Paper Keys III: The Keystone Crucifiers


Another of the modernist myths concerns the crucifixion of Jesus. The myth comes in several versions. The first is that Jesus did not really die upon the Cross, and that He revived in the tomb, slumped around for a few days, and then died indeed.

Even supposing the Shroud of Turin is not the shroud of Jesus, it is still the shroud of someone scourged within an inch of his life, and crucified. It shows torture the like of which no one alive in a civilized nation can imagine. There are large gouges in the back, near the spine, caused by shards of glass and iron at the end of the Roman whip. These would tear and dig into the flesh like fishhooks, before being ripped out by main force. Arteries are breached, and the spinal column. The Romans knew what they were about.

After all, they were not blunderers. They couldn’t afford to be. They maintained a frontier thousands of miles long against barbarian incursions, with a standing army much smaller than our own. Obedience was to be prompt and unquestioned. We have the centurion’s testimony: “I too,” he says to Jesus, “am a man under authority, and when I say to one man, Do this, he does it, or Go there, and he goes.” Disobedience was a capital offense.

These are the same Romans who punished themselves with decimation: if a company showed cowardice in battle, the commander might order the men to stand in line, with swords drawn. The soldiers would count themselves off, and every tenth man would be executed on the spot – by the comrade standing next to him.

The Romans had been about the crucifying business for a long time. They knew that death came to the condemned man by suffocation, and so they angled his feet downward, to provide him almost no leverage for lifting his body to expand the chest and take a gulp of air. Almost no leverage: just enough for agony, as each attempt chafed the raw clusters of nerves in the spike-driven feet and hands.

Since the Sabbath was coming, the three men crucified on Calvary had to be dead before sundown, lest Pilate offend to no purpose his wary enemies among the Jews. So the soldiers brought instant death to two of the men by the standard procedure. They broke their knees. That would do it; no more oxygen into the lungs. It was excruciating, and as effective as smothering a man in a straitjacket.

But they did not bother to break the knees of Jesus, because Jesus was already dead. Would the centurion in charge risk a mistake in this matter? Not if he valued his life. We are not talking, here, about a slip, a show of incompetence. For Jesus was not any ordinary prisoner. The sign upon the Cross bears witness: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, written in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.

The admonitory force of those words should not escape us, and would not have escaped the witnesses upon Calvary. This is what happens to self-made kings who defy the Roman imperium.

           Crucifixion (with the Spear of Longinus) by Fra Angelico, c. 1440

So the centurion made everyone as certain as certain could be. He did not swing a club like a ruffian. He had his convenient lance. He pierced the side of Jesus, through the lungs and into the pericardium, and out flowed blood and water, according to testimony which bears all the marks of an eyewitness. The water is the fluid in the drowned lungs, the result of slow asphyxiation and congestive heart failure.

The apostle John notes it, because it was strange to him, though perhaps not strange to the centurion. If you saw someone thrust a knife into a man, and blood and water came forth, you would note it too.

Now that settles the case. A balloon that has been burst with a needle is no longer a balloon. Lungs that have been transverberated are useless folds of flesh. Jesus was not dead? His body, as it was, could no more have been reanimated – which would have been miraculous in any case – than if his heart had been cut out and tossed away.

All right, Jesus died, say the mythologists. But somebody could have stolen the body from the tomb. Really?  Jews were grave robbers, were they? And on the Sabbath? How? Did they beat up the guards? What happened to the soldiers stationed at that tomb? Docked a day’s pay?  How does that explain the appearances on Easter and thereafter? And why would someone do it? To spread a lie about His resurrection? 

There’s not one bit of evidence that the disciples understood what Jesus was talking about when He said He would rise again. All the testimony suggests they did not understand. These conspirators would then commit their lives to a lie about something whose nature nobody understood?  Suddenly imbued with a theology of resurrection?  They would be stoned, as Jesus’ kinsman James was, or crucified upside down, as Peter was, or flayed, as Bartholomew was, for nothing?

Well, say the academic confidence men, the body snatchers were not the same people who experienced the risen Lord. But that multiplies problems. It would be bizarre all around.

We must suppose that people from a culture that treated bodies of loved ones with the utmost solicitude would use the Lord’s body as a shuttlecock. We must believe that a Peter was completely in the dark about the actions of an Andrew, and remained so for the rest of his life.

We cannot account for Mary Magdalene, who supposes that only enemies would have moved the body, to add insult to injury. But if they did, then they could have produced the body later, to silence the apostles. They didn’t.

And the disciples testify that they saw, touched, spoke with, and even ate with the risen Lord. Then comes the fallback Myth of the Madmen. More to come.



Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.