A surgeon’s perspective on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ

Late last year, one of our volunteers had the occasion to come upon the newsletter of ‘St Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church’ in Melbourne which included an interesting article dealing with the crucifixion of Christ.

Dr Pierre Barbet
Pierre Barbet

The original text was created by French physician and surgeon Pierre Barbet (1884–1961) and formed part of collection of biblical theories that was compiled into the book ‘A Doctor at Calvary’, first published in 1950.

To help us understand the injury from the nails, Dr Barbet experimented with cadavers. He estimated Christ’s weight to be approximately 160 pounds. But his body sagged with the arms forming an angle of 65 degrees. From the physics of vectors, it can be shown that the force exerted on each nail due to the angle of the arms was some 209 pounds of force per nail. In experiments, Barbet showed that a nail through the palm of the hand, as traditionally depicted, could not support the force. The nail would tear through the skin very quickly, and probably tear off part of the hand in the process. Bearing in mind that the Romans were masters in the ‘art’ of crucifixion; there must have been another point of affixing a body.  Barbet instead goes for the theory that the nails were skilfully hammered through the wrists between the eight carpal bones, thus being supported by the transverse carpal ligament. For the feet, Barbet presumes that these were driven through the second intermetatarsal space. Both sites for the nails would not cause an awful lot of bleeding, so that the condemned would not die too quickly; but the resulting nerve damage would have left Christ in excruciating pain.

As to how Christ died there have been many and varied theories. Some have argued that that the extreme suffering and pain may have resulted in a catastrophic heart attack. It has also been speculated that just such an event may have ruptured the heart muscle with the resulting cause of death due to internal haemorrhage.

Another theory puts the cause of death down to a pulmonary embolus due to blood clots in the lungs.

Barbet’s favoured theory is that Christ died from shock. Certainly any of the forms of shock and their causes could have played out during Christ’s final ordeal – ‘traumatic’ from tissue injury and pain; ‘hypovolemic’ from diminished circulating fluids due to bleeding and dehydration or ‘cardiogenic’ due to a weakness of the heart to continue pumping blood to vital organs.


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