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Doctors Pronounce Jesus Dead!

There is a genre of medical literature that declares Jesus dead. No kidding. It is usually referred to as a “special communication” or something like that, to distance the publisher from claiming it as a serious medical research paper, but the genre has a long tradition going all the way back to 1805, with many examples even from the last fifty years. These things have also found their way into prestigious medical journals. Many of these are cited in the latest example brought to my attention, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” by William Edwards (M.D.), Wesley Gabel (M.Div.), and Floyd Hosmer (M.S., A.M.I.), which appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (March 21, 1986 / 255:11, pp. 1455-1463), though curiously this omits mention of perhaps the most important example of the genre, a research report on actual experimentation with crucifixion effects (F.T. Zugibe, “Death by Crucifixion,” Canadian Society of Forensic Science, 1984 / 17:1, pp. 1-13).

So Jesus died? This is hardly news. Even I agree with the conclusion that Jesus probably died on the cross. I calculate the odds of this to be better than 98% in my own comprehensive survey of the evidence (cf. Probability of Survival vs. Miracle of my essay “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story“). But this is not sufficient to be certain that Jesus died, in the way we can be certain, for instance, that Caesar crossed the Rubicon…no medical examiner would be able to legally pronounce Jesus dead on the sparse and problematic information we have about Jesus and crucifixion generally. Indeed, appearances of the man after he was supposedly killed would in normal practice rule out death in the eyes of a medical examiner, who otherwise had only the few bits of inconclusive data we actually have about Jesus’ apparent demise. Above all, we cannot be sufficiently certain of his death to assert that his appearances afterward could only be a miracle (as opposed to mere ordinary luck–or as some would argue, human trickery). This is what I demonstrate in the above cited essay, and it is a different argument than “Jesus probably survived,” which I do not believe because it is far more probable that Jesus only “appeared” in mystic visions and thus in reality stayed plain dead. But even if we could rule this out, we would have more reason to believe he survived the cross than that he was resurrected.

Even so, the “genre” of the medical analysis of Jesus’ death is typified by such poor scholarship that I am compelled to discuss here the latest and grandest example, as a case study in the sort of caution readers should always have when reading or citing these things. I am not the first. Raymond Brown, in his masterful commentary The Death of the Messiah, 1999 [Volume 1][Volume 2], finds the same faults I do, and he surveys the entire history of the genre, including Edwards’ article for JAMA. His conclusion is worth quoting:

In my judgement the major defect of most of the studies I have reported on thus far is that they were written by doctors who did not stick to their trade and let a literalist understanding of the Gospel accounts influence their judgements. (v. 2, pp. 1088-92)

He notes how Zugibe (ibid.) did the right thing by ignoring the Biblical details and simply carrying out experiments to see what the actual effects of crucifixion were, empirically refuting all previous medical claims that the crucified would quickly die from asphyxia (and thus refuting Edwards’ own non-empirical assertion that this is one of the main reasons Jesus died), and demonstrating that death could only result from dehydration, or perhaps slow bloodloss–in other words, it would take many hours and possibly days, and this is probably just what was intended by the Romans in using this mode of execution in the first place. We know for a fact that crucifixion could be survived (Life of Flavius Josephus § 420-21), which explains Pilate’s surprise at Jesus’ early death (Mark 15:44), and the Gospel of John’s implication that the legs of the crucified were broken to hasten death entails that survival was common enough to require such an extraordinary measure (cf. Section V of Probability of Survival vs. Miracle for a complete analysis of survivability), one that, incidentally, was curiously not taken against Jesus.

Edwards’ errors begin when he uses as his primary source of historical evidence and analysis none other than Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict, along with Greenleaf’s 19th century (!) “legal proof” and, to make matters even worse, the Shroud of Turin! But McDowell’s work is pure apologetics and not what any bona fide expert would call a competent work of historical scholarship (see The Jury is In); Greenleaf-esque argumentation is specious, as demonstrated by Richard Packham in Critique of John Warwick Montgomery’s Arguments for the Legal Evidence for Christianity; and the Shroud of Turin has been proven to be a 13th century forgery (see our Shroud of Turin Section). Thus, whatever conclusions Edwards, et al., reach, we can see they will be doomed from the start, being based on bogus evidence and shoddy analysis, and not on even a single work of objective scholarship or expert literary analysis.

A beautiful example of the absurd lengths doctors will go to to make these sorts of essays sound medically relevant and worthwhile is Edwards’ assertion that when Luke says Jesus’ “sweat became like blood,” he was describing a real medical condition (hematidrosis), rather than using a metaphor, as every other writer in the universe does on a more than regular basis. I have amusing thoughts of Edwards insisting that when Jesus said it would be easier to pass a camel through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to get into heaven, Jesus was actually trying before amazed crowds to push a camel through a needle’s eye to demonstrate his point as he spoke. It would make for a great comic scene with ample opportunity for blasphemous scatalogical humor. I think we see here the nefarious influence of Biblical literalism being foisted on a gullible M.D. by his fundamentalist preacher and co-writer, Gabel. This is just the sort of bad scholarship Brown detected in most examples of this genre.

Throughout the article, Edwards gives a detailed exposition on the nature and methods of crucifixion that is in fact 90% based on modern imagination. How does he commit such a methodological error and assert as fact what are usually uncertain, and often groundless, speculations? He almost never cites a primary source. And this is what Brown meant by doctors not sticking to their areas of expertise. Don’t pretend to be a historian when you know nothing of the trade. History is a difficult and expert business, requiring many years of training and experience to do properly, and much more to do it well. Yet Christians especially love to publish exhaustive works of historical analysis written by people with hardly any historical credentials at all (a paradigm example is In Defense of Miracles). To understand the historical milieu of antiquity one must have long and thorough experience with ancient historical sources, ancillary materials, research protocols, literature, and art. Every writer on historical method agrees that experience as an historian in a given field is absolutely crucial to developing sound judgements about historical claims and evidence pertaining to that field (see, above all, McCullagh’s Justifying Historical Descriptions). For only such experience gives you wide acquaintance with the ancient norms and standards, of every relevant sphere from politics to religion, and especially with the linguistic and literary conventions of the day. And only long experience with doing history will acquaint you with the proper methods, and ween you away from commonplace errors. Indeed, you cannot make probability judgements without a huge store of data to draw from in making such inferences, and such a store can only be acquired from long, tireless experience with all the materials of the period (for more on this, cf. the sections of the Miracles essay called What’s Good and Bad in In Defense of Miracles). But above all, the historian knows that you need primary evidence: actual ancient witnesses or materials. You should rely on secondary scholarship as little as possible, and when you must, you should rely only on experts in the specific matter at issue. Yet Edwards usually cites other doctors as his sources for historical claims, not historians, much less historians with the specific expertise relevant to any particular point (one notable exception is his coverage of the shape and construction of crosses, which he gets substantially correct, because he cites a real expert).

So far, none of these doctors has employed an expert historian as co-author, and as a result all have done lousy historical work, and thus base their medical opinions on false and undemonstrated claims about the past, or about the death of Jesus specifically. So, Edwards makes astonishing (and baseless) claims such as that Romans were required by law to give the crucified wine mixed with myrrh; that we have ossuary remains demonstrating that nails were driven through wrists (in actual fact, this evidence is conspicuous for its absence in the relevant finds: it appears only the ankles were nailed); that a highly-literary verse in the probably-forged 1 Peter 2:24 proves Jesus’ scourging was “particularly harsh” (it doesn’t even say that–he cites an esoteric literary analysis that tries to make it say more than it does); that stabbing the crucified with spears was “customary” (yet the one unique example we have of such an action refers to no custom, and probably didn’t even happen, cf. Section VII of Probability of Survival vs. Miracle); and that Jesus didn’t carry the cross in Mark’s account because he was too exhausted (yet there is no evidence even in Mark that this was the reason, the Gospel of John outright denies that this happened (Jn. 19:17), and the obvious symbolism of a stranger named Simon bearing the cross of Christ instead of Simon the disciple who thought he would bear that cross (Mk. 8:34), is too elegant to be a historical fact). Indeed, Edwards even bases his belief in the spear wound on the Shroud of Turin!

The ultimate failure is that Edwards contradicts himself on the very conclusion he claims to reach. Though he asserts in the end that “the evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side” he earlier asserted that everything Jesus underwent was typical of all crucifixion victims and that their “length of survival generally ranged from three or four hours to three or four days,” which would mean Jesus had a very good chance of being alive when he was taken down: for our only sources tell us he was on the cross only three or four hours, whereas Edwards says, in effect, that the average length of survival was two days! How, then, does he justify his conclusion? He doesn’t. Shoddy work indeed. And yet this is really the best of this genre, giving you an idea of how really bad the other attempts at such an essay have been. The bottom line is that no doctor need really argue that Jesus probably died (that’s obvious), but neither can any doctor honestly deny that Jesus’ death came unusually early in comparison with the usual fate of those who endured exactly the same things he did.

“Doctors Pronounce Jesus Dead!” is copyright © 2001 by Richard Carrier. The electronic version is copyright © 2001 Internet Infidels.

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