The Legal and Medical Aspects of the Trial and Death of Christ Part 2

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Last Updated By Bill's Bible Basics :
February 16, 2017

In addition to reading and studying all of the information which is available in this section of the Bill's Bible Basics website regarding the Shroud of Turin, and the Sudarium of Oviedo, please also consider reading my article entitled "Faith and the Shroud of Turin" in order to gain a full perspective regarding this issue.

By Robert Bucklin, M.D., J.D. Las Vegas, Nevada

Copyright 1970

II Medical

We now turn to a consideration of the medical aspects of the passion and death of Christ. The events leading to this period have been described and need not be repeated. A somewhat different approach must be taken in reviewing the medical facts than was taken in the review of the legal matter. Since the basis for medical interpretations is made upon physical evidence, as much as upon documentation, it is most important that there be a careful separation of what is fact from what is fancy or fiction. Many positive facts about the crucifixion have been very well documented. The date, for example, has been established beyond reasonable doubt to have been April 7, A.D. 30, and the site of the Crucifixion was the hill named Golgotha which was a short distance from the north wall of the City of Jerusalem.

In order to place the events in focus it might be well to trace the footsteps of Christ for the last few hours of His life. After the establishment of the Holy Eucharist with the disciples at the Cenacle on Thursday evening, Christ and some of His disciples left the city and proceeded in a northeasterly direction to the Garden of Gethsemane, passing through the Old Fountain Gate in the south end of the city and walking along the Valley of the Cedron. It was in the Garden that the passion really began, and here it is that Christ suffered the bloody sweat. This phenomenon, which is know as hemohydrosis, is exceedingly rare and is explained by hemorrhage into the sweat glands. The specific cause of the hemorrhage is not known, but it probably related to increased vascular permeability based on alteration in vascular dynamics. There is a probability that the highly emotional state in which Christ must have been at the time could have influenced the autonomic nervous system to an extent that capillaries became dilated and more permeable. The amount of blood lost is unknown, but it can be assumed on the basis of the events which followed that the amount was small. No comment is made in the scripture about there being saturation of garments.

Before the party left the Garden of Olives to proceed back to Jerusalem, Christ was arrested by the soldiers of the high priest and was taken to the courtyard of the home of Caiaphas which was located in the southwest portion of Jerusalem not far from the Cenacle. This was the site of the Jewish trial. During the trial, it is recorded that Christ was subjected to a number of indignities including blows about His face. Later, after Christ was taken to the Court Of Pontius Pilate He underwent the scourging and the crowning with thorns.

After the death sentence had been confirmed, crucifixion was ordered and Christ was given His cross to carry. The distance actually traveled by Christ with the cross was approximately six hundred yards. During that distance, tradition tells us of several falls, and as a result bruises and abrasions were sustained in various portions of the body The time consumed by the trip to Golgotha must have been fairly short, and since crucifixion was a common method of carrying out the death penalty, it may be assumed that the soldiers who performed the nailing and suspension of the victim on the cross were experienced in their duties and that this portion of the process was also done quickly.

Scripture tells us that Christ was suspended on the cross for approximately three hours, and that He died at about three o'clock in the afternoon. The statements of Pilate when he was told that Christ was dead give us reason to believe that death occurred more quickly than might have been expected. Quite frequently suspended criminals on a cross would live for a number of hours or days. Pilate was asked for permission to remove the body and up until that time little thought had been given to what would be done with the body after its removal from the cross. A problem was presented to the Jews as far as burial was concerned. Since the day following the death was the Sabbath, and in that particular year was also the Passover, it was a holy day and according to Jewish law no work was permitted. The burial of a body was considered labor and therefore had to be completed prior to sundown on Friday, the day of death.

Because of the short period, it was not possible for the disciples to perform the usual burial ritual which included anointing the body carefully with warm scented water and oils before placing it in the sepulchre. All that there was time to do was to wrap the body quickly in a long linen cloth which had been brought to the scene by Joseph of Arimathea and to place within the folds of the cloth and on the body a mixture of aloes and myrrh to serve as a preservative. It has been estimated that about sixty-five pounds of this preservative was used. The cloth was approximately twice the length of the body so that when the body was laid upon the cloth in a linear fashion the cloth could be folded over to cover both the front and back portions of the body. The arms were flexed over the chest, rigor mortis having been broken in order to accomplish this. A narrow band of cloth was placed around the chin and over the top of the head in order to keep the jaw in place. In this position the body was transported the short distance to the sepulchre and placed in a crypt. Nothing definite is know about the structure of the sepulchre and it may have been a cave-like structure or a simple shallow grave. Most evidence seems to point to the fact that the sepulchre was in the form of a small chamber slightly more than six feet in its greatest dimension.

The body lay in the sepulchre for an unknown period of time and was gone from the place early on Sunday morning when the burial party returned to complete the embalming procedures. At that time only the wrapping cloths were found in the sepulchre. The long linen cloth in which the body was wrapped has been preserved through the centuries and it is this cloth which is known today as the Shroud of Turin. It has a most colorful history which has been traced in detail by a number of European authors. Attempts have been made to destroy or damage the cloth and the marks of this damage are still visible. On at least one occasion the cloth was burnt and a number of holes were repaired by paired patches made of a different type of cloth. It is beyond the scope of this paper to review the proof of authenticity of the Shroud but it may be said that there is no serious question about its authenticity. At the present time the Shroud of Turin is preserved in the cathedral in Turin, Italy, and it is the personal property of Umberto, the former King of Italy. The cloth is remarkable because on it there is imprinted an image of a human body showing frontal and dorsal views. Present also on the cloth are blood stains, marks left by fire, and some large water stains. The cloth was first photographed in 1898 by Secondo Pia and again in 1931 by G. Enrie. The photographs of Enrie are remarkable for their clarity and it is the study of these photographs, including life-size enlargements, which are the basis of my medical interpretation of the events of the Crucifixion. At the present time there is no certain proof as to the causation of the imprint marks on the cloth. A number of theories have been suggested including direct contact with stains on the body, development of a type of "negative" photograph, or a theory based on development of vapors or emanations which rose from the body and stained the cloth. Which of these theories is accurate can only be determined by future examination of the imprints by scientific methods. It would seem that the most plausible possibility at this time is that some type of vapor was formed by an action between the sweat and moisture on the body with the chemicals, particularly the aloes, which was used as a preservative. By an unknown process, a perfect imprint image of a human body, both front and back, resulted. The imprints outline the body of an adult make 71 inches in height and weighing an estimated 175 pounds. The stiffness of the extremities in the imprints is strongly suggestive that rigor mortis had taken place. On the imprint image there is evidence of a number of injuries, each of which produced a very characteristic mark. Some of these reflect abrasions and contusions and have left imprints characteristic of this type of injury. Others reflect the flow of blood from large cavities and have left equally characteristic imprint images. One of the largest stains appears on the frontal portion in the chest area and represent a large outflow of blood from a body cavity. It is immediately apparent to the investigator that the image on the Shroud is in effect a mirror image with right and left reversed. This is easily explained by the position of the cloth above and below the body during its tenure in the sepulchre.

The injuries to the body can be best divided into five groups: The marks of the scourge, the nail imprints in the wrists, the nail marks in the feet, the wounds on the head, and the wound in the chest. I propose to take each of these groups and to explore them in medical detail, attempting to explain their nature and their cause. The marks of the scourge appear on the front and back of the body but are most distinct over the back. Here they extend from the shoulders down as far as the calves of the legs. On the front of the body they also appear on the chest and legs, but there is no evidence of marks of the scourge on the arms or forearms. From this fact it may be assumed that the arms were elevated over the head at the time of the scourging. The scourging was done as a preliminary to the crucifixion, and according to historians, it was a common event. The implement used was a whip-like structure called a flagrum. It consisted of two or three thongs, at the ends of which were tied small bits of either bone or metal. The implement was applied to the body in such a way as to produce bleeding by the metal or bone tearing the skin. The marks, as they appear on the Shroud image, clearly define the shape of the tip of the flagrum. It is notable that the imprints of the scourge appear in a sheaf-like fashion directed downward and medially from the shoulders. Their appearance would serve to indicate that there were either two persons doing the scourging or that one person changed his position from the right to the left side. The number of scourge marks is particularly interesting. It was the Jewish law that the scourging would be limited to forty blows, and, as a matter of habit, the limit was practically set at thirty-nine. Scourging under the Roman law, as occurred in the case of Christ, was unlimited in its extent and those who have counted the scourge-mark images on the Shroud have variously estimated them to be as many as one hundred.

From an examination of the imprint of the back, it is possible to draw some conclusions as to the structure and manner of carrying the cross. Most of the religious paintings and pictures show Christ carrying His entire cross, supported over one shoulder. It is highly improbable that such was the actual situation. In the first place, if the cross was made according to what we are told was the manner of the times, it would have been an extremely heavy structure, variously estimated to have weighed nearly 300 pounds. It is doubtful that anyone could have carried this weight even for six hundred yards. As a matter of fact, since crucifixion was a common method of putting victims to death, the upright portion of the cross, known as the stipes, was permanently in place at the point of execution. It was a long beam firmly embedded in the ground and extending up for about eight feet. The crossbar or patibulum was the portion carried by the victim. The weight of the crosspiece is unknown but has been estimated to weigh as much as eighty pounds. The manner in which the patibulum was supported on the body appears definite by examination of the imprints of the back on the Shroud. Had the crossbar been carried over one shoulder, it could reasonably be expected that it would have produced a large bruise on the shoulder. Since all the other bruises suffered by Christ during His passion have appeared so distinctly on the Shroud image, one wonders why there is no evidence of a bruise on the shoulder. However, examination of the back in the region of the scapulae shows two large areas of bruising. These might have been produced by the crossbar being supported over the upper portion of the back rather than being balanced on one shoulder. A weight thus supported is actually easier to carry, since it is divided over a large area. Another explanation for these bruises might be the writhing of the victim while suspended on the cross.

Examination of imprints left by the hands and arms of Christ provides a great deal of information, and here again it becomes immediately apparent that the position of the nails as ordinarily depicted is subject to some question. The hands as they appear on the imprint, show the marks of four fingers well. There is, however, no evidence of imprints left by the thumbs. The hands are crossed, with the left hand appearing on top of the right and covering the right wrist. In the region of the left wrist, there is a bloodstain which represents the mark left by the nail. That this mark is not in the palm is easily ascertained by simple measurements taken from the site of the mark to the tips of the fingers, proving that the mark is not in the center of the palm, but in the wrist. The mark left by the nail in the right wrist is covered by the left hand.

Experiments on suspended cadavers have served to prove that a nail passed directly through the palm could not support a body weighing 175 pounds. There is insufficient tissue between the metacarpal bones of the palm to adequately support a nail, and the nail quickly tears through the soft tissues and skin and fails to support the body. A nail, however, placed through the carpal bones and supported by the bones and by the ligaments of the wrist was proved adequate to sustain the weight of a body satisfactorily. There are some who feel that the nail was placed higher that the wrist, between the radius and ulna. It is true that such a placing would be done easily, but it also appears that there is sufficient space between the radius and ulna near the wrist to allow a nail to enter. The position of the nail still remains a point of minor controversy, although the great weight of evidence indicates that it was placed through the carpal bones, which it separated but did not fracture. The bloodstain on the left wrist is composed of two projecting stains which are separated from one another by approximately a ten-degree angle. This angulation is an evidence of the fact that the body while suspended on the cross assumed two different positions in such a way that the blood running from the nail hole in the wrist ran downward from the wrist in two slightly divergent streams. This fact is further supported by examination and measurement of the angles of flow of the blood streams on the forearms. Each of these blood streams on the image extends almost horizontally. If one were able to extend the arms laterally until the blood streams were vertical, it would be found that they are extended in a position approximately sixty-five degrees from the horizontal.

From the positions of the streams of blood both on the wrist and on the forearm, it is obvious that there must have been some other support for the body than the nails in the wrists. The author was privileged to observe the suspension of a human on a cross and also to suspend himself for a brief period of time, using leather wristlets as supports. The pain suffered by a suspension by the wrists alone is all but unbearable, with the tensions and strains being directed to the deltoid and pectoral muscles. These muscles promptly assume a state of spasm, and the victim so suspended is physically unable to make use of his thoracic muscles of respiration. However, as soon as a support is provided for the feet, the suspended victim is able to relieve the strain on his wrists and to direct his weight toward his feet. By so doing, he elevates his body to a slight degree by extension of his legs. This change in position is of approximately ten degrees and readily accounts for the divergence in the streams of blood as they pass down the wrists and forearms on the Shroud image. The fact that on the imprint of the hands no thumb is visible is explained by the fact that the nail passing through the bones of the wrist either penetrated or stimulated the median nerve. The motor function of the median nerve is flexion of the thumb, and the flexed thumb over the palm remained in that position after rigor mortis was established and for that reason does not appear on the hand imprint. Some suggestion of the pain suffered by a suspended victim with a nail through or near his median nerve is possible when one realizes that the median nerve is a sensory as well as a motor nerve.

A study of the imprints of the feet is somewhat less complicated than the study of those of the arms and hands. On the Shroud there are two prints representing the marks left by blood-covered feet. One of these, the mark of the right foot, is a nearly complete footprint on which the imprint of the heel and the toes can be seen clearly. In the center of this is a square image surrounded by a pale halo and representing the position of the nail in the foot. The imprint made by the left foot is considerably less clear and does not in any way resemble a footprint. Examination of the calves of the legs on the dorsal view shows that the right calf has left a well-defined imprint on which the marks of the scourge can be well seen. The imprint of the left calf is considerably less distinct, and this, coupled with the fact that the left heel is elevated above the right heel, leads to the conclusion that there is some degree of flexion of the left leg at the knee, and that the development of rigor mortis has left the leg in this position. It appears that the right foot was directly against the wood of the cross, and that the left leg was flexed slightly at the knee and the foot rotated so that the left foot rested on the instep of the right foot. By this position, the blood on the soles is accounted for readily. A single nail was then used to fix both feet in position. Whether or not there was any other support for the feet than the wood of the cross has been a matter of some conjecture, and up to the present time the point cannot be settled. The reason for the nailing of the feet was twofold: the simplest reason was to prevent the victim from flaying his legs about, but the second reason was more basic and depended upon the fact that a victim supported only by his wrists was unable to survive for more than a very short time. By having some kind of foot support, he was able to alternate his position, resulting in the prolongation of his agony. This fact becomes obvious when one positions himself on a cross suspended by his wrists alone. By breaking the legs of the crucified person, the foot support is removed and death occurs more rapidly.

The marks on the head constituted the third group of injuries. On the front of the face, in the forehead, there are several blood prints. One of these has the shape of a figure 3. On the back of the head, circling the scalp, is another row of blood prints. These were left by the crown of thorns. High on the scalp are similar blood stains which can be explained if one assumes that the crown of thorns, instead of a circlet, was shaped more like a cap and that there were branches and thorns laced over the top of the cap. The thorns were of the Zizyphus spina species and were approximately one inch in length. Passing through the skin and subcutaneous tissues of the scalp, they lacerated vessels and, as is well known of scalp injuries, there was a considerable amount of bleeding because of the retraction of the torn vessels. On the face, corresponding to the right cheek, there is a swelling of the malar region which has resulted in partial closure of the right eye. Presumably this injury occurred during the time of the trial in the courtyard of Caiaphas, when it is recorded that Christ was struck in the face by one of the soldiers. There is a very slight deviation of the nose, possibly reflecting a fracture of the nasal cartilage. At the tip of the nose there is a bruise which may have occurred during one of the falls while carrying the cross. A small mustache is readily visible on the upper lip, and covering the chin is a short beard which is divided into two portions. The straightness of the sides of the face and the separation of the locks of hair from the face are accounted for by a chin band which was placed around the jaw and over the top of the head.

The last of the major wounds on the body of Christ is that in the right side. This wound was made by the lance after death, and although it is partly obliterated by one of the several patches on the cloth, its imprint is still clear. This imprint of blood shows the effects of gravity and actual drips and droplets of blood are clearly seen. There is also evidence of separation of clot from serum. At this point, and also more clearly seen on the dorsal imprint near the lower portion of the back, there is sign of another fluid which has been mingled with blood. In the writing of John, it is stated after the lance pierced the side of Christ, there was an outflow of blood and water. The source of the blood cannot be seriously questioned since it must have come from the heart, and from the position of the blood imprint as well as its structure it can be assumed that this blood came from the right side of the heart. This chamber was dilated after death and when pierced by the lance, the blood readily flowed from it. A considerable portion of the blood must have dripped onto the ground, but enough was left to form a large stain on the chest and to be later transferred to the Shroud. The source of the water described by John presents more controversy. One possibility is that the fluid represented pericardial fluid. However, the amount of pericardial fluid normally present is in the nature of 20 to 30 cubic centimeters, too small an amount to be seen by the naked eye as it came out of the wound in the side with the blood from the heart.

Another theory is that there was a hydrohemothorax caused by the trauma to the chest by the scourging and increased by the position of the body on the cross prior to death. By gravity the heavier blood could have separated, leaving two layers, and when the lance pierced the side it released first the blood and then the clear fluid. A combination of the two theories might well explain the situation. An accumulation of fluid in the pleural space without hemorrhage is a logical conclusion as the result of congestive heart failure related to the position of the victim on the cross. It is quite possible that there was a considerable amount of fluid so accumulated, enough that when the lance pierced the side, that fluid would be clearly seen. Then by an actual puncture of the heart there would be an outflow of blood. If the theory of pleural effusion plus puncture of the right side of the heart were sustained, it would be expected that the water would have been visible from the side before the blood and that John's words would have appeared as "water and blood' rather than "blood and water." As a matter of interest, the words appear in the former sequence in several of the early Greek translations of the New Testament.

When the body was removed from the cross and placed in a horizontal position, there was a second large outflow of blood from the wound in the side. Much of this must have fallen onto the ground, but some stayed on the body and flowed around the right side, leaving a large imprint of clot and serum in the lumbar area. It is in this imprint where the mixture of the blood and the watery fluid is best seen and its presence on the back lends further support to the theory that there was a pleural effusion rather than the water having come from the pericardial sac.

In summary, the legal facts as related to the trial of Christ have been examined and the various illegalities of procedural and substantive law have been reviewed. This has been followed by a resume of the medical aspects of the Passion and Death as revealed by a study of the Shroud at Turin. Taken in combination, the legal and the medical studies add a great deal to the store of knowledge available about the facts of Christ's last days.



Babylonian Talmud (1952) London: Socino Press. Barbet (1953) A Doctor At Calvary. N.Y. P.J. Kenedy. Bishop (1957) The day Christ Died. Harper Bros. Brandon (1968) The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth. London: Batsford. Bulst (1954) Das Grabtuch von Turin. Frankfurt: Verlag Josef Knecht. Bulst (1957) McKenna and Galvin, The Shroud of Turin. Bruce. Chandler (1925) The Trial of Jesus. Harrison Co. Hynek (1951) The True Likeness. Sheed and Ward. Jewish Encyclopedia (1903) Funk and Wagnall. McEvoy (1945) Death Image of Christ. Melbourne: St. Dominic Priory. New Catholic Encyclopedia. Otterbein, Adam J. Personal Communications. Rinaldi (1940) I saw the Holy Shroud. Mary Help of Christians School. Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (1943). Wingo (1954) A Lawyer Reviews the Illegal Trial of Christ. Wingo Publications. Wuenschel (1954) Self Portrait of Christ. Holy Shroud Guild

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