Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What killed Jesus?

It is not unusual to hear someone suggest that it wasn't the cross that killed Jesus but rather "cardiac rupture." More popularly, it means Jesus died of a broken heart. This claim is usually based on the detail in John's Gospel (19:34) that says when a Roman soldier's spear was thrust into Jesus' side both water and blood came out of the wound.

But a medical researcher thinks that he has a better explanation. In the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine Joseph Bergeron suggests that Jesus' death was the result of three different complications.

Bergeron proposes that a mechanism called "trauma-induced coagulopathy" played a key role. Over the past decade or so, emergency room physicians and others have described a combination of factors that occurs in about 25% of trauma patients and dramatically increases the risk of rapid death. The "lethal triad" includes a rapid drop in body temperature (hypothermia); a failure of the body's blood-clotting ability, leading to uncontrolled bleeding; and abnormal blood acidity, which causes a range of biochemical reactions to go haywire. "Even today's best trauma centers can't control [the lethal] cascade of events," Bergeron says.

Jesus' hypothermia could have been caused by his naked exposure to the cold temperatures of early April, when religious documents say the crucifixion occurred, Bergeron says. And trauma-induced coagulopathy would also explain why Jesus died so rapidly—and "how blood could flow from Jesus' corpse when his chest was impaled," because the condition can cause fluids to pool.

The problem is, as the article points out, is that other researchers aren't buying it. Among the problems with the suggestion is that there is little physical evidence left behind of those who were crucified. Most victims of this form of execution were either left on the cross to decay or thrown to dogs so there are no bodies left for us to study.

Another problem is the attempt to explain a piece of literature, like a gospel, using medical science. We simply do not have enough information in the text to allow us to make these kinds of judgments. Moreover, a literary explanation is probably a better one.

Water and blood are both important symbolic elements in the gospel of John. In 3:5 it is only those who are born of water and the the spirit that will enter the kingdom of God. In 4:10 Jesus offers living water that will keep a person from thirsting ever again. This promise is made again in 6:35 where we read that all those who come to Jesus will never thirst. In 6:54-56 we read about the need for believers to drink the blood of Jesus to receive eternal life. Finally, in 7:37-39 Jesus promises that those who believe in him will have rivers of living water flowing from their bellies.

All of these references seem to point to a symbolic interpretation of the water and blood that flows from Jesus in John's portrayal of the crucifixion. The water and the blood that flows from Jesus' belly is the very thing that he has promised to those around him. He is the spilled water and blood of the Eucharist and baptism and as such God is revealed through the crucified one.

Such an explanation, in my opinion, does more justice to thematic elements in the gospel and the evidence we have. The description of water and blood is theological not medical. The author is trying to communicate the significance of Jesus' death, not the specific way in which he died from complications related to crucifixion.

1 comment:

  1. This explanation also holds water as the gospel writer would have had no concept of the medical processes involved with Jesus' crucifixion. The symbolism would have resonated with the community that received the gospel.