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Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Did Jesus sweat blood?

Under the churchillian title “Blood, Sweat, and Fear” a sanguine little article by J. E. Holoubek made a big splash in the arid annals of The Journal of Medicine (02/1996). It presents seventy-six patients who claimed to have, at least once, sweated blood. The descriptions of these putative stigmatics were channeled into broad categories (disease, exertion, psychogenesis) and filtered further into likely causes. The causes most likely to, um, precipitate the symptoms were acute fear and intense mental contemplation.

This exceedingly rare condition, called hematidrosis, is when blood pressure becomes so high that the subject’s subcutaneous capillaries rupture and leak out the pores and tear ducts.

It sounds like something a Bond villain would have on his résumé, but occurrences have been documented in reputable sources including Leonardo Da Vinci who mentions a knee-knocking soldier who became so fearful before he entered battle that his sweat became mingled with blood. Another case manifested in a man facing imminent execution.

Because of the causes of the condition— intense fear in the face of impending death—there are very few stories involving hematidrosis that have a happy ending.

But I found one.

The UK-based Daily Mail ran an article in December 2013 about nineteen year old Delfina Cadero from the Dominican Republic. This young lady was beset with frequent overstimulation of her adrenal glands, so any anxiety would launch twenty times the regular amount of adrenalin, which had the same effect on her body as a person who was anticipating a pending traumatic death. One irrepressible symptom was tears and sweat imbued with blood.

She once bled so profusely for fifteen days that she nearly died and needed a transfusion. That episode made the local news and a young man, Recaris Avila,  decided to visit her in hospital. When he saw her he remarked, “Wow, you’re beautiful.” The two promptly fell in love and eventually got married. Delfina still suffers from the condition but takes medication to regulate her adrenalin, and finds that in a happy relationship the episodes are far less frequent. Although it certainly puts a lot of pressure on Recaris to be a good husband!

So, did Jesus experience hematidrosis? Maybe.

Only Luke elucidates Christ’s Gethsemane prayer with this detail: “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).

There are three objections to the hypothesis that Jesus actually sweated blood, each in its own genus: theological, syntactic, and textual.

Welcome to the CSI part of a pastor’s sermon prep.

CSIThe theological objection goes something like this: Jesus had no sin and thus was not vulnerable to the curse on sin in the same way we are. He couldn’t catch the flu, get a boil, or become near-sighted, because those are a direct result of God’s curse…ergo he was certainly immune to hematidrosis. (Curiously, this objection overlooks the most obvious effects of the curse that best Jesus: his mortality.)

I believe this reasoning is misguided. In their zeal to prop up the divinity of Christ and its concomitant sinlessness, proponents leave his humanity languishing and anaemic. A robust view of Christ’s humanity is key to understanding his unique qualification to bear our sin as one of us.

Part of being human is that we are physically fragile. If you believe Jesus never got a blister from walking, never had a runny nose, and was impervious to high blood pressure, you have imbibed the gnostic notion that being human is wrong. There is, however, nothing sinful about catching the measles or enduring the rupture of subcutaneous blood vessels. It is part of living on a sin-cursed earth, as Jesus knew better than anyone.

Hebrews 5:2He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.

The argument from syntax is that Luke said his sweat was like great drops of blood, and not his sweat was blood. In what way can sweat be like blood?—in consistency, measure, or color. If Luke had said “like great drops of rain” we’d know he was referring only to the size. It seems reasonable to me that we latch onto color as the most distinct difference between sweat and blood.

Bear in mind that Luke was a physician and would be careful not to make a diagnosis that was completely unknown in his age; indeed, his is the earliest reliable record of the phenomenon. It would be unforgivably anachronistic of us to expect Luke to diagnose the condition as sweating blood. Instead, he carefully relayed what the eye witnesses observed.

No one tested the fluid to confirm it was blood, but they said it was like blood, and so that is what Dr Luke recorded.

The textual conundrum is more knotty, and potentially renders the entire discussion moot. Most Bible versions add a footnote that draws attention to the disconcerting fact that many ancient and reliable manuscripts omit this verse (as well as the previous verse with its angelic cameo).manuscript

Depending on which expert you read you will find those who strongly opt to exclude the verse as an inauthentic addition. They stress that the manuscript families that don’t include it are diverse and numerous, too many to be a coincidence. Other experts sporting equal expertise point out that the likelihood of a scribe adding that extraordinary detail is minuscule, but the probability is much higher that a doctrinally sensitive scribe (i.e. all of them) would be nettled by a verse impugning the preciousness of Christ’s blood and/or divinity.

 

So, what now? First, avoid building any theology on a single verse with spurious credentials. So, instead of using this pericope to make a case for the humanity of Christ, rather draw from a myriad other verses. The extreme fervency of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, and his unwavering commitment to resist temptation can easily be supported by other verses, e.g. Hebrews 5:7 “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death…” And worthy of consideration is Hebrews 12:4In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”

 

And second, remember to lift your head out of the dust of details and look up to the celestial guidance of the big picture. Jesus is fully man and fully God, and he suffered in many ways in order to pay the price of our sins. But he rose on the third day sealing the proof of our salvation.

And that’s what I call a happy ending.