Autopsy of a crucifixion

by Dr David Instone-Brewer

Drawing on his studies in forensic pathology, David Instone-Brewer explores the science of crucifixion.

During my first week at university, my class was taken into a large, cold room of dead bodies. Over the next two years we learned anatomy by dissecting them with scalpels and forceps. Every tiny piece had to be collected for eventual burial out of respect for these individuals and their families, who had donated such a precious gift to science. This practical process taught us how bodies work, how they go wrong and what happens when we die. Some of us learned to become surgeons, pathologists or family physicians, and I gained a sense of wonder, which eventually took me into ministry.

EVIDENCE FOR JESUS’ DEATH

One day, when we reached the heart, a Christian student exclaimed: ‘Look! It’s just like in the Bible.’

People crowded round in curiosity. He pointed to the blood, which had pooled in the heart. It was in two layers: red at the bottom and white at the top. The corpuscles had sedimented after the blood had stopped moving, leaving clear serum at the top.

‘It’s what John saw,’ my fellow student said (now a bit embarrassed by all the attention). ‘It’s the “blood and water” that flowed out separately when the spear penetrated Jesus’ heart.’ (John 19:34).

HIS CORPSE WAS MUTILATED BY A SPEAR AND LEFT TO ROT IN A CAVE

This spear thrust was no doubt meant to kill Jesus, just in case he wasn’t dead. It is unlikely that the author or any of his readers would have realised the significance of the separated watery fluid that he records coming out with the blood. For John, this was theologically important; see his other references to water (for example John 3:5; 4:14; 7:38). He didn’t realise he was furnishing proof that Jesus had been dead long enough for his blood to settle, but not long enough for it to coagulate. This incidental detail provides historical evidence that Jesus was dead…

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Autopsy of a crucifixion | Premier Christianity