How could a crucifixion have been faked? Just how could Jesus have survived? Was it possible at all to survive a crucifixion of any length of time?
Crucifixion was not so much an execution as a torturing to death. The procedure was very simple: the victim was tied, hanging to the crossbar, while his feet were supported on a block at the base of the cross. His feet were also usually tied at the block, although at least one example recovered by archaeologists reveals that a nail might be driven through each ankle. The weight of the hanging body made breathing very difficult and could be managed only by constantly pushing upwards with the legs and feet to relieve the tension in the chest. Eventually, of course, weariness and weakness overcame the ability to keep pushing. When this happened, the body slumped, breathing became impossible, and the crucified person died—by asphyxiation. This was reckoned to take about three days.
As an act of mercy—only the brutal Romans could come up with such a definition—the legs of the victim were often broken and so deprived of any strength whatsoever to maintain the weight of the body. The body would drop, and death by asphyxiation rapidly followed. We can see this in the New Testament. John reports that the legs of the two Zealots crucified beside Jesus were broken, but when they came break Jesus' legs, "he was dead already" (John 19:31-33).
Clearly it would be difficult to survive a crucifixion, but it was not impossible. Josephus, for example, reports that he came upon three of his former colleagues among a large group of crucified captives. He went to Titus asking for mercy, begging that they might be taken down. Titus agreed, and the three men were brought down from the cross. Despite professional medical attention, two of them died, but the third survived.
Could Jesus have survived just like the survivor in Josephus's report? There are traditions in Islam that say so. The Koran's statement "They did not crucify him" could as well be translated as "They did not cause his death on the cross." But the Koran is a very late text, even though it undoubtedly uses earlier documents and traditions. Perhaps more relevant for us is a statement by Irenaeus in the late second century; in a complaint about the beliefs of an Egyptian Gnostic, Basilides, he explains that this heretic taught that Jesus had been substituted during the journey to Golgotha and that this substitute, Simon of Cyrene, had died in Jesus' stead.
But if Jesus survived without being substituted, how could it have happened? Hugh Schonfield, in his The Passover Plot, suggests that Jesus was drugged—sedated on the cross such that he appeared dead but could be revived later, after he had been taken down. This is by no means such a wild idea, and it has received a sympathetic hearing. For example, in a television program on the crucifixion broadcast by the BBC in 2004 called Did Jesus Die? Elaine Pagels referred to Schonfield's book, which, she noted, suggested that Jesus "had been sedated on the cross; that he was removed quite early and therefore could well have survived." And, she concluded, "that's certainly a possibility."
There is a curious incident recorded in the Gospels that may be explained by this hypothesis: while on the cross, Jesus complained that he was thirsty. A sponge soaked in vinegar was placed on the end of a long reed and held up to him. But far from reviving Jesus, the drink from this sponge apparently caused him to die. This is a curious reaction and suggests that the sponge was soaked not in vinegar, a substance that would have revived Jesus, but rather in something that would have caused him to lose consciousness—some sort of drug, for example. And there was just this type of drug available in the Middle East.
It was known that a sponge soaked in a mixture of opium and other compounds such as belladonna and hashish served as a good anesthetic. Such sponges would be soaked in the mixture, then dried for storage or transport. When it was necessary to induce unconsciousness—for surgery, for example—the sponge would be soaked in water to activate the drugs and then placed over the nose and mouth of the subject, who would promptly lose consciousness. Given the description of the events on the cross and the rapid apparent "death" of Jesus, it is a plausible suggestion that this use of a drugged sponge was the cause. No matter how carefully a "staged" crucifixion might have been carried out (one intended for Jesus to survive), there was no way to anticipate the effect that shock might have had upon him. Crucifixion was, after all, a traumatic experience, both physically and mentally. To be rendered unconscious would reduce the effect of the trauma and thus increase the chance of survival, so the drug would have been a further benefit in that regard too.