[The following is adapted from the scholarship of Fleming Rutledge, Scot McKnight, N.T. Wright, Arnold Fruchtenbaum, and others.]
One of the most degrading parts of crucifixion was the scourging. The Jews had precise rules regarding this form of punishment. Under the Law of Moses, no one could be lashed more than forty times, so they typically flogged people up to 39 times. But Jesus was flogged by Romans, not Jews. And the Romans were brutal when it came to the scourging.
Under Roman law, the number of times a person could be struck with the scourge was limitless. Roman flogging was so severe that people often died from this beating alone. Roman soldiers used whips with long lashes of leather which could wrap around the whole body. The ends of each lash often had fragments of nail or glass or metal attached to them.
Works of art always show Jesus wearing a loincloth when he was flogged, but that’s an addition to keep from offending our sensibilities. Scourging victims would have been completely naked. Jesus would have been tied to a post with his hands bound. After only a few strikes of the whip, His skin would have been torn away, exposing his back muscles. As the process continued, the whips would tear into the deeper skeletal muscles — which in turn would produce not only tremendous pain but also major blood loss.
The Romans were also especially fond of scourging the face. By the time a Roman flogging was over, often times even family members could no longer recognize the victim. The idea behind the scourging was to weaken the victim to something just short of total collapse or death. And of course, the victims were often taunted and ridiculed throughout the procedure.
The victim would then be paraded through the streets, subjecting him to further scorn from the crowds. Nails were never driven into the palms because that couldn’t support the full weight of a man’s body. Instead, they were driven through the wrists. Of course, this led to even greater blood loss.
Victims of crucifixion lived on their crosses for varying degrees of time, anywhere from a couple of hours to several days in some cases. Passively exhaling, which is something we do thousands of times a day without thinking about it, becomes impossible for someone hanging on a cross. The weight of a body hanging by its wrists would depress the muscles required for breathing out. Therefore, each exhaled breath would require tremendous effort to push oneself up by the feet or to pull oneself up with the arms.
Victims of crucifixion endured additional physical agony, including the loss of certain bodily functions; insects feasting on their wounds and orifices; extreme thirst and cramping muscles; shooting pain from the severed nerves in the wrists; not to mention the pain of a scourged back against the rough wood of the cross.
Crucifixions usually took place in heavily trafficked areas so passersby could mock those hanging on the crosses, spitting at them or throwing garbage at them. This would be the final touch of humiliation for one being crucified.
Eventually the crucified one gasps and heaves to the point that he is forced to become his own executioner as the weight of his own body kills him as it hangs, causing his own diaphragm to suffocate him.
Brutally beaten, naked, strategically situated for all to see, left to be eaten by birds and insects while they suffocate, victims of crucifixion were subject to unspeakable shame. The Gospel writers make it clear that this cross — scandalous and foolish in the eyes of some — is the most important event in human history. Jesus died a felon’s death, executed as a common criminal, bearing the weight of humanity’s curse as He hung upon the cross.
And He did this with us in mind.