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The Medical Account of the Crucifixion by Daniel DeSailles


The Medical Account of the Crucifixion by Daniel DeSailles

Posted: 28 Mar 2013 06:31 PM PDT

The Medical Account of the Crucifixion

In this paper, I shall   discuss some of the physical aspects of the passion, or suffering, of   Jesus Christ.  We shall follow Him from Gethsemane, through His   trial, His scourging, His path along the Via Dolorosa, to His last   dying hours on the cross…This led me first to a   study of the practice of crucifixion itself; that is, the torture and   execution of a person by fixation to a cross.

Apparently, the first   known practice of crucifixion was by the Persians. Alexander and his generals   brought it back to the Mediterranean world – Egypt and Carthage.  The Romans apparently learned the practice   from the Carthaginians and (as with   almost everything the Romans did) rapidly developed a very high   degree of efficiency and skill in carry it out.  A number of Roman authors   (Livy, Cicero, Tacitys) comment on it.   

Several innovations and   modifications are described in the ancient literature; Ill mention only a few which   may have some bearing here.

The   upright portion of the cross (or stipes)   could have the cross-arm (or patibulum) attached two or three feet below   its top – this is what we commonly think of today as the classical form of   the cross (the one which we have later named the Latin cross); however, the   common form used in Our Lords day was the Tau cross (shaped like the   Greek letter Tau or like our T).  In   this cross the patibulum was placed in a   notch at the top of the stipes.  There   is fairly overwhelming archeological   evidence that it was on this type of cross that Jesus was crucufied.

The upright post, or   stipes, was generally permanently fixed in the ground at the site of execution   and the condemnded man was forced to carry the patibulum, apparently   weighing about 110 pounds, from the prison to the place of execution.  Without any historical or biblical proof,   medieval and Renaissance painters   have given us our picture of Christ carrying the entire cross.  Many of these painters and most of the   sculptors of crucifixes today show the   nails through the palms.  Roman   historical accounts and experimental   work have shown that the nails were driven between the small bones of   the wrists and not through the palms.    Nails driven through the palms   will strip out between the fingers when they support the weight of a   human body.  The misconception may have   come about through a misunderstanding   of Jesus words to Thomas, Observe my hands.

Anatomists, both modern   and ancient, have always considered the wrists as part of the hand.

A titulus, or small sign,   stating the victims crime was usually carried at the front of the   processions and later nailed to the cross above the head. This sign with its staff   nailed to the top of the cross would have given it somewhat the   characteristic form of the Latin cross.

The physical passion of   the Christ begins in Gethsemane.  Of   the many aspects of this initial   suffering, I shall only discuss the one of physiological interest;   the bloody sweat.  It is interesting   that the physician of the group,   St. Luke, is the only one to mention this.    He says, And being in agony,   He prayed the longer.  And his sweat   became as drops of blood, trickling   down upon the ground.

Every attempt imaginable   has been used by modern scholars to explain away this phrase, apparently   under the mistakes impression that this just doesnt happen. A great deal of effort   could be saved by consulting the medical literature.  Though very rare, the phenomenon of   Hematidrosis or bloody sweat, is well documented.   Under great emotional stress, tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can   break, thus mixing blood with sweat.    This process alone could have produced   marked weakness and possible shock.

We shall move rapidly   through the betrayal and arrest; I must stress that important portions of the   passion story are missing from this account. This may be frustrating to   you, but in order to adhere to our purpose of discussing only the purely   physical aspects of the Passion, this is necessary.  After the arrest in the middle of the   night, Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin and   Caiphas, the High Priest; it is here that the first physical trauma is   inflicted.  A soldier struck Jesus   across the face for remaining silent   when questioned by Caiphas.  The palace   guards then blindfolded Him and   mockingly taunted Him to identify them as they each passed by, spat on   Him, and struck Him in the face.

In the morning, Jesus,   battered and bruised, dehydrated, and exhausted from a sleepless night, is   taken across Jerusalem to the Praetorium of the Fortress Antonia, the seat   of government of the Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate.  You are, of course, familiar with Pilates   action in attempting to pass   responsibility to Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Judea. Jesus apparently suffered   no physical mistreatment at the hands of Herod and was returned to   Pilate.

It was then, in response   to the cries of the mob, that Pilate ordered Bar-Abbas released and   condemned Jesus to scourging and crucifixion. There is much disagreement   among authorities about scourging as a prelude to crucifixion.  Most Roman writers from this period do not   associate the two.  Many scholars believe that Pilate   originally ordered Jesus scourged as his full punishment and   that the death sentence by crucifixion came only in response to the   taunt by the mob that the Procurator was not properly defending Caesar   against this pretender who claimed to be the King of the Jews.

Preparations for the   scourging are carried out.  The   prisoner is stripped of His clothing and His   hands are tied to a post above His head.    It is doubtful whether the   Romans made any attempt to follow the Jewish law in this matter of   scourging.  The Jews had an ancient law   prohibiting more than forty lashes.  The Pharisees, always making sure that the   law wa strictly kept, insisted   that only thirty-nine lashes be given.    (In case of a miscount, they were   sure of remaining within the law.)  The   Roman legionnaire steps forward   with the flagrum (or flagellum) in his hand. This is a short whip   consisting of several heavy, leather thongs with two small balls of lead   attached near the ends of each.

 

The heavy whip is brought   down with full force again and again across Jesus shoulders, back and   legs.  At first the heavy thongs cut   through the skin only.  Then, as the blows continue, they are cut   deeper into the subcutaneous tissues,   producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of   the skin, and finally spurting arterial bleeding from vessels in the   underlying muscles.  The small balls of   lead first produce large, deep   bruises which are broken open by subsequent blows. Finally the skin of the   back is hanging in long ribbons and the entire area is an unrecognizable   mass of torn bleeding tissue.  When it   is determined by the   centurion in charge that the prisoner is near death, the beating is finally   stopped.

The half-fainting Jesus is   then untied and allowed to slump to the stone pavement, wet with His own   blood.  The Roman soldiers see a great   joke in this provincial Jew   claiming to be a king.  They throw a   robe across His shoulders and place a   stick in His hand for a scepter.  They   still need a crown to make their   travesty complete.  A small bundle of   flexible branches covered with long   thorns (commonly used for firewood) are plaited into the shape of a crown   and this is pressed into His scalp.    Again there is copious bleeding (the   scalp being one of the most vascular areas of the body.)  After mocking Him and striking Him across   the face, the soldiers take the stick from His   hand and strike Him across the head, driving the thorns deeper into His   scalp.  Finally, they tire of their   sadistic sport and the robe is torn from   His back.  This had already become   adherent to the clots of blood and   serum in the wounds, and its removal, just as in the careless removal of a   surgical bandage, causes exruciating pain…almost as though He   were again being whipped – and the wounds again begin to bleed.

In deference to Jewish   custom, the Romans return His garments.    The heavy patibulum of the cross is   tied across His shoulders and the procession of the condemned Christ, two   thieves and the execution detail of the Roman soldiers, headed by a   centurion, begins its slow journey along the Via Dolorosa.  In spite of His efforts to walk erect, the   weight of the heavy wooden cross together with   the shock produced by copious blood loss, is too much.  He stumbles and falls.  The rough wood of the beam gouges into the lacerated skin and   muscles of the shoulders.  he tries to   rise, but human muscles have been   pushed beyond their endurance.  The   centurion, anxious to get on with the   crucifixion, selects a stalwart North African onlooker, Simon of Cyrene,   to carry the cross.  Jesus follows,   still bleeding and sweating the   cold, clammy sweat of shock.  The 650   yard journey from the fortress   Antonia to Golgotha is finally completed.    The prisoner is again stripped   of His clothes – except for a loin cloth which is allowed the Jews.

The crucifixion begins,   Jesus is offered wine mixed with Myrrh, a mild analgesic mixture.  He refuses to drink.  Simon is ordered to place the cross on the ground and   Jesus is quickly thrown backward with His shoulders against the   wood.  The legionnaire feels for the   depression at the front of the   wrist.  He drives a heavy, square,   wrought-iron nail through the wrist and deep   into the wood.  Quickly, he moves to   the other side and repeats the   action, being careful not to pull the arms too tightly, but to allow some   flexibility and movement.  The   patibulum is then lifted in place at   the top of the stipes and the titulus reading Jesus of Nazareth, King of   the Jews is nailed in place.

 

The left foot is pressed   backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down,   a nail is driven through the arch of each, leaving the knees   moderately flexed.  The victim is now   crucified.  As He slowly sags down with more   weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating, fiery pain   shoots along the fingers and up the arms to explode in the brain – the   nails in the wrists are putting pressure on the median nerves.  As He pushes Himself upward to avoid this   wrenching torment, He places His   full weight on the nail through His feet.    Again there is the searing agony   of the the tearing through the nerves between the metatarsal bones of   the feet.

At this point, another   phenomenon occurs.  As the arms   fatigue, great waves of cramps sweep over   the muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain.  With these cramps comes the inability to   push Himself upward.  Hanging by His arms, the pectoral muscles   are paralyzed and the intercostal muscles are   unable to act.  Air can be drawn into   the lungs, but cannot be   exhaled.  Jesus fights to raise Himself   in order to get even one short breath.  Finally carbon dioxide builds up in the   lungs and in the blood stream and the   cramps partially subside.    Spasmodically, He is able to push Himself   upward to exhale and bring in the life-giving oxygen. It was undoubtedly during   these periods that He uttered the seven short sentences which are   recorded:

The first, looking down at   the Roman soldiers throwing dice for His seamless garment, Father,   forgive them for they know not what they do.

The second, to the   penitent thief, Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise.

The third, looking down at   the terrified, grief stricken, adolescent John, (the beloved Apostle), He   said, Behold thy mother, and looking to Mary, His mother, Woman behold   thy son.

The fourth cry is from the   beginning of the 22nd Psalm, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Hours of this limitless   pain, cycles of twisting joint- rending cramps, intermittent partial   asphyxiation, searing pain as tissue is torn from His lacerated back as He moves   up and down against the rough timber.    Then another agony begins.  A deep crushing pain deep in the chest as   the pericardium slowly fills   with serum and begins to compress the heart.

Let us remember again the   22nd Psalm (the 14th verse), I am poured out like water, and all my   bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax, it is melted in the midst of my   bowels.  It is now almost over – the   loss of tissue fluids has reached   a critical level – the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy,   thick, sluggish blood into the tissue – the tortured lungs are making   a frantic effort to draw in small gulps of air. The markedly dehydrated   tissues send their flood of stimuli to the brain.

Jesus gasps His fifth cry,   I thirst.

Let us remember another   verse from the prophetic 22nd Psalm: My strength is dried up like a   potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou has brought me into the   dust of death.

A sponge soaked in Posca,   the cheap, sour wine which is the staple drink of the Roman legionnaires,   is lifted to His lips.  He apparently   does not take any of the   liquid.  The body of Jesus is now in   extremis and He can feel the chill of death   creeping through His tissues.  This   realization

brings out His sixth words   – possibly little more than a tortured whisper.

It is finished.

His mission of atonement   has been completed.  Finally He can   allow his body to die. With one last surge of   strength, he once again presses His torn feet against the nail,   straightens His legs, takes a deeper breath, and utters His seventh and last cry,   Father into thy hands I commit my spirit.

The rest you know.  In order that the Sabbath not be profaned,   the Jews asked that the condemned   men be dispatched and removed from the crosses.

The common method of   ending a crucifixion was by cruxifracture, the breaking of the bones of   the legs.  This prevents the victim   from pushing himself upward; the   tension could not be relieved from the muscles of the chest, and rapid   suffocation occurred.  The legs of the   two thieves were broken, but when they came   to Jesus they saw that this was unnecessary,thus fulfilling the   scripture, not one bone shall be broken.

Apparently to make doubly   sure of death, the legionnaire drove his lance through the fifth   interspace between the ribs, upward through the pericardium and into the   heart.  The 34th verse of the 19th   chapter of the Gospel according to John:   And immediately there came out blood and water.

Thus there was an escape   of watery fluid from the sac surrounding the heart and blood from the   interior of the heart.  We, therefore,   have rather conclusive   post-mortem evidence that Our Lord died, not the usual crucifixion death by   suffocating, but of heart failure due to shock and constriction of the heart   by fluid in the pericardium.

Thus we have seen a   glimpse of the epitome of evil which man can exhibit toward man – and toward   God.  This is not a pretty sight and is   apt to leave us despondent and   depressed.  How grateful we can be that   we have a sequel:  A glimpse of the infinite mercy of God   toward man – the miracle of the atonement and the   expectation of Easter morning!

 

John   3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that   whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Contact:   Daniel de Sailles
Email: hbeng151@csun.edu

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