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Medical Journal Article Causes Stir

June 20, 1986
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Several leaders of Jewish and Catholic organizations and scores of other readers have attacked an article on the physical causes of the death of Jesus published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), saying the authors perpetuate versions of the death of Jesus which are the source of much modern Christian anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism.

The critical letters condemn the authors for their historical rather than their medical analyses and claim that the article treats the gospels’ accounts of the crucifixion as literal and historical fact. But actually, there is much controversy over and inconsistency in these accounts, the letters said.

The nine-page Journal article gives a synopsis of the events leading up to the crucifixion. One critic called this synopsis a “conflation” of four conflicting and “disparate texts.”


The main body of the article details Jesus’ gruesome physical tortures as described in these accounts with particular attention to the flogging and crucifixion. The article was part of a series on torture but that was not indicated anywhere in the article.

The authors then offer different explanations of medical effects of these types of injuries and back up their findings with evidence from archaeological discoveries. The article also includes illustrations (done by a medical artist) of cross-sections of wrists and feet with metal spikes driven through and explanations of these injuries.

The authors claims to offer “a modern medical interpretation of the historical evidence” to show that Jesus was in fact dead when taken down from the cross.


“Accordingly, it is our intent to present not a theological treatise but rather a medically and historically accurate account of the physical death of the one called Jesus Christ,” the article said.

The critics challenge the historical accuracy of these accounts. But the authors give the following guarantee: “Using the legal-historical method of scientific investigation, scholars have established the reliability and accuracy of the ancient manuscripts.”

The sources cited in the article are identified as ancient Christian and non-Christian writings and modern works as well as the Shroud of Turin.

But Rabbi James Rudin, American Jewish committee director of interreligious affairs, and Eugene Fisher, executive secretary of the Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations, who sent letters to JAMA, claimed the article completely ignores modern scholarship on the New Testament.


In a June 12 editorial response to reactions to the article, JAMA editor George Lundberg wrote that the Journal received “a deluge of letters” on this article. Lundberg told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the majority of the letters were critical, but that many also praised “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.”

The journal devoted equal space, nine pages, to publishing these letters in a later issue, Lundberg said. Although the editors knew the article would raise controversial religious issues, Lundberg insisted that it had “nothing to do with religion.” The article was presented as the first of a series on torture to give an example of state-sponsored torture practiced by different groups historically, Lundberg said.

“The article was an account of perhaps the most influential single event of torture in history with physiologically sound analysis showing the horrifying pain of a common ancient Roman punishment,” Lundberg wrote in the editorial. Lundberg also said the authors and editors had no anti-Semitic intent.


But these two organizations took issue particularly with the accounts of the Jewish trials and the interpretation presented in the JAMA article which holds that the Jews “persistently demanded crucifixion” for Jesus.

The letters say that disputed ideas are presented as fact in the article such as the account of a trial by the Sanhedrin, Jesus’ conviction for blasphemy and the role of Pontius Pilate. These aspects “are highly questionable as historical events, but tell us much about their authors’ theological perspectives,” Fisher wrote in the letter.

Fisher contends that the gospels “whitewashed” the historical figure of Pontius Pilate and placed more blame for Jesus’ death on the Jews. But the JAMA article presents an account of Pilate simply acceding to the Jews’ demands to crucify Christ and presents the idea of collective Jewish guilt for the crucifixion.

The AJC letter said “Serious scholars have long ago laid these untruths to rest. By giving them the dignity of a ‘scientific’ presentation in JAMA, you have dealt a body blow to years of painstaking Jewish-Christian dialogue and reconciliation.”


The letter goes on to say that this type of interpretation of the Passion story has been traditionally a source of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism.

“Most major denominations and all responsible scholars strive to take care in the presentation of the gospel story in order to avoid fanning the flames of anti-Judaism anew,” the AJC letter said. “One sure way of fanning those flames is to engage in a pop-historiography which is innocent of all critical method, demonstrated by (the) authors. . . “

The authors of “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ” which appeared in the March 26 issue, include Pastor Wesley Gabel of the Homestead United Methodist Church in Bethel, Minn.; and William Edwards, pathologist at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. The illustrator was Floyd Hosmer, from the Medical Graphics Department of the Mayo Clinic.

The AJC letter charges the authors with following the lead “not of academic scholars but of fundamentalist writers who eschew scientific methods of textual analysis.”

Fisher said of the article, “While perhaps of interest medically, your readers should know that the picture it paints of the historical events surrounding Jesus’ death is, from the historical point of view, far from certain. Indeed, the article appears to ignore the results of most modern biblical and historical scholarship.”

Rabbi Rudin of the AJC told JTA that the article received more credibility than it deserved by appearing in the country’s leading medical journal. “This is a misuse of JAMA’s credibility in this area,” Rudin said. “It is so out of character for a clinical, scientific journal.”

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