“As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.” (From the Crucifixion of Jesus, Luke 23:26-NIV)
The Holy Week and Easter festivities are on the horizon, once again. But, my thoughts were more about an increasingly troubled Middle East, where I was stationed many years ago. While there, I had many questions within my thinking about the Eurocentric interpretations of the Bible, as well as the suppressed history of three African Popes and the hushed presence of black people in the Bible. And, the lingering racism in the world offered no consolation.
And, these nagging notions continue, today, within the celebratory rituals associated with the resurrection of Jesus Christ– especially his violent execution on Calvary. Just what kind of man was this “Jesus,” I thought, and who were these unheralded Africans in the papacy– and, the Bible?
Considering the little known ancient role of black people in the Bible, it’s always been a point of interest for me that an African, Simon of Cyrene from Ancient Libya, “The Land of the Blacks,” helped Jesus carry His cross to the Crucifixion. While it is likely that those who authored the Bible did not possess the notion of racism that we see today, I still thought about what manner of man, whatever the color of his skin, this Jesus must have been in suffering such nauseating torture, for the oft stated “sins of humanity.”
As for the African Popes- Pope St. Victor, Pope St. Miltiades and Pope St. Gelasius– the National Black Catholic Congress and various historians provide significant documentation concerning their reigns, as well as Simon of Cyrene. That’s a chapter in world history all to itself. Yet, like other “missing pages” of black history, and all of the twisted reasons surrounding some perceived need to suppress them, the true history of the world becomes further murky and mysterious, at best.
But, I felt that the blatant horror of the Crucifixion, though also suppressed, might give some additional insight into the mission and passion of Jesus, the Christ, as I struggled to understand why he remained so faithful and loved so many with a love so strong- stronger than death itself– and, perhaps, a love that only God can understand.
According to Matthew 27:27-31 (KJV, my African Heritage Study Bible), Jesus’ physical tribulations began at the reluctant orders of Pontius Pilate, following the trial that also released Barabbas, when the Roman soldiers escorted him into a common hall full of other soldiers, flogged him with a whip of leather thongs and bits of metal, stripped the clothes from Jesus, replacing them with a scarlet robe. They platted a crown of thorns, placed it on his head and mockingly bowed before him, proclaiming, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Afterwards, they spat on him, replaced his robe with some garments, blindfolded him and beat him about the face, before leading him to be crucified on the hills of Golgotha (a.k.a., Calvary), “The Place of the Skulls,” outside of the walls of Jerusalem, perhaps a half-mile or so. At some point, Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus, a bystander visiting Jerusalem, was ordered to bear the cross of Jesus. He shouldered this burden to the place where Jesus was to be crucified.
On Golgotha, in preparing Jesus for the execution, the soldiers gave him vinegar, mingled with gall (bile; bitter animal secretions, etc.) to drink, although he rejected it after tasting it (some references say it was “myrrh” mixed with wine, a spice from the thorny “Commiphora” tree).
And, the horror began anew.
Over the years, various doctors and historians have tried to reconstruct certain medical aspects from the physical trauma experienced by Jesus, during this slow form of an execution. It was a process that archives say the Persians cooked-up hundreds of years before Jesus was born. They say it was “the most painful death invented by man…to be used for the most vicious of criminals.” But, records show it was a practice “perfected” by the Romans.
In preparing people for execution, according to research, Romans often used wooden crosses, made of an upright pole “fixed in the ground with a removable crossbar,” of nearly 100 pounds. Typically, the victims were stripped naked with their clothing divided among the guards, as they did when gambling for Jesus’ garments.
In “The Agony of Love” (Dr. Mark Eastman, “Personal Update News Journal,” April 1998) the details of Jesus’ likely physical suffering, from a medical perspective, was published from compilations and assumptions stemming from historical archives and the “Synoptic Gospels” (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and John, the “Canonical Gospel.” It’s a worthy hypothesis, in my opinion, which looks at the physical suffering of Jesus, beginning in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before the Crucifixion. But, when it began to describe the probable physiological and/or biological stress that Jesus likely incurred while being tortured, like rainwaters rushing from cascading waterfalls, I began to get a fresh sense of what kind of man Jesus was.
From my upbringing within the black church, coupled with an association with Black Liberation Theology, I was familiar with several of the 40 or so “miracles” performed by Jesus, such as “calming the stormy sea,” “changing water into wine” and “walking on water,” etc. But, the way I saw it, enduring the agony of such sadistic and barbaric punishment- because he preached love and forgiveness- was something this “Man from Galilee,” of all people, was just not supposed to be experiencing. After all, if he could bring the decaying corpse of Lazarus back to living, breathing, eye-open consciousness, death was something he could easily avoid. At least, that’s how I thought as a child, growing up in the home of my Baptist minister dad and summers spent on the farm of my Pentecostal Evangelist grandmother and former moonshine-running, tobacco-chewing step-granddad, turned respected farmer. But, at this late point in life, now a granddad myself; the physical trauma of Jesus, from his unusually cruel treatment while on the cross, took on a new meaning.
According to Dr. Eastman’s “The Agony of Love,” “The resulting position on the cross sets up a horrific sequence of events which results in a slow, painful death. Having been pinned to the cross, the victim now has an impossible position to maintain.”
Other studies or medical assumptions point out that the sadistic flogging before death served to weaken the condemned victim and produce a sudden lowering of blood pressure, likened to suddenly standing up, as well as bring about an emergency condition where severe blood loss would cause acute shock, making the heart unable to pump enough blood to the body. As with Jesus, when such victims were thrown to the ground, on their backs, when preparing for their hands to be nailed to the cross, the flesh already ripped from his bones by flogging would be ripped open further and become contaminated with dirt and other filth. It was probable that every time he breathed, the painful wounds would rub against the rough, sometimes splintered wood and blood would ooze throughout the agonizing punishment. Intense suffering was the result, by design.
Then, with the arms of Jesus stretched out, and the wrists nailed to the cross with 9” spikes, the likelihood of Jesus hanging there until death increased. Medical assumptions revealed that wrist bones and ligaments could support the full weight of a hanging body, but not the palms. Thus, iron spikes strategically placed between the radius and the carpals would crush certain nerves and completely sever others, producing “excruciating bolts of fiery pain in both arms,” as well as paralysis in certain parts of the hand and impalement of various ligaments, resulting in a fixed, claw-like clench. Well-placed spikes could minimize bleeding without breaking any bones, according to some sources.
The positioning of the feet was considered critical to successful crucifixions, with the knees flexed around 45 degrees and the feet bent downward another 45 degrees until they became parallel to the upright pole. Another 9” spike was strategically hammered through the feet (through metatarsal spaces and plantar nerves), severing non-major arteries, but without enough bleeding to cause death, just more searing pain and suffering.
Then, there were the inflammations, swellings and other changes associated with the painful trauma that made respiration, especially exhalation, extremely difficult, according to research assumptions. The body weight pulling down on Jesus’ outstretched arms and shoulders would probably cause the rib muscles, which help move the chest wall, to be placed in a permanent state of inhalation where breathing becomes shallow, at best. Muscle cramps and fatigue would have stifled breathing even further.
When Jesus spoke his “Seven Last Words” on the cross, according to medical assumptions, he must have spoken in brief, clipped utterances which were painful to speak and difficult to hear, since speech occurs during exhalation. After being on the cross an estimated 6 hours, Jesus died. The exact cause of his death remains debatable, but of the various possible causes, the fact that he cried out in a loud voice just before he died, is viewed as possibly stemming from some internal “catastrophic event,” like cardiac rupture. It seems that he was pierced in his side by a Roman infantry spear, after he had died. This wound was observed to cause the flow of blood and water which further raised questions, from a medical perspective, whether or not the water was urine from the bladder and/or which side the wound was actually inflicted, perforating the lungs, bladder or heart, etc.
Frankly, what keeps looming in my mind is the vicious taunting by soldiers and civilians which Jesus had to endure while hanging awkwardly on the cross. How on earth, I asked myself, could a person endure so much pain and misery, coupled with the associated teasing and jeering, by the people whose very salvation he was dying for?
Then, it dawned on me. He was not of this earth: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) And, I began to appreciate even more the manner of this “Man from Galilee,” as well as the ancient role of blacks in the bible, heralded and unheralded.
For me, it was clear. Jesus was not just the flesh-and-blood personification of God, but the manifestation of God’s word… God’s spirit- the Holy Spirit. What else could tame the winds, calm the seas and endure the agony of one hellish execution?
(Partial Reprint, from “WHAT MANNER OF MAN… Can Tame the Winds, Calm the Seas and Endure the Agony of One Hellish Execution?” Backstreet’s Blog 2013 – Backstreet Djeli – w.d.s.)