Did Jesus Sweat Blood?
The observant viewer of Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, will note that in the garden scene, one manifestation of the agony of Jesus was the tiny blotches of blood that surfaced on His facial skin. This feature of Christ’s suffering is alluded to by Luke, the author of the New Testament books of Luke and Acts, who himself, by profession, was a physician. His writings manifest an intimate acquaintance with the technical language of the Greek medical schools of Asia Minor.
Of the four gospel writers, only Dr. Luke referred to Jesus’ ordeal as “agony” (agonia). It is because of this agony over things to come that we learn during His prayer “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Only Luke referred to Jesus’ sweat (idros)—a much-used term in medical language. And only Luke referred to Jesus’ sweat as consisting of great drops of blood (thromboi haimatos)—a medical condition alluded to by both Aristotle and Theophrastus (Hobart, 1882, pp. 80-84). The Greek term thromboi (from which we get thrombus, thrombin, et al.) refers to clots of blood (Nicoll, n.d., 1:631; Vincent, 1887, 1:425). Bible scholar Richard Lenski commented on the use of this term: “ ‘As clots,’ thromboi, means that the blood mingled with the sweat and thickened the globules so that they fell to the ground in little clots and did not merely stain the skin” (1961, p. 1077).
The Greek word hosei (“as it were”) refers to condition, not comparison, as Greek scholar Henry Alford observed:
The intention of the Evangelist seems clearly to be, to convey the idea that the sweat was (not fell like, but was) like drops of blood;—i.e., coloured with blood,—for so I understand the hosei, as just distinguishing the drops highly coloured with blood, from pure blood…. To suppose that it only fell like drops of blood (why not drops of any thing else? And drops of blood from what, and where?) is to nullify the force of the sentence, and make the insertion of haimatos not only superfluous but absurd (1874, 1:648, italics and parenthetical items in orig.; cf. Robertson, 1934, p. 1140).
We can conclude quite justifiably that the terminology used by the gospel writer to refer to the severe mental distress experienced by Jesus was intended to taken literally—i.e., that the sweat of Jesus became bloody (cf. Robertson, 1930, 2:272).
A thorough search of the medical literature demonstrates that such a condition, while admittedly rare, does occur in humans. Commonly referred to as hematidrosis or hemohidrosis (Allen, 1967, pp. 745-747), this condition results in the excretion of blood or blood pigment in the sweat. Under conditions of great emotional stress, tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can rupture (Lumpkin, 1978), thus mixing blood with perspiration. This condition has been reported in extreme instances of stress (see Sutton, 1956, pp. 1393-1394). During the waning years of the twentieth century, 76 cases of hematidrosis were studied and classified into categories according to causative factors: “Acute fear and intense mental contemplation were found to be the most frequent inciting causes” (Holoubek and Holoubek, 1996). While the extent of blood loss generally is minimal, hematidrosis also results in the skin becoming extremely tender and fragile (Barbet, 1953, pp. 74-75; Lumpkin, 1978), which would have made Christ’s pending physical insults even more painful.
From these factors, it is evident that even before Jesus endured the torture of the cross, He suffered far beyond what most of us will ever suffer. His penetrating awareness of the heinous nature of sin, its destructive and deadly effects, the sorrow and heartache that it inflicts, and the extreme measure necessary to deal with it, make the passion of Christ beyond all comprehension.
Alford, Henry (1874), Alford’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980 reprint).
Allen, A.C. (1967), The Skin: A Clinicopathological Treatise (New York: Grune and Stratton), second edition.
Barbet, P. (1953), A Doctor at Calvary: The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ as Described by a Surgeon (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image Books).
Hobart, William K. (1882), The Medical Language of St. Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1954 reprint).
Holoubek, J.E. and A.B. Holoubek (1996), “Blood, Sweat, and Fear. ‘A Classification of Hematidrosis,’ ” Journal of Medicine, 27[3-4]:115-33.
Lenski, R.C.H. (1961), The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).
Lumpkin, R. (1978), “The Physical Suffering of Christ,” Journal of Medical Association of Alabama, 47:8-10.
Nicoll, W. Robertson, ed. (no date), The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Robertson, A.T. (1930), Word Pictures in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Robertson, A.T. (1934), A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville, TN: Broadman).
Sutton, R.L. Jr. (1956), Diseases of the Skin (St. Louis, MO: Mosby College Publishing), eleventh edition.
Vincent, M.R. (1887), Word Studies in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1946 reprint).