Image: The Shroud of Turin
Today is Good Friday, the day when Christians everywhere meditate on the suffering of Jesus as he went to Calvary and as we think of the agony he endured as he died on the cross.
No other text in the Bible depicts the suffering Christ endured more than the suffering endured by the Suffering Servant. As presented in Isaiah 53, the Suffering Servant is an unknown individual who probably embodies the suffering of Israel. In the Book of Isaiah there are the four special texts popularly known in the scholarly community as “The Songs of the Suffering Servant.”
In one of the songs, Yahweh said to the Servant: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Isaiah 49:3). Although the Servant is identified as Israel, in the fourth song, the identity of the Servant reflects, not a nation nor ideal Israel, but an individual who suffers for the sins of the community, and indeed, for the sins of the world:
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth (Isaiah 53:4-9).
When one reads these words of the prophet Isaiah one must conclude that the prophet was not talking about Israel, but about a “Man of Sorrows” who was bearing the sins of the people. This is the reason Christians believe that the suffering of the Servant reflects that pain and the agony of Jesus as he went to die on the cross.
Over the years I have written many posts on the Shroud of Turin. In these posts I have been somewhat skeptical about its authenticity, that is, not whether the shroud is a forgery, for it is not. Rather, it is a remarkable artifact. My skepticism is whether the person depicted on the Shroud of Turin is Jesus Christ.
In 1973 Barbara Sullivan wrote a fascinating article titled “Reading the Shroud of Turin” which was published in the National Review. In this article she says that the Shroud of Turin probably is the burial cloth of the entombed Jesus.
In this article, Sullivan quotes a French doctor who did a thorough analysis of the figure on the Shroud. His conclusion is that the person on the Shroud went through an agonizing suffering before he died. Although I remain a skeptical about the identity of the person portrayed on the Shroud, the doctor’s description is worth reading.
Below is an excerpt from Sullivan’s article in which she describes how the figure on the Shroud was discovered and how the French doctor describes the suffering of the crucified:
The modern history of the Shroud might be said to have begun on May 8, 1898, when Secondo Pia was permitted to photograph the Shroud for the first time while it was being exhibited at the Cathedral in Turin. Pia was flabbergasted to find that his glass-plate photographic negative was turning out in the developing bath to show, in fact, a photographic positive image. The Shroud itself had somehow been stained in such a way that the body imprint on the cloth was a negative. This feature alone would seem to rule out the claim that the Shroud is an ancient or medieval forgery. What artist, centuries before, would have fabricated details that could only be discerned with the help of a nineteenth-century invention? And the photographic process, subsequently confirmed by the photographs taken by G. Enrie in 1931, brought out a wealth of hitherto concealed details.
Intrigued by Pia’s photographs, a French scientist named Paul Joseph Vignon developed a hypothesis that has commanded some widespread, though not universal, support. It is known that the normal Jewish burial service in the time of Jesus made use of myrrh and aloes, ground into a kind of paste, which impregnated the burial shroud. Vignon showed that this combination of chemicals produced a substance highly sensitive to urea. The human body exudes urea profusely upon death, and especially when death is accompanied by great suffering. In Vignon’s theory, the exuded urea reacted upon the paste to produce discoloration of the cloth.
Since 1898, scholars have been investigating every detail of the Shroud as shown in numerous photographs. Dark stains, clearly visible, mark the crown of thorns-evidently more a cap-like affair than the more familiar circlet. The spear-thrust shows up as a lentil-shaped wound on the right side.
Interestingly, the Shroud shows that the nails went through the wrists, not the palms, according to another French scientist. Dr. Pierre Barbet, a surgeon who brought his expertise to bear on the Shroud, embodied his conclusions in a chilling study, A Doctor at Calvary, available now in paperback translation. Some of his points:
Experiments with cadavers showed that a body suspended with a nail through the palms will tear loose but that there is a narrow passage through the wrists (the carpal area) that would support body weight. No doubt, the Roman executioners were aware of this from their experience with crucifixion. Again, it was noticed that the hands on the Shroud appear to lack thumbs. Studies showed that when a nail was driven through that particular point in the wrist, the thumbs dropped inward upon the palm.
According to Barbet, the Shroud shows that prior to taking up the Cross, Jesus was subjected to two drastic forms of punishment. First, he was severely beaten with a stick about 1.75 inches in diameter. “Excoriations are to be found everywhere on the face, but especially on the right side.” Barbet found “haematomas beneath the bleeding surfaces.” The nose “is deformed by a fracture of the posterior of the cartilage.” The marks show that the stick was “vigorously handled by an assailant standing on the right of Jesus.”
After that, he was subjected to scourging by two men employing the well-known Roman “flagrum,” a leather whip featuring small balls of metal or bone designed to tear the skin. Barbet finds more than fifty such strokes. “All the wounds have the same shape, like a little halter about three centimeters long. The two circles represent the balls of lead. . . . We may assume that during the scourging he was completely naked, for the halter-like wounds are to be seen all over the pelvic region, which would otherwise have been protected. . . . Finally, there must have been two executioners. It is possible they were not of the same height, for the obliqueness of the blows is not the same on each side.”
Surgeon Barbet is especially vivid when he comes to the effect of those nails driven through the passage in the wrist, and so necessarily damaging the median nerves: “The median nerves are not merely the motor nerves, they are also the great sensory nerves. When they were injured and stretched out on the nails in those extended arms like the strings of a violin on their bridge, they must have caused the most horrible pain. Those who have seen, during the war, something of the wounds of the nervous trunks, know that it is one of the worst tortures imaginable.
The spear-thrust, according to Barbet, was a coup de grace required by law in this form of execution. But by that time Jesus had expired as the result of a tetanic contraction of the muscles that quickly reached the `respiratory system. The “condemned man could only escape from asphyxia by straightening himself on the nail through the feet, in order to lessen the dragging of the body on the hands; each time that he wished to breathe more freely or to speak, he had to raise himself on this nail, thus bringing on further suffering.” But such exertions, says Barbet, made the tetanic reaction inevitable, and, he concludes, Jesus died from asphyxia.
We will probably never know whether the man depicted on the Shroud of Turin was Jesus. But there is no doubt that the real Man of Sorrows went through much pain and suffering for a noble cause. Today, as we remember the agony Jesus encountered on his way to the cross, let us remember that his death was not in vain, for Jesus was wounded for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
A Man of Sorrows indeed.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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