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Christ's Death Under Medical Examination : Doctors' Investigation of the Crucifixion Published in AMA Journal

March 28, 1986|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

Jesus Christ's death on the cross was a study in the agony of a man whose arms and legs--their major nerves possibly cut by spikes--shot searing jolts of pain through a body already ravaged by blood loss from a severe whipping.

Having suffered for at least three hours, Jesus finally died of an unusually severe variety of blood loss-induced shock and a type of suffocation that normally resulted from crucifixion.

In the end, he may have suffered a climactic heart seizure--perhaps brought on by a blood clot breaking loose inside his arteries and fatally damaging his heart muscle. More likely, perhaps, he suffered a final episode of acute heart failure possibly caused by a catastrophic disturbance in the rhythm of his heartbeat.

If he did sustain a lance wound after he lost consciousness for the last time, the spear tip probably pierced the chest cavity, releasing a combination of blood and fluid that accumulated because of the worsening asphyxiation. The end of the lance probably penetrated Jesus' heart, too, but its effect was academic for the man widely perceived as the son of God was already dead before the Roman soldier raised his weapon.

These conclusions, at least, are the findings of the most complete medical review of the agony of Christ's death ever published in a medical journal. The article containing the conclusions was published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the new evaluation is apparently the first prominent medical evaluation of the Crucifixion published in this century. No major medical publication has addressed the issue at all in recent years. Dr. George Lundberg, the journal's editor and a pathologist himself, said he found "nothing surprising" in the post-mortem review of Jesus' death, adding that "I believe the descriptions are realistic, make good sense and are consistent with what expectations would be for a crucifixion death."

Leading pathologists across the country agree that the evaluation is interesting speculation but not a final judgment. Indeed, questions so deeply rooted in history, philosophy and theology cannot be resolved with certainty.

In fact, remarked Dr. Michael Baden, deputy chief medical examiner in New York City, not only is it impossible to draw truly reliable medical conclusions about Christ's death, but trying too hard to do so may hopelessly confuse faith and science. Baden has been involved in such prominent cases as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the drug death of comedian John Belushi. Jesus' death, noted Baden, was not just a representative crucifixion, but the best known of all time.

"There is something beautiful about faith, and (it) stands on its own feet," Baden said. "Conflict is created when one tries to give faith scientific underpinnings. They are two different kinds of belief.

"I think that it is hard to give scientific exactitude . . . to accounts that do not permit that kind of exactitude."

Some of Baden's position is similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church, noted Father Newman Eberhardt, professor of church history at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo. In any final analysis, said Eberhardt, if one assumes, as Christians do, that Jesus Christ was the son of God, 20th-Century pathology is irrelevant because the Crucifixion occurred under complete divine control. If the belief in the deity of Jesus is rejected, attempted science nearly 2,000 years after the fact can't be diagnostic anyway.

"These events," said Eberhardt, "are not naturally explicable. The church is set up to teach the way to heaven. She doesn't have any insights into biology."

And irrespective of the relevance of science to such an inherently religious matter, doctors who have reviewed the new crucifixion pathology findings note that at least some of its science may rely for its most definitive conclusions on medical evidence that is at least controversial and perhaps suspect. The main component of this chain of evidence is the Shroud of Turin, purported by many to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus but whose authenticity remains unconfirmed.

Controversial for decades, the shroud still awaits what may be a crucial evaluation--in the form of radiocarbon dating--that may help to resolve whether its fiber actually dates to the time of Jesus. The Roman Catholic Church controls the shroud and has made it clear a decision of how or if the shroud will be scientifically dated may not be made for another year. If the shroud is the burial cloth of Christ and contains an image of his body at the time of burial, it could confirm more scientifically than anything else the nature and type of injuries he sustained and tell something about his overall physical appearance.

But if the shroud proves not to be genuine, agreed three leading pathologists, most of the medical conclusions in the newly published review disintegrate scientifically.

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