Image: From "The Passion of Christ"
Philippe Antonello  /  AP
Actor Jim Caviezel, portraying Jesus, is shown nailed to the cross on the set of "The Passion of the Christ" in a publicity photo.
updated 6/9/2005 8:15:19 PM ET 2005-06-10T00:15:19

Jesus may have died from a blood clot that reached his lungs, an Israeli physician said Wednesday, challenging the popular conception that he died of asphyxiation and blood loss during his crucifixion.

Dr. Benjamin Brenner, a researcher at the Rambam Medical Center in the Israeli port city of Haifa, said he was publicizing his theory to raise awareness about pulmonary embolism, a potentially fatal disorder often associated with long-distance air travel.

However, the author of an earlier in-depth medical report into the cause of Jesus’ death dismissed the theory, and Bible scholars said that while establishing the physical cause of Jesus’ death was interesting, it ignored the spiritual dimension.

“It is known that the common cause of death in the setting of multiple trauma, immobilization and dehydration is pulmonary embolism,” Brenner wrote in the Journal of Thrombosis and Haemostasis. “This fits well with Jesus’ condition and actually was in all likelihood the major cause of death of crucified victims.”

A pulmonary embolism is caused when a blood clot travels to the lungs, usually from the leg, causing an acute shortness of breath and chest pains. It is frequently fatal.

Based on scripture and scientific papers
Brenner based his understanding of Jesus’ condition at the time of his death on a 1986 paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which referred to the New Testament and contemporary religious sources.

That paper found that before his crucifixion, Jesus went 12 hours without food or water, was under emotional stress, was beaten and forced to walk to the crucifixion site carrying the heavy cross beam of the cross on which he was crucified. He also was scourged before being nailed to the cross, leading to some blood loss.

Brenner said the authors may have missed the blood clot possibility because it was not fully understood then.

“The field of blood coagulation has gone through significant changes in the past 20 years,” he wrote.

But Dr. William D. Edwards, a co-author of the original paper, dismissed Brenner’s theory, saying he was well aware of the effects of pulmonary embolisms at the time.

“We didn’t list it in our article because we didn’t consider it a likely cause,” Edwards said, replying to questions by e-mail from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “Jesus was on the cross for only six hours. It seems unlikely that a large deep leg vein thrombus could develop and cause fatal pulmonary embolization in that short time.”

Bible scholars said that focusing on Jesus’ physical suffering as the cause of death missed the point.

“What they are doing is the autopsy of the physical body, which is always interesting from an academic standpoint,” said Stephen Pfann, a Bible scholar in Jerusalem. “But if people concentrate on that part of the event alone they are missing the most important part, which is the spiritual suffering.

“The major trauma for the son of God is the spiritual trauma, the loneliness feeling the rejection of God and the shame of the world that came upon him at that point,” he said.

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