The Swoon Hypothesis

The Swoon Hypothesis is an interesting, if controversial, theory that Jesus did not in fact die on the cross, but was rendered unconscious either by natural means (the stress of his wounds and dehydration) or by drugs administered while on the cross. Shortly after losing consciousness, the theory goes, he was removed from the cross by Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus, who treated his wounds and tended to his needs.

A dispassionate reading of the texts lends some credence to this unusual theory. First and foremost, it is clear that Pontius Pilate sides with Jesus against the priests and repeatedly cajoles him to answer the interrogation in a manner that might quell their wrath. Pilate also recognizes Jesus as a legitimate king, refusing to change the placard reading, “King of the Jews” to “He claimed to be King of the Jews,” at the chief priest’s request.

We also know that while on the cross, Jesus was administered medicated vinegar via a sponge. The gospel states this was vinegar infused with hyssop. If Jesus was indeed administered a drug at any point to render him unconscious, this would have been an opportune moment. Indeed, it is immediately after ingesting this vinegar that he loses consciousness, and apparently dies.

The Jews, at this point, ask that the legs of the crucified prisoners be broken to hasten their death, but seeing Jesus already dead, the centurions spare his legs. Famously, at this point, a Roman soldier spears his side and “blood and water” pour from the wound.


Again, following the swoon theory, this would make sense. If Pilate himself were protecting Jesus, the soldiers might have been under order to spear Jesus non-lethally, and then, possibly, to spear a concealed container or bladder of water to make it look like he bled out. At this point, Joseph of Arimathaea– who, significantly, had spoken to Pilate directly about removing Jesus’ body– and Nicodemus (most likely Nicodemus ben Gorion, one of the richest men in Jerusalem) arrive on the scene, carrying linen, aloe, and myrrh.  As is well known even today, aloe is an herb used to treat wounds, as is myrrh. Linen, of course, could be used to bandage wounds. Joseph quickly secrets Jesus’ body out of sight. This all happens on a Friday evening.

By Sunday Jesus is discovered, alive, by his disciples, and he continues to spend time with them and teach.

My impression is that most proponents of the swoon hypothesis put forth these ideas to somehow prove that Jesus was a charlatan or deceiver. But isn’t it just as plausible that the events of this theory unfolded– if they did indeed unfold in this manner– to save the life of a great teacher, much like Yochanan ben Zakkai faked his own death, and was smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin, only to later establish a Torah academy under the auspices of the Vespian? We are told that Jesus went on to accomplish so much after his resurrection that “if they would all be written, I suppose that even the world itself wouldn’t have room for the books that would be written.”

So we can conclude the following, even if the swoon hypothesis is true.

1) This was not necessarily the act of a charlatan and was necessary to save his life. Even if Pilate had released him, the sanhedrin would have eventually found a way to kill him.

2) Jesus still suffered devastating physical injuries– Thomas touches both the wounds in his hands and side after his resurrection.

3) It would still be nothing short of miraculous to survive torture and crucifixion under these circumstances.

4) Technically speaking, Jesus still would have “risen from the dead.”

The swoon hypothesis adds the interesting ripple of a sympathetic Pilate who, possibly in collusion with his soldiers, protects Jesus’ life. It’s also possible that Jesus’ supporters, including Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus, acted alone, though the text points to cooperation with Pilate.

This theory begs the obvious question: if a drug was administered to feign death, what drug was used? Pufferfish poison (tetraodontidae) is one drug that can cause people to appear dead. I once watched a documentary where a man described being in a morgue after accidentally ingesting pufferfish poison; he’d been declared dead yet was conscious and fully aware of his surroundings, all while completely paralyzed. I have no idea if this chemical would have been available or even known in ancient Palestine. He also could have been administered an opiate; sponges soaked with opium were used as a crude anesthesia during ancient surgery.


Note the sponge over the mouth.

Remember, Jesus is administered the infused vinegar via a sponge.

Faith and analytics don’t always operate hand in hand. So while I might have faith that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, analytically I see pointers in the text indicating something different may have transpired. Does this necessarily tarnish the legacy of Jesus?  In the cheesy, if action packed, “DaVinci Code” film, Professor Langdon and Sophie speculate about the implications of a “human” Jesus who might have had children; would this crush people’s faith, or enforce it? They conclude that a humanized Jesus would, if anything, draw people closer to faith, despite what religious authorities might have us believe.  And of course, in reading about these theories, you’re not obligated to believe any of it; it’s an interesting mental investigation, if nothing else.


 “Woman, why are you weeping?”