The resurrection of Jesus Christ is something that cannot be explained in a world that operates solely through naturalistic processes. For this reason, skeptics have used different explanations to try to deal with Jesus' resurrection. One such theory is that Jesus didn't really die on the cross, but just swooned. This page will examine this question from the historical/medical evidence available.
What is the evidence?
The New Testament provides a description of the events that surrounded the crucifixion of Jesus. The first event that impacts the question of Jesus' death was the scourging that occurred before His crucifixion. Scourging occurred as a preliminary Roman punishment in all instances of crucifixion.1 A short whip composed of several single or braided leather thongs tied to small iron balls or sharp pieces of sheep bones was primarily used in scourging.2 The severity of the scourging depended on the individuals who were doing the scourging. Its intent was to weaken the victim to a state just short of collapse or death.3 The Bible indicates that Jesus was scourged, although the degree to which He was punished is not detailed.4 However, a prophecy from Isaiah indicates that "His appearance was marred more than any man."5 A particularly graphic medical description of Roman scourging occurs in an article from JAMA.6
"As the Roman soldiers repeatedly struck the victim's back with full force, the iron balls would cause deep contusions, and the leather thongs and sheep bones would cut into the skin and subcutaneous tissues.7 Then, as the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh.2,7,25 Pain and blood loss generally set the stage for circulatory shock.12 The extent of blood loss may well have determined how long the victim would survive on the cross.8"
Jewish law limited the number of lashes to 39,2 although it is not known if the Romans would have abided by Jewish religious law. However, the biblical texts indicate that the soldiers assigned to scourging Jesus enjoyed mocking and torturing Him. They made a crown of thorns, put it on His head and pretended to hail Him as king.7 They continue to beat and punch and spit on Him until He was led back to Pontius Pilate.8 Such behavior indicates that Jesus' scourging was probably particularly harsh. Further evidence of the severity of the preliminary punishment could be seen in Jesus' inability to carry His own crossbar (which was customary3, 9) from the Praetorium to the crucifixion site.10
Details from the gospel accounts of Jesus' crucifixion match those found in secular writings. For example, A sign on which the condemned man's name and crime were displayed was placed above the man's head.9,11 The gospels describe Jesus' sign, which said, "Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews."12 The religious leaders didn't like the sign and suggested it be change to "He said I am King of the Jews."13 By law, the victim was given a bitter drink of wine mixed with myrrh (gall),3,14 which is mentioned in the gospel accounts.15 The condemned man was either tied or nailed to the crossbar, with nailing being the preferred method of the Romans.3,9 The gospels describe Jesus being nailed to the cross.16 Roman soldiers could hasten death of crucifixion victims by breaking the legs below the knees.3,9 This technique was described for the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus.17 To make sure Jesus was dead, the soldiers took a spear and pierced His side.18 It seems likely most Roman soldiers were taught to thrust a spear through the right side of the chest through the lungs and heart - a fatal wound.9
The idea that Jesus just swooned on the cross and didn't die is medically impossible. Death by crucifixion occurred through exhaustion asphyxia - the victim eventually suffocated.6 The position of the body on the cross left the chest muscles used for breathing in a permanent inhalation position. In order to exhale, the victim would have to actively push his body up against the nails holding his feet to the cross. If Jesus had passed out on the cross, He would have died within 10 minutes by suffocation.9 What does the Bible tells us that happened after Jesus "swooned?" The Bible says that after Jesus had died, Joseph of Arimathea walked from Golgotha to the Praetorium to ask Pontius Pilate for the body of Jesus.19 Pilate was surprised that Jesus was dead already, so he sent a messenger to Golgotha to summon the centurion for questioning.20 After the centurion arrived, Pilate determined that Jesus was dead and allowed Joseph to take the body.20 The distance from the Praetorium to Golgotha was 1/3 mile.6 The necessary trips include:
|Joseph Golgotha to Praetorium||0.33|
|Messenger from Praetorium to Golgotha||0.33|
|Centurion from Golgotha to Praetorium||0.33|
|Joseph from Praetorium to Golgotha||0.33|
Even at the rapid pace of 5 mph (a very brisk walk indeed!) it would require a minimum of 16 minutes to complete all the trips. This time does not include any waiting time, which is unrealistic. Joseph would have had to wait for Pilate to be summoned, Pilate would have to wait and instruct the messenger, the messenger would have to convey the request to the centurion, and the centurion would have to report to Pilate and be questioned by him. Realistically, the entire scenario probably required over an hour. Jesus would have been dead well before that time if He had only swooned.
The weight of historical evidence corroborating the gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ bear strong testimony of the accuracy of the New Testament texts. If the texts are accurate, there can be little doubt that Jesus was dead when taken down from the cross. The idea that He had just swooned is unrealistic. According to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association:
"Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge."6
- Edwards, W.D., W.J. Gabel, and F.E. Hosmer. 1986. On
the Physical Death of Jesus Christ. JAMA
Copyright ©, 1986, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)
- Was Jesus God?
- Hengel M: Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, Bowden J (trans). Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1977, pp 22-45, 86-90.
- Bucklin, R. 1970. The legal and medical aspects of the
trial and death of Christ. Sci Law 10:14-26.
Davis CT. 1965. The crucifixion of Jesus: The passion of Christ from a medical point of view. Ariz. Med. 22:183-187.
Barbet P. 1953. A Doctor at Calvary: The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ as Described by a Surgeon. Earl of Wicklow (trans). Garden City, NY, Doubleday Image Books, pp 12-18, 37-147, 159-175, 187-208.
- Tenney, S.M. 1964. On death by crucifixion. Am. Heart J. 68:286-287.
- Then he released Barabbas for them; but after having
Jesus scourged, he delivered Him to be crucified. (Matthew 27:26)
And wishing to satisfy the multitude, Pilate released Barabbas for them, and after having Jesus scourged, he delivered Him to be crucified. (Mark 15:15)
and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again." (Luke 18:33)
Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged Him. (John 19:1)
- Just as many were astonished at you, My people, So His appearance was marred more than any man, And His form more than the sons of men. (Isaiah 52:14)
- Edwards, W.D., W.J. Gabel, and F.E. Hosmer. 1986. On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ. JAMA 255:1455-1463.
- And after weaving a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they kneeled down before Him and mocked Him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" (Matthew 27:29)
- And they spat on Him, and took the reed and began to
beat Him on the head. (Matthew 27:30)
and they began to come up to Him, and say, "Hail, King of the Jews!" and to give Him blows in the face. (John 19:3)
- Barbet, P. 1953. A Doctor at Calvary: The Passion of
Our Lord Jesus Christ as Described by a Surgeon, Earl of Wicklow
(trans). Garden City, NY, Doubleday Image Books, pp 12-18, 37-147, 159-175,
Pfeiffer CF, Vos HF, Rea J (eds). 1975. Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia. Chicago, Moody Press, pp 149-152, 404-405, 713-723, 1173-1174, 1520- 1523.
- And as they were coming out, they found a man of Cyrene named Simon, whom they pressed into service to bear His cross. (Matthew 27:32)
- Johnson, C.D. 1978. Medical and cardiological aspects of the passion and crucifixion of Jesus, the Christ. Bol. Assoc. Med. PR. 70:97-102.
- And Pilate wrote an inscription also, and put it on the cross. And it was written, "JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS." Therefore this inscription many of the Jews read, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Latin, and in Greek. (John 19:19-20)
- And so the chief priests of the Jews were saying to Pilate, "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews'; but that He said, 'I am King of the Jews.'" (John 19:21)
- Stroud, W. 1871. Treatise on the Physical Cause of the Death of Christ and Its Relation to the Principles and Practice of Christianity, ed 2. London, Hamilton & Adams, pp 28-156, 489-494.
- And they tried to give Him wine mixed with myrrh; but He did not take it. (Mark 15:23)
- The other disciples therefore were saying to him,
"We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I shall
see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place
of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe." (John
this Man [Jesus], delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. (Acts 2:23)
- The soldiers therefore came, and broke the legs of the first man, and of the other man who was crucified with Him; (John 19:32)
- but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs; but one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water. (John 19:33-34)
- And after these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. He came therefore, and took away His body. (John 19:38)
- And Pilate wondered if He was dead by this time, and summoning the centurion, he questioned him as to whether He was already dead. And ascertaining this from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph. (Mark 15:44-45)
Last Modified April 19, 2006