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How science backs St John’s account of the Crucifixion

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TODAY is Good Friday and Christians throughout the world will commemorate the Passion and death of Jesus Christ on the cross, the ne plus ultra of self-giving love in which the Son of God took upon himself the sins of the world and wiped them away.

The crucifixion is recorded by each of the four Evangelists and St John tells us that he watched it. He records that Jesus died before the two criminals executed on either side of him, whose legs were broken by Roman soldiers to hasten their deaths.

In his own words, this is what happened next: ‘When they came to Jesus, they saw he was already dead, and so instead of breaking his legs one of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance; and immediately there came out blood and water. This is the evidence of one who saw it – true evidence, and he knows that what he says is true.’ (John 19: 33-35).

The Fathers of the Church ‘saw an image of the two fundamental sacraments – Eucharist and Baptism – which spring forth from the Lord’s pierced side, from his heart’, according to Pope Benedict XVI.

Undoubtedly, they are symbolic. But St John also insists he was recording a real event.

Now a doctor in London has written a scientific paper explaining why such an effusion may be medically possible, and in Jesus’s case, highly likely.

The Rev Professor Patrick Pullicino, a former consultant neurologist at East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust who since retirement has become a priest, starts with the work done by forensic and medical experts on the Shroud of Turin, the length of linen bearing the image of a man in which Jesus’s body is said to have been wrapped.

There has been speculation over the authenticity of this relic and in recent years scientific techniques have been deployed to resolve it. In 1988 a radiocarbon test concluded that it was probably medieval. More recent studies in 2012 and 2015 argue that the science proves that the linen sheet dates precisely from the time of Jesus.

Given that the latter is now the settled position, a team from the University Hospital of Padua, Italy, led by Matteo Bevilacqua, was  granted permission to conduct a forensic study of the injuries on the ‘TS Man’, as they called him. They found that the imprint was of a person who suffered and died in exactly the manner of Christ as recorded in the Gospels.

Writing in the Open Journal of Trauma in 2017, this team recorded injuries so awful that they might have been those of a car crash victim. Speculating on the cause of death, they wrote that it was probably the result of a myocardial infarction [heart attack] complicated by heart rupture with hemopericardium in a subject crucified with the nailing of hands and feet.

They also saw signs of severe emotional stress and depression; severe hypovolemic-traumatic shock, acute respiratory failure at a first stage by crucifixion and causalgia [chronic pain in a limb]; blunt trauma following the fall with paralysis of the entire right brachial plexus [shoulder nerves], right shoulder dislocation, pulmonary contusion with haemothorax [lung injury], cardiac contusion [heart injury]; probable left ulnar proximal paralysis and right foot dislocation from stretching during crucifixion.

When Professor Pullicino reviewed these studies, what was especially significant to him was the dislocation of the right shoulder. It was yanked so far from its socket that the right hand stretches 10cm lower than the left.

Writing in the latest edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly, he concurs with Bevilacqua et al that the dislocation was probably the result of a fall in which the arm of Jesus was trapped in the supporting strut of the Tau, or T-shaped, cross that he was carrying. Abrasions on the back of the Turin Shroud indicate that it was shifted from Jesus’s right side to his left, possibly because of his inability to use his dislocated arm after he fell.

The evidence, says Pullicino, shows that ‘the right arm was stretched to greater than its normal length during crucifixion which was facilitated by a combination of shoulder dislocation and loss of shoulder muscle power’.

At this point, Prof Pullicino advances a new theory. ‘Because of this right arm stretching, the right subclavian/axillary artery was also subjected to stretch, as it was one of the only remaining intact structures connecting the body and the right arm,’ he explains.

‘Transferring of body weight to the arms in inspiration is likely to have caused further stretching of the right subclavian artery. Transferring weight to the legs in exhalation would reverse this stretch. This would cause the stretched subclavian artery to move across the rib surface with each breath and its underside would be subject to friction.

‘This paper postulates that over the course of three hours, the subclavian artery became abraded, injured and its wall attenuated until finally the artery ruptured and profuse bleeding ensued.’

What this produced, says Prof Pullicino, is a condition called a ‘large tension haemothorax’, a huge sac of blood filling the cavity between the lungs and the rib cage. It would have continued to increase in volume all the time Jesus was on the cross, pushing the left lung and the heart to one side as it grew bigger. Pullicino cites medical literature from 2020 to state that tension haemothorax ‘can contain up to 40 per cent of the circulating blood volume and may lead to fatal circulatory collapse’.

So when Christ was pierced by Longinus (according to tradition), the spear tip must have released huge pressure caused by the build-up of blood, like popping a balloon, and up to half of the blood in Jesus’s body – about three pints – literally poured out of him.

Prof Pullicino does not stop there, however. He also has an explanation for the effusion of water witnessed by St John.

He believes it was probably cerebrospinal fluid, one of the few liquids in the body that is sufficiently clear to take the appearance of water. He argues that it leaked into the peri-pleural space adjacent to the upper lung and cites a medical study of 2013 by Hebert-Blouin et al to demonstrate that this a documented complication of the sort of brachial plexus (severe shoulder) injury that Jesus suffered on the way to Calvary.

If the theories of Pullicino, Bevilacqua and many others are correct, it would be reasonable to conclude that the injury to Christ’s shoulder caused him more pain than any of the others. Indeed, causalgia (also called reflex sympathetic dystrophy) is recognised by medicine as the most severe pain known to humans; it is so agonising that there is a danger of suicides among those who suffer it.

So it is interesting, therefore, that this particular unrecorded part of the Passion was known to St Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century, some 800 years before science confirmed it. But perhaps he had the advantage of a mystical visitation by Jesus to thank for that.

They spoke to each other, according to St Bernard, and the saint asked Jesus what was the greatest unknown suffering of his Passion.

Jesus replied: ‘I had on my shoulder, while I bore my cross on the way of sorrows, a grievous wound that was more painful than the others and which is not recorded by men.’

Pope St John Paul II had a similar experience when he met Padre Pio, the 20th century Italian mystic whom he would later canonise as St Pio of Pietrelcina.

Like St Francis of Assisi, Padre Pio is famous for suffering the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, in his own body. The future pope, at the time a young priest, asked Padre Pio which of his injuries were the most painful. ‘It is my shoulder wound, which no one knows about and has never been cured or treated,’ came the reply.

Those outside the Church will undoubtedly remain sceptical and none of those within it has an obligation to accept any private revelation, since all Christian teaching over the last 2,000 years rests solely on what has been revealed publicly.

But surely anyone can be forgiven if they looked at the science and saw how it complemented the words of such mystics and then wondered if perhaps their understanding of the events of Good Friday has been richly illuminated.

Readers who are interested in this science behind the death of Jesus Christ can hear Professor Pullicino discuss his theory with Dr Gavin Ashenden, the former royal chaplain to the Queen, at Merely Catholic, the new weekly podcast of the Catholic Herald. Please click below to listen. 

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Simon Caldwell
Simon Caldwell
Simon Caldwell is a former Daily Mail journalist who works as a freelance writer and public relations consultant, focusing on poor care and bad practice within the NHS.

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