Archaeologists Trace Jesus' Final Hours

On the day now commemorated as Good Friday, he entered Jerusalem to preach. It was Passover, and Jesus knew he could find an audience in the crowds.

According to the Gospels, both Roman and Jewish leaders considered him a threat to their authority and control. A short time after arriving in the city, he was arrested and sentenced to death by crucifixion.

Nearly two millennia later, scholars are still studying archaeological, medical and historical clues, trying to piece together what happened in the final hours of Jesus' life.

Gethsemane

After the Last Supper, Jesus went with his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane, which archaeologists believe was an orchard on the Mount of Olives. There, the Bible says, Jesus broke down in anguish before facing his arrest.

Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, a renowned biblical archaeologist, says that in the orchard Jesus realized the imminence of his own demise.

"Just before Gethsemane he would have been passing these huge tombs, which still exist in the garden," says Murphy-O'Connor. "I think it really hit him, maybe it will be tonight that death stops being something in the future."

Biblical accounts report that blood fell from Jesus like drops of sweat. Modern research confirms the plausibility of this phenomenon. Extreme anxiety and fear can cause blood vessels to rupture into the sweat glands.

At Gethsemane, Jesus suspected he was in trouble with the local authorities. He could have escaped into the desert, but he did not.

"The troops were coming from the city, all he had to do was keep ahead of them. Climb the Mount of Olives, 20 minutes' fast walking along the ridge would have brought him into Bethany, there he could pick up food and water, and off into the desert," says Murphy-O'Connor.

But after struggling with his own fear, Jesus made the decision to sacrifice himself.

The Arrest

The Bible says Judas, one of Jesus' disciples, led the police to Gethsemane to arrest him. The authorities took Jesus into Jerusalem where he stood trial before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The official charge was blasphemy.

There is now a consensus among historians that it was the Romans — not the Jews — who were responsible for Jesus' crucifixion. This new thinking, in part, led to Pope John Paul II's recent apology for the wrongs done to Jews by Christians who had blamed the Jewish people for the death of Jesus.

Yale historian Ramsay MacMullen explains that Pilate's interest was keeping the peace, and he regularly executed those who upset civic order. "The governor, who couldn't care less about Orthodox or any other kind of Judaism, was concerned that the urban poor should not become tumultuous and cause him administrative trouble," says MacMullen.

Torture and Execution

Crucifixions were not uncommon at the time of Jesus, and both Jewish and Roman sources provide the gruesome details of how they were performed.

First, victims were often brutally scourged with a whip called a flagrum. University of South Florida biblical archaeologist James Strange estimates that 40 blows would have been a normal punishment, which was sometimes deadly in itself.

The Gospels say Jesus was forced to wear a crown of thorns as he carried the beam of his cross to the place where he would die, probably mocked by Roman soldiers along the way.

Although the exact route to the crucifixion is in unknown, there is general agreement that it took place at Golgotha, a garbage dump outside Jerusalem.

Only within modern times have forensic experts and researchers attempted to determine what would have been the physiological cause of a victim's death by crucifixion. In one terrible irony, experimentation at the Nazi death camp at Dachau, involving suspending victims by the hands, was believed to support theories that the cause of death would most likely have been an agonizing asphyxiation.

Archaeologists have confirmed that both the hands and the feet of crucifixion victims were pinned to the cross by nails about a half-inch in diameter.

"There is no way to allay the pain … you can't push up with your body, to get in a position where you can breathe better, where you feel like you could get a lung full of air, or you could abate the pain," Strange says.

Last Words

Gospel accounts give three different versions of the last words of Jesus. Matthew and Mark quote him as crying, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" In Luke, he prays, "Father, into your hands I place my spirit." In John, he says, "It is finished."

Murphy-O'Connor says Jesus could not have mustered more than a gasp for air after being nailed to the cross and the final words are attributed to Jesus "probably to bring out meaning in the event."