The death of Jesus of Nazareth after only three hours on the cross probably occurred because blood loss from his previous scourging may have resulted in shock and compounded breathing difficulties caused by crucifixion, according to a Mayo Clinic report in today's Journal of the American Medical Association.
The report, a pathologist's analysis of biblical and historical texts supplemented by evidence from Jesus' reputed shroud and other archeological findings, attempts to refute modern suggestions that he might not have been dead when taken from the cross.
It also offers scientific explanations for such biblical phenomena as Jesus' sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane and the gushing of blood and water from a spear wound in the side.
The report is by Mayo pathologist William D. Edwards,, medical artist Floyd E. Hosmer and the Rev. Wesley J. Gabel, a United Methodist Church pastor in Bethel, Minn. It vividly describes wounds created by flogging and illustrates the anatomic path of nails through bones and nerves of Jesus' wrists.
"Death by crucifixion was, in every sense of the word, excruciating (Latin, excruciatus, or 'out of the cross')," the authors wrote.
To try reaching a medically accurate assessment of what happened, Edwards said in an interview that he considered archeological data; writings of early Roman, Christian and Jewish historians on crucifixion practices, and the four gospels.
A recent convert to Christianity, he said, "It's almost impossible to be totally unbiased, but . . . we tried to do this in as unbiased a way as possible."
Edwards said his conclusion that Jesus died from crucifixion and scourging contradicts a view advanced by some theologians since the late 19th century "that the Resurrection was really a resuscitation or revival, that Jesus had not died on the cross."
Survival during crucifixion "generally ranged from three or four hours to three or four days and appears to have been inversely related to the severity of the scourging," the report said.
It concluded that Jesus' flogging by soldiers, a preliminary to many Roman executions, could have produced enough bleeding to render his physical condition critical even before crucifixion.
Remains discovered near Jerusalem in 1968 of a man crucified about the same time and studies of the Shroud of Turin, the burial cloth of a crucifixion victim believed by many to be Jesus, indicate that the Romans drove nails five to seven inches long through wrists and feet.
Once a body was suspended on a cross, the weight on arms and shoulders made it difficult or impossible to exhale fully after each breath, causing slow, painful death from respiratory failure.
The worst pain probably came from nerves in wrists and feet damaged by the nails and from muscle cramps caused by fatigue and lack of oxygen, the report said.
The biblical claim that blood and water flowed from a spear wound in Christ's side inflicted after death has generated medical controversy, the report noted.
It suggests that the spear entered the right side of the chest, releasing clear fluid accumulated around the heart or lungs, as occurs during heart failure, then penetrated the heart's right ventricle wall to cause the gush of blood.
The evangelist-physician Luke's description of Jesus sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane could have represented the rare medical phenomenon of hematidrosis, which sometimes occurs in highly emotional states or in persons with bleeding disorders, the report suggested.
In this condition, hemorrhages into sweat glands can render the skin fragile and turn the sweat red.
Medical experts have disputed the cause of Jesus' death after only a few hours on the cross. One theory holds that the heart wall ruptured from a severe heart attack. Edwards said he prefers thinking that death resulted from a combination of blood loss and respiratory failure, perhaps complicated by heart failure.
Whatever the exact cause of death, Edwards said historical and archaeological evidence has convinced him that Jesus "died on the cross, and you have to look for some other explanation for the Resurrection than a resuscitation theory."