On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ
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 amajor world religion, (Christianity)have appreciably influenced thecourse of human history, and, byvirtue of a compassionate attitudetoward the sick, also have contributedto the development of modern medi-cine. The eminence of Jesus as ahistorical figure and the suffering,and controversy associated with hisdeath has stimulated us to investi-gate, in an interdisciplinary manner,the circumstances surrounding hiscrucifixion. Accordingly it is ourintent to present not a theologicaltreatise but rather a medically, andhistorically accurate account of thephysical death of the one called JesusChrist.
The source material concerningChrist’s death comprises a body of literature and not a physical body orits skeletal remains. Accordingly, thecredibility of any discussion of Jesus’death will be determined primarily bythe credibility of one’s sources. Forthis review, the source materialincludes the writings of ancientChristian and non-Christian authors,the writings of modern authors, andthe Shroud of Turin.
Using thelegal-historical method of scientificinvestigation,
scholars have estab-lished the reliability and accuracy of the ancient manuscripts.
The most extensive and detaileddescriptions of the life and death of Jesus are to be found in the NewTestament gospels of Matthew, Mark,Luke, and John.
The other 23 booksof the New Testament support but donot expand on the details recorded inthe gospels. Contemporary Christian,Jewish, and Roman authors provideadditional insight concerning thefirst-century Jewish and Roman legalsystems and the details of scourgingand crucifixion.
Seneca, Livy, Plu-tarch, and others refer to crucifixionpractices in their works.
Specifical-ly, Jesus (or his crucifixion) is men-tioned by the Roman historians Cor-nelius Tacitus, Pliny the Younger,and Suetonius, by non-Roman histori-ans Thallus and Phlegon, by the satir-ist Lucian of Samosata, by the JewishTalmud, and by the Jewish historianFlavius Josephus, although the au-thenticity of portions of the latter isproblematic.
Jesus of Nazareth underwent Jewish and Roman trials, was flogged,and was sentenced to death by crucifixion. The scourging produced deepstripelike lacerations and appreciable blood loss, and it probably set thestage for hypovolemic shock as evidenced by the fact that Jesus was tooweakened to carry the crossbar (patibulum) to Golgotha. At the site of crucifixion his wrists were nailed to the patibulum, and after the patibulumwas lifted onto the upright post, (stipes) his feet were nailed to the stipes.The major pathophysiologic effect of crucifixion was an interference withnormal respirations. Accordingly, death resulted primarily from hypovolemicshock and exhaustion asphyxia. Jesus’ death was ensured by the thrust of asoldier’s spear into his side. Modern medical interpretation of the historicalevidence indicates that Jesus was dead when taken down from the cross.(
The Shroud of Turin is consideredby many to represent the actual buri-al cloth of Jesus,
and several public-cations concerning the medical as-pects of his death draw conclusionsfrom this assumption.
The Shroudof Turin and recent archaeologicalfindings provide valuable informationconcerning Roman crucifixion prac-tices.
The interpretations of mod-ern writers, based on a knowledge of science and medicine not available inthe first century, may offer addition-al insight concerning the possiblemechanisms of Jesus’ death.
When taken in concert certainfacts—the extensive and early testi-mony of both Christian proponentsand opponents, and their universalacceptance of Jesus as a true histori-cal figure; the ethic of the gospelwriters, and the shortness of the timeinterval between the events and theextant manuscripts; and the confir-mation of the gospel accounts byhistorians and archaeological find-ings
—ensure a reliable testimonyfrom
tation of Jesus’ death may be made.
After Jesus and his disciples hadobserved the Passover meal in anupper room in a home in southwestJerusalem, they traveled to the Mountof Olives, northeast of the city (Fig 1).(Owing to various adjustments in thecalendar, the years of Jesus’ birth anddeath remain controversial.
How-ever, it is likely that Jesus was bornin either 4 or 6 BC and died in 30 AD.
During the Passover observ-ance in 30 AD, the Last Supper wouldhave been observed on Thursday,
From the Departments of Pathology (Dr. Edwards)and Medical Graphics (Mr. Hosmer), Mayo Clinic,Rochester, Minn; and the Homestead United Meth-odist Church, Rochester, Minn, and the West BethelUnited Methodist Church, Bethel, Minn (Pastor Gabel).Reprint requests to Department of Pathology,Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN 55905 (Dr Edwards).
JAMA March 21, 1986—Vol 255, No. 11 Death of Christ—Edwards et al