stories from the wilder side of science


Crucifixion Experiments

Posted on April 14, 2011 at 4:33 PM

No other Christan holiday is linked to more bizarre experiments than Good Friday. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ initiated a long and fierce debate among physicians and clergymen. They were arguing  serious questions like: was Jesus nailed or tied to the cross? Did the nails penetrate the hands or the wrists? Which angle formed the outstretched arms of Jesus? And most importantly: how did Jesus die? As the bible provided little information on these subjects there was only one way to find out, doing experiments!

Crucifixion researchers relied on a steady stream of fresh cadavers and amputated arms and legs. That's probably why most of them had been doctors in hospitals unscrupulous in using for their studies whatever remained on the operation table after surgery. Around 1900 for example Marie Louis Adolphe Donnadieu, professor at the catholic faculty of sciences in Lyon, France, nailed a cadaver of a man on a wooden board (picture at the right) for the sole reason that a seemingly petty question could be answered:  Would the hands  have supported Jesus without the nails tearing through the flesh.

The horrific picture in his book Le Saint Suaire de Turin devant la Science - a body hanging from one arm stitched to the board - was to him the final prove that his opponents have to abstain once and for all from the theory that Jesus was not crucified by putting nails through his hands. The only worry Donnadieu had was, that " the light for the picture didn't offer the best aesthetic conditions."

But if Donnadieu thought the gross demonstration had proven his point beyond any doubt he was mistaken. Some thirty years later another catholic surgeon, Dr. Pierre Barbet, complained about the low quality of Donnadieus cadaver. In his book A Doctor at Calvary Barbet writes about Donnadieus experiment: "The picture shows a pathetic small very skinny emaciated body ... the cadaver I crucified in contrast ...  was totally fresh and smooth" (picture in the middle). The French surgeon also did experiments with "living arms" (meaning: just amputated) he attached weights to in order to prove that the nails were hammered through the wrists and not through the hands. But much more important than this revelation was the insight that the arms formed an angle of 130 degrees which allowed at last for an anatomical correct depiction of Jesus at the cross: the so called Villandre-Cross sculpted by the surgeon Charles Villandre with the help of the information gained by the experiment with Barbets cadaver.

Barbet also determined asphyxiation as the cause of death of Jesus only to be contradicted by the latest and foremost authority in the field of crucifixion, the American pathologist and Medical Examiner Frederick Zugibe.

As crucifying cadavers has come out of fashion lately Zugibe was working with volunteers whom he bound to a DIY cross in his garage measuring critical bodily functions like pulse, blood pressure and respiration (picture at the right). He is convinced that Jesus didn't die from asphyxiation but from traumatic and hypovolemic shock. Finding volunteers by the way was surprisingly easy. Members of a free church nearby were lining up to feel once like Jesus.

Reto U. Schneider is the deputy editor of NZZ Folio and the author of The Mad Science Book.

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