Much was made early in the 21st century of the “Swoon Theory” that Jesus somehow survived being flogged by Roman soldiers, forced to carry a heavy cross half a mile and then getting nailed to that cross and finally stabbed upward into the chest with a spear.
Don’t be surprised to hear variants of the idea this Easter weekend as millions of Americans celebrate the Resurrection of their Lord and Savior. The Resurrection, of course, was preceded by crucifixion.
The problem with the various versions of the Swoon Theory comes down to two realities: First, they depend upon a host of highly speculative conjecture such as Jesus was somehow drugged and only appeared to be dead after the spearing; and two, based on medical evidence that nobody denies, the odds that Jesus survived into the tomb, then somehow managed to escape it and disappear without being seen, are so vanishingly small as to be all but impossible.
To appreciate the latter point, which when fully understood exposes the utterly ridiculous nature of the first, check out the Journal of the American Medical Association‘s (JAMA) detailed analysis of the medical effects of crucifixion, based on the Gospels and secular sources, published the week before Easter 1986.
The JAMA received a flood of letters in response, many of them highly critical, and as a result published more of them than it ever had to that point in its history regarding any previous article.
The Washington Post, in an illustration of the shallow journalism that has long characterized religious reporting in major mainstream media, published a lengthy “news” story about the reaction that included copious material from the critics and exactly one paragraph from the authors defending themselves.
By the way, if you question my assessment of the media’s religion reporting, take it up with former New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet who said in 2016, speaking of his colleagues in the industry, “we don’t get religion.”
The summary of the JAMA analysis said this:
Jesus of Nazareth underwent Jewish and Roman trials, was flogged, and was sentenced to death by crucifixion. The scourging produced deep stripe-like lacerations and appreciable blood loss, and it probably set the stage for hypovolemic shock, as evidenced by the fact that Jesus was too weakened to carry the crossbar (patibulum) to Golgotha.
At the site of crucifixion, his wrists were nailed to the patibulum and, after the patibulum was lifted onto the upright post (stipes), his feet were nailed to the stipes. The major pathophysiologic effect of crucifixion was an interference with normal respirations.
Accordingly, death resulted primarily from hypovolemic shock and exhaustion asphyxia. Jesus’ death was ensured by the thrust of a soldier’s spear into his side. Modern medical interpretation of the historical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead when taken down from the cross.
Digging deeper into the JAMA analysis provides a cumulative understanding that makes it chillingly clear just how horrible a method of execution was routinely employed by the Romans.
By way of the preliminaries, the authors point to the profusion of bloody sweat as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, according to the Gospels:
At nearby Gethsemane, Jesus, apparently knowing that the time of his death was near, suffered great mental anguish, and, as described by the physician Luke, his sweat became like blood.
Although this is a very rare phenomenon, bloody sweat (hematidrosis or hemohidrosis) may occur in highly emotional states or in persons with bleeding disorders. As a result of hemorrhage into the sweat glands, the skin becomes fragile and tender.
Luke’s descriptions supports the diagnosis of hematidrosis rather than eccrine chromidrosis (brown or yellow-green sweat) or stigmatization (blood oozing from the palms or elsewhere).
Similarly, the JAMA authors note the implications of Jesus’ ministry for His physical conditioning:
The rigors of Jesus’ ministry (that is, traveling by foot throughout Palestine) would have precluded any major physical illness or a weak general constitution. Accordingly, it is reasonable to assume that Jesus was in good physical condition before his walk to Gethsemane.
However, during the 12 hours between 9 PM Thursday and 9 AM Friday, he had suffered great emotional stress (as evidenced by hematidrosis), abandonment by his closest friends (the disciples), and a physical beating (after the first Jewish trial).
Also, in the setting of a traumatic and sleepless night, [he] had been forced to walk more than 2.5 miles (4.0 km) to and from the sites of the various trials. These physical and emotional factors may have rendered Jesus particularly vulnerable to the adverse hemodynamic effects of the scourging.
The analysis of the medical aspects of the scourging that preceded the crucifixion adds all-but-irreversible doubt that Jesus could have somehow managed to conserve sufficient energy to survive the ordeal, revive in the tomb, roll a massive stone away from the entrance, overcome a crack unit of 10 Roman soldiers, and disappear into the morning mist.
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.
Then, as the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh. Pain and blood loss generally set the stage for circulatory shock. The extent of blood loss may well have determined how long the victim would survive on the cross …
“he severe scourging, with its intense pain and appreciable blood loss, most probably left Jesus in a pre-shock state. Moreover, hematidrosis had rendered his skin particularly tender.
The physical and mental abuse meted out by the Jews and the Romans, as well as the lack of food, water, and sleep, also contributed to his generally weakened state. Therefore, even before the actual crucifixion, Jesus’ physical condition was at least serious and possibly critical.
In other words, Jesus was flogged to the edge of death even before He was forced to carry His cross to Golgotha.
Regarding the actual crucifixion, the JAMA authors addressed the question of whether nails were driven into Jesus’ hands or into His wrists. Either way, the resulting was excruciating:
Although a nail in either location in the wrist might pass between the bony elements and thereby produce no fractures, the likelihood of painful periosteal injury would seem great.
Furthermore, the driven nail would crush or sever the rather large sensorimotor median nerve. The stimulated nerve would produce excruciating bolts of fiery pain in both arms.
Although the severed median nerve would result in paralysis of a portion of the hand, ischemic contractures and impalement of various ligaments by the iron spike might produce a claw-like grasp.
But the crucial result of crucifixion was how it made breathing impossible, forcing victims to push up their chest cavity even with the intense pain that movement must have caused in order to grasp some air. Exhaustion inevitably set in and death followed.
The major pathophysiologic effect of crucifixion, beyond the excruciating pain, was a marked interference with normal respiration, particularly exhalation. The weight of the body, pulling down on the outstretched arms and shoulders, would tend to fix the intercostal muscles in an inhalation state and thereby hinder passive exhalation.
Accordingly, exhalation was primarily diaphragmatic, and breathing was shallow. It is likely that this form of respiration would not suffice and that hypercarbia would soon result. The onset of muscle cramps or tetanic contractions, due to fatigue and hypercarbia, would hinder respiration even further.
Adequate exhalation required lifting the body by pushing up on the feet and by flexing the elbows and adducting the shoulders. However, this maneuver would place the entire weight of the body on the tarsals and would produce searing pain.
Furthermore, flexion of the elbows would cause rotation of the wrists about the iron nails and cause fiery pain along the damaged median nerves. Lifting of the body would also painfully scrape the scourged back against the rough wooden stipes.
Muscle cramps and paresthesias of the outstretched and uplifted arms would add to the discomfort. As a result, each respiratory effort would become agonizing and tiring and lead eventually to asphyxia.
Sometimes, asphyxia would not come about for several days. When death didn’t come soon enough for the Romans, they either broke the legs or speared the chest of the victim.
There is much more to be gleaned from the JAMA analysis, even today, 35 years after its publication, but even this quick scan of the essential facts makes clear just how far beyond any reasonable possibility are the several versions of the Swoon Theory.
Happy Easter. He is Alive!
Mark Tapscott is an award-winning investigative journalist who covers Congress for The Epoch Times, and is founder and editor of HillFaith, an apologetics ministry sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with congressional aides on Capitol Hill.