Herald JournalHerald Journal, March 21, 2005

Area surgeon looks at crucifixion from medical perspective

By Heidi Stutelberg and Lynda Jensen

Long before the release of “The Passion of the Christ,” Glencoe surgeon John Bergseng studied the cause of physical death of Jesus Christ, and created a presentation “The Medical Aspects of the Crucifixion.”

In his presentation, Bergseng gives a medical account of the crucifixion, based on three decades of research and documentation.

A perfected form of torture

Crucifixion was perfected by the Romans as a form of capital punishment, designed to produce a slow death with the maximum amount of pain and suffering.

“It is one of the most disgraceful and cruel methods of execution,” Bergseng said. It was generally reserved by the Roman government for slaves, foreigners, and political insurrectionists, and the vilest of criminals.

Flogging was legally the preliminary to any Roman execution.

“It is intended to weaken the victim to a state short of death,” he said.

This leads to shock, or in medical terms, orthostatic hypotension/hypovolemic shock, Bergseng said.

The condemned would usually carry the top crossbar, weighing between 75 and 125 pounds, to the place of execution.

In order to be nailed to the cross, five- to seven-inch spikes were driven between the two bones of the wrist and between the first and second metatarsal joints of the foot.

The foot nails would injure the deep peroneal nerves and branches of medial and lateral plantar nerves, he said.

A bitter drink of wine mixed with myrrh (gall) was given to the person as a mild analgesic.

At times, soldiers could hasten death by breaking bones in the legs below the knees – called crucifracture – which would lead to death by asphyxia within minutes.

“The length of survival is from three to four hours, to three to four days, depending on the severity of scourging,” Bergseng said.

Corpses of the condemned would traditionally be left on the cross to be devoured by predatory animals, such as insects and birds of prey.

However, by Roman law, the family of the executed could take the body for burial after obtaining permission from a Roman judge.

The body was not released to the family until the soldiers were sure of the death of the executed, Bergseng said.

Bergseng’s work

Bergseng’s research grew from another doctor’s research nearly 30 years ago, while attending chiropractic school.

Whenever he had free time, he would research the subject until eventually assembling a Powerpoint presentation.

Bergseng has been especially busy since the film “The Passion of the Christ” came to theaters.

“It reinforced everything I had been learning. It perfectly tied in with the talk,” said Bergseng.

Utilizing scenes from the film, Bergseng is able to illustrate the suffering of Christ in a medical sense.

Bergseng has spoken at various local group meetings and churches in the area.

If interested in attending one of his presentations or to schedule one, contact Bergseng at (320) 864-6440.

Painful, to the last breath

The fact that Jesus Christ spoke seven times from the cross in short, terse utterances must have been particularly painful, Dr. John Bergseng noted, since speaking would have been difficult in the condition Christ was in.

Exhaling was probably the worst, since it required Christ to lift His body by pushing on his feet, flexing His elbows, and adducting His shoulders; spreading more pain into His ankles, wrists, and back. With each breath, His scourge wounds would scrape against the cross.

Eventually, each respiration would become more agonizing and tiring, leading to death by asphyxia (associated with suffocation).

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