If you're the editor of a widely read medical journal and your "in" box is nearly empty, you might consider publishing -- say, the week before Easter -- an article titled "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ."
That's what the Journal of the American Medical Association did.
The article, by a Methodist pastor and a pathologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., purported to show that Jesus probably died from shock due to blood loss and inability to breathe on the cross. It relied heavily on Gospel accounts in the Bible's New Testament.
The article provoked a blizzard of letters, some of them congratulatory, most of them outraged and all of them apparently surprised to see such an article in a scientific journal like JAMA. Last week's issue included 17 letters on the subject, more than the journal had ever published on a single topic.
"Things must be slow at the Mayo Clinic," wrote Dr. Norman A. Marcus, of Springfield, Va. He called the article "thinly veiled anti-Semitism at its worst" and said it "brings new meaning to the pseudoscience of forensic mythology."
"Perhaps the future will see these authors equally successful in studying 'Thermal Injuries to Joan of Arc,' " Marcus added.
"How did an unscientific study . . . portraying a strictly unilateral (Christian) interpretation of the poorly documented death of a Jew who lived 2,000 years ago, become clothed in the garb of scientifically acceptable fact and illustrated by highly imaginative and emotionally inflammatory illustrations?" asked 10 physicians jointly in a letter. "Was there also a physical death of editorial discretion?"
Dennis Smith, a biblical scholar from Oklahoma State University, called it "a disgrace to your credibility as a journal of scientific inquiry." Basing medical analysis on an uncritical reading of the Gospels, he said, is "roughly equivalent to a paleontologist's using a literal reading of the Genesis creation story as primary data for the origin of humanity."
"As a fellow editor of another AMA publication, I am thoroughly embarrassed," wrote Dr. Joel S. Glaser, from the University of Miami School of Medicine. "At best, this piece is religious sophistry . . . At worst, it is a scurrilous polemic."
Two members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations said they were "astonished" that JAMA would venture beyond medicine into theology. "It is about as appropriate as if we used our magazine, Reform Judaism, to have our rabbis instruct our readers in the technique of open heart surgery."
Dr. Daniel Musher of Houston called the article "inappropriate, unscholarly in the extreme and offensive in its extraordinary insensitivity." He said use of the name "Jesus Christ" in the title is "lacking in propriety," because "by no means all of your readership" accepts Jesus as Christ or Messiah.
He also criticized the authors for citing "that well-known scholarly journal National Geographic" to support claims for the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin as the burial cloth of Jesus.
In a reply to the letters, the article's authors said they "categorically deny anti-Semitic intent or inference and condemn anti-Semitism loudly and passionately." Defending their reliance on biblical accounts, they said "the evidence, taken in concert, supports the concept that the Gospels represent a reliable historical account of Jesus' death."