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Cause of death in crucifixion uncertain says new study
A new review on the causes of death in crucifixion has cast doubt over established medical theories and the leading hypotheses on the how Jesus died.
Writing in the April issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Piers Mitchell and Matthew Maslen argue there is insufficient evidence to ascertain how people died from crucifixion in Roman times.
“Based on the evidence, we simply do not know how people died during crucifixion,”said Dr Piers Mitchell of Imperial College London.
“While there are a number of theories, most have been developed to fit religious beliefs rather than the evidence,”he said.
Dr Mitchell’s study examined the 10 main theories on the cause of death of crucifixion victims such as Jesus, developed following the publication in 1847 of Stroud’s A Treatise on the Physical Cause of the Death of Christ.
Using the limited historical and archaeological evidence available, the review highlights the various ways people were crucified in Roman times.
“The evidence available demonstrates that people were crucified in different postures and affixed to crosses using a variety of means. Victims were not necessarily positioned head up and nailed through the feet from front to back as is the imagery in Christian churches,”said Dr Mitchell.
“Obviously the way in which a victim was crucified would impact on their cause of death.”
The review examined the only published archaeological case of crucifixion.
“Archaeological evidence for crucifixion is rare as most people were not buried following death,”said Dr Mitchell.
“Of the one case we are aware of, the heels of the male victim were nailed to the sides of the cross and there was no evidence of nail insertion through the wrist or forearm. Based on the evidence, we don’t even know if the victim was upright, facing down or in any other position,”he said.
The study also reviewed the two common medical theories on how Jesus died based on research conducted through re-enactment.
“Asphyxiation and more recently, hypovolaemic shock, are the two leading medical theories on the cause of death of Jesus,”said Dr Mitchell.
“While asphyxiation has been tested through re-enactment, interpretation is difficult due to the humane manner in which a study needs to be conducted. For ethical reasons hypovolaemic shock is impossible to test,”he said.
The most recent and thorough re-enactment by Zugibe (2005) concluded that hypovolaemic shock was the cause of death of Jesus. However, as the Mitchell review points out,
“the conclusion was not based on any positive evidence for shock theory…but rather upon negative evidence for the asphyxiation theory.”
The authors call for further impartial research on the causes of death in crucifixion.
“At present there is insufficient evidence to safely state exactly how people did die from crucifixion in Roman times,”write the authors.
“It is quite likely that different individuals died from different physiological causes, and we would expect that the orientation in which they were crucified would be crucial in this respect.”
‘Medical theories on the causes of death in crucifixion’ by Matthew D Maslen and Piers D Mitchell is published in the April issue (Vol. 99) of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.
JRSM is the flagship journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. It has been published continuously since 1809. Its Editor is Dr Kamran Abbasi.