Another Doctor at Calvary

What does medicine tell us about the Passion of Our Lord?

Caravaggio (1571–1610), “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas”
Caravaggio (1571–1610), “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” (photo: Public Domain)

In 1950, the French Surgeon Pierre Barbet published his book A Doctor at Calvary: The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ as Described by a Surgeon. I have been privileged to be another doctor at Calvary, one who has studied the passion since that day over 30 years ago when I asked my Mayo Medical School pathology professor for information on the passion of Jesus to teach my sixth-grade religious education students. The following day, Dr. Edwards produced his article — to be published the following week — entitled The Physical Death of Jesus Christ, published in 1986 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. After speaking on the Crucifixion for over 20 years, I questioned some of Dr. Barbet’s and Dr. Edwards’ conclusions, and having reviewed a mountain of evidence have concluded the following about our Lord’s suffering.


Jesus’ Sweat Like Blood

Luke, the detailed physician-evangelist notes that in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ sweat became like “great drops of blood falling to the ground.” Do people sweat blood out of their sweat glands as Dr. Barbet wrote in 1950? No.

However, there are over 20 reported cases of hematidrosis (aka hematohidrosis) since 2003. In some cases headache, anxiety, abdominal pain, or increased body temperature precede the bloody flow. In others, there is no warning before bloody fluid exudes from the skin - most commonly from the forehead, but also from virtually any area. Most interestingly, this bloody fluid also pours from areas where there are no sweat glands! This includes the tongue, tear ducts and fingernail beds.

A skin biopsy done during an active episode revealed that blood cells appeared in the skin (likely leaking through walls of capillaries) between collagen fibers (collagen is what makes up leather from cow skin) and spread their way between these fibers and skin surface cells to exit alongside hair follicles. There was no connection to the sweat glands, and remarkably, no bruising of the skin. Blood and sweat did mix, but not in the sweat glands — they mixed on the surface. This event did not make Jesus’ skin more tender, but he did lose precious fluid that contributed to his early demise, and in temperatures that averaged in the upper 40s Fahrenheit, his wet skin induced shivering.


The Scourging of Our Lord

Taken bound about a mile across the Kidron Valley, Jesus spent the night at — and below — the house of the high priest Caiaphas where he was slapped repeatedly with open hands, punched with fists, and had his skin severely beaten. There is a possibility, supported by evidence on the Shroud of Turin and a Greek term used by Luke, that Jesus was even flogged (not scourged) during this time. Marks corresponding to flogging with a stick are present on the Shroud. While natural pain-relieving endorphins blunted his pain temporarily, the tenderness of Jesus’ skin, muscles, and bones from this beating magnified the pain of tortures he received after sunrise.

After the mock trials, Jesus was scourged by professional verberatores (think ‘reverberation’ — a sensation that would course through Jesus’ body with each strike). We do not know what position Jesus assumed for the scourging, but we do know that going back at least 200 years before Christ, scourging was the typical preliminary to Crucifixion. In fact, most Crucifixion victims were scourged while they carried the cross-bar to the upright post. There is absolutely no evidence that any Crucifixion victim ever carried a two-part cross.

According to both Luke and John, Pilate intended the scourging as Jesus’ entire punishment — he was not condemned to Crucifixion until after the scourging. Scourges found in the catacombs are comprised of a long brass chain branching to multiple shorter chains — each tipped with a lead ball. Only the Greeks added pieces of sharp bone to scourges, so Jesus’ would not have endured the slicing action of bones.

Based on the Shroud of Turin, Jesus was struck at least 120 times with a scourge with paired lead balls. The Shroud underestimates his torture, because only blows that provoked blood flow left their mark on the Shroud. Each blow caused significant bruising in the skin and muscles. With repeated blows, Jesus’ skin weakened and broke open to release blood. Blood also intruded into muscle and deep skin layers — just as useless to the circulation there as the blood spilled on the ground.

Chest trauma caused Jesus’ lungs to swell with blood while bloody fluid accumulated in the space above the diaphragm between the lungs and chest wall. This radically reduced the ability of his lungs to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with the blood. Pain induced by rib contusions caused him to take shallow breaths - deep breaths with greater rib movement were horribly painful.


The Journey to Golgotha

After his condemnation, Pilate’s soldiers mocked Jesus. His own clothing was torn from him after congealing to the open wounds of his back, chest and thighs. He was given a new soldier’s cloak — to again dry to the clotted wounds. His royal crown consisting of half- to one-inch-long spines of the Christ-thorn plant (I have cut myself acquiring a small sample from a roadside in Galilee) were plaited into a cap and compressed onto Jesus’ head. The royal scepter, made of a reed from the Giant Cane, about an inch in diameter and as hard as a walking cane, was used to strike Jesus’ face and head — to drive the thorns in more deeply. Copious blood flowed from the tight scalp skin once pierced and relaxed.

The soldiers reopened the scourge wounds by removing the military cloak and placing Jesus’ own garment upon him. He then took up his cross. How much did it weigh? Around A.D. 330, St. Helena returned to Rome with a cross-bar (besides Jesus’) from Calvary measuring 6 feet long. This European Black Pine cross is displayed in Santa Croce Church in Rome and weighs about 15 pounds. A man in the pain and state of dehydration of Jesus would have difficulty keeping himself upright — let alone while bearing a 6-foot long piece of wood across his shoulders — even if it weighed “only” 15 pounds.

Jesus’ trekked about 400 meters to Calvary — once around a high school track. Wounds on the Shroud of Turin are consistent with carrying a cross-bar on the shoulders — higher on the right shoulder. Jesus likely fell to his right — based on more bruising and bleeding on his right cheek bone from striking the cross-bar while falling. Bleeding on the knees suggest falls onto a rough surface.


The Crucifixion

When reaching Calvary, Jesus was stripped of his clothes — one last time opening those wounds on his back — and offered wine mixed with myrrh. Insanely thirsty with his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, he tasted this mixture — and found that the myrrh made the wine as palatable as gasoline and magnified his unbearable thirst.

His arms were stretched taut along the cross-bar by two soldiers while one drove an iron nail through each wrist — wretchedly painful — but relatively bloodless. Then, Jesus was hoisted onto the upright post planted just outside a gate of Jerusalem on the leftover hill of Calvary. Leftover, because this hill was comprised of low quality limestone rejected by the builders of Jerusalem who found its stone of poor quality compared to previously liberated building material. The stone that literal builders literally rejected became the place of the cornerstone of our salvation!

Based on ancient graffiti, an archeological find and ancient gemstone engravings — all contemporary with the period of active Roman crucifixion, Jesus’ feet were affixed with iron spikes driven from the outside of the heels and through each heel bone while the feet straddled the upright post. Crucifixes do not show a foot-on-foot position until a millennium after Christ. In this position, Jesus stayed until he died.

Did Jesus die of suffocation? No. Dr. Barbet promoted the suffocation theory based on a torture called aufbinden where men were hung from wrists bound above their heads with their feet above the ground. This led to death in 30-90 minutes; but aufbinden is not crucifixion. First, crucifixion victims bear weight on their feet. Second the arms are essentially horizontal, not vertical, during crucifixion. Third, volunteers bound to crosses by leather straps are unable even once to straighten their legs — let alone the thousands of times necessary to remain alive for hours or days — based on the suffocation theory of Barbet. And finally, Jesus cried out in a loud voice at the moment of death; when suffocating, speech is impossible.

Jesus almost certainly died of shock brought on by copious blood loss so that he did not have enough blood to keep his brain and heart, and therefore the rest of his body, alive. His heart probably started beating in a rapid rhythm called ventricular tachycardia. About 30 seconds before death, the heart rhythm slows down radically and noticeably, such that Jesus likely noticed and sensed his end was near. This gave him the opportunity to cry his final words — and give his life for us.

Dr. McGovern is a dermatologist/Mohs surgeon and national board member of the Catholic Medical Association who resides in Fort Wayne, Indiana.