William D. Edwards, MD; Wesley J. Gabel, MDiv; Floyd E Hosmer, MS, AMI
The life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth have formed the basis for a major world religion (Christianity), have appreciably influenced the course of human history, and, by virtue of a compassionate attitude towards the sick, also have contributed to the development of modern medicine. The eminence of Jesus as a historical figure and the suffering and controversy associated with his death have stimulated us to investigate, in an interdisciplinary manner, the circumstances surrounding his crucifixion. Accordingly, it is our intent to present not a theological treatise but rather a medically and historically accurate account of the physical death of the one called Jesus Christ.
The source material concerning Christ's death comprises a body of literature and not a physical body or its skeletal remains. Accordingly, the credibility of any discussion of Jesus' death will be determined primarily by the credibility of one's sources. For this review, the source material includes the writings of ancient Christian and non-Christian authors, the writings of modern authors, and the Shroud of Turin. (1-40) Using the legal-historical method of scientific investigation, (27) scholars have established the reliability and accuracy of the ancient manuscripts. (26,27,29,31)
The most extensive and detailed descriptions of the life and death of Jesus are to be found in the New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. (1) The other 23 books of the New Testament support but do not expand on the details recorded in the gospels. Contemporary Christian, Jewish, and Roman authors provide additional insight concerning the first-century Jewish and Roman legal systems and the details of scourging and crucifixion. (5) Seneca, Livy, Plutarch, and others refer to crucifixion practices in their works. (8,28) Specifically, Jesus (or his crucifixion) is mentioned by the Roman historians Cornelius Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Suetonius, by non-Roman historians Thallus and Phlegon, by the satirist Lucian of Samosata, by the Jewish Talmud, and by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, although the authenticity of portions of the latter is problematic. (26)
The Shroud of Turin is considered by many to represent the actual burial cloth of Jesus, (22) and several publications concerning the medical aspects of his death draw conclusions from this assumption. (5,11) The Shroud of Turin and recent archaeological findings provide valuable information concerning Roman crucifixion practices. (22-24) The interpretations of modern writers, based on a knowledge of science and medicine not available in the first century, may offer additional insight concerning the possible mechanisms of Jesus' death. (2,17)
When taken in concert, certain facts -- the extensive and early testimony of both Christian proponents and opponents, and their universal acceptance of Jesus as a true historical figure; the ethic of the gospel writers, and the shortness of the time interval between the events and the extant manuscripts; and the confirmation of the gospel accounts by historians and archaeological findings (26,27) -- ensure a reliable testimony from which a modern medical interpretation of Jesus' death may be made.
After Jesus and his disciples had observed the Passover meal in an upper room in a home in southwest Jerusalem, they traveled to the Mount of Olives, northeast of the city. (Owing to various adjustments in the calendar, the years of Jesus' birth and death remain controversial. (29) However, it is likely that Jesus was born in either 4 or 6 BC and died in 30 AD. (11,29) During the Passover observance in 30 AD, the last Supper would have been observed on Thursday, April 6 [Nisan 13], and Jesus would have been crucified on Friday, April 7 [Nisan 14]. (29) ) At nearby Gethsemane, Jesus, apparently knowing that the time of his death was near, suffered great mental anguish, and, as described by the physician Luke, his sweat became like blood. (1)
Although this is a very rare phenomenon, bloody sweat (hematidrosis or hemohidrosis) may occur in highly emotional states or in persons with bleeding disorders. (18,20) As a result of hemorrhage into the sweat glands, the skin becomes fragile and tender. (2,11) Luke's descriptions supports the diagnosis of hematidrosis rather than eccrine chromidrosis (brown or yellow-green sweat) or stigmatization (blood oozing from the palms or elsewhere). (18,21) Although some authors have suggested that hematidrosis produced hypovolemia, we agree with Bucklin (5) that Jesus' actual blood loss probably was minimal. However, in the cold night air, (1) it may have produced chills.
Soon after midnight, Jesus was arrested at Gethsemane by the temple officials and was taken first to Annas and then to Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest for that year. (1) Between 1 AM and daybreak, Jesus was tried before Caiaphas and the political Sanhedrin and was found guilty of blasphemy. (1) The guards then blindfolded Jesus, spat on him, and struck him in the face with their fists. (1) Soon after daybreak, presumably at the temple, Jesus was tried before the religious Sanhedrin (with the Pharisees and the Sadducees) and again was found guilty of blasphemy, a crime punishable by death. (1,5)
Since permission for an execution had to come from the governing Romans, (1) Jesus was taken early in the morning by the temple officials to the Praetorium of the Fortress of Antonia, the residence and governmental seat of Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judea. However, Jesus was presented to Pilate not as a blasphemer but rather as a self-appointed king who would undermine the Roman authority. (1) Pilate made no charges against Jesus and sent him to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Judea. (1) Herod likewise made no official charges and then returned Jesus to Pilate. (1) Again, Pilate could find no basis for a legal charge against Jesus, but the people persistently demanded crucifixion. Pilate finally granted their demand and handed over Jesus to be flogged (scourged) and crucified. (McDowell (25) has reviewed the prevailing political, religious, and economic climates in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus' death, and Bucklin (5) has described the various illegalities of the Jewish and Roman trials.)
Health of Jesus
The rigors of Jesus' ministry (that is, traveling by foot throughout Palestine) would have precluded any major physical illness or a weak general constitution. Accordingly, it is reasonable to assume that Jesus was in good physical condition before his walk to Gethsemane. However, during the 12 hours between 9 PM Thursday and 9 AM Friday, he had suffered great emotional stress (as evidenced by hematidrosis), abandonment by his closest friends (the disciples), and a physical beating (after the first Jewish trial). Also, in the setting of a traumatic and sleepless night, had been forced to walk more than 2.5 miles (4.0 km) to and from the sites of the various trials. These physical and emotional factors may have rendered Jesus particularly vulnerable to the adverse hemodynamic effects of the scourging.