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On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ

William D. Edwards, MD; Wesley J. Gabel, MDiv; Floyd E. Hosmer, MS, AMI

Jesus of Nazareth underwent Jewish and Roman trials was flogged and was sentenced to death by crucifixion. The scourging produced deep stripelike lacerations and appreciable blood loss and it probably set the stage for hypovolemic shock as evidenced by the fact that Jesus was too weakened to carry the crossbar (patibulum) to Golgotha. At the site of crucifixion his wrists were nailed to the patibulum and after the patibulum was lifted onto the upright post (stipes) his feet were nailed to the stipes. The major pathophysiologic effect of crucifixion was an interference with normal respirations. Accordingly death resulted primarily from hypovolemic shock and exhaustion asphyxia. Jesus death was ensured by the thrust of a soldier s spear into his side. Modern medical interpretation of the historical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead when taken down from the cross.

(JAMA 1986;255:1455-1463)

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 toward 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.

SOURCES

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 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.

GETHSEMANE

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 (Fig 1). (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,

Fig 1. Map of Jerusalem at time of Christ. Jesus left Upper Room and walked with disciples to Mount of Olives and Garden of Gethsemane (1), where he was arrested and taken first to Annas and then to Caiaphas (2). After first trial before political Sanhedrin at Caiaphas’ residence, Jesus was tried again before religious Sanhedrin, probably at Temple (3) Next, he was taken to Pontius Pilate (4), who sent him to Herod Antipas (5). Herod returned Jesus to Pilate (6), and Pilate finally handed over Jesus for scourging at Fortress of Antonia and for crucifixion at Golgotha (7). (Modified from Pfeiffer et al.30)

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.’

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 description 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.

TRIALS

Jewish Trials

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 (Fig 1). 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 (Fig l), 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

Roman Trials

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 (Fig 1). 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 (Fig 1). 1 Again, Pilate could find no basis for a legal charge against Jesus, but the people persistently demanded crucifixions Pilate finally granted their demand and handed over Jesus to be flogged (scourged) and crucified. (MeDowell 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, he had been forced to walk more than 2.5 miles (4.0 km) to and from the sites of the various trials (Fig 1). These physical and emotional factors may have rendered Jesus particularly vulnerable to the adverse hemodynamic effects of the scourging.

Scourging

Fig 2.Scourging. Left, Short whip (flagrum) with lead balls and sheep bones tied into leather thongs. Center left, Naked victim tied to flogging post. Deep stripelike lacerations were usually associated with considerable blood IOS6 Center right, View from above, showing position of lictors. Right, Inferomedial direction of wounds.

Scourging Practices

Flogging was a legal preliminary to every Roman execution, 28 and only women and Roman senators or soldiers (except in eases of desertion) were exempt.11 The usual instrument was a short whip (flagellum or flagellum) with several single or braided leather thongs of variable lengths, in which small iron balls or sharp pieces of sheep bones were tied at intervals (Fig 2).5, 7, 11 Occasionally, staves also were used. 8, 12 For scourging, the man was stripped of his clothing, and his hands were tied to an upright post (Fig 2). 11 The back, buttocks, and legs were flogged either by two soldiers (lictors) or by one who alternated positions.5, 7, 11, 28 The severity of the scourging depended on the disposition of the lictors and was intended to weaken the victim to a state just short of collapse or death. 8 After the scourging, the soldiers often taunted their victim.11

Medical Aspects of Scourging

As the Roman soldiers repeatedly struck the victim’s back with full force, the iron balls would cause deep contusions, and the leather thongs and sheep bones would cut into the skin and Subcutaneous tissues.7 Then, as the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh.2, 7, 25 Pain and blood loss generally set the stage for circulatory shock.12 The extent of blood loss may well have determined how long the victim would survive on the cross.8

Scourging of Jesus

At the Praetorium, Jesus was severely whipped. (Although the severity of the scourging is not discussed in the four gospel accounts, it is implied in one of the epistles [1 Peter 2:24]. A detailed word study of the ancient Greek text for this verse indicates that the scourging of Jesus was particularly harsh.33) It is not known whether the number of lashes was limited to 39, in accordance with Jewish law.5 The Roman soldiers, amused that this weakened man had claimed to be a king, began to mock him by placing a robe on his shoulders, a crown of thorns on his head, and a wooden staff as a scepter in his right hand.1 Next, they spat on Jesus and struck him on the head with the wooden staff.1 Moreover, when the soldiers tore the robe from Jesus’ back, they probably reopened the scourging wounds.7

The severe scourging, with its intense pain and appreciable blood loss, most probably left Jesus in a pre-shock state. Moreover, hematidrosis had rendered his skin particularly tender. The physical and mental abuse meted out by the Jews and the Romans, as well as the lack of food, water, and sleep, also contributed to his generally weakened state. Therefore, even before the actual crucifixion, Jesus’ physical condition was at least serious and possibly critical.

CRUCIFIXION

Fig 3.Cross and titulus. Left, victim carrying crossbar (patibulum) to site of upright post (stipes). center Low Tau cross (crux commissa), commonly used by Romans at time of Christ. upper right, Rendition of Jesus’ titulus with name and crime Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. Lower right Possible methods for attaching tittles to Tau cross (left) and Latin cross (right).

Variations in Crosses Used for Crucifixion

Latin Designation Characteristics

lnfelix lignum Tree

Crux simplex, Upright post

crux acuta

Crux composita Stipes and patibulum

Crux humilis Low cross

Crux sublimis Tall cross

Crux commissa T-shaped (Tau) cross

Crux immissa t-shaped (Latin) cross

Crux capitata t-shaped (Latin) cross

Crux decussata X-shaped cross

Crucifixion Practices

Crucifixion probably first began among the Persians.34 Alexander the Great introduced the practice to Egypt and Carthage, and the Romans appear to have learned of it from the Carthaginians.11 Although the Romans did not invent crucifixions they perfected it as a form of torture and capital punishment that was designed to produce a slow death with maximum pain and suffering.10, 17 It was one of the most disgraceful and cruel methods of execution and usually was reserved only for slaves, foreigners, revolutionaries, and the vilest of criminals.3, 25, 28 Roman law usually protected Roman citizens from crucifixion, 5 except perhaps in the ease of desertion by soldiers.

In its earliest form in Persia, the victim was either tied to a tree or was tied to or impaled on an upright post, usually to keep the guilty victim’s feet from touching holy ground. 8, 11, 30, 34, 38 Only later was a true cross used; it was characterized by an upright post (stipes) and a horizontal crossbar (patibulum), and it had several variations (Table).11 Although archaeological and historical evidence strongly indicates that the low Tau cross was preferred by the Romans in Palestine at the time of Christ (Fig 3),2, 7, 11 crucifixion practices often varied in a given geographic region and in accordance with the imagination of the executioners, and the Latin cross and other forms also may have been used.28

Fig 4.Nailing of wrists. Left, Size of iron nail. Center, Location of nail in wrist, between carpals and radius. Right, Cross section of wrist, at level

of plane indicated at left, showing path of nail, with probable transection of median nerve and impalement of flexor pollicis longus, but without injury to major arterial trunks and without fractures of bones.

It was customary for the condemned man to carry his own cross from the flogging post to the site of crucifixion outside the city walls.8, 11, 30 He was usually naked, unless this was prohibited by local customs.11 Since the weight of the entire cross was probably well over 300 lb. (136 kg), only the crossbar was carried (Fig 3).11 The patibulum, weighing 75 to 125 lb. (34 to 57 kg),11, 30 was placed across the nape of the victim’s neck and balanced along both shoulders. Usually, the outstretched arms.then were tied to the crossbar.7, 11 The processional to the site of crucifixion was led by a complete Roman military guard, headed by a centurion.3, 11 One of the soldiers carried a sign (titulus) on which the condemned man’s name and crime were displayed (Fig 3).3, 11 Later, the titulus would be attached to the top of the cross.11 The Roman guard would not leave the victim until they were sure of his death. 9, 11

Outside the city walls was permanently located the heavy upright wooden stipes, on which the patibulum would be secured. In the case of the Tau cross, this was accomplished by means of a mortise and tenon joint, with or without reinforcement by ropes. 10, 11, 30 To prolong the crucifixion process, a horizontal wooden block or plank, serving as a crude seat (sedile or sedulum), often was attached midway down the stipes.3, 11 , 16 Only very rarely, and probably later than the time of Christ, was an additional block (suppedaneum) employed for transfixion of the feet.9, 11

At the site of execution, by law, the victim was given a bitter drink of wine mixed with myrrh (gall) as a mild analgesic .7 , 17 The criminal was then thrown to the ground on his back, with his arms outstretched along the patibulum.11 The hands could be nailed or tied to the crossbar, but nailing apparently was preferred by the Romans..8, 11 The archaeological remains of a crucified body, found in an ossuary near Jerusalem and dating from the time of Christ, indicate that the nails were tapered iron spikes approximately 5 to 7 in (13 to 18 cm) long with a square shaft 3/8 in (1 cm) across. 23, 24, 30 Furthermore, ossuary findings and the Shroud of Turin have documented that the nails commonly were driven through the wrists rather than the palms (Fig 4). 22-24, 30

After both arms were fixed to the crossbar, the patibulum and the victim, together, were lifted onto the stipes.11 On the low cross, four soldiers could accomplish this relatively easily. However, on the tall cross, the soldiers used either wooden forks or ladders.11

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