Surgeon discusses medical aspects of Christ’s passion and crucifixion


A surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) explained the medical aspects of Christ’s passion and crucifixion March 24 at Franciscan University.

Jack McKeating, M.D. said that the majority of his talked was based on an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) titled, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.”

“Contrary to what most people think, crucifixion was very common in Christ’s time,” said McKeating. “Rome would crucify about 2,000 men each day. The road to Rome was paved with a long, long line of crucifixions that stretched on for miles.”

While it is easy to picture Christ as a divine person who had a “super human” body, McKeating said that Christ’s body was very human. He said that Christ was probably 5 feet 2 inches, strong because he was a craftsman and was about 30 years old.

McKeating said that Christ’s mental agony must have started at the Last Supper.

“Christ knew he would be betrayed and was already undergoing fierce mental and physical torment,” said McKeating. He also said this agony was only to increase as the Last Supper ended and Christ made his way to the Garden of Gethsemane.

“At the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ was in an appalling state of mental agony. He bore the weight of all sin for all humanity for all time,” said McKeating.

McKeating went on to say that Christ spent the entire night in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and that this could be compared to spending an entire night in prayer in a ski slope out West in early April; the terrain would be rough and the air would be chilly, not a comfortable proposition at all.

During Christ’s night in Gethsemane, his sweat became like drops of blood, and McKeating said that this is a rare but real medical condition known as hematidrosis, the excretion of blood through the skin.

“From the Garden, Our Lord is arrested and taken to the high priests Annas and Caiaphas,” said   McKeating. “The guards, who thought Christ to be some low life or dramatic revolutionary, spat in Christ’s face and struck him. Our Lord may have been beaten and knocked to the ground numerous times, just during his trial.”

McKeating said that Christ was already in a compromised medical state from the rough treatment by the temple guards, and the scourging only worsened his condition.

“The scourging was the most feared antecedent to crucifixion,” said McKeating.

He said the most common scourging tool was three long leather tails fashioned into a whip form with lead balls or the ankle bones of sheep attached to the end of the tails, but the prisoner was first beaten with staves or rods. He also said the Mosaic Law limited the beating to 39 lashes, but the Romans did not put a limit on scourging.

“Quivering ribbons of flesh could be seen due to the severity of the whipping, and the victim’s muscles would twitch,” said McKeating.

He said the scourging could cause contusions, lacerations, rib fracture and lung injury and that blood loss was also a major outcome of the scourging. The blood loss would then lead to shock, a condition where the tissues in the body do not receive enough oxygen and nutrients to allow the cells to function, said McKeating. He said this ultimately leads to cellular death, progressing to organ failure and finally, if untreated, whole body failure and death.

“In 1862, Samuel D. Gross (an American trauma surgeon) said shock is the ultimate unhinging of the machinery of life,” said McKeating.

McKeating said that Christ was definitely in hemorrhagic shock, which is a life-threatening condition that results when a person loses more than 20 percent of his body’s blood or fluid supply.

The crowning with thorns was probably done with the Syrian Christ thorn, said McKeating, and these thorns are nothing like rosebush thorns but are quite large. He said that the thorns of this plant are more like long sharp spikes and not tiny flower thorns.

McKeating said it is not surprising that the gospel writers did not elaborate on the crucifixion because “they were all too familiar with it. Cicero said that crucifixion was ‘the most cruel and disgusting penalty.’”

In crucifixion, the victim’s hands were nailed or tied; the legs were broken to hasten death and the death of the criminal was assured by a spear wound to the right chest, he said.

McKeating explained that there were probably several causes for Christ’s death. “As Christians, we like to sanitize the death of Christ,” said McKeating. “We want a ‘clear-cut’ answer for what Christ died of, but the fact is that his death was multi-factorial.”

Christ likely died from hypovolemic shock (emergency condition in which severe blood and fluid loss make the heart unable to pump enough blood to the body), heart failure and asphyxia (suffocation), said McKeating.

For many, the talk was a real eye-opener to the deep physical sufferings of Christ.

“All the trauma that Christ suffered before he walked the road to Calvary was unbelievable, and yet he still had to face crucifixion,” said student Ashley Wesolowski.

Sophomore nursing major Chiara Ogle said, “Looking at the death of Christ with a physiological perspective, it is undeniable that it was excruciating.”

Student Andrew Pultorak said, “This talk made the crucifixion of Christ a tangible experience. It gave me a lot to meditate on for Holy Week.”

Senior AnneMarie Miller said, “The fact that Christ spoke such loving words (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do…” (Luke 23:34) when it was extremely hard for him to breath, let alone speak, was so beautiful.”