A valuable study appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1986 (Volume 256) entitled “On the Physical Death of Jesus”. The authors included a Pathologist, an expert in Medical Graphics from the Mayo Clinic, and an Evangelical minister. It begins with a historical analysis of crucifixion as a form of execution and moves to the physiology of Jesus’ suffering and death.
Two things make this study important. First, it takes the accounts of the crucifixion from the gospels as we have them as authentic; Evangelicals don’t do historical criticism so there was no attempt to theorize based on reconstructed source material. Secondly, the experts regarded Shroud of Turin as the actual burial cloth of Christ, which provides many of the details of what occurred during Jesus’ final hours. Some of the findings:
- St. Luke recorded that during the agony in the garden, Jesus’s sweat became like blood. Bloody sweat is known as either hematidrosis or hemohidrosis and is caused by blood hemorrhaging into the sweat glands. While it is rare, it “…may occur in highly emotional states or in persons with bleeding disorders.”
- Scourging always preceded crucifixion and was intended to weaken the victim to shorten the time spent on the cross. “[A]s the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh. Pain and blood loss generally set the stage for circulatory shock. …The severe scourging, with its intense pain and appreciable blood loss, most probably left Jesus in a preshock state.”
- Jesus did not carry the whole cross but just the crossbar (patibulum). The whole cross would have weighed about 300 lbs.
- The sign that Pilate had ordered to be made, “Jesus the Nazorean, King of the Jews”, was customary and was held up by a Roman soldier in the front of the condemned man during the procession to the place of crucifixion. It displayed the name of the criminal and charge against him.
- The wine with the gall (a “mild analgesic”), which was offered to Christ, was a requirement under Roman law.
- Since nailing the palms would not have supported the weight of the body, the wrists were nailed (as in the Shroud). “…[T]he driven nail would crush or sever the rather large sensorimotor median nerve. The stimulated nerve would produce excruciating bolts of fiery pain in both arms. Although the severed median nerve would result in paralysis of a portion of the hand, ischemic contractures and impalement of various ligaments by the iron spike might produce a clawlike grasp.”
- Fixing the feet to the cross could be done with either nails or ropes, the Shroud indicates that Jesus’ were nailed. His knees may have been bent since crosses did not always have a footrest.
- “Although scourging may have resulted in considerable blood loss, crucifixion per se was a relatively bloodless procedure, since no major arteries, other than perhaps the deep plantar arch, pass through the favored anatomic sites of transfixion.”
- Jesus’ death came unusually quickly; crucifixions could go on for days. This was likely the result of the severity of the scourging. “The fact that he could not carry the crossbar supports this interpretation. The actual cause of Jesus’ death, like that of other crucified victims, may have been multifactorial and related primarily to hypovolemic shock [rapid blood loss], exhaustion asphyxia, and perhaps acute heart failure. A fatal cardiac arrhythmia may have accounted for the apparent catastrophic terminal event.”
The language of the article and the accompanying illustrations are rather cold and come across like a coroner’s report. It is heartbreaking to read. The crime against the state for which he was executed was for being “The King of the Jews”.