Unique among the religions of the world, Christianity boldly attributes its underpinning to a historical event—the resurrection of Jesus—rather than unsubstantiated acceptance. In an early letter written to Christians in Corinth, the apostle Paul ostensibly encourages cross-examination, challenging recipients to assess the veracity of Jesus’ resurrection, while discouraging acceptance of Christianity based upon a fictitious report (1 Corinthians 15:12-20).1 Throughout the discourse, Paul conveys the ramifications of a fabricated resurrection, declaring that without the resurrection there is no basis for Christianity (v.14, 17, 19), the teachings of the apostles are chimerical (v.15), and Christians should be “pitied more than anyone” (v.19).
With the legitimacy of Christianity hinging on the resurrection, opponents routinely challenge the event, attempting to discredit the historicity of the incident, and/or offering alternative explanations. The “swoon theory” is one such explanation, postulating that Jesus survived the crucifixion, and subsequently required mere reviving, not resurrection.2 By carefully examining the swoon theory, this paper will demonstrate its speculative foundation, and confute the hypothesis as a viable alternative to the resurrection account.
The Swoon Theory Fails in Explanatory Power
When examining the swoon theory, we must first assess the explanatory power of the hypothesis (i.e., the ability to account for all the evidence). In asserting that Jesus survived the crucifixion, the swoon theory rejects the death verification of first-hand witnesses (Mark 15:35, 15:37, 15:39-41), Jesus’ Roman executioners (Mark 15:43-45, John 19:32-34), and the undertakers (Mark 15:43-46).3 Should Jesus’ death been falsified, the theory is unable to offer a logical motivation for the Roman government’s involvement in such a grand deception. These executioners were completely detached from Jesus, His followers, and His cause, extensively mocking and beating Him prior to His crucifixion (Mark 15:15-19, Matthew 27:27-31), and employing additional measures to verify His death (John 19:32-34). Furthermore, Pilate was personally concerned with the situation, requesting confirmation of Jesus’ death (Mark 15:44-45). The Roman soldiers responsible for executing Jesus, and authenticating His death, would have unquestionably received the death penalty for failing to discharge their duties.4 It is illogical to assume that these dedicated soldiers would have fabricated Jesus’ death, risking their lives, without motivation or cause.
Ultimately, the swoon theory runs contrary to the oral traditions of the early Church, the testimonies recorded in New Testament documents, and historical literature from non-Christian authors. All of these sources categorically affirm Jesus’ execution, and no ancient evidence exists to support the contrary.5 As a result, proponents of the swoon theory are unable to provide historical evidence in support of the hypothesis, basing their premises exclusively upon conjecture, a selective reading of the historical accounts, and an unwarranted refusal to accept the resurrection account. For these reasons, the swoon theory receives rejection from contemporary historians, New Testament scholars, and Christian theologians. Theologian John McIntyre comments, “Even those scholars and critics who have been moved to depart from almost everything else within the historical context of Christ’s presence on earth have found it impossible to think away the factuality of the death of Christ.”6 Gerd Lüdemann—a New Testament scholar who adamantly denies the orthodox Christian view of the resurrection—reinforces this observation. Lüdemann writes, “The fact of the death of Jesus as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable, despite hypotheses of a pseudo-death or a deception which are sometimes put forward.”7
Moreover, experts within the medical community have comprehensively researched the practice of crucifixion, and sought to analyze Jesus’ crucifixion from a medical perspective. After reviewing the evidence found within the historical record, medical professionals all conclude that Jesus’ crucifixion incontrovertibly resulted in His death.8 Consequently, an investigating team of physicians concludes, “Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted… Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.”9
This explains why advocates of the swoon theory prove unable to provide a single clinical study, or the documented testimony of an expert witness, that affirms the antithesis. In light of these considerations, the swoon theory utterly fails in the category of explanatory power—incontrovertibly denying the historical data, while failing to provide a rational argument for refusing the scholarly consensus.10 Because of its purely speculative foundation, the swoon theory warrants rejection as a viable alternative to the resurrection account.
Swoon Theory Premise: Crucifixion Takes Days, Not Hours
Notwithstanding the swoon theory’s speculative foundation, it is beneficial to examine the fundamental premises of the argument, to determine if there is any validity to the claim. According to the gospel accounts, Jesus’ execution lasted approximately six hours (Mark 15:25, Matthew 27:45-50). Proponents of the swoon theory quickly object, insisting that the process of crucifixion took multiple days, thereby rendering it irrational to maintain that Jesus died within mere hours.11 In attempting to justify this assertion, one critic explains, “When a person was crucified they did not die quickly, but rather a slow painful, morbid death which would have taken two to three days, possibly even a week. Jesus supposedly died within two to three hours.”12 There are multiple problems with this popular objection. First, the author erroneously reduces the expanse of the execution from approximately six hours, to under 180 minutes, apparently to make the statement appear less probable.
Next, the objection commits the fallacy of composition, insinuating that because some crucifixions extended over multiple days, all crucifixions must extend over multiple days. This is an unreasonable assertion, and it fails to account for the criminals crucified alongside Jesus, who expired in relatively the same time (Matthew 27:38, John 19:31-34). Provided enough ancient data existed to formulate a three-day average duration for a crucifixion, the broken legs of the criminals would elucidate their rapid demise.13 Similarly, the torture endured prior to the crucifixion, provides context for Jesus’ expedient execution.
Forensic pathologists and other medical professionals have sought to examine the Roman practices of scourging and crucifixion, in order to assess Jesus’ experience from a medical perspective. While they acknowledge the relatively short-duration of Jesus’ crucifixion is atypical, a holistic review of the evidence is required to determine His physical condition, and evaluate if death was likely to result. By systematically analyzing the synoptic gospels, one can infer that Jesus was in His early-30s, and was in good physical condition, prior to the Last Supper. However, in the wake of His impending capture, maltreatment, and execution, Jesus’ emotional state appears to decline, producing negative physical ramifications.
Jesus’ high-degree of psychological stress manifests in a rare physical condition called hematidrosis—the execration of blood as sweat (Luke 22:44). This phenomenon would result in an enormous fall in vital resistance, while leaving Jesus’ body in anguish, thereby decreasing His ability to tolerate physical abuse.14 Subsequently, Jesus endures sleep deprivation, physical beatings from the Jews (Mark 14:64-65), and scourging at the hands of the Romans (Mark 15:15-19, Matthew 27:27-31). Although specific details of Jesus’ flogging are absent from the record, one can reasonably assess the physical effects of the ordeal by examining the Roman practice of scourging. Roman legislation mandated the vicious procedure prior to crucifixion, intending to inflict maximum punishment, and severely weaken the prisoner before execution.15 In contrast to other nations in the region, Roman law did not limit the extent of flogging, and scourging often rendered a prisoner unconscious (at best) or caused sudden death (at worst).16 Should a prisoner survive, it is reasonable to expect him to suffer severe lacerations, damage to the underlying skeletal muscles, significant blood loss, and hypovolemic shock.17
Jesus exhibits symptoms of hypovolemic shock and exhaustion prior to His execution, proving unable to carry the patibulum (John 19:17, Mark 15:21) and displaying signs of dehydration on the cross (John 19:28). Physician Alexander Metherell comments, “Jesus was in hypovolemic shock as he staggered up the road to the execution site at Calvary, carrying the horizontal beam of the cross… Because of the terrible effects of this beating, there’s no question that Jesus was already in serious to critical condition even before the nails were driven through his hands and feet.”18
After examining the forensic evidence, practitioner Joseph Bergeron determined that trauma-induced coagulopathy was likely a contributing factor—if not the primary mechanism—in Jesus’ death. Trauma-induced coagulopathy is a recognized complication of traumatic shock, and Dr. Bergeron explains, “It is an independent prognostic indicator of poor outcome, having four times the likelihood of fatality when present… In the best of trauma centers, this can be difficult to manage, but in Jesus’ time, this acute coagulopathy would lead to certain rapid death… [This] would explain how Jesus’ death could occur so rapidly, namely 6 h, rather than several days.”19
Jesus’ dire state of physical and psychological health provides the context for Jesus’ expedient execution, rendering the issue of duration irrelevant. Therefore, the short-duration objection proves incapable of discrediting the resurrection narrative, while simultaneously failing to support the swoon theory.
Swoon Theory Premise: The Blood from Jesus’ Side Was a Sign of Life
Undeterred by the overwhelming evidence in support of Jesus’ death, proponents of the swoon theory contest that the blood flowing from Jesus’ side (John 19:34) is proof of life. Abdullah Kareem proposes two conclusions from the incident: 1) “the spear was not thrust into the brain or heart and so was not necessarily immediately life-threatening,” and 2) “the flow of blood would seem to indicate that Jesus was still alive.”20 The context of this incident is a vital aspect when analyzing Kareem’s initial conclusion. First, Jesus was already pronounced dead (John 19:33), which is why His legs were not broken as the criminals’ were. Second, the Roman soldier—and individual proficiently trained in administering a fatal blow to an enemy— undisputedly intended to exclude the possibility of a swooned Jesus, executing a spear thrust as a means of substantiating Jesus’ death.
The second conclusion assumes that blood cannot flow from a corpse, presuming an instantaneous coagulation of the blood within the deceased. However, Dr. Bergeron explains,
A pleural effusion, unless it is loculated, settles according to gravity. In a crucifixion victim, this would be in the anterior inferior aspect of the chest cavity. A pleural effusion could have arisen from heart failure or perhaps from his beatings and blunt trauma to the chest wall. A spear entering the chest would first tap a pleural effusion, if present, having the appearance of water. Next, it would most likely enter the right atrium causing blood to appear. This would cause immediate death by cardiac rupture [had Jesus remained alive to this point]… [Therefore,] the observation of blood flow from Jesus’ chest wound does not mandate the conclusion that he was alive at that moment.21
Dr. Metherdell agrees with Bergeron’s diagnosis, stating, “The spear apparently went through the right lung and into the heart, so when the spear was pulled out, some fluid—the pericardial effusion and the pleural effusion—came out…followed by a large volume of blood… John’s description is consistent with what modern medicine would expect to have happened.”22
After considering the evidence within its proper context, it is evident that the Roman soldier’s intention was to execute a fatal blow, purposing to eliminate the possibility of a merely unconscious prisoner. Moreover, practicing physicians adamantly deny the proposition that the blood flowing from Jesus’ chest is indicative of life, and insist the details of the historical record correspond with the contemporary understanding within the medical community. Consequently, proponents remain unable to provide an evidentiary basis for their assertions, effectively eliminating consideration of the theory as a viable alternative to the resurrection account.
Swoon Theory Premise: Historical Documents Record Crucifixion Survivors
A common argument levied in support of the swoon theory is that there are historical accounts of prisoners surviving crucifixion, implying that Jesus could have likewise survived His sentence. Proponents attempt to validate this claim from an account of Josephus, who writes,
I was sent by Titus Caesar with Cerealius, and a thousand horsemen, to a certain village called Thecoa…[where] I saw many captives crucified; and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician’s hands, while the third recovered.23
This remains the only documented case of a prisoner surviving crucifixion in the ancient world and illustrates a rare exception, rather than a standard.24
To accept this argument as valid, one must completely disregard the historical evidence associated with Jesus’ crucifixion, extending the ideal conditions of this rare exception to Jesus’ situation. Moreover, the argument completely overlooks pertinent details of Josephus’ account—mainly that two of the three exonerated prisoners died, despite receiving the best medical care available. Contrarily, Jesus received no medical care, nor absolution; rather He received a fatal spear thrust, as a means of guaranteeing a successful execution. Therefore, the single recorded instance of an exonerated prisoner surviving crucifixion, fails in providing a correlation to the execution of Jesus, and remains incapable of rendering foundational support for the swoon theory.
Additional Consideration: Was Jesus Drugged?
Another speculative assertion used in justifying the swoon theory involves the notion that Jesus entered a drug-induced state of unconsciousness, rather than expiring on the cross. The explanation is as follows, “While on the cross, Jesus complained that he was thirsty. A sponge soaked in vinegar was placed on the end of a long reed and held up to him. But far from reviving Jesus, the drink from this sponge apparently caused him to die. This is a curious reaction and suggests that the sponge was soaked not in vinegar, a substance that would have revived Jesus, but rather in something that would have caused him to lose consciousness—some sort of drug, for example.”25
The assertion implies a conspiracy, while inherently assuming: 1) Jesus received medication, and 2) the medication was capable of producing an instantaneous state of unconsciousness. First, there is no evidence to suggest Jesus received medication at any point before, or during, His scourging and subsequent execution. The historical record specifies the substance given to Jesus was sour wine (or vinegar) and describes its container as being present at the execution site (John 19:29). Given the circumstances, scholars believe this substance is posca, a popular drink in ancient Rome (typically consisting of water, vinegar, and beaten eggs), and routinely left for legionaries on duty.26 Therefore, it is purely speculative—and unreasonable—to designate this substance as an ancient anesthetic.
Second, ancient medications prove extremely mild in comparison to the anesthetics and narcotics used in modern medical treatment, proving incapable of producing the proposed effect. In early centuries, doctors utilized Mandragora Officinarum (mandrake) to alleviate pain and induce sleep during medical procedures.27 However, administering such medication would produce adverse effects to Jesus’ already dire physical condition. Forensic pathologist Frederick Zugibe explains,
The amount and degree of pain would have rendered Jesus’ body immune to the sedative effects of the mandrake. High doses of the mandrake preparation would have nullified the sedative effects, increased the degree of restlessness and confusion, and could easily have been lethal considering the degree of shock Jesus was experiencing… instead of alleviating His pains and /or placing Him into a coma or deep sleep, it would have hastened His death.28
Not only were ancient sedatives likely to complicate Jesus’ condition, there are no known medications/drugs of the period, which would have alleviated Jesus’ excruciating pain, or were capable of rendering Him unconscious in His condition.29
Moreover, this theory completely disregards the subsequent spear thrust administered by the Roman soldier. Had medication proven effective in rendering Jesus unconscious, the spear thrust would have undeniably resulted in Jesus’ demise. Therefore, the assertion that Jesus entered a drug-induced state of unconsciousness is irrational, as it disregards historical evidence and medical findings, and fails to provide a viable alternative to the resurrection narrative.
Upon conducting a brief examination of the swoon theory, one must conclude the hypothesis rests upon a foundation of pure speculation, while blatantly ignoring historical evidence, and medical research findings. As a result, the hypothesis runs contrary to the collective understanding within every applicable field of contemporary scholarship—receiving rejection from secular historians, medical experts, New Testament scholars, and theologians. While detractors may be uncomfortable with the theological ramifications of Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection, it remains completely unreasonable to assert that Jesus survived the crucifixion. In light of these considerations, the swoon theory requires rejection as a viable alternative to the resurrection account.
- All Scriptural references utilize the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) unless stated otherwise.
- This view is thoroughly conveyed in “Did Jesus Die?” (Television Documentary), The British Broadcasting Corporation, accessed April 13, 2016, https://youtu.be/qbe3Bw72G-4.
- This paper assumes the reliability of the gospel accounts. For a detailed explanation of this position, see Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Illinois: IVP Academic, 2010); Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Illinois: IVP Academic, 2007); and Mark D. Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (Illinois: Crossway, 2007).
- Codex Justinianus 9.4.4 specifies that in the event of prisoner escape, the individual(s) responsible for the prisoner’s custody shall be condemned to the same penalty to which the prisoner who escaped was liable.
- Oral traditions pertaining to Jesus’ death and resurrection are recorded in the New Testament; see 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, and Romans 1:3-4. These events are also recorded in the canonical gospels and throughout the New Testament; see Acts 13:28-31, Mark 15-16, Matthew 27:26-28:20, Luke 23:23-56, and John 19. Historical documents written by non-Christian writers also affirm Jesus’ death; see Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals and History of Tacitus: A New Literal English Version (London: D.A. Talboys, 1839), 363. Additional information pertaining to ancient evidence for the Jesus’ death and resurrection is found in Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, 303-318.
- John McIntyre, “The Uses of History in Theology.” Studies in World Christianity 7, no. 1 (2001): 8.
- Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection, trans. John Bowden (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 17.
- Without a corpse to conduct an autopsy, medical experts cannot prove the specific mechanism of Jesus’ death. Based upon the medical evidence provided in the historical accounts, forensic pathologists are capable of concluding that Jesus died by crucifixion, identifying numerous contributing factors and generating hypotheses pertaining to the primary mechanism of Jesus’ death.
- William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” The Journal of the American Medical Association 255, no. 11 (1986): 1463.
- Since the swoon theory severely lacks scholarly support, this paper will rely upon arguments and counterarguments originating from popular sources. This is an unfortunate consequence of media propagation, devoid of evidentiary basis.
- “Short Duration: Death by Crucifixion Takes Days,” The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, accessed April 13, 2016, http://www.alislam.org/topics/jesus/.
- “The Crucifixion Was A Fraud,” The Truths Behind Religion, accessed April 13, 2016, http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/biblianazar/esp_biblianazar_20.htm.
- John 19:31-32, records the Roman soldiers broke the legs of the criminals to expedite the execution. The practice of crucifracture purportedly results in asphyxic death within minutes, according to Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” 1461.
- Pierre Barbet, A Doctor at Calvary, trans. The Earl of Wicklow (New York: Image Books, 1963), 75.
- Roman legislation provided an exception for women, Roman senators, and Roman soldiers (except in cases of desertion); see F.P. Retief and L. Cilliers, “The History and Pathology of Crucifixion,” The South African Medical Journal 96, no. 12 (2003): 939.
- Retief and Cilliers, “The History and Pathology of Crucifixion,” 940.
- Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” 1457.
- Quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Michigan: Zondervan, 1998), 210; emphasis added.
- Joseph W. Bergeron, “The crucifixion of Jesus: Review of hypothesized mechanisms of death and implications of shock and trauma-induced coagulopathy,” The Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine 19, no. 3 (2012): 115-116.
- Abdullah Kareem, “Jesus Survived the Cross,” Answering-Christianity, accessed April 13, 2016, http://www.answering-christianity.com/abdullah_smith/jesus_survived_cross.htm.
- Bergeron, “The crucifixion of Jesus: Review of hypothesized mechanisms of death and implications of shock and trauma-induced coagulopathy,” 115.
- Quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Michigan: Zondervan, 1998), 214.
- Flavius Josephus, The Works of Josephus: New Updated Edition, trans. William Whiston (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987), 25.
- Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, 311.
- “Could Jesus Have Survived the Crucifixion?” Beliefnet, accessed April 13, 2016, http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Christianity/2006/04/Could-Jesus-Have-Survived-The-Crucifixion.aspx.
- Pierre Barbet, A Doctor at Calvary, 78.
- Elie J. Chidiac, Romeo N. Kaddoum, and Samir F. Fuleihan, “Mandragora: Anesthetic of the Ancients,” Anesthesia & Analgesia 115, no. 6 (2012): 1437-1441.
- Zugibe, Frederick T. The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 2005, 161.