Cause of death in crucifixion

I wandered into a discussion at work as to what actually caused death by crucifixion (cheery place huh?). My boss swears that it is documented fact that they generally died from suffocation. Supposedly because the way that you are hanging makes it difficult to breath and that they eventually get too tired to breathe anymore.

As someone with a little medical training this sounded like total BS. I could see dehydration, bloodloss from various injuries, infections, exposure, but not just flat out suffocating.

My opinion (supported by Cyn(RN)) would be dehydration as the big killer. Does anyone have any more concrete facts on this.

An earlier thread on this subject–and there are probably more in the archives:

I’d always heard suffocation as well (hence the breaking of someone’s legs to get them to die faster)

this site claims that suffocation will happen if nothing else gets in the way first. No idea how legit it is.

Yep, it’d be suffocation-since they were usually tied to the cross, not nailed. Being tied would take longer, and you’d eventually suffer more, from what I understand.

Well, the usual procedure of crucifixion gives you some clues about the cause of death. After the nailing of the victim to the cross, they would usually be allowed to hang there and suffer for some measure of time. Eventually someone would usually break the victim’s legs with an iron bar. My theory is that this would send the victim into shock, and since of course there would be no treatment for shock, this being an execution, the systemic distress of shock would be the cause of death.

Julius Caesar once had a large group of pirates who had kidnapped him all crucified, and he specified that he would NOT have their legs broken, and they lived for several days before succumbing to, presumably, dehydration and exposure.

In one of the Gospels, when Simon the Cyrenian(?) went and asked Pilate if he could claim the body of Jesus, Pilate was surprised that Jesus was already dead. Apparently, the leg-breaking had not yet been done. Also, apparently, the Gospel writer (I can’t remember which of the Gospels) wanted to make sure that everyone knew that Christ had not had his legs broken. It seems that it was important having to do with Jesus being the fulfilment of some Old Testament Prophecy. (Which makes me think that this can be found in Matthew)

I always heard that it was suffocation. Apparently hanging by the arms takes a certain amount of strength if you’re going to breathe properly. After a day or so of constant abuse, dehydration, and general bad stuff happening to your body, you’d eventually not have the strength to draw a breath.

Then again, I might be wrong.

This is the fuzzy area I run into. Your intercostal muscles (ones around our ribs) are not the primary muscles used for breathing. Your diaprham does most of the work IIRC. I don’t see how hanging by the arms would interfere witht he function of a muscule in your upper abdomen. IF not having the strength to draw a breath = suffocation then I guess we all eventually die of suffocation.

I am looking for legit pathological reasons why this person died. Like if you cut him down and did an autopsy what would be the actual “cause of death” dehydration is measurable, too weak to breathe is not a cause of death. There had to be a reason they were too weak to breathe.

Please forgive the mountain of typos and spelling errors in that… I’m in a hurry since I am trying to work too.

I was taught that in order to breath while crucified you had to push up with your legs as just hanging with your arms out would not allow you to exhale. breaking the legs would prevent you from pushing your self up

The Mayo Clinic did a study on this matter. It suggests that Jesus probably died due to a heart attack induced by slow suffocation.

I don’t have a copy of the original journal article by the Mayo Clinic, but its contents are reproduced here.

I heard the same story about Julius Caesar having the pirates crucified, but that he was being a nice guy in that he had their throats cut before the crucifixions.

It was Joseph of Arimathea who claimed Jesus’ body after He died. (All four Gospels). Simon of Cyrene carried the cross for Jesus to Golgotha, since He was apparently in such bad shape that He couldn’t carry it for Himself. (Matthew 27:32).

The prophecy about Jesus’ legs not being broken was from the Jewish tradition of the Passover lamb, which was sacrificed on Passover for the Seder. By religious law, it had to be a perfect lamb - no defects, no broken bones. Jesus, who was the ultimate Passover sacrifice, was also perfect, both in being sinless and in not having any of His bones broken. This is covered in John 19:31-37).

The Gospels mention Pilate’s surprise that Jesus died so soon. Other posters are correct in that it usually took a day or so to die, from exhaustion, dehydration, and shock. Jesus had had a very bad eighteen hours or so before the crucifixion, having not slept since Wednesday, praying so hard in the Garden of Gethsemane that He literally sweat blood (hematotidrosis is, I believe, the technical term). He hadn’t eaten since Thursday night, and was beaten by the arresting soldiers, walked from the Garden to the Sanhedrin, beaten there, walked to Pilate, walked to Herod, beaten and mocked there, walked back to Pilate, flogged, beaten again, and then crucified.

But yes, I believe the other posters and your boss are correct in that suffocation was usually the cause of death in crucifixion.

Nasty business.

For information on why Jesus chose to go thru this of His own free will, contact your nearest church, who will be glad to explain it to you.


In art books, I have seen paintings(more than one) depicting a soldier stabbing Jesus in the rib area while he was on the cross. I dont know how this matches up with scripture, but if it happened, it could have sped up his death.

a couple of other thoughts on crucifiction:

the time of year would have effected the suffering. In summer, heat, flies. In winter freezing, possibly rain or snow.

also, evidently guards must have kept watch to prevent family or friends from rescuing the victim.

I think the spear was something along the lines of, “Yep, he’s dead alright.”

Arn’t crusifictions and other unusual and nasty death sentences caried out in afganistan and the generalised area around it, like stoning to death as prescribed by islamic sharia law.

If this practice is still going on today im suprised we dont have a more clear answer, as it should be easy to observe, generaly the whole community are invited to watch.

I have heard suffocation is the way of death but dehydration, exhaustion, pain, hunger, shock, etc. would all play a part I expect.

Anyway enough talk about death, it will be upon us all soon enough as life is too short. Why worry around death, especialy the death of someone that died thousands of years ago, its life you should be concerned about.

Regarding Jesus, isn’t being run through with a Roman sword enough to compensate for unbroken legs and speed up a man’s death?

In regards to Jesus being stabbed with a spear, it was to make sure he dead, since he died before the other two. I have heard that water and blood pouring out was a sign that he was already dead and water had accumulated in the lining of the heart.