The following is an excerpt from David Croteau’s recently released volume, Urban Legends of the New Testament. In Chapter 13, Croteau discusses the perplexing account of Jesus sweating drops of blood in Luke 22:44. Included below is his discussion of the legendary teaching on the text, followed by a closer look at Luke 22:44 and several points of application.
The Legendary Teaching on Luke 22:44
Jesus was coming upon the hour of his arrest, trial, flogging, crucifixion, and death. The reality of what he was about to face began to set in. He went to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. It was an intense time of prayer, so much so that Luke the doctor says he sweat blood: “Being in anguish, He prayed more fervently, and His sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44).
Some people have tried to use this verse to demonstrate the foolishness of the Bible, to say it’s not historical and can’t be trusted. However, this moment of prayer in the garden of Gethsemane was so intense for Jesus that he suffered from hematohidrosis. This is a medical condition where a person appears to sweat blood. It typically occurs when someone is under extreme stress, and it has been associated with a few historical figures. When someone experiences extreme stress, the capillaries that go to the sweat glands can rupture causing the blood from the capillaries to pour into the sweat glands. When the person starts to sweat, the blood comes out through the sweat glands. This is what happened to Jesus. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association diagnosed Jesus with this condition. It wasn’t a miracle that he sweat blood. It was simply an uncommon medical condition that the good doctor Luke was reporting.
The verse itself says Jesus was in anguish. The Greek word is agōnia. It’s where we get the English word agony. Jesus was in such intense agony that the capillaries in his forehead burst and caused blood to come out of his sweat glands. Jesus was about to go to the cross and have the Father’s wrath poured out on him. This is what caused such intense, extreme stress. It is what caused his absolute agony, and it is why he suffered from hematohidrosis. This is what it cost the Son of God when our eternal destinies hung in the balance. Jesus decided to go to the cross for us.
What Does Luke Say About Jesus Sweating Blood?
What do these verses actually say about Jesus’ sweating blood, regardless of whether they are original? Luke 22:44 says, “Being in anguish, He prayed more fervently, and His sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground” (emphasis added). Notice the word like in this verse. Virtually all major modern translations include this word as a translation of the Greek word hōsei. This Greek word is a relatively weak marker of a relationship between two things. Luke uses a different word in his Gospel when he wants to communicate a more emphatic marker of similarity between two things: hōsper. For example, Luke 18:11 says, “The Pharisee took his stand and was praying like this; ‘God, I thank You that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector’” (emphasis added). The Pharisee was being emphatic; he is absolutely not like the sinner he is about to discuss. The Greek language provides ways to mark the degree of similarity between things, and the word Luke chose in Luke does not communicate a strong relationship but a weak relationship.
It would be odd for someone to say he saw something kind of like blood if he knew it was actually blood. In fact, there would probably be no word of comparison. Luke would have simply stated, “Jesus sweat blood.” The mistake of skipping over the word like occurs in other places in the New Testament as well. For example, Matthew 3:16 says, “The heavens suddenly opened for Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on Him” (emphasis added). Every time I have seen this verse depicted in a movie or a picture, it is always a literal dove. But Matthew 3 does not say the Holy Spirit possessed a dove. Matthew is saying the way that the Holy Spirit came down from the sky reminded him of the way that a dove descends from the sky.
In what way was Jesus’ sweat like the drops of blood? There are three main options: (1) It could refer to color, that the sweat was like blood because it was red. However, if it was red, it probably would not be like blood; it would be blood itself. Therefore, the comparison is probably not about color. (2) It could be about consistency. In talking with medical personnel, they affirm that blood is thicker than sweat. So it could refer to the thickness of the sweat. (3) It could refer to size, the most likely option. I am not sure how easy it would be to see the consistency of sweat from a distance unless that consistency manifested itself in large drops of sweat. Notice what the following translations say:
- “His sweat became like great drops of blood” (ESV, emphasis added).
- “His sweat was as it were great drops of blood” (KJV, emphasis added).
- “His sweat became like great drops of blood” (NKJV, emphasis added).
- “His sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood” (NLT, emphasis added).
These translations are interpreting the comparison (“like”) as being about size. They all believe the sweat drops were large. Luke is saying that, in the intensity of the moment, Jesus sweat large drops of sweat. My main point is that Luke 22:44 does not say Jesus sweat drops of blood. We have no indication of whether Jesus sweat blood because no verse actually says he did
First, the text of Scripture is reliable even though in some places deciding on the original reading is difficult. No major doctrine is impacted by the different readings available. We can trust the Bible we have.
Second, read the footnotes in your Bibles. Many modern translations have footnotes in them. Pay attention to them. Read the introduction to your Bible so you know what the abbreviations in the footnotes mean. Some of the footnotes in your translations on these verses contain this abbreviation: MSS. If you don’t read the introduction to your Bible, you won’t know that MSS means manuscripts.
Third, pay attention to the small words like as and like. Every word of Scripture is inspired, and every word is important for a correct interpretation. Missing one little word can change the entire meaning of a passage.
Fourth, understanding the extreme sacrifice of Jesus should lead to a thankful, obedient life. Jesus truly did have an intense time of prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. That is clear with or without Luke 22:43–44. Knowing that God’s wrath was going to be poured out on him for the sake of those who place their trust in him, Jesus endured the cross. And this fact should drive us to being thankful that the Son of God willingly suffered by laying down his own life for us. This thankfulness should pour out into our lives by living in a way that brings glory to God for all he has done for us, truly seeking to be obedient to the One who saved us.
About the Author:
David A. Croteau (Ph.D., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is professor of New Testament and Greek in the Seminary and School of Ministry at Columbia International University. He is co-editor (with Andreas J. Köstenberger) of Which Bible Translation Should I Use? (B&H Academic, 2013) and author of Tithing after the Cross (Energion, 2013).
Download a sample chapter here.
View an interview with David Croteau here.
Read another excerpt from Urban Legends here.
Request a faculty review copy here.
Request a media review copy here.