Chapter OneTHE MEDICAL EVIDENCE:
WAS JESUS' DEATH A SHAM
AND HIS RESURRECTION
I paused to read the plaque hanging in the waiting room
of a doctor's office: "Let conversation cease. Let laughter
flee. This is the place where death delights to help the
Obviously, this was no ordinary physician. I was paying
another visit to Dr. Robert J. Stein, one of the world's
foremost forensic pathologists, a flamboyant, husky-voiced
medical detective who used to regale me with stories about
the unexpected clues he had uncovered while examining
corpses. For him, dead men did tell tales-in fact, tales
that would often bring justice to the living.
During his lengthy tenure as medical examiner of
Cook County, Illinois, Stein performed thousands of
autopsies, each time meticulously searching for insights
into the circumstances surrounding the victim's death.
Repeatedly his sharp eye for detail, his encyclopedic
knowledge of the human anatomy, and his uncanny investigative
intuition helped this medical sleuth reconstruct
the victim's violent demise.
Sometimes innocent people were vindicated as a result
of his findings. But more often Stein's work was the final
nail in a defendant's coffin. Such was the case with John
Wayne Gacy, who faced the executioner after Stein helped
convict him of thirty-three grisly murders.
That's how crucial medical evidence can be. It can
determine whether a child died of abuse or an accidental
fall. It can establish whether a person succumbed to
natural causes or was murdered by someone who spiked
the person's coffee with arsenic. It can uphold or dismantle
a defendant's alibi by pinpointing the victim's time of
death, using an ingenious procedure that measures the
amount of potassium in the eyes of the deceased.
And yes, even in the case of someone brutally executed
on a Roman cross two millennia ago, medical evidence
can still make a crucial contribution: it can help determine
whether the resurrection of Jesus-the supreme vindication
of his claim to deity-was nothing more than an
elaborate hoax. With Stein having impressed on me the
value of forensic clues, I knew it was time to seek out a
medical expert who has thoroughly investigated the historical
facts concerning the crucifixion and has managed
to separate truth from legend.
RESURRECTION OR RESUSCITATION?
The idea that Jesus never really died on the cross can
be found in the Koran, which was written in the seventh
century-in fact, Ahmadiya Muslims contend that Jesus
actually fled to India. To this day there's a shrine that supposedly
marks his real burial place in Srinagar, Kashmir.
As the nineteenth century dawned, Karl Bahrdt, Karl
Venturini, and others tried to explain away the resurrection
by suggesting that Jesus only fainted from exhaustion
on the cross, or he had been given a drug that made him
appear to die, and that he had later been revived by the
cool, damp air of the tomb.
Conspiracy theorists bolstered this hypothesis by
pointing out that Jesus had been given some liquid on a
sponge while on the cross (Mark 15:36) and that Pilate
seemed surprised at how quickly Jesus had succumbed
(Mark 15:44). Consequently, they said, Jesus' reappearance
wasn't a miraculous resurrection but merely a fortuitous
resuscitation, and his tomb was empty because
he continued to live.
While reputable scholars have repudiated this so-called
swoon theory, it keeps recurring in popular literature. In
1929 D. H. Lawrence wove this theme into a short story
in which he suggested that Jesus had fled to Egypt, where
he fell in love with the priestess Isis.
In 1965 Hugh Schonfield's best-seller The Passover Plot
alleged that it was only the unanticipated stabbing of Jesus
by the Roman soldier that foiled his complicated scheme
to escape the cross alive, even though Schonfield conceded,
"We are nowhere claiming . that [the book] represents
what actually happened."
The swoon hypothesis popped up again in Donovan
Joyce's 1972 book The Jesus Scroll, which "contains an even
more incredible string of improbabilities than Schonfield's,"
according to resurrection expert Gary Habermas.
In 1982, Holy Blood, Holy Grail added the twist that Pontius
Pilate had been bribed to allow Jesus to be taken down
from the cross before he was dead. Even so, the authors
confessed, "We could not-and still cannot-prove the
accuracy of our conclusion."
As recently as 1992, a little-known academic from Australia,
Barbara Thiering, caused a stir by reviving the swoon
theory. Her book, Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea
Scrolls, was introduced with much fanfare by a well-respected
US publisher and then derisively dismissed by
Emory University scholar Luke Timothy Johnson as being
"the purest poppycock, the product of fevered imagination
rather than careful analysis."
Today, the swoon theory continues to flourish. I hear
it all the time. But what does the evidence really establish?
What actually happened at the Crucifixion? What was
Jesus' cause of death? Is there any possible way he could
have survived this ordeal? Those are the kinds of questions
that I hoped medical evidence could help resolve.
So I flew to southern California and knocked on the
door of a prominent physician who has extensively studied
the historical, archaeological, and medical data concerning
the death of Jesus of Nazareth-although it seems
that, due to the mysteriously missing body, no autopsy
has ever been performed.
INTERVIEW WITH ALEXANDER METHERELL,
The plush setting was starkly incongruous with the subject
we were discussing. There we were, sitting in the living
room of Dr. Metherell's comfortable California home
on a balmy spring evening, warm ocean breezes whispering
through the windows, while we were talking about a
topic of unimaginable brutality: a beating so barbarous that
it shocks the conscience, and a form of capital punishment
so depraved that it stands as wretched testimony to man's
inhumanity to man.
I had sought out Metherell because I heard he possessed
the medical and scientific credentials to explain the
Crucifixion. But I also had another motivation: I had been
told he could discuss the topic dispassionately as well as
accurately. That was important to me because I wanted
the facts to speak for themselves, without the hyperbole
or charged language that might otherwise manipulate
As you would expect from someone with a medical
degree (University of Miami in Florida) and a doctorate
in engineering (University of Bristol in England),
Metherell speaks with scientific precision. He is board-certified
in diagnosis by the American Board of Radiology
and has been a consultant to the National Heart,
Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of
Health of Bethesda, Maryland.
A former research scientist who has taught at the University
of California, Metherell is editor of five scientific
books and has written for publications ranging from Aerospace
Medicine to Scientific American. His ingenious analysis
of muscular contraction has been published in The
Physiologist and Biophysics Journal. He even looks the role
of a distinguished medical authority: he's an imposing figure
with silver hair and a courteous yet formal demeanor.
I'll be honest: at times I wondered what was going
on inside Dr. Metherell's head. With scientific reserve,
speaking slowly and methodically, he gave no hint of any
inner turmoil as he calmly described the chilling details
of Jesus' demise. Whatever was going on underneath,
whatever distress it caused him as a Christian to talk about
the cruel fate that befell Jesus, he was able to mask with
a professionalism born out of decades of laboratory
He just gave me the facts-and after all, that was what
I was after.
THE TORTURE BEFORE THE CROSS
Initially, I wanted to elicit from Metherell a basic
description of the events leading up to Jesus' death. So
after a time of social chat, I put down my iced tea and
shifted in my chair to face him squarely. "Could you paint
a picture of what happened to Jesus?" I asked.
He cleared his throat. "It began after the Last Supper,"
he said. "Jesus went with his disciples to the Mount of
Olives-specifically, to the Garden of Gethsemane. And
there, if you remember, he prayed all night. Now, during
that process he was anticipating the coming events
of the next day. Since he knew the amount of suffering he
was going to have to endure, he was quite naturally experiencing
a great deal of psychological stress."
I raised my hand to stop him. "Whoa-here's where
skeptics have a field day," I told him. "The gospels tell
us he began to sweat blood at this point. Now, c'mon, isn't
that just a product of some overactive imaginations?
Doesn't that call into question the accuracy of the gospel
Unfazed, Metherell shook his head. "Not at all," he
replied. "This is a known medical condition calledhematidrosis. It's not very common, but it is associated with
a high degree of psychological stress.
"What happens is that severe anxiety causes the release
of chemicals that break down the capillaries in the sweat
glands. As a result, there's a small amount of bleeding into
these glands, and the sweat comes out tinged with blood.
We're not talking about a lot of blood; it's just a very, very
Though a bit chastened, I pressed on. "Did this have
any other effect on the body?"
"What this did was set up the skin to be extremely fragile
so that when Jesus was flogged by the Roman soldier
the next day, his skin would be very, very sensitive."
Well, I thought, here we go. I braced myself for the
grim images I knew were about to flood my mind. I had
seen plenty of dead bodies as a journalist-casualties of
car accidents, fires, and crime syndicate retribution-but
there was something especially unnerving in hearing about
someone being intentionally brutalized by executioners
determined to extract maximum suffering.
"Tell me," I said, "what was the flogging like?"
Metherell's eyes never left me. "Roman floggings were
known to be terribly brutal. They usually consisted of
thirty-nine lashes but frequently were a lot more than that,
depending on the mood of the soldier applying the blows.
"The soldier would use a whip of braided leather
thongs with metal balls woven into them. When the whip
would strike the flesh, these balls would cause deep bruises
or contusions, which would break open with further
blows. And the whip had pieces of sharp bone as well,
which would cut the flesh severely.
"The back would be so shredded that part of the
spine was sometimes exposed by the deep, deep cuts. The
whipping would have gone all the way from the shoulders
down to the back, the buttocks, and the back of the
legs. It was just terrible."
Metherell paused. "Go on," I said.
"One physician who has studied Roman beatings said,
'As the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into
the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons
of bleeding flesh.' A third-century historian by the
name of Eusebius described a flogging by saying, 'The sufferer's
veins were laid bare, and the very muscles, sinews,
and bowels of the victim were open to exposure.'
"We know that many people would die from this kind
of beating even before they could be crucified. At the least,
the victim would experience tremendous pain and go into
Metherell had thrown in a medical term I didn't know.
"What does hypovolemic shock mean?" I asked.
"Hypo means 'low,' vol refers to volume, and emic
means 'blood,' so hypovolemic shock means the person is
suffering the effects of losing a large amount of blood,"
the doctor explained. "This does four things. First, the
heart races to try to pump blood that isn't there; second,
the blood pressure drops, causing fainting or collapse;
third, the kidneys stop producing urine to maintain what
volume is left; and fourth, the person becomes very thirsty
as the body craves fluids to replace the lost blood volume."
"Do you see evidence of this in the gospel accounts?"
"Yes, most definitely," he replied. "Jesus was in hypo-volemic
shock as he staggered up the road to the execution
site at Calvary, carrying the horizontal beam of the
cross. Finally Jesus collapsed, and the Roman soldier
ordered Simon to carry the cross for him. Later we read
that Jesus said, 'I thirst,' at which point a sip of vinegar
was offered to him.
"Because of the terrible effects of this beating, there's
no question that Jesus was already in serious to critical
condition even before the nails were driven through his
hands and feet."
THE AGONY OF THE CROSS
As distasteful as the description of the flogging was,
I knew that even more repugnant testimony was yet to
come. That's because historians are unanimous that Jesus
survived the beating that day and went on to the cross-which
is where the real issue lies.
These days, when condemned criminals are strapped
down and injected with poisons or secured to a wooden
chair and subjected to a surge of electricity, the circumstances
are highly controlled. Death comes quickly and
predictably. Medical examiners carefully certify the victim's
passing. From close proximity witnesses scrutinize
everything from beginning to end.
But how certain was death by this crude, slow, and
rather inexact form of execution called crucifixion? In fact,
most people aren't sure how the cross kills its victims. And
without a trained medical examiner to officially attest that
Jesus had died, might he have escaped the experience brutalized
and bleeding but nevertheless alive?
I began to unpack these issues. "What happened when
he arrived at the site of the crucifixion?" I asked.
"He would have been laid down, and his hands
would have been nailed in the outstretched position to
the horizontal beam. This crossbar was called the patibulum,
and at this stage it was separate from the vertical
beam, which was permanently set in the ground."
I was having difficulty visualizing this; I needed more
details. "Nailed with what?" I asked. "Nailed where?"
"The Romans used spikes that were five to seven inches
long and tapered to a sharp point. They were driven
through the wrists," Metherell said, pointing about an inch
or so below his left palm.
"Hold it," I interrupted. "I thought the nails pierced
his palms. That's what all the paintings show. In fact, it's
become a standard symbol representing the crucifixion."
"Through the wrists," Metherell repeated.