Although we do not encourage that the New Testament (or the Bible as a whole) be seen as a scientific manual or that its content deemed usable for constructing scientific theories (as some have attempted to do), it is important to acknowledge several details mentioned by its ancient first-century authors that have been corroborated by modern medical knowledge. This is a knowledge that was not accessible to or known by the authors in their day due to a lack of sophisticated medical knowledge produced by advancements made in the medical sciences. These details are significant because it suggests that the authors of the gospels were writing about authentic historical events rather than recounting legend or inventing or fabricating falsehoods, as some have argued. This entry presents four such details.
Water and Blood Gushes From Christ’s Pierced Body
The Gospel of John, the last of the four gospels to be written (90 CE), informs readers that Jesus Christ was pierced by a Roman soldier while he was hanging on the cross. This was done in order to ensure Christ’s death. Christ met his end through the process of crucifixion after having been found guilty by Roman prefect Pontius Pilate for sedition against the Roman Empire. One learns that upon being pierced by the spear, blood and water gushed from Christ’s side,
“But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out” (John 19:33-35, emphasis added).
For a time, this detail was interpreted as symbolic (i.e. water representing purity) until contemporary medical science was able to provide fresh insight. What medical science claims is that hypovolemic shock, which is what Christ and others would have experienced during their final hours nailed on a cross, causes fluid to gather in the sack around the heart and lungs. Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer, in an article authored for the Journal of the American Medical Association under the title ‘On the Physical Death of Jesus’, explain that,
“The water probably represented serous pleural and pericardial fluid, and would have preceded the flow of blood and been smaller in volume than the blood. Perhaps in the setting of hypovolemia and impending acute heart failure, pleural and pericardial effusions may have developed and would have added to the volume of apparent water. The blood, in contrast, may have originated from the right atrium or the right ventricle or perhaps from a hemopericardium” (1).
So when the soldier pierced Christ’s side blood and water came pouring out, a process which certainly ensured his death,
“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” (2).
Healed Blind Man Sees Walking Trees
The gospel sources record a number of Christ’s supernatural healing miracles where he heals people from various physical ailments and diseases. One case found in the Gospel of Mark, our earliest gospel to be composed (70 CE), is very interesting. In this case, we read that Christ heals a blind man in the town of Bethsaida. Mark’s gospel narrates this episode as follows,
“They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He [Christ] took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?” He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.” (Mark 8:22-25, emphasis added)
Most readers of Mark would likely overlook this detail but others might see a parallel between it and the work of Dr. Alan Chow. In a 2002 Daily Mail article, Dr. Chow states that in one of his case studies involving blind people being able to see again that some “are not only seeing light and dark, some see faces, blades of grass, leaves on the trees” (3). At the time, Chow was working on technology that offered hope to people who had lost their sight as a result of two of the most common causes of blindness: age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. In such cases, visual images coming in through the person’s eye lens never gets to the brain because of damaged cells. Chow is one of several scientists in the United States, Australia, and Germany to be been working on chips, microcomputers, tiny video cameras, lasers, and radio transmitters to overcome blindness. It is possible, though one cannot claim absolute certainty here, that we are dealing with something very similar in Christ’s healing of the blind man who saw similar phenomena to what Dr. Chow’s subjects saw.
Within Christ’s final hours he seems to have experienced vivid symptoms of hypovolemic shock, which is the heavy loss of blood volume (usually 10 to 20%) and blood circulation within the body (4). Symptoms include dizziness, fainting, nausea, and severe thirst, some of which are recorded in the gospels narrating Christ’s final hours.
According to the Gospel of John, Christ carried his own cross to Golgotha, the hill on which he would be crucified (19:17). In the other gospels, Christ is said to collapse while carrying the cross and a man named Simon was forced to either carry it or assist Christ in carrying it the rest of way to the hill (Mark 15:21–22; Matthew 27:32–33; Luke 23:26). Medical knowledge seems consistent with Christ’s behaviour in this episode (5). His collapsing while bearing the cross was the result of low blood pressure caused by losing significant portions of blood from the flogging he had just received (Mark 15:15; Matthew 27:26; John 19:1). A further indicator of hypovolemic shock was Christ declaring himself to be thirsty while he hung upon the cross with his body clearly feeling the need to replenish fluids (John 19:28). Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer state that,
“Jesus of Nazareth was sentenced to death by crucifixion. The scourging produced deep stripelike 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” (6).
“The actual cause of Jesus’ death, like that of other crucified victims, may have been multifactorial and related primarily to hypovolemic shock, exhaustion asphyxia, and perhaps acute heart failure” (7).
Christ’s Sweats Blood in the Garden
The night before Christ was crucified he is said to have prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-52; Matthew 26:36-56; Luke 22:40-53; John 18:1-11). Of these four accounts, it is Luke who provides an insightful detail. This is that while praying Christ’s sweat became like drops of blood,
“And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44, emphasis added).
Medical science has something to say about this too (8). For example, sweat glands are surrounded by tiny blood vessels which can constrict and then dilate to the point of rupture. If this happens then the blood will effuse out the sweat glands and produce blood droplets denoting a condition called hematidrosis (9). Hematidrosis is indeed rare but can be brought on by extreme stress which is most certainly consistent with what one would experience just before being crucified or waiting in anticipation of being crucified. We know from the gospels that Christ was expecting this fate to befall him as reflected in several earlier statements to his disciples (Mark 9:31; Luke 24:7) and his prayer to God in Gethsemane for a possible way out of his divinely fated crucifixion (Matthew 26:39; Luke 22:39-44).
It would seem that these small details found in the gospel accounts relating to Christ’s ministry, his final week, and crucifixion are easier explained as authentic history than as later legends or fabrications on behalf of the gospel authors. It is unlikely that these details can be explained as legend or fabrication in light of the gospel accounts including medical information unknown in a day and age when such knowledge was limited.
1. Edwards, William, Gabel, Wesley, and Hosmer, Floyd. 1986. “On the Physical Death of Jesus.” Journal of the American Medical Association 255:1455-1463. p. 1463.
2. Edwards, William, Gabel, Wesley, and Hosmer, Floyd. 1986. Ibid. p. 1455.
3. Daily Mail. 2002. Robot eye that can restore sight after 20 years. Available.
4. Medical Dictionary. Hypovolemia. Available.
5. Primrose W. B. 1949. A Surgeon Looks at the Crucifixion. p. 382-388; Tenney S. M. 1964. “On Death by Crucifixion.” American Heart Journal 68(2):286-287.
6. Edwards, William, Gabel, Wesley, and Hosmer, Floyd. 1986. Ibid. p. 1455.
7. Edwards, William, Gabel, Wesley, and Hosmer, Floyd. 1986. Ibid. p. 1463.
8. Barbet Pierre. 1953. A Doctor at Calvary: The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ as Described by a Surgeon. New York: Doubleday Image Books; Holoubek J. E., and Holoubek A. B. 1996. “Blood, Sweat and Fear: A Classification of Hematidrosis.” Journal of Medicine 27(3-4):115-133; Lumpkin, Rosa. 1978. “The Physical Suffering of Christ.” Journal of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama 47(9):8-10.
9. Tshifularo, M. 2014. “Blood otorrhea: blood stained sweaty ear discharges: hematohidrosis; four case series (2001-2013).” American Journal of Otolaryngology 35 (2): 271-273.