By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Early Christianity


At one point, the apostle Thomas stated he wouldn't believe in Jesus' resurrection until he had put his fingers in the marks on his hands, and his hand in the wound on his side. I've heard that through the centuries other people have borne the marks of Jesus' crucifixion. What can you tell us about that?


The word that has been given to the phenomenon you describe is "stigmata." It is the plural form of a Greek word meaning, "stigma." It referred to the marks that were pricked or branded onto animals, slaves, or soldiers to help identify them. Paul was the first one who used it in connection with Jesus. He wrote in Galatians 6:17: "I bear on my body the marks of Jesus." Anyone who has these marks is known as a stigmatic or stigmatist.

The first known stigmatic was St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order. Two years before his death in 1226 CE, he went up a mountain for a forty day fast. While praying, St. Francis saw a vision of a six-winged angel bearing the marks of crucifixion. He was overcome with emotion, believing it to be a sign from God. When the angel left, St. Francis bore the same marks in his hands, feet, and side. Further reports indicate that the nails were also visible, sticking out of both sides of his hands and feet. Periodically, his side also oozed blood. Reports indicate he suffered mightily from these wounds. Two years after his death, he was proclaimed a saint.

While the appearance of the nails is unique to St Francis, more than 300 people have reported being afflicted with stigmata. Not all reports are the same. Some people have five wounds; others experience marks on their foreheads in reference to the crown of thorns. Others have marks on their backs as a result of scourging or flogging.

Sometimes these marks bleed; they can also appear without a cause and disappear suddenly. Some marks have specific shapes, like a circle or a cross. Some glow in the dark. Sometimes they are merely purple splotches; other times they are weeping sores. Reports indicate that even long-standing wounds do not have an odor; in fact, they are said to be "sweet-smelling." Stigmata appeared on one individual like clockwork – appearing and disappearing at exactly the same time every week for fifteen years. Sometimes they are invisible, yet are known by the severe pain they cause.

So why does this happen and what scientific explanations have been offered? The fact that the first experience of stigmata surfaced in the Middle Ages makes scholars wonder if anything changed at that time. Indeed, there was a lot of re-thinking on the suffering of Jesus. In attempts to share in his suffering, mystics were known to inflict pain upon themselves, refrain from food and drink, and experience religious trances. Many modern stigmatics have said that they went into a trance and believed they had been crucified. Upon awaking, they bore the marks of Jesus. People of faith believe these signs are from God and that the person bearing the marks is very close to God. Needless to say, most stigmatics are devout Christians, specifically Roman Catholics.

Yet there are many others who doubt these claims. Critics have indicated that the Romans were more likely to put a nail through the wrist rather than the hand because it was stronger. Others think the Romans used rope to tie people to the cross. Why, then, does the stigmata appear on the hands? And if these are supernatural signs, why is there such variation among them?

Up to this point, it appears that no miraculous occurrence has ever been tested or studied by controlled scientific methods. It is possible, then, that someone could inflict a wound upon his/her body while in a religious trance and not remember doing it. People with multiple personalities are not always aware what their other personality is doing. There is also the possibility of a psychosomatic element, identified as psychogenic purpura. In this situation, unexplained, but painful, bruises occur on the body – usually the extremities or face. It is sometimes known as "hysterical bleeding."

In other cases, someone might inflict him- or herself in an effort to gain notoriety or appear exceedingly pious. Some individual claims have turned out to be nothing but a big hoax. In these situations, acid or paint have been used to create the wounds.

Despite the occasional deception, many still believe these are signs from God. And the chosen person, is indeed, close to God.

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