Behold the Man
Updated: Feb 25, 2018
The Bible tells us that these were the words the Roman governor Pontius Pilate used when presenting Jesus of Nazareth -- scourged, bound and wearing a crown of thorns – to the assembled crowd, which loudly demanded his crucifixion. Wishing to maintain civil order, Pilate sent Jesus to his death, but not before publicly washing his hands in an attempt to absolve himself from personal responsibility. The rest, as they say, is history.
I have become fascinated with the study of the Shroud of Turin, a very old strip of linen cloth bearing the faint image of a crucified man, which some believe to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth. The cloth is rectangular, measuring 14 feet 5 inches by 3 feet 7 inches, that appears to have had a strip removed from one side and later reattached (some suggest this strip was used to tie the cloth around the man’s body for burial). It is said to be the single most studied artifact in human history, and the subject of intense scientific debate.
Whatever one’s view of its provenance, there appears to be universal agreement that the Shroud image is an anatomically correct representation of a man who was cruelly tortured, beaten, scourged and crucified. A recent study of blood stains on the Shroud confirm this – Elvio Carlino of the Italian Institute of Crystallography has stated that the blood particles are consistent with a person having been through “great suffering.” The Institute’s report puts it more scientifically: “Our results point out that at the nanoscale a scenario of violence is recorded in the funeral fabric.” See http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0180487.
The image contains features consistent with a Roman crucifixion, including evidence of scourging, abrasions on the shoulders from carrying a wooden crossbeam, and the use and placement of square nails in the "thenal furrow" in the palms near the heel of the hand, and in the feet. (For a scientific discussion of the various theories regarding nail placement, see https://www.shroud.com/zugibe.htm) The wound in the man’s right side is of a shape consistent with the lance a Roman guard would carry when transporting a criminal to execution. The legs are not broken, which together with the lance wound suggests that the man died on the cross earlier than anticipated. According to experts, none of these elements are unusual in a Roman execution – with one interesting exception: to date, no one has discovered evidence of another Roman crucifixion where the victim wore a crown (in actuality, a cap) of thorns.
There is another burial item closely associated with the Shroud of Turin that I also find fascinating. Known as the Sudarium of Oviedo, it is a piece of ancient linen cloth measuring approximately 33 inches by 21 inches that is believed to have covered the head of Jesus after his crucifixion (Jewish tradition at the time would have required covering the head of any dead person whose face was disfigured, so as not to offend public sensibilities).
Unlike the Shroud, there are no images on the Sudarium cloth, only stains of blood and lymph. The blood stains on both the Shroud and the Sudarium are AB, and there are multiple other physical similarities, including coincidence of stain placement with features on the face of the Man in the Shroud. For example, if the Shroud image is placed over the Sudarium stains, there is an exact fit with the Man’s beard, and the thorn wounds on the nape of the neck correspond perfectly with bloodstains on the Shroud. In an article on shroud.com, Mark Guscin writes ”Dr. Alan Whanger applied the Polarized Image Overlay Technique to the Sudarium, comparing it to the image and bloodstains on the Shroud. The frontal stains on the Sudarium show seventy points of coincidence with the Shroud, and the rear side shows fifty. The only possible conclusion is that the Oviedo Sudarium covered the same face as the Turin Shroud.” See https://www.shroud.com/guscin.htm.
The Sudarium also provides evidence that the man whose face it covered was crucified. Guscin cites the results of investigations by the Spanish Center for Sindonology and Dr. Jose Villalain, who built a model to reconstruct the staining process:
“From the composition of the main stains, it is evident that the man whose face the Sudarium covered died in an upright position.”
“The cloth was not wrapped entirely round the head because the right cheek was almost touching the right shoulder. This suggests that the Sudarium was put into place while the body was still on the cross. The second stain was made about an hour later, when the body was taken down. The third stain was made when the body was lifted from the ground about forty-five minutes before being buried.”
“The experiments with the model head and the study of the stains also show that when the man died his head was tilted seventy degrees forward and twenty degrees to the right. This position further suggests that the man whose face the Sudarium covered died crucified.”
Pollens and other physical evidence point to the presence of both items in the Jerusalem area. And the very fact that the cloth has survived to this day testifies to its special significance – why would anyone preserve and protect for centuries a bloodstained piece of cloth with no artistic or monetary value, particularly given Jewish cultural attitudes toward death and blood at the time?
This has helped me to understand the curiously specific tomb scene description of John 20:6-7: “Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen.” Some translations describe the head cloth as wrapped, rolled or folded up by itself. The two cloth items in the tomb are clearly described as having been treated differently: one just “lying there” and the other appearing to have been carefully put in place.
I would like to believe that the following happened: after death, the Sudarium was placed on Jesus’ head while still on the Cross in keeping with tradition, then removed before He was wrapped in the Shroud. His wrapped body was laid in the Tomb, with the Sudarium placed carefully alongside it. Upon Resurrection, Jesus freed Himself from the Shroud, leaving it and its binding strip (hence the plural reference) lying where they fell. This, for me, fits John’s description perfectly.
As a Roman Catholic, I am quite used to seeing the crucifix at church and in the schools and homes of the religiously-inclined. The term crucifix is from the Latin cruci meaning “[one] fixed to a cross” and refers to any representation of a cross bearing the crucified body (corpus) of Jesus. Some of these representations can be pretty graphic, and as a child I wondered why the Church would give such a gruesome sight the place of primary prominence for a religion that promotes love and forgiveness, and celebrates the universal redemption of creation from sin? Particularly since many of the other Christian religious traditions prefer a simple cross.
I now have a better perspective. As unsettling as it may be to see that image, we need constantly to be reminded of the extreme nature of the sacrifice made to win our freedom. Crucifixion was an especially cruel form of capital punishment, shameful and usually reserved for the very worst criminals, in which death was the secondary consideration and ultimate result of a long period of horrible, tortuous pain. The Romans used it to send a message; with the gift of the Resurrection, Christians now use it to send a very different one. An image of total failure – the ignominious public death of the long-promised Messiah – has become the symbol of absolute and eternal victory. This was a result unimaginable to the mind of man, including even the closest of Jesus’ disciples, until they saw Him with their own eyes after the Resurrection. (“’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.” Isaiah 55:8.)
Studies of the Shroud and the Sudarium continue. In the meantime, to quote Stuart Chase, “for those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.” For me, I am content to look upon the crucifix and think: “Behold the Man.”