For me it was in the garden
He prayed, ‘Not My will, but Thine.’
He had no tears for His own griefs,
But sweat drops of blood for mine.
- Charles H. Gabriel, “I Stand Amazed in the Presence”
Our series, “The Death of Jesus,” continues with the phenomenon of bloody sweat. In our last post, we argued that the multiple, independent attestation of Jesus’ sufferings and death argues for authenticity. Specifically, we noted that:
1. Jesus’ execution is referenced in all four gospels.
2. Jesus’ execution is referenced in the earliest writings of the church.
3. Jesus’ execution is referenced in extra-biblical, non-Christian sources.
In the next several posts, we will contend that the description we have in Scripture of Jesus’ physical sufferings is historically, medically, geographically, and archaeologically credible, which also argues for authenticity. Our first consideration will be what happened to Jesus moments before he was arrested.
Jesus’ ordeal begins in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives (Matt 26:36-46 || Mark 14:32-42 || Luke 22:39-46 || John 18:1-3). Anticipating the physical and spiritual trauma that lay ahead, Jesus describes himself as being “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” and he asks his disciples to pray with him.
Luke, a physician, adds the intriguing detail that, being in anguish, Jesus “prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” Such anxiety and distress accord with Jesus’ foreknowledge of the coming crucifixion and all the horrors that attend to it.
While the authenticity of the material unique to Luke has been questioned, it shows up, quite significantly, in the earliest manuscripts of the Church Fathers. The main question, then, is what is meant by the expression “like drops [literally, clots] of blood falling to the ground”? Four possibilities emerge:
1. It was meant to be a figure of speech, like our “tears of blood.”
2. It was meant to suggest that the sweat was falling like drops of blood.
3. It was meant to suggest that the sweat appeared to be the color of blood.
4. It was meant to convey that Jesus was actually sweating blood.
Since Luke was a physician, his attention to this detail may intend to signal a physiological reality that was out of the ordinary. For sweat to fall to the ground “like clots of blood” suggests an anomaly in the sweat itself. In fact, the fourth possibility listed above would encompass both the falling of the second and the color of the third. Since the medical condition of bloody sweat is rare, and likely unnamed by the 1st century, the use of a simile to convey the actuality would be understandable.
The condition of “bloody sweat” is variously known as hematidrosis, chromathidrosis, chromidrosis, and chromocrine. 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 cases of stress (Sutton, 1956).
During the end of the 20th century, 76 cases of hematidrosis were studied and classified according to causative factors (Holoubek and Holoubek, 1996). Acute fear and intense mental contemplation were the most frequent causes. While the extent of blood loss is minimal in this condition, hematidrosis also results in the skin becoming extremely tender and fragile (Barbet, 1953), which would have made Christ’s subsequent injuries even more painful.
“It seems that . . . under varying influences of ill health and of strong emotions, a real escape of blood from the skin may and does occasionally take place, and that ‘sweating as it were great drops of blood’ in our Lord’s case was a real though unusual phenomenon due to intense emotion” (Keen, 1897).
The Garden of Gethsemane is located on the Mount of Olives just east of the temple mount in Jerusalem and can be visited today. The agony of Jesus prior to his arrest took place in a real and established location.
A Final Thought
If Luke intends to convey more than a simile here (i.e., that Jesus experienced hematidrosis in Gethsemane), then it may be theologically significant that the first blood shed by Christ in his Passion was not drawn by human hands (cf. Gen 3:21). He bled freely of his own accord before placing himself into the hands of his captors. In other words, he had already given what his tormentors would claim they had taken.
Image Credits: The Passion of the Christ, Icon Productions; The ESSENTIAL Guide to Israel