Book Review: The Crucifixion of Jesus by Joseph Bergeron
The Crucifixion of Jesus by Joseph Bergeron promises to be a medical doctor’s examination of the death and resurrection of Jesus. But that only describes part of what the book delivers. To be sure, the height of the discussion comes with the medical details surrounding the death of Jesus and the proposed options for explaining the resurrection appearances, but before diving into that discussion, Bergeron provides several chapters of religious and historical context. This context is what reveals the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Bergeron begins by examining who Jesus claimed to be. This is a logical first step in any discussion about Jesus. He argues that while modern readers may find Jesus’ claims ambiguous, when understood in the historical and cultural context, it is clear that Jesus claimed to be divine. Bergeron runs through passages of Jesus claiming to be the Son of Man, the Messiah, and the Son of God and explains how each of those titles stand as self-proclamations that Jesus is God. Furthermore, her outlines how Jesus approach to the Mosaic Law – such as having authority over the Sabbath – is an unequivocal declaration by Jesus that he is God. Finally, Bergeron shows how Jesus’ conversation with Pilate only makes sense if Jesus believed he was God. In other words, every faced of the Gospel writings involve Jesus claiming to be God.
Next, Bergeron discusses what can be known about Jesus through historical investigation. First, he outlines how Jesus is mentioned in non-Biblical writings from Josephus, Tacitus, Justin Marty, and others. Next, he addresses testimony from early church fathers and argues that these writings provide good reasons to believe the content in the Gospels is both accurate and authentic.
Turning to the text of scripture directly, Bergeron initially focuses on Luke-Acts. He defends the notion that Luke was the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. He further argues that this two-volume account was written as a legal brief to Roman officials on behalf of Paul. This, along with the absence of any mention of the fall of Jerusalem, indicates that the Gospel was written prior to AD 70.
The section is rounded off with a discussion of textual variants. Of importance is that the data are remarkably consistent, especially considering that some manuscripts are separated by more than 1000 years. And what inconsistencies do exist make no significant impact on the meaning of Christian beliefs.
Bergeron takes a brief excurses to discuss the political climate in the time of Jesus. In a word, it can be described as “unrest” with the Jewish leaders balancing their control over their localities with their favor with Rome. Jesus became viewed as a threat to that balance. This is why the Jewish leaders ultimately determined that he had to die.
Continuing the discussion, Bergeron shows how political pressures led to a secret plot to murder Jesus. Stepping through some of the narratives in Acts, as well as the Passion narratives in the Gospels, Bergeron reveals how the Jewish Sanhedrin viewed Jesus as just another religious leader rising up and causing trouble. By killing him they thought they would bring about the death of his movement. But seeking to remain in positive light with the Roman leaders, they could not just kill Jesus themselves. Such an act would have exceeded the authority given to the Jewish people under Rome.
Bergeron turns his attention to the practice of crucifixion, highlighting the gruesome nature. Crucifixion was supposed to instill fear in onlookers. Part of the practice was beating the crucifixion victim until the very edge of death. Following the beating, they were forced to carry a 60lb beam – that would later become part of the cross – throughout the town, all while naked. Once at the execution site, nails would be driven through the wrists and ankles.
While there were a variety of methods available for crucifixion, Jesus was most likely crucified on a “T” shaped cross, known as a “crux commissa” cross. Regardless of exact method, crucifixion was the most brutal form of capital punishment available, and Roman executioners were exceptional at their job. When a Roman executioner declared someone dead post-crucifixion, we can be sure they were dead.
Narrowing his focus to Jesus, Bergeron begins by providing a seamless narrative of Jesus’ Passion week. This narrative is a mix of details from multiple Gospel accounts. He then offers medical commentary on key components of Jesus’ crucifixion.
First, Jesus is depicted as sweating blood, which is a known medical phenomenon called “hematidrosis” that can occur under situations of extreme emotional distress – not unlike the kind Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane. Second, the events leading up to crucifixion would have left Jesus severely dehydrated. Third, Jesus was beaten on two separate instances: once by the Jews and once by the Romans. These beatings would have resulted in deep lacerations to the point of inner organs being visible. It is also likely that this cause injury to Jesus’ lungs. Finally, Jesus is described as having water and blood pour out of a spear wound in his chest. This is indicative of the pleural effusion, which is when fluid surrounds the lungs. Ultimately, the data are consistent with the conclusion that Jesus experienced Traumatic Hemorrhagic Shock.
Before examining Traumatic Hemorrhagic Shock in detail, Bergeron runs through competing alternative hypotheses. Among the common proposals are a ruptured heart, a stab wound to the heart, and suffocation. Each has its merits, but ultimately Bergeron finds the evidence wanting. While a ruptured heart is a known condition – called Tokotsubo – Jesus does not fit the profile of the type of person to experience this. As for death from a stab wound to the heart, Jesus was only stabbed after the Roman soldiers had already declared him dead. Had he still been alive, they would have broken his legs. The belief that Jesus was still alive is based on the false premise that blood could only flow out of a living body. Finally, both recent medical data and the description of Jesus on the cross in the Gospels suggest that breathing was not severely restricted during Crucifixion.
In contrast, Traumatic Hemorrhagic Shock fits the historical and medical descriptions well. Shock, in medical terms, describes the effect of blood being unable to deliver oxygen to the body. A possible side effect of Shock is that blood loses its ability to clot correctly. Severe tissue damage can further exacerbate the problem by causing the body to abnormally dissolve existing clots. Clotting can further be impeded by the presence of hypothermia and increased acidity in the blood – known as acidemia. This combination of tissue injury with bleeding, hypothermia, and acidemia is known as the Lethal Triad. All of these conditions are present in the narrative surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion.
Bergeron brings the discussion home by assessing the competing explanations of the resurrection accounts of Jesus. He begins by providing the full accounts from each of the four Gospels. Then he addresses five naturalistic alternatives to the resurrection: the swoon theory (Jesus didn’t die), the disciples made it up, someone stole the body of Jesus, the disciples went to the wrong tomb, and the resurrection accounts were hallucinations.
Bergeron explains how each of these proposals is found wanting. For example, the swoon theory fails because the thought that Jesus could survive crucifixion and convince anyone he had risen from the dead is absurd. While each alternative is addressed, special attention is paid to the hallucination theory. Bergeron points out that hallucinations are always symptoms of an underlying problem, yet appeals to hallucination to dismiss the resurrection never address the question of the underlying pathology of the hallucination. It is here that the theory fails. No credible medical cause of hallucinations satisfactorily accounts for the data in the Gospels regarding the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.
This book takes a holistic approach to the topic of the resurrection, which allows the reader to see the significance of Jesus resurrecting within the religious, historical, and cultural context. But what sets this book apart from most others on the topic is the level of detail Bergeron is able to provide regarding the physiological processes that would have been taking place during the crucifixion of Jesus. This detailed understanding of the medical side of crucifixion further highlights the inadequacies of the naturalistic alternatives to the resurrection. As a result, The Crucifixion of Jesus is a must read for all who are interested in the topic of Jesus’ resurrection.