07 April 2007

Death By Crucifixion: Medical Theories

Optimistic Filipinos call this Saturday "Sabado de Gloria," in anticipation of the Easter resurrection of the dead Jesus tomorrow. But the more pessimistic still term it Black Saturday. "Black" because Jesus died while being crucified.

Crucifixion is a terrible way to die. You can read about its history and details here. In the Philippines however, crucifixion during Good Friday has transformed from being a devotional practice to a tourist attraction witnessed by around 20,000 spectators. It is a gory experience and not for the faint of heart.

Why a dozen or so Filipinos would choose to have themselves nailed to a cross every year is a question I have asked myself many times. Penance? Devotion? Curiosity? Business venture? My multiple choice of answers can go on and on, and still I will fail to get the real answer. Even more puzzling is that no one --- from the govenment or from the Catholic Church --- has tried to put a stop to this barbaric practice.

Traditionally, before getting crucified, a person is first whipped in the back. Afterwards, he is made to carry a plank of wood and walk towards the crucifixion site. There, he will be nailed either upright or upside down using the same plank he carried. Perhaps the most detailed account you can read about this is the most famous crucifixion of all --- that of Jesus Christ.

I recently came across a medical article written by Maslen and Mitchell on April 2006 from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. It's an interesting review of more than 40 medical articles and books about possible causes of death by crucifixion. It covered historical, archeological, and re-anactment aspects of the crucifixion. The most notable of these medical hypotheses are presented in the table below:

Other highlights in the article:
  • most representations of Jesus' crucifixion we know or see show a nail passing through both feet from front to back - there is no evidence that crucifixion was ever done this way during classical times

  • the medical hypotheses presented in previous articles did not really utilize the full range of evidences available - the authors lamented that an archeological evidence of crucifixion, the crucified man from Giv'at ha-Mivtar in Israel, has been ignored by researchers, which is arguably "the most important and reliable evidence" for investigating crucifixion details

  • the work of forensic pathologist Zugibe - concluded that Jesus died of hypovolemic shock instead of asphyxiation seemed unreliable because most of Zugibe's arguments were based on the Turin Shroud, which radiocarbon dating has revealed to be a medieval forgery. Furthermore, Zugibe's conclusion was not based on positive evidence to support the hypovolemic shock theory, but rather more upon negative evidence against the asphyxiation theory

  • how does one die from cruxifixion then? - the authors concluded that there is "insufficient evidence" to say with certainty how a person dies from crucifixion

Bottomline: No one really knows how.

What I found amusing is the authors' statement that --- "Until new archaeological or textual evidence comes to light then it is only through more realistic humane re-enactment research that we may move closer to an answer."

More realistic humane re-enactment of crucifixion???

Somebody please tell me that is not an oxymoron.

  1. Physical Death of Jesus Christ, Mayo Clinic Study

  2. JAMA: On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ

11 reactions:

jhay said...

When it comes to religion, most Filipinos just believe, they never think. And we Filipino Catholics are proud of our religiosity. [insert sarcasm here]

Ipanema said...

More humanely? I never thought that there's a milder form of being nailed to the cross. In my post I highlighted folksy rituals as this show how we interpret religion.

I'm not sure if these crucified people get a new lease in life. This should be documented. Did they change after their sacrifice? Or are they still the same? It would be interesting to note.

Happy Easter, doc!

BatJay said...

di ba sinisibat ng mga romans ang mga crucified para siguradong patay?

at saka, historically raw, yung mga pinapako sa krus ay walang damit.

kung tutuo ito, next year during the re-enactment, gawin nating nakahubo lahat ng mga ipapako tapos sibatin din dapat sila sa tagiliran.

siguro, wala nang mag vo-volunteer.

Sidney said...

I agree with Jhay but I remove the sarcasm.

tani said...

I think our Lord bled to death not from the crucifixion but from the scourging.

watson said...

Biglang lumakas tibok ng puso ko sa gulat nung nakita ko yung photo, Doc Emer. Talagang kahinaan ko ang sight of blood. At wala pang blood yung photo ha, na-imagine ko lang...

I don't see myself looking at such a spectacle anytime soon. Although you have to admire their persistence.

shihtzufan said...

Hi Doc :)
I think the Church is not taking action against this activity because these people are devotees and thus, driven by their faith.
I saw a feature about them before and they even grow their hair the whole year to be able to play the part. That was before, I don't know about now.
But this reminds me of this holy man who burned himself to death, and did not move an inch nor made a sound till he died, I don't remember who. (I'll look it up)
About the Shroud, was it forged by Leonardo Da Vinci as mentioned in the Da Vinci Code?

Prudence said...

People who have themselves nailed to the cross, thinking it is the ultimate penance for their sins, have the wrong notion of spirituality. I have a suspicion that these are people who like to grab attention. There are those, you know, who'd go to great lengths just to secure a crowd's attention. Not that I'm belittling them, but this tradition of having a person crucified during Lent should be stopped. People should make use of their rational minds. And the tradition of crucifixion as penance is not rational.

Anonymous said...

Problem with the crucifixion scenario.

If the bible is correct, and Jesus really did come back from the dead...

How much of a sacrifice was this? He knew he'd come back from the dead. It seems to me like this was nothing more than a temporary inconvenience.

How could one death cover up the sins of billions of people?

Why is God blood thirsty? Why does he demand death for even a minor sin?

Something seems terribly wrong here.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous...and others:

I have been reviewing the posts concerning the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ, and am left puzzled.

Why would anyone attempt to suffer for their own sins, which can only be accomplished by everlasting punishment (Matthew 25:46), when the Lord Jesus has already suffered for their sins, and bids them simply come to Him and rest (Matthew 11:28)? If someone wants to suffer for their own sins it is quite simple to do - just stay as you are (John 3:3).

The reason we die is sin (Romans 5:12), and yet the Lord Jesus had no sin (II Corinthians 5:21); so it is obvious that His death was vicarious and substitutionary for those that have sinned (Romans 5:8). The reason His death can cover our sin is that He is the infinite Christ, and so his suffering for sin on Calvary was infinite.

Anonymous said...

The comment regarding Zugibe research is incorrect. Dr Zugibe has tested many volunteers by suspending them from a cross, and found that NOBODY had any problems breathing, therefore disproving the theory of asphixiation.Traumatic shock to the nervous system, by nailing the feet and wrists combined with Hypovolimic shock, fluid loss-and poor blood circulation was the definate cause of death in crucifixion. Zugibe has studied crucifixion clinically, and has validated his all of hypothosis every time.
Truin shroud and forensic reseach has only been a portion of the work he has done on Crucifixion.
For those interesed in his work, his papers are easy to find, read them.