EXPERIMENTAL STUDIES in CRUCIFIXION:
Frederick T. Zugibe, M. D., Ph. D.
In pursuing the truth in specialized areas of research, things are not always what they seem to be. This is especially true in Shroud and crucifixion research where the literature is badly contaminated by papers written by individuals who have expertise in one area but publish and lecture outside their areas of expertise and those well intentioned, ubiquitous dilettantes without any expertise at all who dominate the field and publish and speculate in some or in all areas of shroud research. The former reminds me of the derivation of the word ultracrepidarian; Alexander the Great’s artist, Appeles was criticized by a cobbler for the way he had drawn the latch of a sandal and Appeles immediately corrected it. Then the cobbler went on to criticize the subjects legs. Appeles snapped, “ Se supra crepidat judicaret” Let him not criticize above the sole. In this regard, many misconceptions have pervaded the literature, ad infinitum regarding the mechanism and cause of death by crucifixion, whether the palms could support the weight of the crucarius and where the hands were nailed during crucifixion. Despite our extensive suspension studies using sophisticated techniques that showed that there was no difficulty in breathing during suspension on the cross therefore precluding asphyxiation as the cause of death, there is still wide propagation, “polly parrot” style of Barbet’s a priori hypothesis that the crucarius had to rhythmically sag and straighten throughout the whole period of crucifixion in order to expel the air from the lungs ( 1, 2). Moreover, recent journal articles, lectures and television documentaries have repeatedly proclaimed Barbet’s hypothesis as fact that the palms of the hands could not support the weight of a crucarius during crucifixion and that the nails would tear right through the hands totally based on an invalidly interpreted experiment conducted by Barbet. When I read the voluminous literature based on Barbet’s sacrosanct speculations, I, sometimes wonder if I am not committing a sacrilege when I question them.
Barbet’s Asphyxiation Theory (1, 2) was based solely on a priori reasoning that Jesus assumed two positions on the cross; a sagging position and a straightening position. Barbet’s definition of sagging refers to the drop from the horizontal position (where the arms are parallel to the patibulum) to a position of about 65 degrees and where the knees are bent to an angle in the back of the knees to about 120° and the straightening position as a raising of about 5 degrees to a position of about 70 degrees. Barbet hypothesized that in the sagging position, the crucarius was unable to expire (breathe out) because the air in his lungs was locked in inspiration (breathing in) requiring him to push up with his feet in order to expel the air from his lungs (straightening position) and when he could raise himself no longer, he died of asphyxiation. He attempted to support his hypothesis in three ways; He quoted the observations of witnesses, that soldiers in the Austro-German army and a prisoner at the Dachau concentration camp were punished by hanging them by their arms above their heads with their feet just off the ground. They had extreme difficulty expiring because the air in their lungs was “locked” in inspiration, causing severe muscle contractions and spasms. When they could raise themselves no longer, they died of asphyxiation. Secondly, he attributed the bifurcation pattern in the hand area seen on the Shroud to the sagging and straightening maintaining that the pattern depicted two flows of blood representing a change in the angle of the wrists due to the lowering and raising. Lastly, he fortified his speculations with the biblical scenario, “So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with Him; but when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs” (John 19; 32, 33) indicating that the legs of the two thieves were broken to prevent them from raising themselves in order to expire (breathe out).
A.) I initially pointed out that Barbet’s three hypotheses are easily refuted (10-13). In the first scenario, the Austro-German observations are only applicable if the crucarius was crucified with no feet support and the hands directly, or slightly separated above the head and not at 65 to 70 degrees with the stipes. Even Barbet postulated that the arms were at about 65 degrees ( 1, 2) , Secondly, the “bifurcated” pattern could not represent the blood flow in the two positions because this pattern is on the back of the hand, which was nailed flush against the cross. A double flow is not possible because this would cause the blood to smudge all over the back of the hands and wrists.. and lastly, in the Giv at ha Mivtar Excavation of the 7 A.D. Jew, the legs were broken (skelekopia or crurifragium) but reconstruction by both Haas ( 5 ) and Zias and Sekeles ( 9 )showed that the crucarius’ was already in a raised position with the arms parallel to the patibulum.
Since it had been inferred that I was guilty of using the same kind of a priori reasoning as Barbet, we developed an extensive experimental protocol (10, 11 ) to investigate Barbet’s hypothesis since it has been quoted ad finitum, in magazines, book chapters, books, lectures, documentaries, etc. In this regard, we performed extensive suspension experiments utilizing a very sturdy and highly accurate cross constructed for me by the late Father Weyland, D.V.M, with a linear series of holes through each arm of the patibulum to provide for different arm lengths, with which to affix the hands, and special leather gauntlets were used to secure the hands to the patibulum The volunteers were then allowed to suspend fully while an assistant bent the knees while sliding the heels upward against the stipes until the soles were flush to the cross at the lowest point possible. The feet were strapped exactly at this point with seat belts, both with the feet flush to the stipes and also with one foot on top of the other. A series of sophisticated tests including 12 lead electrocardiograms, pulse rates, electronic blood pressures, auscultatory examinations, vital capacities, ear oximetry values, arterial blood gases, venous blood chemistry profiles, Douglas bag studies etc. The results of these studies showed no visual evidence of breathing difficulties throughout the suspension, the oxygen content of the blood either increased or remained constant as was determined by blood gas measurements, and oximetry and Douglas bag studies determined the presence of hyperventilation with abdominal breathing. The volunteers were suspended from 5 minutes to a maximum time of about one hour primarily because of the pain in the arms, shoulders and legs but never because of any respiratory difficulty. Moreover, volunteers that were suspended without securing their feet had no difficulty breathing, carried on a complete conversation and afforded identical clinical values as those who had their feet secured although the severe pain on the arms and shoulders precluded hanging them more than a few minutes. It was concluded that the asphyxiation theory was untenable. Despite these extensive tests, it had been stated by some shroudies that these experiments were not applicable since our volunteers were not brutally scourged, crowned with thorns, nailed through the hands and feet and suspended for a long period on the cross like that of Jesus.
The Palms of the Hands: The widely disseminated hypothesis that the palms of the the hand could not support the weight of the crucarius during crucifixion because the nails would tear through the hand had its inception with an experiment conducted by Barbet ( 2 ) where he drove a nail through the middle of the palm of a freshly amputated arm ( no clinical history given ) and suspended an 88 pound weight (about half the weight of a 176 pound person) from the elbow and found that it tore through after about ten minutes and a couple of shakes. He collated this with mathematical calculations for a man suspended at an angle of about 65 degrees, which he indicated would result in a pull of about 209 lbs. on each hand (tension formula: wgt. of body ¸by 2 x cos.65°). He then concluded that the palm of the hand could not support the weight of a crucarius and since the hand wound image on the Shroud appears to be in the wrist and not the palm, this had to be the site of penetration and he would entertain no other possibilities. He attributed the role of the legs in decreasing the amount of pull on the hands as negligible (2 ). Unfortunately, this has been used repeatedly and accepted as gospel to support authenticity because heretofore, crucifixion of Jesus had repeatedly been depicted with the nails through the palms since no one had ever tested this hypothesis experimentally to determine the amount of pull that would be exerted on each hand when the feet are secured. Moreover, because of Barbet’s report, documentaries, magazine articles and books definitively stated that the palms of the hands are not able to support the weight of the body. We became skeptical with Barbet’s hypothesis because we had noted during our suspension experiments, that the pain in the arms and shoulder were severe when our volunteers were suspended without feet support (Fig. 1 ) but was markedly reduced when the feet were secured to the stipes (Fig. 2 ) We then realized that the tension formula using the weight of the body divided by twice the cosine of the angle with the stipes for the amount of pull exerted on each hand should not have been utilized since the formula only applies to free hanging without securing the feet to the cross. It was then decided to perform a series of experiments to accurately measure the amount of pull on each hand using highly accurate, sophisticated equipment both when the feet are secured to the stipes and during free hanging.
Therefore, a series of experiments were conducted from another perspective; to determine if the position assumed by our volunteers corresponded to the sagging position of Barbet, to determine whether it is physically possible for the crucarius to straighten himself from a sagging position and to examine the bifurcation pattern on the hand wound in regard to Barbet’s assertions. In addition, an experiment was conducted using highly sophisticated instrumentation to determine the exact amount of force (pull) on each hand during suspension to determine if the hands could support the weight of the body.
This experiment was designed to determine if the position of our volunteers corresponded to the sagging position hypothesized by Barbet as the position where the crucarius is unable to breathe out and to determine whether it was possible to straighten the body from the sagging position as indicated by Barbet. In this regard, according to Barbet (2 ), the sagging position is the result of the drop from the horizontal (arms parallel to patibulum) to about 65 degrees and where the knees are bent in the back of the knees to an angle of about 120°( see Figs. 3 and 4 where Barbet demonstrates this by suspending a cadaver on the cross). Our volunteers were allowed to suspend fully by the hands in the gauntlets at which time an assistant bent the knees and slid the heels upward against the stipes until the soles were flush to the cross at the lowest point possible and then secured with a seat belt at this level (a series of openings are present along the sides of the stipes at different levels to insert the seat belt restraints at the corresponding level). This was repeated with one foot on top of the other.
In the second phase of this experiment, the volunteers were requested to straighten the body as if to breathe out (expire) as hypothesized by Barbet (1, 2 ). They were told to push against the foot restraints as hard as they could as if their life depended on it. We repeated this with one foot placed on top of the other. Most of the volunteers tried several times.
This experiment was designed to determine whether the angle of the wrists would change during the
straightening and sagging positions indicated by Barbet to account for the bifurcation pattern on the Shroud( Fig. 5 ) and if so, to determine the degree of change. We secured the hands firmly against the patibulum and then requested that they attempt to straighten themselves according to Barbet’s hypothesis as if to breathe with both feet flush against the stipes and then with one foot on the other. Since the volunteers were unable to do this, we had to lift them around and under the back of the thighs while pushing against the knees and observe whether there was a change in the angle of the wrists.
Experiment Three: The Amount of Pull on Each Hand: The cross was set up, leather gauntlets were firmly tied on the hands of four male volunteers weighing between 174 and 204 lbs. These volunteers were prepared in the same manner as in our previous experiments ( 10, 11 ). They climbed on the table with their backs against the stipes and outstretched their arms parallel to the patibulum to find the numbered hole corresponding to their arm lengths. Two Omega Digital Programmable Strain Gage Panel Meters (DP-25S) ( Fig. 6 ) with a + / - accuracy of .03% were each attached by cables to two all stainless steel “S” Beam Load Cells ( Fig.7 ) with openings at each end and of very high accuracy, each with a capacity of 500 lbs. The meters were fully programmed and calibrated prior to suspension. The length of the load cells from eye to eye measured about 4 inches. One eye of each load cell was attached to a nylon rope on the back of each gauntlet and the other eye on each was attached to the spikes on the cross-piece. The table was gently removed and the volunteer was allowed to suspend fully.( Fig. 8 ) Readings were taken from the strain gage panel meters and recorded. Then, an assistant bent the knees of the volunteers and slid the heels upward against the stipes until the soles were flush to the cross at the lowest point possible and secured with a seat belt at this level (a series of openings are present along the sides of the stipes at different levels to insert the seat belt restraints at the corresponding level ). The arms were at an angle of 65 to 66 degrees with the upright and the knees were bent to angle of about 120°. ( Fig. 9 ) This was repeated with one foot on top of the other. Readings were taken from the strain gage panel meters and recorded.
The position of our volunteers corresponded to the sagging position hypothesized by Barbet. ( Figs. 10
and 11. Compare with Figs. 3 and 4 ). This is the position that was assumed by our volunteers in this and all of our previous experiments.
In phase two of this experiment, none of the volunteers who were suspended according to the criteria postulated by Barbet was able to straighten their body no matter how hard they tried or with multiple attempts. This appears to be due to the fact that with both feet secured to the stipes or with one foot on top of the other and the knees bent , the range of motion limitation for straightening has been exceeded which precludes any type of straightening or pushing mechanism.
Experiment Two: Since the volunteers were physically unable to straighten as indicated in experiment two, we attempted to assist the volunteers by lifting them by their torsos. We noted in every instance that there was no change in the angle of the wrists; instead, in the far majority of the cases, the arms bent at the lateral articulations between the radius-ulna and proximal carpal bones and in a few cases they bent at the elbows. Although Experiment One totally refutes Barbet’s hypothesis (1,2) that the “bifurcation pattern” represented proof that the crucarius assumed two positions; (one arm of the bifurcation representing the sagging positions and the other arm representing the straightening position), this experiment demonstrates that even if it were possible for the crucarius to straighten, there is no change in the angle of the wrist further refuting this phase of Barbet’s hypothesis.
Experiment Three: The results of these experiments are given in the Table One.
Table One: TENSION (PULL) ON EACH HAND
When the volunteers are suspended by the hands without securing the feet (free hanging), the results of the tension formula and the strain gauge measurements are in total agreement. However, when the feet are secured, the strain gauge, reveals a pull less than 1/3 of the values obtained by the tension formula for free hanging (Table one). The pull on each hand at 65 degrees of volunteers weighing from 174 to 204 lbs. varied from 61 to 72 lbs (Table one).
When the volunteers are suspended by the hands without securing the feet, the results of the tension formula and the strain gauge measurements are in total agreement. However, when the feet are secured, the strain gauge, reveals a pull less than 1/3 of the weight of the body. The pull on each hand at 65 degrees of volunteers weighing from 174 to 204 lbs. varied from 61 to 72 lbs (chart).
Our previous series of experiments revealed that in the position of our volunteers on the cross, which is in complete accord with the sagging position postulated by Barbet (where the arms are about 65 degrees with the upright and the knees are bent to an angle of about 120°), there is no difficulty breathing contrary to Barbet’s hypothesis ( 2 ). An evaluation of the above factors and a forensic medical reconstruction of all the factors from Gethsemane to Calvary clearly demonstrated that traumatic and hypovolemic shock were the harbingers of death and not asphyxiation (10-14 ).
Many shroudie ultracrepidarians charge that the volunteers in our experiments were in good health, were not suspended very long and did not take into account the effects of the scourging, crowning with thorns, nailing of the hands and feet, and exhaustion from several hours of suspension as is depicted in the bible. These objections are nonsensical because there would be no reason for the crucarius to raise from the sagging position because we were able to demonstrate experimentally, using state of the art equipment that the sagging position as fully described by Barbet does not cause any difficulty in breathing.
Experiment One demonstrates that the position on the cross of our volunteers corresponds to the sagging position hypothesized by Barbet and that it is not physically possible to straighten from Barbet’s sagging position. This appears to be due to the fact that with both feet secured to the stipes or with one foot on top of the other and the knees bent , the range of motion limitation for straightening has been exceeded which precludes any type of straightening or pushing mechanism. It is also obvious that it would be virtually impossible to straighten the body from the sagging position since the arms of the crucarius were so far extended. This experiment also demonstrates that if volunteers who were in good physical condition were unable to push or pull up to straighten themselves no matter how hard they tried when the feet are secured to the stipes or with one foot on top of the other, how could an injured, exhausted person particularly one in severe pain and nailed through the hands and feet have the strength to straighten from a sagging position. This should completely repudiate the theory of straightening and sagging as proposed by Barbet. Therefore, it doesn’t matter how long the crucarius was on the cross and in what physical condition he was in, because it is not possible to straighten as proposed by Barbet and even if it were possible, there would be no reason to straighten because simply stated, there is no problem breathing in the sagging position.
It is of considerable interest to note from a forensic pathology point of view, that even if our volunteers had been able to raise themselves up, this still would not support Barbet’s hypothesis for the following reason. In the case of an actual crucifixion, the feet and hands would be markedly, swollen and exquisitely painful within a short time of nailing and would progressively become more swollen and painful with time. Any attempt to straighten by pushing or pulling against the nail would not be possible because the degree of pain would be excruciating, exquisite and intolerable.
Our finding in Experiment Two, that there was a bending at the lateral articulations between the radius-ulna and proximal carpal bones and in a few cases at the elbows without any change in the angle of the wrists when we physically lifted the body and straightened the knees of the volunteers, disproving Barbet’s hypothesis that the “bifurcation pattern”on the Shroud supported his hypothesis that the crucarius assumed two positions; one arm of the bifurcation representing the sagging positions and the other arm representing the straightening position.
Another fact to mull over is that the average respiratory rate is 12 to 16 per minute and in the scenario proposed by Barbet, the crucarius would have had to straighten himself by pushing against the nails in excess of 360 times during the 6 hours on the cross even if he took only about one respiration per minute.
The experiments regarding the amount of tension ( pull ) on each hand demonstrated that during suspension with the feet secured, the tension formula for the amount of pull exerted on each hand is not applicable unless the crucarius is hung by the hands alone without securing the feet. According to Barbet, when he applied a weight of 88 lbs. to an amputated arm that was pierced by a nail through the palm, the nail pulled through between the fingers after ten minutes and a couple of shakes. He, however, incorrectly relates, “Now, it was not the weight of 88 lbs. but of nearly 209 lbs. which was dragging on each nail in the hands of the Crucified”. ……. “The objection will be made that the body of the Crucified was dragging entirely on the hands. I am not speaking here of the fixing of the feet, which could not appreciable relieve the dragging. The knees were bent and the nail in the feet only supported a negligible part of weight; its main use was to prevent the feet from leaving the cross.” ( 2 ). The data in Table One completely disproves these statements.
If Barbet is correct, that about 88 lbs. will tear through the hands, it is possible that individuals up to 225 lbs. (by extrapolation), can be nailed through the palms with the upright without tearing through if both feet are secured to the stipes either directly or with one foot on top of the other. I am, however, quite skeptical with Barbet’s experiment because amputations of arms are exceedingly rare and are primarily reserved for instances of gangrene due to obstruction of the vascular supply by disease or from severe traumatic circumstances. In such cases, the ischemic tissues would offer less resistance than normal tissues and should tear through the hands at a lower force than through the normal tissues. If this assumption is true, then individuals even in excess of 225 lbs. could be nailed through the palms without tearing through.
The presence of the wound image in the wrist area on the Shroud should not be used to support authenticity using the argument that the palms could not support the weight of the body, per se because crucifixions were performed in many different ways ( 8 ). According to Blinzler ( 3 ) and Hewitt
( 7 ) and quoted by Hengel in his scholarly book on crucifixion ( 6 ) it was the rule in Roman times to nail the victim both by the hands and feet. This was done through the palms, with and without rope supports, through the wrists, through the forearm between the radius and ulna bones, by ropes alone [ this was the exception according to Fulda ( 4 ) as quoted by Hengel ( 6 ) ] and in unintended regions of the hand if there is intensive struggling.
Our recent experiments demonstrate the following:
1. Barbet’s hypothesis, that the crucarius must straighten himself from a sagging position in order to expire (breathe out) is untenable because our experiments demonstrated that it is not physically possible for a person to straighten from the sagging position of Barbet (2). In answer to the critics, if straightening was required to expire (breathe out) an injured and exhausted crucarius suspended on the cross would be physically unable to straighten himself to expire (breathe out) since none of our volunteers, all of whom were in in excellent physical condition were physically unable to raise themselves from the sagging position postulated by Barbet. Even if the crucarius was able to straighten himself, there would be no purpose in doing so because there is no difficulty breathing in the sagging position. Moreover, in an actual crucifixion, the feet and hands would be markedly swollen and exquisitely painful within a short time of nailing, progressively becoming more swollen and painful, making any attempt to straighten by pushing or pulling against the nail, literally impossible because the degree of pain would be excruciating and intolerable.
2. The bifurcation pattern of the wrist wound is not due to sagging and straightening as hypothesized by Barbet because the angle of the wrists does not change when the body is straightened because the arms always bend at the lateral articulations between the radius-ulna and proximal carpal bones and in a few cases at the elbows. Moreover, if the wrists were actually nailed, they would be firmly fixed precluding any change in the angle.
3. Experiments using state of the art, programmable strain gages attached to “S” Beam load cells revealed that the tension formula for determining the amount of pull on each hand during suspension is applicable when the legs are free hanging but not when the feet are secured to the stipes. The amount of pull on each palm of four volunteers weighing 204, 190, 180, 174 lbs., during suspension, where the arms were at an angle of 65 ° with the upright and both feet were secured to the upright, either together or with one foot on top of the other, with the knees at an angle of about 120° was 78/79 lbs. , 72/73 lbs., 69/ 70 lbs. and 66 / 67 lbs., respectively. If Barbet is correct that a force of 88 lbs. will pull through the hands, then by extrapolation, the palms should not pull through, up to a weight of about 225 lbs. However, it is doubtful that the nails would pull through the palms of normal hands at 88 lbs. because amputation of arms are exceedingly rare and done primarily in instances of amputation due to obstructive vascular disease, in cases of severe trauma and cases of certain malignancies. Such hands would offer less resistance than normal tissues causing tearing through the hands at a lower force than through normal tissues.
1. Barbet, P. Les cinq plaies du Christ. Second ed. Paris: Procure du Carmel de IAction de Graces, 1937.
2. Barbet, Pierre. Doctor at Calvary. New York: P. J. Kennedy & Sons, 1953; New York: Image Books, 1963.
3. Blinzler, J. Der Prozess Jesu, Regensburg, 1969; Et of 2nd ed.
4. Fulda, Das Kreuz und die Kreuzigung. Eine antiquirische Untersuchung.., Breslau 1878.
5. Haas, N. "Anthropological Observations on the Skeletal Remains from Giv'at haMivtar. " In Discoveries and Studies in Jerusalem, 1970, Israel Exploration Journal 20(12) (Jerusalem, Israel):3859.
6. Hengel, M. Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1977.
7. Hewitt, J.W. The Use of Nails in Crucifixion, HTR 25, 1932, 29-45.
8. Seneca. Dialogue 6 (De consolatione ad Marciam) 20:3
9. Zias, J., and E. Sekeles. "The Crucified Man from Giv' at haMivtar." Israel Exploration journal 35(1985):2227.
10.Zugibe, F. T The Cross and the Shroud. A Medical Examiner Investigates the Crucifixion.
Angelus Books: Garnerville, New York, 1982.
11. Zugibe, F.T. Death by Crucifixion. Canadian Society Forensic Science Journal
12. Zugibe, F.T., Crucifixion of Jesus: Two Questions About Crucifixion: Does the victim
die of Asphyxiation? Would Nails in the Hands Hold the weight of the body? Bible Review:
13. Zugibe, F.T., Barbet Revisited, Sindon, Nuovo series, Quad.#8, pp pp. 109-121, 1995, (http://www.shroud.com/zugibe/htm.)
14. Zugibe, F.T. Forensic and Clinical Knowledge of the Practice of Crucifixion; A Forensic Way of the Cross in The Turin
Shroud; Past, Present and Future, edit. By S. . Scannerini and P. Savarino, International Sci. Sympos.,Turin, Italy Mar.
2000, Effata Editrice,
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