Using modern techniques made available by science, are we able to reconstruct the identity of the person wrapped in the Shroud of Turin?
The tradition of the Church and the results of scientific research affirm with the highest probability that the lifeless body impressed upon the linen of Turin is that of Jesus. In fact, the fabric reveals an adult man, about 40 years of age, strong, about six feet tall, who shows the marks of scourging and crucifixion and who was paid an honorific burial.
The image that emerges from the Shroud of Turin is that of a martyred corpse, with injuries to the head and neck caused by a set of sharp objects, the knees and nasal septum excoriated and covered with dirt as though after a fall, with a large wound to the chest opened after death, wrists and feet pierced by nails, and shoulder blades probably marked by a heavy beam.
The image impressed upon the shroud speaks to us of a body that manifests all the symptoms of rigor mortis, the particular stiffening of the muscles that follows death: the head is forcibly flexed on the chest with no sign of support under the neck, and the upper and lower limbs have an entirely unnatural position.
In particular, the puncture wounds at the wrists and feet, the contracted position of the chest and thigh muscles, and the scrapes left by a large, rigid weight on the back show that the man was executed by crucifixion. Prior to being scourged, he was stripped; and in fact, 120 lesions were counted over the entire surface of the body with the exception of the face – side by side, two by two, which were almost certainly caused by a scourge made of a handle to which two ropes or strips of leather were attached, with two small lead weights affixed at the end.
Accordingly, we must imagine that 60 blows were dealt. Most scholars agree that he was six feet tall. The signs of aging shown on the face of the shrouded man suggest that he was around 40 years old. The nasal septum is fractured; the right part of the face is completely swollen.
The blood found on the cloth, as first demonstrated by the medical surgeon Pierluigi Baima Bollone is human, Type AB – statistically the rarest, in Europe it corresponds to just 5% of the population, while among Jews the percentile is much higher – and it contains a great quantity of bilirubin, which typically occurs in those who have suffered a violent death.
In the area of the cranium, we find the imprint of some 20 wounds inflicted by sharp objects, all of the same type, located at the higher part of the head forming a kind of helmet. The man suffered some of the hemorrhages when he was still alive, while others were inflicted after he was already dead.
In the area of the shoulder blades the wounds appear wider and harsher, as though he had carried a large, rigid object, a fact that makes us think of the carrying of the patibulum, the heavy wooden beam weighing more than 50 kilos, which was carried by the condemned to the place of execution and which formed the horizontal arm of the cross that had to be hoisted onto a post fixed in the ground called a stipes.
Several anomalies – the carrying of the patibulum, the use of nails in the hands and feet, the crown of thorns, the fact that he was not buried in a common grave – not only make this crucifixion highly unusual, but also show that it was a particularly harsh example of execution.
The lesions appear much greater in number than those prescribed for one condemned who thereafter would have had to undergo the death penalty. The scourging denotes bitter fury and a severe punishment.
According to Roman law, the number of lashes dealt by a scourge was limited by the prohibition against killing the one condemned, while according to the Jews the number of lashes was fixed at forty, a sacred number as we read in Deuteronomy 25:3. For this reason, when they used a whip with three tips, the Jews gave only thirty-nine lashes in order not to expose themselves to the danger of going beyond the limited number.
Furthermore, the image impressed upon the shroud provides evidence that the body underwent two forms of violence not tied to Roman law: the presence of wounds on the head and close to the neck, as well a spear wound between the fifth and sixth rib.
Another anomaly is that, due to a request, the bones of the legs were not broken: Deuteronomy always forbade leaving the dead body on the cross after sunset, and the practice of breaking the legs (crurifragium) hastened the death and therefore allowed for the body to be taken down before evening fell.
The most conspicuous imprint of blood corresponds to the wound reported on the right side of the chest, which was caused by a large, pointed, piercing cut – possibly by a lance. The blood appears divided into its two components, i.e. serous and corpuscular (red blood cells): this division, called "deserezation," occurs only after death for which reason the wound that caused the gash in the chest was inflicted when the man was already dead. The imprint was produced before rigor mortis set in; therefore, before the natural process of decomposition after 36-48 hours began.
We may deduce from the type of linen used, as well as from the treatment of the body, that the man was buried without the ritual purification prescribed in Jewish law but in a very honorable manner nonetheless.
Contrary to the provisions of Jewish funeral customs spoken of in the Talmud, the body taken down from the cross was laid on a long shroud nude, neither washed nor shaven. Yet the man on the Shroud, in accordance with Jewish culture, was buried in a pure white linen and what is more, one of great value. In fact, the Shroud was woven using a technique called “herringbone twill” which was certainly already used before Christian times but of which few specimens remain particularly in linen.
The thread, on the other hand, presents the complex and very rare Z twist, wherein fibers are conditioned to twist in a direction opposite of that which they would spontaneously take when drying out in the sun. The burial cloth may have been produced in Jewish circles, since the analysis showed no traces of fibers of animal origin in accordance with mosaic law (Deut. 22:11), which prescribed keep wool separate from linen.
If anything, traces of cotton fibers were revealed and identified as Gossypium herbaceum, which was widespread in the Middle East at the time of Christ. This type of cloth was a precious and ritually pure fabric with which, according to ancient Jewish liturgical customs, the curtains of the Temple in Jerusalem were made and which was also used by the high priest – who presided of the Sanhedrin, the supreme council that governed the Jewish community – to wrap himself in after having five times completed the ritual bath required on the day when the rite of Expiation (Yom Kippur), the most sacred feast, was celebrated.
It is strange, therefore, that the body of one condemned to an ignominious punishment from which Roman citizens were exempt and which was reserved for traitors, deserters but more often that not for slaves, was wrapped in an extremely precious burial cloth to be removed shortly thereafter, rather than being thrown directly into a common grave or ending as food for the beasts.
The place where the man of the Shroud was buried or where the shroud remained exposed for a longer time can be determined on the basis of two elements: the pollen that remained entangled in the weaving, which belongs to various plant-life found only in the Middle East, specifically in the area surrounding Jerusalem; and the soil that was discovered and which contains aragonite, a mineral that is generally rare but which is commonly found within the vicinity of Jerusalem.
The analyses of the fabric of the Shroud have allowed us to ascertain the presence both of European pollen (lesser in quantity) as well as pollen from plants that grow in the area of Constantinople, in the plains and on the Anatolian shore of the Dead Sea.
In studying the Shroud’s movements which have come down to us from the earliest Christian witnesses, botanical experts have discovered evidence of the burial cloth’s route beginning in Jerusalem, passing on to Palestine, Edessa, Constantinople, Lirey and Chambery, and finally arriving in Turin in 1578. After collecting samples of plants during the flowering season in the geographic regions in which the Shroud may have sojourned, the scholar Max Frei identified 58 different plants on the mysterious cloth, none of which are anemophilous species, i.e. carried by the wind: some of these are only grown in one region of the world, i.e. the area surrounding Jerusalem.
Sometime thereafter, in examining Frei’s findings, Uri Baruch confirmed the presence of Gundelia tournefortii – which accounts for more than 50% of the pollen discovered on the Shroud – of Zygophyllum dumosum and of Citsus creticus, plants that live and flourish together in only one area of the world: between the city of Hebron and Jerusalem. Afterward the identification of four other species beyond these three moved the student of botany Avinoam Danin to state that the burial had to have taken place in March or April.
The presence of flowers was a clue to understanding that the body was buried with an honor absolutely prohibited to those condemned to death, who according to the law had to remain in the infamous place of a public burial ground before their remains could be given to their relatives.
Furthermore, in some samples taken from the area of the feet soil was found: the man, therefore, had walked barefoot for a certain period of time. The same traces were discovered to correspond to ones found on the tip of the nose and on the left knee, which appeared extremely swollen, as though the man wrapped in the cloth had violently fallen to the ground, hitting even his face with no possibility of protecting himself with his hands (perhaps due to patibulum’s impeding this).
The expert on crystallography Joseph A. Kohlbeck and the phycisist Ricardo Levi-Setti noted that the soil was found to contain aragonite, a mineral that is rather rare but very widespread in the ground around Jerusalem.
By reconstructing the markings of two coins and of several inscriptions discovered on the Shroud, we may hypothesize that the man was buried around 29-30 A.D.
After several analyses conducted beginning in 1951, Fr. Francis Filas claimed to have identified – on the right eyelid of the face on the Shroud – markings extremely similar to those found on the face of a coin, a “dilepton lituus,” which presents the symbol of “lituo” on law – that is, a sort of shepherd’s crook present on all the coins Pilate minted after 29 A.D. – surrounded by the greek inscription TIBEPIONY KAISAPOS: a coin, then, dating back to the times of Tiberius.
Through the construction of a two-dimensional image of the left eyebrow, Pierluigi Baima Bollone and Nello Balossino showed the presence of signs that likely trace back to a “lepton simpulum,” a bronze coin, which in addition to picturing a ritual cup with a handle (“simpulo”) on the back, also read TIBEPIONY KAI SAPOSLIS, which dates back to the 16th year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius and corresponds to 29-30 A.D.
The presence of coins, which reflects a pagan practice that entered into Jewish custom, was confirmed by the discovery of coins in the eye sockets in skulls unearthed in Jericho, from the time of Christ, and in En Boqeq, in the Judean desert, from the beginning of the second century A.D.
Although the Church has never officially and definitively pronounced the identity of the man pictured on the Shroud but continues to encourage scientific research on the linen of Turin, all the investigations conducted unto now converge in one response: the body mysteriously imprinted upon the Shroud, with the highest probability, can only be that of Christ taken down from the Cross.
Everything seems to converge around first century Palestine. Moreover, there is a substantial correlation between the Gospel accounts of the Passion of Christ and the information we are able to obtain from the Shroud, all the greater inasmuch as some of the specifics diverge from 1st century Roman crucifixion:
The brutal scourging excessive beyond limit before a crucifixion (60 lashes, it is thought) – Jesus is scourged and struck on the face and body;
The crowning with thorns (we have no documents reporting such a practice for crucifixion among the Romans nor among other peoples) – Jesus was reclothed by the Roman soldiers with the crown of thorns and with the purple cloak to be mocked as the king of the Jews;
The carrying of the patibulum, the horizontal beam of the cross (during crucifixions, especially in mass crucifixions, occasionally they reference trees or crosses) Jesus carried his own Cross to Golgotha;
Being hung on the Cross with nails rather than with the more common cords – In the episode regarding St. Thomas, John says that Jesus bore the signs of the crucifixion in his hands, while Luke makes reference to both hands and feet;
The absence of crucifragium, the breaking of the legs inflicted in order to accelerate death – Jesus’s legs were not broken like the two thieves because he died in an unusually rapid manner, so much so that Pilate was confounded;
The wound that opened His side after death (an absolutely unheard of fact) – Jesus is pierced in His side with a lance by a Centurian in order to determine if he was dead;
The lack of anointing, shaving and clothing of the body as was prescribed by the customs of the time and a hurried burial – Jesus is wrapped nude in a shroud and placed in a sepulcher immediately after being taken down from the Cross, for evening was approaching and it was the eve of the Jewish Passover which in that year coincided with the Shabbat, the weekly day of rest when all manual work was prohibited;
The wrapping of the body in a valuable cloth and its placement in a tomb rather than ending in a common grave – Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin, acquired the linen in which Jesus was wrapped and he buried Him in a sepulcher he himself had hewn from the rock;
The brief period of time in the cloth – Jesus died at the age of around 37 years, most probably on Friday April 7 in the year 30 A.D., at around 3:00pm on that same day until around 6:00am on Sunday April 9, when Mary Magdalene together with the other women found the tomb empty.