Physician recounts crucifixion details

By Matt Russell

If you’ve seen "The Passion of the Christ," then you’ve already seen the bloody details of research a Mayo Clinic heart pathologist and a Rochester pastor did nearly 20 years ago.

Mel Gibson reportedly used a study by Dr. William Edwards and the Rev. Wesley Gabel of Bethany United Methodist Church to guide the shooting of some of his movie’s most graphic scenes.

Published on March 21, 1986, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ" provided the most detailed examination of the physical details of Jesus’ crucifixion in more than 100 years, Gabel said.


"I have to admit, I wasn’t ready for the controversy that this stirred up" when it was published in 1986, Edwards told about 100 people gathered Thursday night at Bethany United Methodist Church.

While critics charged that biblical texts can’t be used as a basis for medical conclusions, Edwards said he and Gabel also drew from non-Christian historical sources and historical records of Roman crucifixion practices.

In his talk, Edwards summarized the main findings of his and Gabel’s research, including:

• A rare phenomenon triggered by feelings of distress might have caused Jesus to sweat blood before he was arrested at Gethsemane. As a result, Jesus’ skin might have become more tender and sensitive to pain.

• Jesus was weakened not just by a severe beating and the resulting blood loss, but by a lack of sleep, food and water. "He was probably in a pre-shock state even before going to the site of the crucifixion," Edwards said.

• Jesus likely carried the beam of the cross on his way to Calvary, not the entire cross, which would have been much too heavy.

• Six-inch long iron spikes were likely driven not through Jesus’ palms, which could not support his body weight, but through his wrists.

• Because of how he hung on the cross, Jesus could inhale without much difficulty, but it was difficult to exhale because that required pushing against the spikes driven into his wrists and feet. "Every breath is going to be an agonizing ordeal," Edwards said.


• The likely causes of Jesus’ death were hypovolemic shock, in which the heart can’t pump enough blood to the body, and exhaustion asphyxia, or the inability to breathe.

In his introduction of Edwards, Gabel said he was just getting started in ministry when he came to Rochester and met the heart pathologist. A sermon Gabel heard — in which a pastor wondered if a broken heart caused Jesus to die much more quickly than others typically did during crucifixions — led to discussions between Gabel and Edwards that resulted in their study.

Sandy Gunderson of Rochester said she found similarities between Edwards’ lecture and "Passion" in his descriptions of how Jesus was beaten and the wounds that resulted.

"Basically it’s what you read in the Bible, and he brings out realistically how this could have happened," she said.

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