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NEWS FEATURE: CSI Jerusalem: Death on an Old Rugged Cross

c. 2005 Religion News Service (UNDATED) More than 2 billion Christians commemorate the most famous public execution in history Friday (March 25). Most believers choose to reflect on the lessons their faith draws from the death of Jesus Christ. But a very few with a curious bent have for years sought a more clinical enlightenment. […]

c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) More than 2 billion Christians commemorate the most famous public execution in history Friday (March 25). Most believers choose to reflect on the lessons their faith draws from the death of Jesus Christ. But a very few with a curious bent have for years sought a more clinical enlightenment.

How, exactly, did he die?

This small community includes a French surgeon, a couple of American pathologists and a medical illustrator.

“It’s been like a theological journey; I feel it’s enhanced my belief,” said Floyd Hosmer, the medical illustrator who provided the artwork for a 1986 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.”

Dr. William Edwards, the Mayo Clinic pathologist and lead author of the 1986 journal article, was a relatively new Christian who wanted to deploy his medical skills in service to his newly embraced faith, Hosmer said. Their article was, until now, the most recent authoritative investigation of the subject.

Dr. Frederick Zugibe, a retired forensic pathologist from New York state, still attends Mass daily, long after he stopped monitoring the hearts and respirations of hundreds of heavily instrumented volunteers he attached with belts to a special cross over 52 years of research. In scores of papers, Zugibe developed his own take on crucifixion, which he lays out in a forthcoming book, “The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry.”

The object of their attention is widely known but little understood.

Crucifixion _ public, degrading and exquisitely cruel _ is solidly documented in ancient literature. In the hands of Rome, it was an instrument of state terror.

Roman authorities deployed it against revolutionaries, prisoners and slaves, once crucifying 6,000 followers of the rebel slave Spartacus for the edification of passers-by along the Appian Way.

But firsthand investigation of the brutal practice is difficult; few remains of crucified victims have ever been found. The Gospel account of Jesus’ burial appears to document the slightest softening in the usual Roman malice: As the final humiliation, executioners usually left the corpse to rot on the cross, then disposed of it beyond the family’s recovery.

That usually leaves clinical investigators to fall back almost exclusively on the Gospels’ four accounts of Christ’s Passion, supplemented by other ancient references to crucifixion and, before Zugibe, only the most limited experimentation.

In more recent years, some also have looked to the Shroud of Turin. That cloth bears the faint imprint of a man who appears to have crucifixion wounds. Though no Christian church officially asserts the image is that of Jesus, its custodian, the Roman Catholic Church, treats it with great reverence. Millions believe it is the burial shroud of Jesus himself.

In time, the shroud has worked its way into some crucifixion research as extra-Scriptural evidence. In his medical journal article, Edwards cited it as a source of information about the crucifixion of Jesus.

Zugibe says he is a believer in the Shroud’s authenticity. But “when I do my experiments, I close everything; I close the Bible and look at things from a totally scientific point of view,” he said.

Modern theories of the physiology of Jesus’ death seem to have been born in 1937 when French surgeon Dr. Pierre Barbet published “The Five Wounds of Christ.”

Later, using World War II accounts of German executions of concentration camp prisoners suspended by their hands, Barbet proposed that as a crucifixion victim sagged from the crossbar, his rib cage expanded, leaving him unable to exhale properly.

He suggested that Jesus pushed himself up with his feet until the pain required him to slump again. Hours of agonized migration up and down the cross left him exhausted _ until he finally asphyxiated.

In 1986, Hosmer, Edwards and the Rev. Wesley Gabel, a Methodist minister, collaborated in the medical journal to propose a complex of factors causing death, preceded by medical explanations for all the landmarks of the Passion accounts found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Luke’s assertion that as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” seemed to be an example of hematidrosis, or stress-induced hemorrhage into the sweat glands, the JAMA authors wrote.

Working their way through Scripture, the JAMA authors sketched out the accumulating clinical effects of the Passion. From the scourging: blood loss and pleural effusion, or the collection of fluid in the chest cavity; from the crucifixion: Barbet’s lethal respiratory crisis; and throughout the ordeal, mounting exhaustion, falling blood pressure and deepening shock from fluid loss.

To all of that, they added the possibility of cardiac rupture at the moment of death _ a nod to a popular devotional notion that Jesus died of a broken heart.


The JAMA article caused a storm in the medical community. A follow-up issue contained 17 letters on the subject, more than had ever been published on a single topic, the Washington Post reported at the time.

Most were critical. Most thought it a work of pseudo-science _ “forensic mythology,” one author called it _ and questioned its appropriateness in a prestigious scientific journal.

Critics, Christian and otherwise, focused on the authors’ use of Scripture _ not to mention the Shroud of Turin _ as a literal record from which reliable clinical observations could be deduced.

Conservative Christians had no difficulty in merging the four Gospels as historically accurate accounts. But liberal Protestants and many Catholic scholars saw the Gospels differently _ not as ancient videotape, but as theological writings meant to present differently nuanced accounts of the life of Jesus to different audiences.

In his two-volume “The Death of the Messiah,” the Rev. Raymond Brown, a leading Catholic Scripture scholar, chided the JAMA authors for speculating far afield from their field of expertise “without realizing that any or all of these (narrative) features might embody theological symbolism rather than historical description.”

Zugibe takes a different approach.


During a 34-year career as the chief medical examiner for Rockland County, N.Y., he probed the cause of death of thousands of victims of accident, crime and disease.

Zugibe began investigating crucifixion as a young man. With a professor’s permission, he said, he once drove a nail through the wrist of a cadaver in gross anatomy lab. He later did elaborate bloodless experiments with volunteers.

“What I found was that Barbet was totally incorrect on 98 percent of everything he said,” Zugibe said.

Zugibe commissioned a special cross fitted with belts and movable gloves so at least some effects of crucifixion could be observed for various body positions.

He fitted volunteers with strain gauges to record the pull from the arms. He wired them to electrocardiographs, took blood oxygen readings, collected their exhalations for analysis and drew blood for blood chemistries, he said.

One of his major findings: A crucifixion victim with arms outstretched can breathe fine, he said. Indeed, many volunteers tended to hyperventilate with stress, at least at first, he said.

Moreover, even muscular young men could not collect Zugibe’s incentive of $100 to push themselves up on his cross. With legs bent, they can’t develop the necessary leverage, he said.

Although a foot rest often appears low on the cross’s upright in Western art, old crucifixion literature doesn’t mention it, Zugibe said.

Zugibe believes, on the evidence of the Shroud of Turin, that Jesus’ feet were nailed.

On the cross, dehydration, blood loss and internal injuries from beatings would have converged, Zugibe said.

“You slowly get to the point where the heart loses efficiency,” he said. “Blood pressure is dropping. He dies of shock _ hypovolemic shock due to blood loss and loss of fluid _ and traumatic shock. That leads to heart failure _ cardiogenic shock.

“If I wrote the death certificate today, I’d say he died of profound shock.”