An unholy row as scientists debate how Jesus Christ died on the cross?
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen
The paper, published in the ‘Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine’ finds that death by cruciﬁxion was usually slow, marked by pain, environmental exposure, starvation, dehydration, and probable infection.
Yet Jesus expired at 3:00 pm, after 6 hours on the cross. Bergeron points out that a death this rapid would be unusual for cruciﬁxions.
According to John 19:33-34; “But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden ﬂow of blood and water”.
Jesus being alive until a spear impaled his chest is based on the assumption blood cannot ﬂow from a corpse. If Jesus were dead, his blood should have clotted.
Dr Joseph Bergeron contends that a pleural effusion could explain what happened. This is liquid that forms around the outside of the lungs but is kept from spreading by the inner membranes lining the chest and settles according to gravity. In a cruciﬁxion, this would be in the front lower aspect of the upper body cavity. A pleural effusion could have arisen from heart failure, Jesus’ beatings, and blunt trauma to the chest wall.
A spear entering the chest might ﬁrst tap a pleural effusion, giving the appearance of water. Next, it could pierce the right upper chamber of the heart, causing blood to appear. Cardiac rupture would be the immediate cause of death. Inﬂicting this type of chest stab wound was a matter of protocol, asserts Dr Bergeron, to ensure no cruciﬁxion victim escaped death, particularly if the body were going to be released.
However, the Roman centurion supervising the cruciﬁxion, would have credible expertise in pronouncing death of cruciﬁxion victims, points out Dr Bergeron. According to the Bible, Jesus was determined to be dead, prior to receiving the chest stab wound.
However, concluding from the blood emanating out of the stab wound that Jesus was alive, does not consider the possibilities of incomplete clotting, contends Dr Bergeron.
Jesus certainly could have been hypothermic from blood loss, profuse sweating, and environmental exposure hanging naked on the cross. (Ambient average temperatures during the ﬁrst week of April in Jerusalem range from 8 to 14 Celsius). Hypothermia alone will impair blood clotting, so trauma-induced blood clotting dysfunction may also have been a contributing factor in this fatality.
Blood could then still ﬂow from Jesus’ corpse when his chest was impaled by the spear.
Trauma induced blood clotting dysfunction would explain how death could occur so rapidly, namely 6 hours, rather than several days.
Asphyxiation as the mechanism of Jesus’ death has also been proposed after observing torture of prisoners suspended by the wrists with the feet unsupported. Such victims had difficulty breathing within minutes, struggling to pull up with their arms to facilitate expiration. Similar torture was observed at the Dachau Concentration Camp in World War II. Death by this mechanism was rapid, occurring in about 3 hours.
The extraction force at each arm from hanging on the cross would restrict chest wall movement in a relatively expanded position. The diaphragm would be mechanically disadvantaged for respiration, from ﬂattening and restricting its movement.
Another theory, points out Dr Bergeron, is shock as a cause of death. Shock means insufficient blood perfusion of vital organs. A number of factors could have contributed. First, hematidrosis (sweating blood) as Jesus was observed to be doing (Luke 22:44). Psychologically caused Hematidrosis is a rare phenomenon predominantly observed prior to execution, and is possibly indicative of intense mental anguish during the night prior to cruciﬁxion.
In a state of anxiety, he would be sweating profusely through the night. Second, he was deprived of ﬂuids. Third, there would have been blood loss from Jesus’ crown of thorns, his multiple beatings, and pre-execution scourging. Fourth, a pleural effusion could have caused a ﬂuid shift.
By the time Jesus was ﬁnally compelled to carry the section of cross 500 metres to the cruciﬁxion site, he was unable to. The executioners enlisted the help of a bystander (Matthew 27:32). Jesus cried out in thirst on the cross, suggesting dehydration and possible early stage shock (John 19:28). Acute irreversible traumatic shock can lead to death within hours. Jesus’ unusually rapid death on the cross suggests this mechanism, argues Dr Bergeron.
The paper entitled ‘The cruciﬁxion of Jesus: Review of hypothesized mechanisms of death and implications of shock and trauma-induced coagulopathy’ concludes that Jesus suffered a brutal death by torture and cruciﬁxion with shock, complicated by trauma-induced blood clotting dysfunction. There could have been several mechanisms of Jesus’ death.
However, all medical theories are based on Biblical accounts of the death of Jesus – yet what if these are not accurate?
In a paper entitled ‘Medical theories on the cause of death in cruciﬁxion’, Matthew Maslen and Piers Mitchell (President of the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology), point out there has been just one archaeological case of cruciﬁxion properly medically examined. Most cruciﬁed people were not formally buried, but left on dumps to be eaten by wild animals. But a young Jewish man buried during the Roman Period, in a tomb near Giv‘at ha-Mivtar in Israel has been studied.
The excavated remains were unmistakably a case of cruciﬁxion. An 11.5cm iron nail had been hammered through the right ankle, and was still in place. The remains of a ﬂat piece of wood were found between the side of the ankle and the head of the nail. It may have prevented the victim freeing his foot by forcing it over the head of the nail.
It seems that, at least in this case, the heels were nailed to the sides of the cross. There was no evidence for nail insertion through the bones of the wrist or forearm.
Every carving of Jesus’ cruciﬁxion that the authors of this paper, published in the ‘Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine’, had ever seen, have a nail passing through both feet from front to back. However, Matthew Maslen and Piers Mitchell conclude, there is no evidence that cruciﬁxion was carried out in this way in classical times.
Some other medical commentators have suggested that Jesus fainted, explaining the later resurrection in scientific terms. Another problem for sceptics is if Jesus did die, how to explain that so many people later reported experiencing him alive?
The multiplicity of times and places that Jesus appeared, following his death, combined with the differing and frequently sceptical mindsets of the witnesses, renders this amazingly impactful so-called ‘group hallucination’, a controversial hypothesis.
Personal reaction and explanation of the ability of Jesus to survive crucifixion has profound implications for spiritual beliefs. Harrowing accounts will be powerfully repeated in churches all over the world each Easter.
As science advances, and as life experience impacts, sceptics, as well as believers, renew and reaffirm their viewpoint, by re-engaging each year, with the disturbing details of suffering on the cross.