Apparently by trauma-induced coagulopathy! according to a new study published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine:

Joseph W. Bergeron, The crucifixion of Jesus: Review of hypothesized mechanisms of death and implications of shock and trauma-induced coagulopathy, doi:10.1016/j.jflm.2011.06.001 (subscription required).

My understanding was that crucifixion victims would likely have died of suffocation, so exhausted that they could no longer pull themselves up to breathe – yes a brutal way to die!!!  (For further reading on crucifixion in the ancient world check out Larry Hurtado’s blog entry.)

However, according to this article this is only one of six leading theories on the exact mechanism of Jesus’ death:

1) Pulmonary embolism

2) Cardiac rupture

3) Suspension trauma

4) Asphyxiation

5) Fatal stab wound

6) Shock

A reconstruction (left) showing how the skeletal foot of the crucified man from the Giv'at ha-Mivtar tomb (1st C Jewish remains) would have been fixed to the cross, with the original nail and heel bone (Calcaneus) on the right.

This new article has already been trashed by Piers Mitchell, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge (see this link), who himself wrote a paper on the subject in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in early 2006:

Matthew W Maslen and Piers D Mitchell, Medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion, J. R. Soc. Med., 2006; 99: 185 – 188. 

Here is a quote from their conclusions on the matter:

“Our conclusion is that, at present, there is insufficient evidence to safely state exactly how people did die from crucifixion in Roman times. It is quite likely that different individuals died from different physiological causes, and we would expect that the orientation in which they were crucified would be crucial in this respect. Until new archaeological or textual evidence comes to light then it is only through more realistic humane re-enactment research that we may move closer to an answer.”