which is a bit strange, that shows how horrible it was, is the practice of crurifragium. If you’ve ever done research into crucifixion, or heard a sermon on it, or even just paid close attention while reading the Gospel of John chapter 19, you’ve probably heard of this idea. Apparently crucifixion victims would have their legs broken in order to hurry up the process, and quicken the death of the victim. I found this concept particularly interesting, because, while you can find many people writing on the topic as though we know a lot about it, there’s actually very little data on the subject. In John 19:31-37 we read that when Jesus was crucified, the next day was going to be a Sabbath, because it was Passover, which is considered a high holy day. Since it was going to be a Sabbath, the Jews wanted to get the bodies of the victims off the crosses before the day was over. The Jews went to Pilate and asked that the victims’ legs be broken, so that the process could be hurried up. The soldiers broke the legs of the first two, but when they got to Jesus, they recognized that He was already dead, so they didn’t break His legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, and blood and water came out, which is a sign of death. John then helps his readers recognize that this fulfilled two prophecies concerning the Messiah, first that the Messiah would have no bones broken, and secondly that the Messiah would be pierced. Now, someone like Bowen might look at this and say that this actually proves his point, that it’s possible Jesus didn’t actually die. From his perspective, breaking the legs was done to ensure death, and since the soldiers “thought” Jesus was dead, they didn’t break His legs, which means He could have survived. However, the soldiers did pierce Jesus’ side with a spear, which was a way to prove that Jesus was already dead at this point. Again, the Romans were professionals, and they were taking an additional step to make sure they finished the job properly.
The difficulty with all of this is that, as I said, there is very little data concerning crurifragium, which is the act of breaking the legs to hurry death of crucifixion victims. One reason for the sparse amount of data on this is that people didn’t really like discussing or writing about crucifixion, which ends up with less data on it than you would think. That said, we do get some details that help us out. Firstly, we have a case in Plutarch’s Pericles 28.2 where some men were “bound to planks” (which is likely a polite way to avoid saying crucifixion), and after 10 days they still weren’t dead, so in order to hurry the process, they beat in their heads with cudgels, and were denied burial. This looks like a practice similar to crurifragium, which at least gives us a precedence for it. We also have a case from Suetonius’ Life of Julius Caesar 74.1, where Caesar swore he would crucify some pirates, and by the time he caught them, he showed them mercy by having their throats cut before being crucified. This is interesting for two reasons; firstly, it works as a slight example of giving a death blow to crucifixion victims to hurry the process, in this case out of mercy, but also, it shows us just how bad crucifixion was. Having your throat slit was seen as a mercy to a crucifixion victim. We also have the unique case of Quintilian’s Declamations Majores 6:9, where it says that the executioners would not forbid burial to crucifixion victims if they had been pierced. Now this word translated as “pierced” comes under some scrutiny, because it could just mean something like “wounded”. However, given the context, simply meaning “wounded” doesn’t really make sense. Every crucifixion victim was wounded, and yet, a normal part of crucifixion was to deny burial. So how would it make sense to say that executioners would allow burial for those who were denied burial? It makes far more sense to read this as an exception to the rule, where “normally” crucifixion victims were denied burial, but the executioners would allow burial if the victim had been pierced. In fact, John Cook comments on this, saying that the normal way this term “percussus” was used regarding executions was that it was connected with a final blow or piercing from a sword, axe, or spear. So given the context, it implies a weapon being used to ensure death. This would then not only act as a good example of something similar to crurifragium, but also gives us a historical example to work as evidence for Jesus having His side pierced by a spear. It confirms Jesus did in fact die, and that the Gospels accounts are historically accurate here, because what the Gospels describe is the same as what history tells us regarding the nature of crucifixion, where Jesus was pierced to prove His death, and thus was allowed burial.
Now all that said, this practice of crurifragium, or breaking the legs to hurry death, was not the normal way crucifixion occurred. Normally, the victim would take quite a while to die, which was part of the point of the torture of crucifixion. Also, once dead, the corpse would be left up for a while, if for no other reason than to allow many people to see them, for the punishment to act as a deterrent to others. The corpse would be left up, and wild birds and dogs would eat it, which further added to the humiliation of the victim, and increased the deterrent effect. However, let’s look back at that part in John where the Jews asked for the victims to have their legs broken, so the process could be hurried up, because the next day was a Sabbath. They asked for this because of a passage in Deuteronomy 21:23 which reads, “his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.” Now, this passage wasn’t referring specifically to crucifixion, because that style of execution didn’t exist when Deuteronomy was written, but the concept still applied. The Jews understood crucifixion to be even worse than everyone else did, because of the curse God proclaims through a corpse being left on a tree overnight in the land. Because of this, it seems as though it was actually a normal practice for Jews not to be left up, and that they were granted burial, as a special case in the Roman Empire. We even see proof of this in Josephus’ The Wars of the Jews, 4.317, where he wrote that the Romans normally didn’t bury crucifixion victims, but the Jews cared so much about the burial of men that they would take down the crucifixion victims and bury them before the going down of the sun. This makes perfect sense, given the law in Deuteronomy which says you shouldn’t allow a corpse to be left on a tree overnight. The common practice of the Romans was that a crucifixion victim would be left up a long time, that there would be no piercing of the body, and they would be denied burial. However, given these details we’ve gone through, it makes perfect sense that Jesus would have been pierced to prove death, taken off the cross before nightfall, and then buried. This shows that what we read in John fits the historical data, gives us additional reasons to think Jesus was in fact buried, and for the purposes on this episode on the swoon theory, it gives us excellent reasons to think Jesus did in fact die. The piercing of His side was not to make sure He “would” die, as is the case of breaking the legs of the other victims, but instead, Jesus was pierced to prove that He had “already” died.
To continue our evaluation of how bad crucifixion was, it was seen as so abhorrent and grotesque, that we even find in pieces of fiction that the heroes weren’t allowed to be crucified. If the hero was going to be crucified, they would be saved, because a hero shouldn’t be allowed such a horrific end. A good example of this is found in Xenophon’s Ephesiaca, book 4.
In Lucian’s dialogue Piscator, chapter 2, people gather to discuss the most terrible way to punish a wrongdoer. A first person opens up with the assumption, well of course he should be crucified. A second person chimes in basically saying, oh of course, but before that let’s flog him, and cut out his eyes and tongue. In this discussion of how to best torture someone, crucifixion was the assumed climax, or as I said earlier, the “summum supplicium”. It was taken for granted by everyone that it was the most horrific way to die. To further this point, crucifixion was described by Demosthenes, in Oratio 21.105, as being the worst form of execution.
There’s another vivid passage about crucifixion written by Seneca, in his Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 101. He uses crucifixion as an example of a climax of pain, says the victim of crucifixion is the most pitiable thing in the world, and that it would be far better to just die. He then goes further and asks the rhetorical question, “can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain, dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly tumours on chest and shoulders, and draw the breath of life amid long-drawn-out agony?” The “ugly tumours” likely refers to the hemorrhaging that would occur after the flogging, which would create massive bloody and bruised welts. Dying limb by limb likely refers to the body slowly shutting down through the process of full body asphyxiation, which we’ll go more into in the next podcast when we discuss the scientific and medical aspects of crucifixion. But to reiterate his overall point, he describes the grotesque, painful, and deadly process of crucifixion, which does ultimately lead to death, and asks the rhetorical question, “is there anyone in their right mind who would ever wish to be crucified?” because it was considered the worst way to die, the climax of pain, and the victim is the most pitiable thing in the world. In his mind, literally any punishment would be better than crucifixion. It’s actually perfectly appropriate to call this “excruciating”, because that word of ours actually comes from the term “crucifixion”.
I mentioned this briefly earlier, but crucifixion was so horrible, that even the Roman population apparently saw it as something that shouldn’t even be mentioned. In a famous passage by Cicero in his defense of Rabirius On a Charge of Treason, passage 16, the fate of a Roman citizen is being discussed in court, and his accuser had originally said the punishment should be something like crucifixion. Part of Cicero’s defense was to express how absolutely barbaric it was for the accuser to even bring up crucifixion. He goes into all the various terrible fates a Roman could be dealt, but says that crucifixion is so much worse, that “the very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears.” He then says “indeed the very mention of [crucifixion] is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man.” It even seems that, in many cases, the very words associated with crucifixion were avoided in the writings of the higher class. The words “crux” and “patibulum” do not appear at all in Caesar’s writings, even though he did use crucifixion as a punishment. Other writers like Lucretius, Virgil, Statius, Pliny the Younger, and Aulus Gellius also avoid having any mention of crucifixion, since it was considered so horrible, that many wouldn’t even want to subject their readers to such things. It seems quite contradictory that the Roman military would crucify others so readily, while at the same time the Roman population considered it not polite to even discuss. It appears that crucifixion was understood as a “necessary evil” that had its benefits to society, even though it was horrific.
To come back to Bowen’s argument, he argues that crucifixion wasn’t that bad, that a person could have survived it, and that Jesus’ wounds described in the Gospels were either not that severe, or possibly didn’t even happen. Now that we’ve looked at some historical details about crucifixion, let’s evaluate Bowen’s claims. First up, Bowen points out that humans can recover from wounds within 48 hours, which would have given Jesus enough time to recover, so He could appear to His disciples without wounds. This is ridiculous, considering the wounds Jesus had sustained. As mentioned, crucifixion involved a severe Roman flogging, to the point that the bones even showed. I have personally sustained wounds much less than a Roman flogging, and the healing took a lot longer than 48 hours. At one point I ripped off a good portion of the right side of my face. At other times I split open my chin, my eyebrow, and my shin. I also ripped open my arm which hit two veins, and in yet another case I ripped open my palm to the point I could see my muscle. All of these are only cases of flesh wounds I sustained, and in these cases the recovery took a lot longer than two days, and these weren’t even close to as severe as being whipped by a brutal and professional Roman executioner. For Bowen to say a person could recover from a Roman flogging within 48 hours doesn’t make any sense, and can only be because he is unaware of the severity of what the flogging looked like.
Bowen points out the different wounds that the Gospels describe, in order to evaluate each. Firstly, he brushes off the idea of a crown of thorns, because there was no precedence for this type of thing. While it’s true we have no other accounts of this, we do have examples within the historical texts that show us the Romans had a tendency to get creative with their executions. Considering this point, it actually makes sense that the Romans would get creative here, especially considering Jesus’ case was a little unique, with the criminal being charged with being a king. Given all this, we might not have additional reasons beyond the Gospels to believe in the crown of thorns, but we do have historical reasons that would justify this, and nothing to contradict it. In terms of the severity of this type of unusual punishment, while there is debate about the type of thorns it would have been, it seems likely the plant used could have had thorns up to three centimeters long, and they would have been sharp. Even something as small as rose thorns would still be incredibly painful, if there were many of them being shoved down on your scalp. Considering how much head wounds bleed, having dozens of thorns piercing the scalp all over the head would also likely cause a good deal of bleeding. There have actually been deaths recorded by doctors in modern times, even just from skin wounds on the scalp.
Next, Bowen doubts the spear wound that Jesus’ body was given after His death. As I mentioned earlier, we do have historical precedence in terms of crurifragium, where death blows were delivered to crucifixion victims. This is especially true in the case of the Jews, because of their religious laws. Also, regardless of how exactly the spear wounded Jesus, this would not have been a minor injury. A spear being shoved into a person, especially when the point is to piece the internal organs, and particularly the heart, is going to be a very damaging act to the human body, even if the person misses the intended target. So we have the textual evidence and the historical precedence, and no reason to disbelieve it.
The third wound discussed is the nails. There actually is evidence that, at times, the Romans did use ropes instead of nails, but this was by far a minority of the cases of crucifixion. We find many cases of crucifixion being described with nails, and barely anything that talk of ropes. Nails were the normal way Romans crucified people, and if historical accounts like the Gospels describes the nails, and even specifically focuses on the nail wounds in the hands and feet, there’s no reason to doubt it. It’s also important to note how bad getting your hands and feet nailed to the cross were in a Roman crucifixion. In terms of the hands, the nail was almost certainly not driven through the palm, as it is usually depicted in modern media. This is because the weight of the person’s body would cause the nail to rip right through all the flesh. Common consensus agrees it would have likely been past the wrist, in-between the two bones of the forearm, so that the person would still be capable of hanging from the nails, without just stretching and ripping to the point the person fell off the cross. In terms of the nails being driven into the feet, there is very good reason to think the nail would have been driven through the ankle or heel bones, with the victim’s feet being on either side of the beam of wood. One good reason to think this is because, again, it would have ripped through otherwise. If you have a 180 pound man weighing down on these nails with his whole body weight, it would rip through just about anything, except his bones. Another very good reason to think this is that we have actually found two ancient remains of the bones of crucifixion victims from this time period. One is referred to as the “Fenstanton man” because of where he was found, and the other is called Jehohanan, because his ossuary box had written on it “Jehohanan the son of Hagkol”. In both of these cases the heel bone had been pierced all the way through with a nail, giving us the only archeological evidence of crucifixion. So if many cases of historical texts from the time say they used nails, we have archeological evidence of nails, and the Gospels say Jesus was nailed, then we have every reason to believe this is accurate, and no reason to believe it false. With that in mind, think about getting a nail driven through your heel bone. You do not heal from this in 48 hours, in fact, you likely would never heal properly from this, especially back then. To think Jesus could have been walking less than two weeks later, and convincing people He had been dramatically resurrected, all with this terrible injury, just doesn’t make any sense.
The main source of injury to Jesus’ body, however, was the flogging He would have received. I don’t really understand why Bowen tries to downplay this, aside from the fact that it helps his argument. After there was a sentence given for crucifixion, the person was first flogged, as I mentioned earlier in this podcast. I also mentioned the severity of it, where at times the bones even showed. The Romans developed a talent for this, and used special instruments of torture designed to do as much damage as possible. Again, for Bowen to doubt this makes little sense, because we have historical descriptions not only of what was the normal practice by Romans, but we also have explicit details to Jesus’ crucifixion specifically. There is no reason at all to doubt either the existence or the severity of Jesus’ flogging. The only reason someone like Bowen would doubt this is because it helps them continue to believe something like that Jesus could have survived.
Lastly, while Bowen downplays how bad crucifixion was, the biggest problem with his view is the simple fact that crucifixion kills. It’s not merely stringing someone up to a beam. I gave quite a few examples earlier, where the ancient world understood crucifixion to be the worst and most horrible way to die. We have zero cases of anyone ever surviving a crucifixion, with the single exception of a person being let off the cross early, and even then the two others still died. Jesus’ other injuries would have definitely been quite severe, but regardless of that point, crucifixion itself was bad enough, and would lead to death. Bowen’s conclusion that Jesus didn’t suffer all that bad, or that He could have survived, is completely and absolutely without historical precedence, and goes against all the historical data we have access to. Again, it seems as though Bowen is willing to admit the historical details found in the Gospels, up until the moment that it contradicts his pre-existing biases, at which point he tosses out the Gospels as unreliable. This entire process ignores any and all historical data we have, and is argued in a completely ad hoc way, where his premises have no reason to be believed, and are asserted merely because they save his conclusion.
The Romans were known for their brutality, for squashing anyone that stood against them, and for torturing people into submission. Their favorite, and most brutal method of this, was crucifixion. For someone like Bowen to refer to Jesus as having “alleged” wounds, or treating crucifixion as if it wasn’t all that bad, or even to argue as though someone could survive it, shows a complete and total ignorance of the historical details regarding crucifixion. The very idea that Jesus could survive is essentially a conspiracy theory, based on ad hoc reasoning, and ignoring all history on the subject. Bowen has invented a story where Jesus survives, with no historical data in his favor, and all the historical details contradicting him. Given the historical data that we’ve gone through, Jesus couldn’t survive, and even if He did, the torture would have been so severe, He could not fully recover, and would also have definitely been horribly scarred and disfigured. There would be no way for the disciples to think He had been resurrected, defeated death, and was the prince of life, and the Son of God.
After all that, hopefully you can appreciate just how bad crucifixion was, and that it wasn’t possible for someone to come away alive, nonetheless unscarred. At this point, arguments that try to say Jesus survived crucifixion, and then convinced everyone He had been resurrected, are completely ridiculous. However, at the risk of beating a dead horse, there’s actually still another very important avenue to this discussion that we haven’t even touch on yet. When we evaluate the medical and scientific aspects of crucifixion, it quickly becomes obvious that no one even could “possibly” walk away from a Roman execution and live to tell the tale. Even if we grant that there was a great deal of time for Jesus to recover, and even if we grant that He had excellent medical care, He would still have died, due to what crucifixion does to the human body. Crucifixion is a horrible procedure, not just in terms of pain, but also in terms of the effect on human physiology. To make the obvious point, it kills a person. So in order to show the swoon theory is even worse off than we already think it is, we’ll be diving into the scientific and medical aspects of the crucifixion, next time, on the Ultimate Questions podcast.