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The Passion of Jesus according to the Gospels

Physio-pathology of the Passion

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The Passion of Jesus according to the Gospels

 

               Quite logically we started our study with the careful examination of the Turin Shroud. On this we found evidence for the torture, execution and death of a man of the first century of our era. There were signs of blows and flogging, the wearing of the crown of thorns, the carrying of the cross, the crucifixion. We saw that this man could only be Jesus of Nazareth. Let us look at this now in the light of the narative of the Gospels. Let us recreate the last hours of his life, from his arrest, up until his being placed in the tomb.

               For those who ask what credibility can be given to the Gospel narratives, what their historical value is, the article "Historicité des Evangiles" in the FAQ outlines the main arguments that justify their seriousness.

               Below, in the account of the Passion, we will follow the Gospels' narrative faithfully. The dramatic unity of the narrative is is best followed when read without distractions, so I have avoided hypertext links to other pages which might tempt readers, curious about some specific detail, to follow these links. Nevertheless, all the points mentioned are covered more fully in other chapters and accessible from the tool bar at the top of the pages.

               It is evening, on Thursday 13th of Nisan, around 7pm. It is the eve of the Passover which will start on the next day, the 14th, around 6 pm. For some, the Paschan meal will take place then. However, it has been proved that in the time of Christ, two calenders were used, one 'official' that the priests, the Pharisees, and their followers used, and one unofficial that was followed by the rest of the Jewish population. Jesus and his disciples, are having dinner in the high room (The Cenacle) which he had asked to be prepared for their Passover meal. They share the bread and the wine, and Judas leaves them after Jesus announces his coming betrayal. As soon as the meal is over, around 9 pm, the eleven disciples and Jesus go out of Jerusalem towards the east, cross the Cedron, and reach the Garden of Gethsamene on the western slopes of the Mount of Olives. This is one of their customary walks.

               There, Jesus, who knows his arrest to be imminent, is beginning to experience the first effects of anguish. Luke reports "and his sweat became like clots of blood falling to the ground". This phenomenon, which has sometimes been given the name of haemato hidrosis seems extremely rare. I have never read any description of it by a direct witness. Doctor Pierre Barbet, despite having been a surgeon during the first world war when anaesthetics were not what they are today, quotes Doctor Le Bec, but had never come across it personally. It seems as if the small vessels of the skin, and the sweat glands, dilate to the point of rupture. (Naturally such an oedema of the skin would fragilise it to the extreme and make it more vulnerable to any future rough treatment). We have all known moments of anguish, for ourselves or our loved ones. We have all anticipated sufferings to come. We have details about prisoners under torture or waiting to be tortured. Yet, never has anybody else to my knowlege suffered from hemato hidrosis. What could be the cause of such anguish?

               For believers, the history of the world has a meaning. God created the world, and made mankind in his image so they they could share his blessed life. But mankind turned from him. Then God, after having sent them numerous prophets to convince them to convert, and still seeing their persistance in error, decided to send them his own Son -- saying to himself, as in the parable of the grape pickers "Him at least they will listen to" -- they can become his own adopted children, inheritors of his beatitude. But no such thing happened. Not only did they not listen to him but they put him to death. However Jesus, by sacrificing his life, obtained the definitive redemption of the sins of mankind. Since then, thanks to the infinite merits acquired by the sacrifice of Jesus, our sins have been pardoned but on the condition that we ask for this pardon.

               For unbelievers, the history of the world has no such meaning. It is Chance and Necessity, to borrow the title from J. Monod.

               If you are a believer, the anguish and the blood-sweat of Jesus can be understood. Man and God at the same time, he knows perfectly the extent of the physical and mental pains that he is going to face. On top of this, because he is God, Jesus knows that some of mankind will not renounce their bad behaviour, and will not benefit from the opportunity to redeem their sins. Because he loves all mankind (the good and the evil) like brothers, he is suffering in advance for those who are eternally damned. This amount of suffering would be unique, an anguish terrible enough to perhaps have caused the haemato hidrosis.

               If you are an unbeliever, the reason for this blood-sweat that Saint Luke describes without explanation, still has to be found. The discussion remains open.

               Jesus is ill, in the medical meaning of the word, with anguish. Most of his disciples have fallen asleep close to him, except for Judas who left them during the meal and went to betray Jesus to the Jews; an act that now results in some men coming to arrest Jesus. These men arrive, armed with sticks and swords. They seize Jesus. "Servants of the pontiffs and the Pharisees", Saint John calls them. They tie his hands and take him away in the night to deliver him to his judges. The time is probably around midnight. There is no mention of any particular violence during this arrest which could have left traces on the shroud. So far there has only been "the sweat like drops of blood", and this is not separately identifiable on the Shroud amongst the great abundance of other wounds.

               To start with, Jesus is led in front of Anne, ex High Priest, and father in law of the present High Priest Caiphe. Anne is a man of great influence, probably gifted with the political awareness typical of those who have lived for many years in the corridors of power. His opinion of how to deal with Jesus will be priceless. Classical questioning - Who are you?. Where do you come from? What have you done? Jesus was content to reply that he had not said nor done anything except in public, and that the simplest way of judging this was to question those who had heard him speak. The Gospels tell us that one of Anne's servants, finding the answer of Jesus insolent, hit him in the face. A slap?, a blow? How violent we do not know. Nothing permits us to say whether this first violence left any trace, and if so of what nature. The questioning yields little incriminatory data. Anne decides to send Jesus to appear before Caiphe.

               The arrest, the transfer to the place of first interrogation, and the interrogation itself seems to have been over quite fast. It must be now about 1 in the morning on Friday 14th of Nisan. The official Passover, and the Sabath will start in 17 hours from now.

               In the residence of Caiphe, the High Priest, the legal trial of Jesus commences. This trial seems to respect the standard rules of procedure. Nobody will be able to speak of manipulation or kangaroo-court procedures. His condemnation to death, already programmed by the priests and Pharisees, should have the appearance of legality to the eyes of the Romans from whom the authorisation to execute him will have to be asked. The Jews live under the authority of the Romans, and do not have the power of putting somebody to death without the permission of the local Roman administration. The authorisation of Pilate will be needed.

               The Sanhedrin is gathered, the witnesses are summoned. This cannot be done in a few minutes, but it is probable that as soon as the decision was made to arrest Jesus, probably around 10 pm the day before, the word had gone around, and everyone concerned had since been on stand-by. This whole process, the trial, execution and burial had to be over by 6 pm tonight! Jesus is interrogated. Statements by actual witnesses describe the teaching in public places by Jesus. There are also statements by false witnesses, some of them bribed, some mere mythomaniacs who desire some fame. But nothing matches. There is insufficient evidence against Jesus to find him guilty. All this may have lasted one or two hours. In the end, it is one of Jesus' answers which goes against him. Asked by Caiphe to say if he is the Messiah or not, Jesus confirms that he, Jesus, is indeed the son of God. There is no going back. The automatic sentence for blasphemy is the death penalty. It is passed. The high priest tears his clothes. The trial is over. It must be around three in the morning.

               While waiting for Pilate to grant an audience (obviously he cannot be woken at that hour for such a motive - he would not like it), Jesus is handed over to the custody of the men present. Most of these are servants of Caiphe, and of the Pharisees. These are men who have reasons to hate Jesus, either personally, or out of desire to please their masters, or simply because they are men who get sadistic pleasure out of brutality. Whoever wants to hit him can. They do not miss the opportunity. They spit in his face. They slap him. They punch and kick him, and use their sticks. We have all seen what groups of uncontrolled men can do. We glimpse it now and then in riots on TV newsreels. Some of us have been victims of it, or have witnessed it personally in World War II, in Vietnam, Algeria, Ruanda, even at football matches, the beatings or killings of disidents, collaborators, those who are "others". In such situations one can fear the worst. Evidence for these beatings at Caiph's show up on the face on the shroud. The bruised and flayed cheekbone, the nasal cartilage broken, the swollen eyebrows, particularly the right one, the oedematosed chin and lower lip, the right part of the moustache and beard torn off (Have you ever tried to pull the hairs of your moustache and beard? . In some primitive cultures this has been considered a refined torture). It is hard to believe that there were no blows in the stomach, the chest, the back, even kicks after they had knocked him to the floor. Contemporary cinema shows us violence with enough complacency for each of us to imagine what those few hours must have been like, when Jesus was given up to the bestiality of men. How long did it last. Nothing in the scriptures allows us to say. But an hour or two seems a minimum.

               It was during this part of the night that the triple denial by Peter took place. He had come to warm himself in the court-yard of the high priest. When Jesus cames out of the Caiph's, their eyes meet. The cock crows (Luke XXII, 60). It must be about 5.30 in the morning, on this Friday the 14th of Nisan.

               They cross Jerusalem to the Fortress of Antonia to ask for an audience with Pilate.

               Pilate listens to the Jews' request, and questions Jesus, but does not see in what way this wretch, already badly roughed-up, and with inoffensive answers can be any danger to the Jews, can deserve death. Convinced of the innocence of Jesus, he decides to tell the Jews. Then, by chance, in the course of the discussion he learns that Jesus is a Galilean and comes under the juristiction of Herod. Happy to get rid of a case that the Jews are so worked up about, he sends Jesus to Herod whose palace is not far away. It will not take long. It may be 7 in the morning.

               Fresh questioning, but this time no answer from Jesus. Herod mocks Jesus in derision, dresses him in a white robe, and sends him back to Pilate for he has found no motive to put to death this poor fellow who to him seems rather harmless. The Gospels do not mention any brutality on the part of Herod

               Pilate takes the matter into his own hands and does what he can to set Jesus free. Each year for Passover he pardons a prisoner. Why not Jesus? He is wasting his time. The Jews prefer that he pardons a known bandit named Barabbas. Unable to calm the crowd that the head priests have been gathering since dawn to influence the Roman administration, and whose agitation is growing, Pilate decides to punish Jesus by having his soldiers flog him. He hopes that this will satisfy the people enough, and he can then release Jesus. It may be 9 am by now.

               Flogging is no token punishment, but a terrible beating. It can kill. Jewish law limited the maximum number of lashes to 40, probably knowing that more than this could cause death. The whip used in this case had 2, perhaps 3 lashes, each weighted with lead or bone weights. The shroud shows more than a hundred lash marks on the body of Jesus, (and let us remember that the shroud does not show clearly all parts of the body). Some think that the fatefull number of 40 was not respected. It is possible, the Romans had no obligation to respect Jewish law. But with two thongs per whip, and 2 weights per thong, the total number of wounds on the body is 120. Was there one man with a whip or two? -- probably two, one on the left and one on the right. The one on the left was apparently smaller because the pivot point of that whip is slightly lower. One of them enjoys whipping the victim's legs. Whatever the details, the blows from the two torturers were fierce and cut deeply into the flesh. Flogging or whipping did not have to be followed by execution. It was intended first and foremost to be a violent, painful, and unforgetable lesson to the victim, and a warning spectacle for all those who watched. What a punishment it was!, and in this case on a man whose skin has been fragilised by haemato hydrosis, and then traumatised by the beatings through the night in the house of the High Priest : on a man who had not slept, nor rested, who with his arms bound has been marched around all night. He would have been in a desperate physical state when untied from the whipping column. Yet it was still not enough. The whole Roman cohort were now enjoying this bloodsport. Brutality feeds on brutality. Pity is a feeling that develops in the heart of man when at peace. After whipping him, they rammed a crown of thorns on his head, struck him with a reed, spat in his face, insulted him...

               Still Pilate tries to save him. He may have heard the authenticity in the answers of Jesus, he may have suspected the motives of the priests, doubts may have troubled him. Otherwise, why so many efforts and so much time wasted, for a Jew that he does not know, and who means nothing to him? Pilate, after having him covered with a purple cloak shows him to the crowd to try and snatch him from death 'Here is your king". But alas! the sight of Jesus incites the anger and hatred of the Jews and Pilate no longer dares to refuse the crucifixion they are calling for. It is almost noon. It is the end for Jesus. He is going to be nailed to a cross and left for several hours to die in atrocious suffering, worse than those he has just endured.

               The purple robe is taken off him. He is dressed in his own clothes, and led away to be crucified. He has to carry his own cross, probably only the patibulum. The stipes are probably a permanent fixture at the site of crucifixion. The patibulum is a simple wooden beam about 2 metres long (6 feet 8 inches), long enough for the 1.80 metres (6 feet) armspan of a man 1.80 metres tall ( 6 feet). It would have been about 20 cms (8 inches) wide and 5-7cms (2-3 inches) thick. It would weigh about 20 kgs. For a man exhausted by beating and flogging, let alone the sleepless night, the stress of the trials, etc., this weight is too much. Jesus will never be able to carry this half a kilometre (about 500 yards) up to the place of execution. An onlooker helps, a man called Simon of Cyrene, a man whose name will go into history for this. Painfully, Jesus and Simon, carrying the cross together walk the path. The Gospels say nothing about the falls, nor of his meeting his mother. Such details have been passed on to us by tradition. The Shroud shows a graze on the knee and sores on the shoulder blades, especially the right, caused by the rubbing of the wood. The time needed to travel this distance must be about half an hour.

               On arrival at the execution area, Jesus is stripped. It is clear from the Shroud that Jesus was naked when wrapped in it, and we have no reason to assume that he was stripped after the execution. The word stripped is a euphemism, for his clothes were stuck by congealed blood to his wounds. The clothes had to be torn off him, reopening all his wounds. Remember how it feels to us when an adhesive dressing is pulled off a small open wound it has stuck to -- now multiply this a hundred times. Each wound reopened, bleeding again. Let's pause for a moment and imagine the implications.

               Now he has to be nailed to the cross. For experienced executioners this is a routine procedure. Jesus is on his back on the ground, the patibulum under his head. One executioner holds him down. Another clasps the open palm of one of his hands and pulls. Somebody's foot or knee presses the forearm of Jesus down onto the wood. Other knees will be across his chest and throat. The executioner with the hammer and nails touches the point of a big nail to the fold of the wrist, between the two tendons of the flexors. He locates the Destot spot and with two strokes of the hammer the big nail has gone through the wrist. On its way is tears at the median nerve, setting off intense neuralgic pains and a muscular ligament contraction that forces the thumb into the middle of the palm. One or two more solid blows of the hammer and the nail is deeply embedded in the wood. The procedure on the other side is identical. All that is left to do is make the victim stand by raising the two ends of the patibulum, to lead him to the stipes, and make him step backwards, upwards, onto any object 30 to 50 cms high. The executioners lift the patibulum upwards, fixing it across the stipes, perhaps there is a simple notch in the stipes that the cross beam can be dropped into. This part of the job is now done.

               Now for the feet. One of the victim's knees are forced forwards and the foot pushed up to get the flat of a foot on the stipes. One executioner holds the leg up in position. Another places the point of a large nail over the Merat space. A blow of the hammer and the nail is driven through the foot. It protrudes a little at the back and is pushed up. Another blow and the nail is through the second foot as well. A few more heavy blows secure them solidly to the wood. The job is done properly. Just as quickly the two other condemned men are crucified. This part of the chore is over. Now there is just the waiting around to make sure they die. It is about mid-day. Darkness falls upon the earth.

Very beautiful Coptic Christ made before the Xth century. His aspect is deeply human; the accuracy of his attitude and his majesty in suffering are rendered perfectly. We must notice some particularities : the artist did not dare represent Christ naked, even if he was, so he put his right leg in front of the left leg whereas it was the contrary . Moreover, the absence of wound in the right side as well as the head held high show that the artist really wanted to show Christ still alive. (10832 bytes)

              The nails have missed the important blood vessels. The haemorhage is limited. Death will be slow. A trickle of blood runs from the wounds in the wrist, down the forearms to the elbows. The body hangs with all its weight from the nails through the wrists and the pain is atrocious. It is the pain of big main nerves (the median nerves) badly traumatised. It is comparable to the pain of sciatica. Those who have experienced it will know what I mean. The rest can imagine the dentist drilling out the nerve of a tooth without anaesthetic. The only means to relieve the pain in the arms is to push down on the feet, but they are nailed too, and have their own pains. Apart from the pain, the next effect to be noticed when hung from outstretched arms like this, is how difficult it is to breathe. The chest is blocked with air in it. It is difficult to expel this air. To breathe out it is necessary to move the chest upwards, to get it up closer to the level of the arms, to push down on the feet and pull on the nails through the wrists. Now the crucified can breath again, before fatigue lets the body slump and sink. It hangs again from the arms, until the next fit of asphyxia sets in. Again that struggle upwards is necessary. And so it goes on, once or twice per minute. With each effort to raise oneself by the feet, the forearms are in a more horizontal position, and the blood trickling from the the nail wounds in the wrist takes an alternative path along the forearms. These two tracks can be seen on the Shroud. Meanwhile, the more acid pH of the blood (due mainly to the asphyxia), and the awkward position of the body on the cross, trigger off cramps throughout the body. They are impossible to relieve without changing position, yet all that is possible is this limited raising of the body by 15 or 20 cms. The muscular contraction and the acidosis cause abundant sweating and consequent dehydration. In fact he has not drunk for over 18 hours. At one time Jesus says I am thirsty and a sponge soaked in vinegar is held out to him but he hardly touches it.

               The agony for Jesus goes on, with its pains, cramps, progressive suffocation, thirst, and then those flies which he cannot drive off, the nudity, the spectators there just for a look or to insult him. The hours pass, filled only with pain...

               Sabbath is approaching however. It will start at nightfall, and they do not want to stain themselves by being involved in a crucifixion on the Sabath. All of the condemned must be dead and buried before the Sabbath starts, yet dying on the cross can take hours, or even days. Death needs a little help now -- there are ways. One trick of the trade was to break with an iron bar the shin bones and the fibulas of the victims. Unable to lift themselves by their legs they soon suffocated... The order was given. First they broke the legs of the two companions of Jesus, but when they reached him they found he was already dead. To be certain, one of the soldiers thrust his lance into the right side of the chest, and at once, says St John who was an eyewitness standing at the foot of the cross, blood and water came out. It is 3 pm on Friday, the 14th of Nisan. There is still time to get them down and buried ; still time to start Sabath at the preccribed time, to honour this God that they have just crucified.

               There have been a lot of discussion on the origin of the water that came from the chest wound. The blood itself came from the whole supra-cardiac veinous system which drains into the upper vena cava and right auricle. But where did this water come from?. Was it water from the pleura?, an oedema of the lungs?, it is possible; water from the pericardium?, this too is possible. In any event, it came from a pathological gathering of liquid which should not have been where it was, and whose presence was an additional cause of pain

               Meanwhile, at the foot of the cross, crushed by her pain, stands a woman of about 50 years, Mary, his mother. As the words of the Stabat Mater express so well:

                     Debout, la mère endolorie, au pied de la croix était en larmes devant son fils suspendu.

                     Dans son ame qui gémissait, toute brisée, endolorie, le glaive était enfoncé.

                     Qu'elle était triste et affligée, la mère entre toutes bénie, la mère du fils unique.

                     Qu'elle avait mal, qu'elle souffrait la tendre mère, en contemplant son divin fils tourmenté.

                     Quel est celui qui, sans pleurer, pourrait voir la mère douloureuse avec son fils ?

               For how long has she been alongside her son, seeing him tortured under her eyes, unable to do anything about it. She must have been alerted by friends when Jesus was arrested, and had tried to follow him through the events of the night. Tradition tells us they she was on the path to Golgotha. She has been there all through the crucifixion, helpless, experiencing in her mother's flesh, all the sufferings of her son, nailed to the cross in front of her eyes. She has been suffering silently with her son, unable to save him, emotions torn, hoping for and fearing at the same time his death, waiting for death to deliver him from pain. What an agony for her too.

               Jesus is dead -- at last! one is tempted to add. Yet the day is not yet finished. His body cannot remain on the cross during Passover and the Sabbath. It is necessary to pull out the nails that impaled his feet (one can picture the executioner's foot against the stipes, his body braced in effort for the nail must have been deep in the wood, his grip on the pincers and the grip of the pincers on the nail. (In the case of Jehohanan, it had been impossible to pull out the nail so they had sawed through his legs). Next it is necessary to demount and lower the patibulam with the inert and stiff body hanging from it, a weight of around 100 kgs (220 lbs). (There was no question of trying to take the nails out of the hands at height). Once the body is on the ground, it will have to be carried to the tomb. Pierre Barbet thinks it was transported still nailed to the patibulum with the sheet rolled up under his loins. I agree about the sheet because the streaks of blood at the back are very evocative of this support. But I think there was no point in carrying the patibulum because it added 20 kilos (44 lbs) to the weight, and the body was quite stiff enough to be carried easily. It seems more probable to me that the nails were taken out of the wrist once the body was on the ground. Again the horrible image of the executioner's foot on the body, on the wood, his body bent over his task in concentration and effort, the iron pincers gripping the head of the nail, the twisting and pulling...First one nail, and then the other.

               Then, someone on each side of the body grips an arm, while two others grip the cloth that goes under the hips. The tomb is only a few dozen metres (few dozen yards) away. Once there it is necessary to bring the arms back alongside the body, for they are still outstretched in the position of the crucifixion, and stiffened by precocious rigor mortis brought on by tetanisation of the muscles, the fingers of the left hand were bent and stiff enough to hold the right hand... The body is laid out on the shroud. Small coins are put on the eyelids to keep them lowered. The shroud is wrapped around the body, the helpers leave the tomb, and the stone is rolled in front of the door. As a precautionary measure, to prevent anyone coming to take away the body of Jesus, Pilate stations a platoon of soldiers in front of the tomb. The deed is done. It has been quite a day. But how many of those present ever thought that what they did that day would change world history, for the next two thousand years, at least?

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