“And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:44)
This statement is part of verses 41-44. Do you believe Jesus sweated “great drops of blood”? Do you think it too strange to comment on? Or, do you just ignore it as a fable or a poetic line not meant to be taken literally?
At the time, Jesus was in a grave situation; He was “in an agony” and His prayer took on an even deeper and more intense character (“more earnestly”). Even so, how can anyone sweat blood? Surely it must be a delusion?
Last night, I was reminded of this text. A TV presenter was talking with a WW2 veteran. As they stood on a beach in northern France, the old man spoke of his part in saving thousands of soldiers during the great evacuation at Dunkirk. He and other soldiers were rowing a large boat full of evacuees, and one of them asked if he had been shot, because blood was all over his hands. The man said he took off his tunic but felt and saw no wounds. Yet, his arms were covered in blood! He had been sweating profusely, as was his friend… whose arms were also covered in sweat and blood. Between them they experienced outright fear as German fighter ‘planes dive-bombed and strafed the beaches and water.
In other words, blood mingled with sweat is a known phenomenon.
In the Luke text, ‘sweat’, hidrōs, means – sweat. The term “as it were”, hōsei, is the equivalent of ‘like’. “great drops”, thrombos, is significant, because it tells us this was an actual observation, a fact. It means the sweat fell as thick drops (as in clotted blood). Sweat alone is not like this; the sweat was mingled with “blood”, hence the thicker consistency. Etymologically, it is similar to trepho – to curdle. “blood”, haima, means actual blood.
I know some will say this was a poetic way to describe Jesus’ inner agony at a time of great stress. But, why? The mixing of sweat and blood, though rare, is a medical/physiological phenomenon!
A network of blood capillaries (very small blood vessels) can be found around each sweat gland. When a person is undergoing immense stress the blood vessels constrict. Then, when the stress lessens the vessels dilate, and can rupture; the blood then enters the sweat glands – and sweat mingled with blood results. The medical name for this is ‘hematohidrosis’, and though rare it is well-known.
When mixed with sweat the redness of blood ‘dilutes’ in part and still retains its blood-like character. In Jesus, the blood loss must have been greater, so dropping large globules of blood; otherwise, as with the soldier at Dunkirk, there would merely have been ‘sweaty blood’, thinner, with no large clots. (Tshifularo, M. (2014). “Blood otorrhea: blood stained sweaty ear discharges: hematohidrosis; four case series (2001-2013).”. American Journal of Otolaryngology. 35 (2): 271–3. doi:10.1016/j.amjoto.2013.09.006. PMID 24315735).
When this rare condition occurs, blood usually emits from the forehead, nails, umbilicus (belly button), and general skin surfaces. However, it can also be found as nosebleeds, in tears, and certain forms of menstruation. Very often an intense headache precedes the bleeding (Jesus was in intense agony – so it is possible the agony was caused by a pain similar to acute migraine). Scientific study of the condition has not found anything abnormal in the blood vessels.
We can assume from reports, that Roman Catholics who experience this kind of bleeding must know intense inner stress connected to religious ecstasy. More interestingly, in 2015 a case of haematohidrosis was studied in a person with epilepsy (Shen, H., Wang, Z., Wu, T., Wang, J.; Ren, C.; Chen, H., Yu, Z., Don, W. . Haematohidrosis associated with epilepsy in a girl successfully Treated with oxcarbazepine: Case report. Journal of International Medical 43 : 263-269). It is interesting because many Catholics who experience this blood-ooze also supposedly ‘see’ visions, angels, Christ, etc. Such visual disturbances are common in certain types of epilepsy.
Whilst stress or fear can possibly produce this rare blood activity, such a cause is by no means a fixed medical fact. On the other hand, we can say that though Jesus suffered distress, it cannot be equated to human anxiety, but to His knowledge of what was about to happen – NOT the pain of torture or death, but the weight upon Him of all the sins of the elect and what it did to His relationship with the Father. The only Apostle to write about this phenomenon was a physician, hence his interest.
An article in the Indian Journal of Dermatology (2013 Nov-Dec; 58: 478–480. doi: 10.4103/0019-5154.119964), satisfies me better than some explanations. It refers to “intense mental contemplation” as a possible cause. The Indian studies found that the discolored sweat was less viscose than blood itself (i.e. it was diluted by the perspiration). This is what makes Jesus’ incident more profound, for His sweat did not appear to dilute the blood, which, instead, fell to the ground as large clots.
There is no reason for Christians to dispute scriptural statements, for all supposed ‘contradictions’ proclaimed by atheistic critics are based on their assumptions and not on facts. Apart from this scripture is the word of God, so there cannot be contradictions. Increasingly, known scientific data confirms scriptural texts – so why be afraid of unbelief?