Passion and death of Jesus

Jesus suffered the most atrocious death, the one reserved for slaves, murderers, thieves and those who were not Roman citizens: crucifixion.

Gerardo Ferrara-April 7, 2023-Reading time: 6 minutes
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The vast majority of historians no longer have any doubt in affirming that Jesus of Nazareth really existed. 

Not only that: more and more historical and archaeological evidence is accumulating that confirms numerous details of his life, death and resurrection. We will try to briefly analyze some of them.


Jesus' public life lasted approximately three years-there are three Passovers mentioned by the evangelist. John in the account of Jesus' life, which is the most accurate in that it supplements the approximations of the other three evangelists and points out details overlooked by them, also from the chronological point of view). Then the Nazarene went up for the last time to Jerusalem, where Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees and Herodians conspired to put him to death, arrested him, handed him over to the Romans and, staging a trial (which was more like a farce) with the procurator, or praefectus Pontius Pilate, they had him crucified.

In spite of the discordance between the Synoptics and John in placing the death of Jesus on the 14th or 15th of the Hebrew calendar of Nisan, all the evangelists coincide in placing it on a Friday within the Paschal festivities.

Giuseppe Ricciotti, great historian and biographer of Christ, enumerating a series of possibilities all analyzed by scholars, concludes that the exact date of this event is the 14th of Nisan (Friday, April 7) of the year 30 A.D., Jesus having been born two years before the death of Herod, being about thirty years old at the beginning of his public life and counting 34 or 35 years at his death.

Some personalities and institutions 

Several of the following characters and institutions involved in the trial and condemnation to death of Jesus, apart from the Sanhedrin, were mentioned almost exclusively in the Gospels and in a few contemporary documents. However, archaeology has provided us with important details about them.

-Nicodemo (Naqdimon Ben Gurion) and Joseph of Arimathea (Ramataim). Both were notables of Jerusalem. They are mentioned in both Jewish writings and the Gospels. It is known that their descendants were slaughtered during the sack and capture of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

-CaiphasHe was high priest and head of the Sanhedrin from 18 to 36 AD. He was the son-in-law of Annas (high priest from 6 to 15 A.D.). From the list of the high priests of Israel and from Flavius Josephus we know that up to six high priests after Annas were his sons. They all belonged to the Sadducean stream. In 1990, the tomb of Yosef Bar Qajfa (Caiaphas was the nickname) and his family was found.

-Barabas and the thieves. All are called, in the Greek of the Gospels, lestés, They were, in fact, troublemakers (we read that Barabbas was a murderer and a violent man who had participated in a riot), most probably fanatics. It is paradoxical that the name of Barabbas, as recorded even in the oldest codices of the Gospels, was Jesus, named Bar-Abba (such as Joseph called Caiaphas, Simon called Peter, etc.). There is thus an ironic, or tragic, juxtaposition between the Messiah, Jesus, the Son of the Father, and a temporary messianic troublemaker.

-Pontius Pilate. In the Greek of the Gospels, it is called heghémonin Latin praefectus. In fact, he was prefect of Judea for about a decade under Tiberius. In 1961, Italian archaeologists, led by Antonio Frova, discovered at Caesarea Maritima a limestone tombstone with an inscription referring to Pontius Pilate as Praefectus Judaeae. Apparently, the stone block, known since then as the "Pilate Inscription," was originally located on the exterior of a building that Pontius Pilate had constructed for the emperor Tiberius. Until the date of its discovery, although both Josephus Flavius and Philo of Alexandria had referred to Pontius Pilate, his very existence, or at least his actual office in Judea, whether prefect or procurator, was doubtful.

-Simon the Cyrenian. He is the one who is forced to carry the cross of Jesus during the ascent to Calvary. In 1941, in the Kidron Valley, in Jerusalem, an ossuary was found with the name of Alexander, son of Simon, as it is written in the Gospels.

-The Sanhedrin (Hebrew: סַנְהֶדְרִין, sanhedrîn, i.e., "assembly" or "council," the Great Assembly) of Jerusalem. It was the legislative and judicial body during the Hasmonean-Roman phase of the Second Temple period. Opinions were debated before voting and the expression of the majority became a binding judgment. It traditionally consisted of 71 members.

The process of Christ

The trial of Jesus took place in accordance with a procedure called cognitio extra ordinem, introduced by Augustus in the Roman provinces, which allowed the competent authority to initiate a trial without a jury, preside over it and pass sentence independently. 

There were rules: the accusation had to be supported by whistleblowers, and then the accused was further interrogated, often tortured to admit guilt.

The accusation, in the case of Jesus, was of "lèse majesté", because he had proclaimed himself to be the son of God, a blasphemous expression for the Jews and illegitimate for the Romans (for the Romans "son of God" was a title reserved for the emperor).

The threat that the Jews addressed to Pilate, when they saw him hesitate to condemn Jesus to death, was that of not being "Caesar's friend". And it was an effective threat, considering that a previous praefectus, Gaius Valerius, had been dismissed shortly before for not being "Caesar's friend". Pilate himself was removed a few years later. 

The hearing was held at the lithostroptusa paved courtyard with a raised seating area, gabbathàin which the governor, or praefectussat down to pass sentence.

Recent archaeological discoveries have brought to light, in the vicinity of the Temple esplanade, exactly where the Gospel of John indicates and perfectly corresponding to its description, a portico of about 2,500 square meters, paved according to Roman usage (lithostrotonin fact). Given its location right next to the Antonia Fortress, at the northwest end of the Temple esplanade, and the type of remains brought to light, it could be the site of Jesus' trial.

Condemnation and flagellation

Jesus suffered the most atrocious death, the one reserved for slaves, murderers, thieves and those who were not Roman citizens: crucifixion.

In an attempt to get him to admit his guilt or to punish him by not crucifying him, he was previously inflicted with an equally terrible torture: scourging with the terrible instrument called flagrumThe whip, a whip fitted with metal balls and bony instruments that lacerate the skin and tear off chunks of flesh. Horace called this practice "horribile flagellum"

Normally, in Jewish circles, it did not exceed 39 strokes. On the man in the shroud, however, at least 372 lacerating scourging wounds (excluding the white parts of the sheet) were found, probably inflicted by two torturers.

According to documents of Latin authors, the scourge left the bones exposed because it tore off whole strips of flesh. ("I can count all my bones")). We have a faithful reconstruction of this in the film The Passion by Mel Gibson.


Crucifixion is a technique of torture and condemnation to death that originated in the East (perhaps in India or Persia), but also spread to Israel and the Mediterranean through the Phoenicians. The Romans, who had not invented it, were nevertheless its greatest users, perfecting the technique in an extremely cruel way to humiliate and make the condemned (who did not necessarily have to be Roman citizens, but slaves or inhabitants of the provinces) suffer as much as possible.

Also in Israel they were hung or nailed to trees, but with the arrival of the Romans a real cross was used, which could be of two types: crux commissaT-shaped, or crux immissa, in the form of a dagger. The latter is the one we know today, which is probably due to the fact that we know from the Gospel of Matthew that narrates the existence of the tituluma title with the motif of the condemnation that was placed over Jesus' head. 

Once condemned, Jesus was forced to bear the cross beam of the crux immissa (the patibulumHe was then stripped of his clothes and carried by a man who weighed between 50 and 80 kilos) for a few hundred meters up a hill just outside the walls of Jerusalem (Golgotha, where the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher stands today). There, according to Roman procedure, he was stripped naked. 

Other details of the punishment are known from the Roman custom of crucifying those condemned to death: they were tied or nailed with their arms stretched out to the patibulum and raised on the vertical post already fixed, to which the feet were tied or nailed.

Most of the weight of the body was supported by a kind of support (seat) that protruded from the vertical pole and on which the victim was placed astride: this is not mentioned in the Gospels, but many ancient Roman authors mention it. 

The foot support (suppedaneum), often represented in Christian art, is, however, unknown in Antiquity.

Death was usually slow, very slow, accompanied by atrocious suffering: the victim, lifted from the ground no more than half a meter, was completely naked and could remain hanging for hours, if not days, shaken by tetanic cramps, terrible shocks with excruciating pain (due to injury or laceration of nerves, such as the radial nerve at the wrist: the nail, between 12 and 18 centimeters long, was forced through the carpal tunnel), wheezing and inability to breathe properly, as blood could not flow to the limbs stretched to exhaustion, nor to the heart, and the lungs could not open.

Hence hypovolemic shock (blood loss, mechanical asphyxia, dehydration and malnutrition) accompanied by hemopericardium (blood accumulated in the pericardium and the transparent and clearer part, the serum, separated from the globular part: a phenomenon commonly observed in persons subjected to torture) and "rupture of the cardiac muscle", i.e. myocardial infarction. 

The rupture of the heart seems to be the cause of the "high-pitched scream" emitted by the dying Jesus. On the other hand, the outflow of blood and water through the orifice caused by the spear corresponds exactly to the hemopericardium.

In the Gospels we read that, unlike others condemned to crucifixion (who could be hung for days), the agony of Jesus did not last more than a few hours, from the sixth hour to the ninth hour, which is consistent with the massive loss of blood due to the flagellation. 

The authorGerardo Ferrara

Writer, historian and expert on Middle Eastern history, politics and culture.

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