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Presentation makes tangible horrors of Roman crucifixion

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The cross is the central symbol of the Christian tradition.

It represents Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of humanity. At the same time, it was a very real, very cruel form of punishment used for hundreds of years.

Paintings and descriptions depict Christ in agony on the cross. But questions remain about exactly what it meant to be crucified.

On a day when Christians mourn Jesus’ death, Dr. Charles Dietzen will examine the medical and historical realities of the crucifixion in a program he calls “CSI Jerusalem.” His presentation in the Franciscan St. Francis Health auditorium on the southside will look at the forensics of crucifixion, how it was done in the first century and what the possible causes of death would have been.

Using specific passages from the Bible and props such as a replica of the Shroud of Turin, Dietzen will show how the descriptions of Jesus’ death offer clues to what his final moments were like.

“Essentially, it’s a postmortem on the individual image of the shroud,” he said. “Everyone loves these types of ‘CSI’ shows. What I like to do is stay with the information that would be used in medicine, but in plain, simple English explain what that is.”

Dietzen, an Indianapolis pediatric physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist and founder of Timmy Global Health, has collected artifacts related to the crucifixion from around the world. Online, he found an authentic iron nail used by the Romans, dating to around the first century. It would have been the same kind of nail used to crucify Jesus.

A small die, similar to what would have been used by Roman soldiers to divide up Jesus’ clothing, is also part of the presentation.

At one point, Dietzen will present a wickedly pointed spearhead, also dating from the first century. According to the Bible, Jesus was pierced in the side while he hung on the cross.

“It’s important that people have tangible evidence for what we’re talking about,” he said.

The presentation is based on an article Dr. Joseph Bergeron, an Indianapolis physician, wrote for the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine in 2011. He uses research published between 1950 and 2010 on the causes of death stemming from crucifixion. The causes range from a blood clot in the lungs to a rupture of the heart to asphyxiation. Shock and bleeding to death are also cited.

No definitive reason for the death is given, but using biblical verses, Bergeron pointed toward where each of the possible causes could have worked together to kill Jesus.

“The specific mechanism of Jesus’ death, or combination of contributing factors, cannot be proven,” Bergeron stated in his paper. “That Jesus suffered a brutal death by torture and crucifixion seems clear.”

Dietzen, a friend of Bergeron’s, suggested that they take that research and scholarly article and adapt it for the general public to get a sense of what crucifixion truly was.

They created the presentation in 2011. In it, Dietzen gives information such as the timeline of Jesus’ betrayal, sentencing and ultimate death. He shows the history of Roman crucifixion, used for more than 600 years as a torture and punishment. The evidence for what would have happened to Jesus comes from accounts throughout history of similar crucifixions and death by hanging from the arms.

Dietzen also presents inaccuracies in the images we’ve come to associate with crucifixion. Jesus likely never carried the entire wooden cross to Golgotha, the hillside site of his death. Rather, he would have carried the patibulum, or crossbeam, across his shoulders. Dietzen brings a replica of what that beam would have looked like — a rough-hewn piece of cedar that weighs almost 100 pounds.

“I was raised Catholic, and I’m trying to live in Jesus’ footsteps. To me, if you look at some of the stuff written over the years that talk about the facts behind the faith, it’s fascinating,” Dietzen said.

A full-sized replica of the Shroud of Turin is part of the presentation. The purported burial cloth of Jesus is a 14-foot-long cloth said to carry the image of Jesus, as well as remnants of the blood and sweat that covered him after being taken down from the cross. The authenticity of the relic has been questioned since it emerged in historical record in 525. But study by the Shroud of Turin Research Project, made up of 24 U.S. scientists, proved that material was consistent with first-century weaving.

The image on the shroud was not painted or dyed on. Rather, it was proved to be blood from a crucified man.

“I don’t think most people have an awareness that this shroud exists, this burial cloth of Jesus, nor do they understand the significance of the image and what it shows us about crucifixion,” Dietzen said.

Though not overly graphic, the presentation does deal with serious medical information. Diagrams and drawings show the trauma that may have been suffered, how people were nailed to a cross, and what the body does in that situation.

One of the lines in the book of Luke describes Jesus sweating blood. Though often taken as a euphemism for sweating profusely, there are medical records that show that under extreme stress, people often do sweat blood, Dietzen said. The condition is called hematidrosis. Blood actually comes from the pores, often around the face.

“People think that it’s an exaggeration, but no, it’s happened several times over the years,” Dietzen said.

Over the past two years of giving the lecture and presentation, Dietzen has been surprised by how little people know about the crucifixion. Understanding the physical side only strengthens the spiritual connectedness of Jesus’ sacrifice. He also hopes it lends credit to the accuracy of the Bible as a historical document.

“It’s very eye-opening. The New Testament description of Jesus dying on the cross, being pierced in the side by a spearhead, it matches exactly with what would happen,” Dietzen said. “They are extremely accurate with what happened.”

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