John 19:31–33 (ESV)
Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. 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.
What did they break their legs with? A bulldozer? Leg bones are big; they don’t break easy.
There’s some confusion over why breaking their legs would quickly kill someone who’s hanging on a cross. Pierre Barbet in his 1953 book “A Doctor at Calvary” theorized that people on a cross need their legs to raise themselves up to breathe.
In “The Crucifixion of Jesus,” Zugibe used a series of detailed tests to disprove Barbet’s theory. Zugibe’s result is intuitive to anyone who has played on jungle gyms and monkey bars. It’s impossible to find a position hanging by your arms that interferes with breathing.
But legs have very large blood vessels in them. Breaking leg bones with something like a club (or a bulldozer) invariably tears open many veins and arteries. The blood drains out quickly.
Finishing off the two thieves by breaking their legs was merciful. Dehydration is agonizing. Also, the wounds from the nails will be getting infected soon. The road up to Golgotha was covered in every kind of dirt imaginable. The nails drove that filth through their skin and into their bloodstream.
As painful as getting scourged and then nailed to a cross was, the second day held even greater terrors.
This leads to an essential point—crucifixion produces catastrophic injuries. Even if someone is taken down from the cross and rehydrated, they’re not going to recover. This refutes a common theory for how Jesus might not have actually risen from the dead—the swoon theory.
According to the swoon theory, Jesus didn’t die on the cross; then He revived in the cool of the tomb. That’s implausible because Jesus wasn’t merely alive; He was walking around normally. (Note: I still need to prove that He was walking around normally. That’s coming.)
The eyewitnesses—the ones who saw Him walking around normally—were absolutely convinced that Jesus is the Lord of the universe. No amount of torture could get them to recant. Then they went out and moved mountains.
“It is impossible that a being who had been stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening, and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to his sufferings, could have given the disciples the impression that he was a conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life: an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry.” — D. F. Strauss
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