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ss nucleus - spring 2000,  Differential diagnosis - millenium question

Differential diagnosis - millenium question

Question - Jesus’ legs were not broken on the cross because he was found to be already dead. What observation confirmed this fact and what are the possible explanations for it? (Jn 19:31-37)


When the Roman soldiers approached Jesus on the cross intending to break his legs, they found he was ‘already dead’ (v33). Indeed, he had been observed to die by eye- witnesses a short time before (v30). Seasoned executioners such as these were unlikely to be mistaken in their diagnosis and the observation of ‘a sudden flow of blood and water’, when Jesus’ side was pierced by a sword, confirmed the fact (v34).

Post mortem clotting of the blood can be delayed by the presence of circulating fibrinolysins, especially if death is associated with severe pain. The effect is that the red cells can separate from the plasma within thirty minutes. ‘Blood and water’ would then emerge in sequence by gravity from a body cavity pierced by a sharp object.

The only real possibilities for the source of the blood and the water are the pleural and pericardial cavities, because the heart itself contains too little. Haemothorax could well have resulted if ribs had been fractured during the flogging Jesus received in Pilate’s palace (Jn 19:1). Haemopericardium could have resulted from either cardiac rupture or, more probably, rupture at the junction of aorta and left ventricle.

Luke favours the diagnosis of haemopericardium on the basis of the prophecies that none of Jesus’ bones would be broken (Ex 12:46; Nu 9:12; Ps 22:17, 34:20; Jn 19:36).

The observation of the ‘blood and water’ is of great importance because it proves that Jesus was really dead. However, the physiological facts above were not known to observers at the time. They simply recorded the events as they witnessed them – without knowing how they would be interpreted by trained clinical observers in the year 2000.

Since Jesus actually died, and yet subsequently appeared to many different people, this proves that he must have risen from the dead. Therefore, the truth claims of the Christian faith do not rely on subjective experience, but are historically ‘evidence-based’.

[The significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection are dealt with in greater depth in Why bother with Jesus Christ? in this issue of Nucleus. Ed.]

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