The Agony of Gethsemane

By Wayne Jackson

As Jesus prayed on the mount of Olives, “his sweat became as it were great drops of blood falling down upon the ground” (Lk. 22:44). Did blood actually come from the Lord’s skin, or is the language merely a figure of speech emphasizing the Savior’s agony? The only New Testament writer to mention this phenomenon is Luke, a physician (Col. 4:14).

There are two matters worthy of note. First, what does the grammar actually say, or imply? Second, what is the nature of the medical evidence that may pertain to this situation?

Initially, let us look at the grammar.

Grammar of the Text

The expression that contains the point of controversy is “as it were.” Actually, there is but a solitary Greek word by which the phrase has been rendered into English.

The original says: “his sweat became as hosei great drops [thromboi—clots] of blood.” The term hosei is an adverb which normally expresses a comparison. That does not mean, however, that its usage always demands a circumstance that is void of actuality.

For example, at his baptism, the Gospel writers declare that Christ saw “the Spirit of God descending as a dove” (see Mt. 3:16; cf. Mk. 1:10; Jn. 1:32). Though the writers suggest that the Spirit came down “as a dove,” it is clear, especially from Luke’s account, that an actual dove appeared. He says that “the Holy Spirit descended in a bodily form, as a dove, upon him” (3:22). The grammar does not, therefore, absolutely exclude the idea that Jesus literally sweated blood.

Scholars are divided concerning the significance of Luke’s language in this text. Many allege that only a simile is involved. A recent writer notes: “The sweating was apparently so profuse that it looked like blood dripping from a wound” (Liefeld, 1032).

Some are rather adamant regarding this view. Geldenhuys, quoting Zahn, declares:

“As Luke, by the use of hosei, says plainly enough that he is using a simile, and is speaking neither of a change of sweat into drops of blood nor of a mixture of sweat with blood, his meaning cannot be that in these words he is describing something physically miraculous” (577).

A “miracle” is not alleged by those who contend for actual blood.

In contrast, Godet says:

“The words, as it were drops, express more than a simple comparison between the density of the sweat and that of blood. The words denote that the sweat itself resembled blood. Phenomena of frequent occurrence demonstrate how immediately the blood, the seat of life, is under the empire of moral impressions. Does not a feeling of shame cause the blood to rise to the face?” (quoted by Oesterley, 215).

Alford thinks that the figurative approach nullifies the force of the sentence (432).

Historical and Medical Evidence

But what about historical and medical evidence?

The fact is, the concept of blood mingled with sweat is not unique to the New Testament. Aristotle, in his Parts of Animals (iii.5), alluded to “bloody sweat.”

Galen, the famous Greek physician of the second century, spoke of the situation where “the pores are so vastly dilated by a copious and fervent spirit, that even blood issues through them and constitutes a bloody sweat” (quoted by Martin, 686).

In 1874, William Stroud, a London physician, authored a book titled The Physical Cause of the Death of Christ. Therein the doctor argued that bloody sweat is indeed possible under extreme emotional exertion, especially in cases of anxiety and terror. Dr. Stroud, who had the reputation of being a “careful writer,” cited a number of cases to illustrate his thesis (see McClintock, 838).

In 1986, an article titled, On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ, appeared in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association. It was authored by Dr. William Edwards (a pathologist with the Mayo Clinic), Wesley Gabel, a biblical scholar, and Floyd Hosmer, a specialist in medical graphics at the Mayo Clinic.

These gentlemen suggested that Luke’s description of the agonizing event is perfectly consistent with a condition known as “hematidrosis,” in which there can be hemorrhaging into the sweat ducts during periods of acute emotional distress. In such cases, the skin becomes fragile and tender, and subcutaneous capillaries can dilate to such an extent that they burst, causing blood to ooze from the skin (Edwards, et al.).

Conclusion

Did Jesus, then, actually sweat blood in those dark hours? One may have to conclude that the language is a bit too ambiguous to reach a dogmatic conclusion. The grammatical format seems to allow that view, and medical evidence supports the possibility. More than this we probably should not say.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Alford, Henry. n.d. The New Testament for English Readers. Chicago, IL: Moody.
  • Edwards, William, Gabel, Wesley, & Hosmer, Floyd. 1986. Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 255, March 21.
  • Geldenhuys, Norval. 1951. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Liefeld, Walter. 1984. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol. IIX. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
  • Martin, G. Currie. 1909. Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels. Vol. II. J. Hasting, ed. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
  • McClintock, John & Strong, James. 1968. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Ecclesiastical, and Theological Literature. Vol. I. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Oesterley, W. O. E. 1906. Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels Vol. I. J. Hastings, ed. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.