How Did Jesus Really Die?
Note: The following Post is taken from an upcoming book by Joseph Lenard entitled Mysteries of Jesus’ Life Revealed—His Birth, Death, Resurrection, and Ascensions. For an overview and complete chapter listing of this fascinating study, click here.
In this third puzzle piece in the case to establish the true cause of the death of Jesus, we will look at several Scripture passages that have frequently been overlooked by those studying His crucifixion. Key among these Scriptures is Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the Suffering Servant – Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12, particularly Isaiah 52:14. We will also look at Psalm 22, especially Psalm 22:6–7 and 17.
Ask most Christians whether they believe that Jesus either fulfilled or will fulfill all prophecies related to Him in the Old Testament, and you will likely get a fast response: “Yes, of course.” Well, like other Old Testament prophesies, it is my position that the Suffering Servant prophecies were among those that were precisely fulfilled. This makes all the difference in our understanding of how Jesus really died.
Here are the passages of Isaiah related to the Suffering Servant, especially Isaiah 52:14, which I have underlined:
“See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness – so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand. Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
“Surely, he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment, he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.
“Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life, and be satisfied by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore, I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 52:13–53:12, NIV)
Here are the verses of Psalm 22, which I am also highlighting, related to the Suffering Servant. The principal verse, Psalm 22:17, is underlined:
“But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads . . . they have pierced my hands and my feet, I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me.” (Psalm 22:6–7, 16b–17, NIV)
While David believed Psalm 22 was an allegory for his own troubles, it was seen by the apostles as having literal fulfillment in the person of Jesus. In his book, Secrets of Golgotha, Dr. Ernest Martin offers the following commentary related to these passages:
“It is interesting, however, that these verses are usually not fully applied today in connection with Jesus’ crucifixion. But let us do so. Coupling these two sections of the Bible together (as certainly was done by the writers of the New Testament) gives us a further indication to the type of death that Jesus encountered. Had there been no literal application of these verses . . . to Jesus it is difficult to see how the apostles could have defended them as describing the role of Jesus at his crucifixion (which, of course, was quite literal).”
If these prophetic descriptions in Isaiah and the Psalms are to be literally interpreted and applied to Jesus – as they apparently were by the apostles – then we have the description of a man who was not only crucified but who also had His flesh so torn away that people looking upon Him after his ordeal could scarcely tell He was a human being (Isaiah 52:14). In addition, the bones of Jesus’ body were evident to Him, penetrating through His skin (Psalm 22:17). That they were “seen by him” indicates that the bones could be seen by Jesus on the front of His body. We therefore know that the passage is not referring to the results of the lashing by the Roman solders – as ordered by Pilate – which were administered on the back of Jesus. According to Dr. Martin, this means that Jesus’ bare bones were exposed, most likely because large amounts of skin and underlying flesh had been torn away from the bones during the process of stoning the front parts of his body.
This is quite an image! To think that our Saviour was so brutally pelted and His body so horribly torn is beyond imagining! But that is exactly what is described by Isaiah, by the Apostles, by the Disciples, and by several eyewitnesses to the crucifixion and stoning.
To summarize: Although brutal and painful, the scourging to which Jesus was subjected before his crucifixion was not intended to kill him. We are told in Scripture that Pilate fully intended to release Jesus after the Roman soldiers had chastised him. We therefore know that Pilate fully expected that Jesus would recover. Pilate had no desire that Jesus should die (Luke 23:22). In addition, the scourging administered to the back of Jesus – as prescribed by Roman law – could not have accounted for the extensive bodily injuries referenced in Psalm 22:17, which could only have been to the front of Jesus.
We must conclude, therefore, that the horrible injuries suffered by Jesus to the front of his body were most probably the result of being pelted repeatedly with small stones – stoning to death. Another reason for reaching this conclusion is that stoning was the only punishment for capital crimes (which included blasphemy) under Mosaic Law.
The description in Isaiah 52:14 is consistent with stoning by the Sadducean method. Remember from my earlier Post, Jewish vs Roman Law, that the Sadducean priesthood was the ruling sect in the Temple administration during the lifetime of Jesus. The alternative method of stoning – the Pharisaic method – required a single large stone to be dropped from a height, which would have caused large numbers of broken bones. According to John 19:36 – and as supported by the analogies of Exodus 12:46, Numbers 9:12, and Psalm 34:20 – this was not the case with Jesus.
While we presently view stoning as a barbaric and inhumane practice, and while we find it difficult to envision our Messiah being stoned, this execution method was entirely legal under Jewish law in ancient Jerusalem (Leviticus 24:13–16) and was both accepted and prescribed during the time of Jesus for the crime of blasphemy.
In his book, Dr. Martin provides the following commentary related to Jesus being stoned:
“There is no doubt that Jesus experienced the torment of volleys of small, sharp stones thrown at the front parts of his naked body while he was nailed to the tree of crucifixion. The stones were hurled at his face, at his mid-section and his legs. These must have been like sharp flintstones (many of which are on the Mount of Olives) that would break the skin and dislodge the flesh but without the force to break his bones. Such volleys of stones hitting his body persistently for almost six hours could produce the description of Isaiah: ‘As many were astonished at thee: his visage [his outward appearance] was so marred more than any man, and his form [so marred] more than the sons of man.’”
We recall from the earlier Post that although Pontius Pilate was the Roman authority who approved the execution of Jesus (John 18:31), it was the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem who killed Him according to their biblical law. Pilate told the Sadducees, “take ye him and judge him according to your law” (John 18:31). This law meant that Jesus would be subjected to the Jewish method of execution, which required being hung on a tree and pelted with stones in the Mosaic manner (Leviticus 24:16).
In addition to the sheer brutality of the stoning process, those charged with blasphemy and other serious crimes were commonly subjected to abject humiliation during the process. Stripped naked, they were cursed endlessly by mobs of complete strangers. The head of the condemned was specifically targeted, as revealed in the Gospel of Mark:
“And again he sent unto them another servant; and at him they cast stones, and wounded him in the head, and sent him away shamefully handled.” (Mark 12:4, KJV).
Most likely, at some point during the six hours He was hanging from the tree, Jesus would have been struck and blinded by the barrage of stones.
Although the Scriptural passage of the Suffering Servant is not unknown within the church, it is the described image of the Servant that remains difficult for many to accept. Christians are so focused on the description of the crucified Jesus that they simply cannot believe what is said about the stoned Jesus – that He became an unrecognizable, bloody mass of flesh. This is precisely what Isaiah said would be the reaction to his prophecy:
“Kings shall shut their mouths at him [keep silent in astonishment]: for that which has not been told them shall they see and that which they had not heard shall they consider.” (Isaiah 52:15, KJV)
Isaiah understood that most people – even the kings of the world – simply would not believe his prophecy. He recognized that people would miss the full force of what he was saying – that the Suffering Servant, the Jesus with whom the apostles identified, would become an unrecognizable, bloody mass, a figure whose outward appearance would be so altered by His ordeal that almost no one seeing Him near the time of his death would have thought of Him as having a human form. Most would certainly not have believed Him to be the Saviour of the world.
Passover Seder & Communion
When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper on the eve of His crucifixion, He took bread and broke it and said the breaking was like His body, which would be broken for many (Matthew 26:26). He spoke also of the wine, which He said represented His blood, which was shed for the remission of sins. From the bread and the wine of the Jewish Passover Seder came the Lord’s Supper, which became a sacred institution within the Christian church.
It has long been a mystery to religious scholars that the breaking off of pieces of flat and crispy bread -like the unleavened matzos that Jews eat at Passover today – could somehow represent the body of Jesus at his crucifixion. Indeed, the New Testament specifically states that no bones in Jesus’ body were broken (John 19:36). Modern scholars may therefore find no relationship whatsoever between the death of Jesus and the breaking of the unleavened bread. Many consider it to be a simple act of Christian fellowship. However, many early Christians did not see it that way at all.
Several Greek manuscripts and the writings of early Church Fathers offer some explanation concerning 1 Corinthians 11:24, which recounts Christ’s words at the breaking of the bread during the Lord’s Supper:
“And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, ‘Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.’” (1 Corinthians 11:24, KJV)
These ancient writings expressed the belief that the broken bread in the ceremony of the Lord’s Supper did indeed represent the broken body of Jesus at the time of his crucifixion. According to Dr. Martin, the prophecy of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12 contains the statement in Hebrew that the person of the prophecy would be broken for our iniquities [bruised in KJV]. The Hebrew word dahchah at Isaiah 53:5 means broken (cf. Isaiah 19:10).
We therefore have both the writings of early Christians and the prophecy of Isaiah that the body of Jesus would indeed be broken, like the breaking off of pieces of unleavened bread. The scourging by the Roman soldiers before His crucifixion and the act of crucifixion itself would not have accounted for the breaking off of pieces of Jesus’ body (on the front side). It simply would not have happened. However, the process of being struck repeatedly with small, sharp stones would produce this outcome precisely. Over a period of several hours the small, sharp stones hurled at His body would tear away pieces of His flesh like pieces of unleavened bread being torn from the larger loaf; and in the end Jesus would have been left hanging on the tree, looking very much like the person described by Isaiah as the Suffering Servant: So torn and bloodied that He would no longer have resembled a human being.
Let’s mention one other thing related to Jesus’ death. It relates to Jesus’ blood and the importance of the shedding of blood. The book of Hebrews has important insights related to this:
“When Moses had proclaimed every commandment of the law to all the people, he took the blood of calves, together with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll and all the people. He said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant, which God has commanded you to keep.’ In the same way, he sprinkled with the blood both the tabernacle and everything used in its ceremonies. In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:19-22, NIV)
The importance of the shedding of blood for redemption through the death of Jesus has long been a mystery to some. Let’s first understand that in a crucifixion, there is relatively little shedding of blood. This is important. Yes, the scourging of Jesus would certainly have shed blood. But remember that Pilate did not want a scourging to the point of death; he wanted to release Jesus, because he felt Jesus was not guilty of crimes warranting death. Then too, the nails driven into Jesus’ wrists would have accounted for some blood loss, as would the spear that was thrust into Jesus’ side. But neither of these would have caused a critical loss of blood. Remember that by the time the spear was thrust into Jesus, He was already dead, and his heart was no longer pumping blood. From a theological standpoint, the spear thrust would not even “count” as a proper shedding of blood.
So we see that with the traditionally accepted punishment of Jesus, nothing that was done would have resulted in the amount of blood loss that was in evidence during that first Passover, when the blood of the slaughtered lambs were applied to the door frames and lintels of the Jews in Egypt before the Tenth Plague. The blood loss from the flogging and the act of crucifixion did not directly cause the rapid death of Jesus, as Pilate was surprised that Jesus died so quickly (Mark 15:44). Pilate had quite possibly forgotten that the stoning would so markedly hasten the death of Jesus.
The act of stoning, per the description of the Suffering Servant, would have resulted in a significant shedding of blood. This fits the Old Testament description and requirement, as well as the New Testament emphasis on the shedding of blood. The additional blood loss from the stoning would have accounted for the quicker-than-usual death of Jesus.
I can’t help but interject a comment in reaction to all of this. This is what Jesus did for us as the Suffering Servant, to pay the price for our sins! Jesus suffered the gruesome penalty of death for our sins, according to Mosaic Law, a death that was deemed acceptable by the Father as the perfect substitutionary sacrifice. Thank you, Jesus; and praise God for His gift to each one who trusts in the salvation which is only available through Him. Amen.
If you evaluate the various pieces of evidence and reach the same conclusions I did when I studied them in detail, I am certain that you will never look at Holy Communion in the same way again. I certainly don’t.
Healed at Resurrection
It is well to remember that when resurrected from the grave into which He had been placed, Jesus was healed of the injuries caused by His scourging, stoning, and crucifixion. How do we know this? We know, for example, that Mary, who saw Jesus at the tomb after His resurrection, thought that He was the gardener; Jesus had to have been physically restored in order for Mary to mistake Him for the gardener – who had obviously not been stoned. Except for the nail holes in his “hands” [wrists] and the hole in his side from the spear of the Roman soldier – eternal reminders of the punishment He underwent for us (John 20:27) and of his identity (John 20:24-28) – His flesh was fully restored, and He was once again recognizable to those who knew Him. The disciples were overjoyed at the sight of Him in his restored body (John 20:20).
At first, Jesus was not recognized by the women at the tomb and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Because of the brutal condition of His body when buried, it is understandable that no one would recognize Him in His restored form. His whole body was restored. Remember, Jesus is the “first fruits” of the resurrection, and He has a resurrection body for eternity.
The same restoration of the body will one day be experienced by Stephen and Paul – from the effects of their stoning – and for each of us, from whatever physical ailments we presently suffer. This will, of course, occur following the resurrection from the grave and the Rapture at the Second Coming of Jesus. Because of Jesus’ faithfulness as the Suffering Servant, the dead in Christ will rise; and bodies will be healed (I Corinthians 15:42–58). Each of us will be given resurrection bodies, just as Jesus received His. And just as we have borne His likeness on earth, we shall one day bear His likeness once again (I Corinthians 15:49); and all those who are “in Christ” will see Him as He is.
Jesus is the first fruits of the resurrection, and that is Good News for all who believe. Praise God.
Note: In my next Post I will establish that the location of Jesus’ crucifixion was also consistent with the location prescribed by the Jews when stoning was to be the method of execution.