A Not-So-Good Friday

Sorry, but I cannot let this Good Friday pass by without making a comment on my favorite topic: the resurrection of Jesus.

I am uniquely qualified to write about Good Friday, because, unlike most human beings, I have been crucified. Actually, technically, I crucified myself. That probably sounds horrific, or at least a bit kinky, but it is true, and, obviously, I lived to tell the tale.

In case you are not aware, nobody knows how crucifixion causes death. There are competing theories about this, of course. The most widely held theory is that crucifixion causes death by asphyxiation. However, as Dr. Frederick Zugibe has argued in The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry (2005), there are good reasons to reject this popular theory. The main reason to doubt this theory is that crucifixion experiments conducted by Dr. Zugibe on human volunteers failed to produce evidence of any difficulty in breathing for the “victims” who were crucified.

Perhaps I should clarifiy the term “crucifixion” now. Most people think that Jesus was “nailed to the cross” and that being nailed to a cross is what “crucifixion” means. This is a false assumption. First of all, as Jehovah’s Witnesses are fond of pointing out, crucifixion need not involve a cross. Someone can be crucified on a stake or a tree. Second, crucifixion need not involve nails. Victims of crucifixion were often tied or bound, rather than nailed.

So, no, I did not nail myself to a cross. Dr. Zugibe did not nail anyone to a cross either; he secured the hands of human volunteers to a cross by means of leather gauntlets created specifically for the experiment.

Zugibe’s experiments cast significant doubt on the asphyxiation theory, but there were a couple of deficiencies in his experiments. First, we don’t know the position of the crucifixion victims and whether crosses were the standard, so many victims of crucifixion, including Jesus, could have been suspended with their hands overhead, rather than suspended with arms outstreched to each side (as we see in typical depictions of Jesus’ crucifixion).

This is significant, because asphyxiation is supposed to occur more quickly if one is suspended by hands directly above one’s head. Second, because of pain experienced by the human volunteers, the suspensions in Dr. Zugibe’s experiments were only allowed to continue for a few minutes. Since victims of crucifixion were typically suspended for hours and even days, one could wonder whether a suspension lasting longer than a few minutes would result in asphyxiation.

For those reasons, I suspended myself from my hands, with my hands overhead, using gauntlets similar to those in Zugibe’s experiment. To avoid injuring or killing myself, I did not suspend my full weight this way. I began by suspending myself on a slight angle (about 30 degrees), and worked my way up in stages to closer to vertical (about 60 degrees). I tried to stay suspended for longer than the Zugibe experiments. I think I made it up to 15 minutes (I will have to check my notes on that). At any rate, having most of my weight suspended from my wrists and arms was painful. The pain is focused on joints: wrists and shoulders. I never experienced any difficulty in breathing. Some day I hope to try this again, take some pain killers, and remain suspended for an hour or so.

Based on Zugibe’s experiments, and my personal experience with crucifixion, I conclude that the asphyxiation theory is probably false.

Zugibe has his own theory about what caused Jesus to die, but his theory is based on an ignorant and naive view of the Gospels, with a large dash of imagination and wishful thinking thrown into the mix. In any case, Zugibe’s theory is not a general theory about how crucifixion causes death, and given the dubious nature of the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion, a well-established theory of this sort is required in order to establish that Jesus died on the cross.

No such theory exists. We don’t know how crucifixion kills people. As a result, it is difficult, if not impossible, to prove that Jesus died on the cross on Good Friday.

I can say with confidence, however, that if Jesus was crucified on a Friday, and if he was suspended from a cross (or stake) for a number of hours, then it was a not-so-good Friday for Jesus.