Did Jesus really sweat blood?

All around the world there are billions of people journeying through Holy Week and contemplating on the death of Jesus. Being written, performed, and watched are tens of thousands of local depictions, plays, films, characterizations and songs. One image that is often found in these depictions is that of Jesus having sweat like small beads of blood.

This is indeed found in most contemporary English bibles (in some there are tiny little asterisks and footnotes).  The passage in question is:

“And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.” (Luke 22:43-44)

This is indicated only in Luke’s Gospel, and not included in Mark’s, Matthew’s, or John’s account of the Garden of Gethsemane.

What is interesting is that there is even a very rare medical condition, known as hematohidrosis or hemidrosis which includes bloody sweat, and is usually preceded by a very debilitating form of severe stress and agonizing fear. It has been hypothesized that this is the medical condition Luke is describing. This would paint a very interesting picture of Jesus, as a person who is stressed to the point of breaking, who is experiencing unequaled emotional anguish and succumbing to a helpless anxiety and trepidation.

And yet, many biblical scholars, who affirm that Jesus suffered terribly, don’t believe this sweat-blood incident actually happened to Jesus, based on the fact that some of the earliest manuscripts of Luke are missing Luke 22:43-44.

The manuscript evidence

We don’t have the “original bible” or the “original” letters and texts that were penned by its human authors. Instead, we have many copies, which come to us on manuscripts of papyrus or vellum (dried animal skins). Some of these manuscript copies are complete books (a minority) others are small fragments (the majority) that only contain small sections of the New Testament (like Papyrus P52, recognized as the earliest copy of the New Testament, which contains only a few verses from John, and dates back to 125AD, slightly under a hundred years after the death of Jesus).

The job of biblical scholars and textual critics is to go through thousands of these manuscripts and piece together what the original text should have said. Because of the huge variety of manuscripts (5800ish texts in Greek, and thousands of translations in Syriac, Aramaic, Coptic, and Latin), these scholars often find many differences, called textual variants. Sometimes the earlier manuscripts contain phrases that are absent from later ones, or later text have added phrases not present in earlier manuscripts. Scholars then research the textual evidence and decide on what is the most likely answer to account for the discrepancy

This brings us to Luke 22:43-44, which is precisely this type of situation. Some of the most ancient texts that contain the text we call Luke Chapter 22, do not have these verses. Some later manuscripts do. And to make things even more confusing, a few other manuscripts have them inserted elsewhere.

Here are some of the examples cited by textual critics:

A. Manuscripts that do include the text

The following is a list of ancient books (a book was called a codex) or manuscripts/fragments that contain these verses as part of Luke. Uncial refers to large Greek font (capital letters), used very early on, and miniscule refers to small fonts used more recently. These are followed by the best estimated age of the manuscript per modern scholarship.

B. Manuscripts that do not include the text

The following is a list of those that do not that contain these verses as part of Luke. (This means the text jumps from what we call verse 42 to verse 45, though the “verse numbers” are a 16th century invention.) These are followed by the best estimated age of the manuscript per modern scholarship.

C. Manuscripts that do something different altogether

Other manuscripts mark these passages with asterisks to denote them with some kind of footnote. In some they are moved to another place in the text. Or else they leave written history of annotations and edits.

  • Many miniscule texts from the 8th to 13th century leave footnotes that question the originality of the text. These include the following Miniscule texts: 354, 045, 166, 481, 655, 661, 669, 776, 829, 892
  • In a group of texts known as Family 13, these verses are moved to into the text of Matthew 26:39, most of these manuscripts date from  11th to the 15th century.
  • Codex Sinaiticus, is the oldest “complete” copy of the New Testament in Greek, dating to the 4th century. This Codex excludes some sections or chapters from a few NT books and include the noncanonical Shepherd of Hermes and Barnabas. According to a Greek text published by some of the most prolific textual critics, the passage from Luke was “included by the original scribe, marked by the first corrector as doubtful, but the third corrector (c) removed the mark” (1)

The three options

1. It is the return of an earlier removed text

This was the idea put forward by Joel B. Green and Scott McKnight. The argued that the verse was (a) likely included in the earliest manuscripts, (b) was removed to hide the humanity of Jesus and help promote the idea that Jesus was God, and (c) later added. However, the very earliest manuscripts we have already exclude these verses, and there is no way to conclusively prove earlier manuscripts did contain these verses, so McKnight and Green had to make their case based on the vocabulary and literary style in the passage. The argue that while the “textual evidence is ambiguous” the “omission of these verses from so many and diverse witnesses… could not have been accidental”  and that “the presence or absence of these two verse is crucial to an interpretation of the scene as a whole.” (2)

2. It is an interpolation to combat the heresy of doceticism

This idea was made famous by Bruce Metzger, who is considered, even by staunch Biblicist conservatives, to be the greatest English textual critic of the last century. He wrote “These verses are absent from some of the oldest and best witnesses, including the majority of the Alexandrian manuscripts. It is striking to note that the earliest witnesses attesting the verses are three Church fathers – Justin, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus – each of whom uses the verses in order to counter Christological views that maintained that Jesus was not a full human who experienced the full range of human sufferings. It may well be that the verses were added to the text for just this reason, in opposition to those who held to a docetic Christology“(3) This point is also taken up by Bart Ehrman, one of the top textual critics today, who was student of Metzger. Ehrman argues that the two verses are very unnatural and “intrude” into a figure of speech called a chiasmus because they were “added in the second century by scribes intent on demonstrating that Jesus was fully subject to the anxieties and distresses that plague the human condition.” (4)

3. It is an interpolation that was based on an oral tradition

This idea is found vaguely suggested in a few biblical commentaries and theological books that are not academic textual criticism texts. One writer, Mark Moore, states that “Since it is more likely that this information would be later added than purposefully cropped, we conclude that it was probably not penned by Luke, but added later, likely based on a reliable oral tradition” (5) Likewise in a tome edited by the famous conservative apologist/scholar Gary Habermas there is an argument that these verses have “higher potential” to be edited in by someone who had access to “early oral traditions.” (6) However, the authors show some restraint in saying whether this “early oral tradition about Jesus [should be] judged reliable or not is another matter.” (7)

What do I think?

First off, I suppose it doesn’t really matter what I think, I’m not a textual critic. But if we are really pushing me, I think it’s hard to tell, and without the textual evidence, I wouldn’t make an argument that this was in the originals. If an earlier manuscript could be provided, I would be certainly join Scott McKnight (as would everyone else) however, since that hasn’t happened and probably never will, my gut instinct is to stick with Metzger and Ehrman.

6 responses

    • What is this, author is talking about biblical studies and you imply he is not christian? Are you daft or just blind?

      • Hold your horses bub, merely asking because I noticed that a lot of his recent posts subtly undermine biblical authority. I am aware of manuscriptal discrepancies, just interesting how he writes with a seeming subtle intention of dismantling the aauthority of Scripture.

  1. I just stumbled on this blog seeking to find information on the Blood-Sweating incident and really, really enjoy it. Thanks for this valuable resource, Yuriy! As much as I hate Docetism (viewing, as I do, Jesus as being 100% human) I believe this section was invented to combat that belief, and I agree with those who say it’s very out of place in Luke’s portrayal of Jesus as confidently accepting that he’d be killed.

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