The Shroud of Turin is a controversial and enigmatic Christian artifact that may be the only physical object remaining from Jesus’ life. The Shroud was on display in the cathedral in Turin, Italy in 2015 for the first time in five years. At its last showing in 2010, more than two million people personally viewed it, and images were broadcast worldwide. According to Christians, this fourteen-foot-long, linen shroud is direct evidence of a central tenant of Christianity, the resurrection. Photos of the image on the Shroud—a bearded man lying in repose complete with wounds and bloodstains—was first shown to the masses in 1898.
Skeptics claim the relic was fabricated in medieval Europe. In 1988 some of the threads were carbon dated to the thirteenth or fourteen centuries, but these findings are highly contested among both believers and nonbelievers. In fact, there is also no commonly agreed upon explanation for how, using medieval technology, the image could have been created on the cloth. According to former Nature editor Philip Ball: “It’s fair to say that, despite the seemingly definitive tests in 1988, the status of the Shroud of Turin is murkier than ever.” For many, though, there’s a wealth of other evidence pointing to the notion that the Shroud is much older and, indeed, has a history that is, if anything, extraordinary.
The Shroud of Turin made its first undisputed appearance around 1350 in the possession of the French Knight, Geoffroi de Charny. In 1453, Margaret de Charny deeded the Shroud to the House of Savoy. In 1578 the Shroud was transferred to Turin where it was stored and displayed in the Chapel of the Shroud. In 1983, the Shroud was given to the Holy See and has since been housed in the Turin Cathedral. As a religious icon in medieval France, like many other prized relics, the Shroud had a busy life; indeed, it was hung from the walls of cities, displayed to huge crowds, and even given a gun salute. It was also shown to visiting dignitaries, the religious elite, and frequently deployed to bless especially privileged marriages.
The Shroud has not had an easy life. In 1532, it was damaged in a fire in the chapel of Chambéry, when melted silver from the reliquary in which it was stored burned a symmetrical mark through the folded layers of the cloth. Nuns repaired the damage with linen patches. Further repairs were made in 1694 and in 1868. Most recently, a fire threatened the Shroud in 1997. Consequently, in 2002 the Holy See had the Shroud carefully restored, removing the cloth backing and patches from earlier repairs. At this point in time the cloth was photographed extensively, and, surprisingly, another faint body image was discovered on the half of the fabric that was once folded in the back and had been covered by the cloth backing. Today the complete set of Shroud images can be easily found on the Internet.
For many historians, the carbon-dating tests of 1988 closed the door on any possibility of the Shroud being of sufficient age to have been the icon mentioned in Edessa. But there are doubts about the reliability of its carbon dating. Further investigation of the Shroud determined that some of the earlier burn repairs were very fine; the dated material could have come from the newer repaired fibers. All the samples were taken from the same spot on the Shroud, and not from several areas as we might have expected. Moreover, it is argued, contact with many people over time could easily have contaminated the carbon.
Still other scientific studies also contradict the dating. A study of pollen in the cloth showed fibers more than 1300 years old. Moreover, the fabric weave is similar to that of first-century Jewish cloth. A recent examination of genetic material in the cloth found a tremendous diversity of DNA. According to Italian scientists who did the research, “Such diversity does not exclude a medieval origin in Europe but it would be also compatible with the historic path followed by the Turin Shroud during its presumed journey from the Near East.” This study also suggested the cloth may have been manufactured in India. The wounds shown in the image are generally agreed to be an accurate portrayal of someone who was, indeed, crucified and are consistent with weapons used by Roman soldiers. Swiss textile historian Mechthild Flury-Lemberg was one of the specialists in the 2002 restoration work. A stitching pattern she found on one long side of the Shroud, she said, was “similar to the hem of a cloth found in the tombs of the Jewish fortress of Masada, dating from 40 BC and AD 73.” She claims that this kind of stitch had never been uncovered in medieval Europe.
Most recently and contentiously, medieval specialist Dr. Barbara Frale wrote in the Vatican in-house newspaper that the very faint letters discovered around the head of the image are the impressions left from a burial certificate of a man named Yeshua Nazarani. She suggests that such a certificate would have been placed on the head of the body. She deciphered fragments of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin to locate its date as the year 16 of the reign of Emperor Tiberius. She claims that the language used, the mention of the Nazarene and the confirmation of the date lend the Shroud even more authenticity. Dr. Frale also recovered a document in the Vatican archives that describes the initiation ceremony of the young Frenchman Arnaut Sabbatier into the Templar order. A Templar leader showed him, he said, “a long linen cloth that bore the impressed figure of a man, and ordered him to worship it, kissing the feet three times.” This is further evidence that the Templars had the Shroud early in the thirteenth century.
There are no generally accepted theories about the image’s creation. The images appear to be scorched on, yet not created by heat, and are strangely limited to the surface fibers of both layers of the cloth. Evidence indicates that the blood on the cloth preceded the image. A recent study found that there are no brush strokes on the fabric; paints, pigments, or dyes did not make the marks. One study proposed that the chemical characteristics are “impossible to obtain in laboratory.” Researchers concluded that the exact quality of the images could only be created by a sudden blast of high-energy radiation. These scientists used lasers to replicate some of the marks on the cloth, which they state obviously couldn’t have been done in the Middle Ages.
The idea of flashes of light creating an image reinforces the Christian belief that the Shroud is an artifact of the moment of Resurrection and transubstantiation of his flesh. Even if one is not a believer and is open to the research that is available, it seems that there was a person who fits the description of Jesus who underwent some kind of transformation while lying under the shroud.
One possible explanation for what happened to the cloth recalls Jesus’ “lost years,” and the suggestion that he spent time in the East and in India. When he shows up in the gospels at age 30, his miraculous abilities go unexplained. In 1887 the Russian adventurer Nicolas Notovich claimed that he’d learned of a document about the “Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men.” This text suggests that Jesus studied in India with Buddhists and Hindus. Although Notovich’s claims and even the existence of this document is suspect, Jesus’ miracles recorded in the Bible are similar to records of miracles performed by some of the Saints of India.
In India, the manifestation of special siddhis, or extraordinary powers, is a result of intensive transformative practices or a realized state of being. These siddhis include manifestation of food and other objects, healing of self and of others, generating light and heat around the body, affecting the weather, levitation, and even bringing someone back from the dead. The recently deceased Hindu saint Sai Baba reportedly manifested many of these phenomena, which like Jesus’ miracles drew people to his teachings. To Yogis, siddhis are also thought to be a distraction on the spiritual path and not the end goal, whereas raising spiritual energy (kundalini) and the accompanying spiritual realization was the primary goal.
The twentieth century Indian spiritual master Meher Baba suggested that when Jesus was crucified, he did not die physically. Rather he entered into a form of suspended animation called Nirvikalpi Samadhi—the God State. Researchers and skeptics of miraculous explanations have made similar suggestions. From the outside, suspended animation can appear exactly as death with no heartbeat, body heat, or respiration. This phenomenon has been scientifically scrutinized numerous times, even in the West in nonreligious and nonspiritual circumstances. Normally, when someone re-awakens from suspended animation, they simply, gradually become active again. Meher Baba’s suggestion is that when Jesus’ consciousness came back into his body in the cave, he experienced some kind of kundalini awakening and his physical body went through a dramatic, energetic healing. It was this event, some say, that left the imprint on the fabric.
The Shroud recorded one moment, and from then onward, whatever happened to the actual person under the Shroud, if it was Jesus, is a mystery. Some say he ascended to heaven; others say he simply died, and the image recorded a naturally occurring bodily process. Others say he was healed, reanimated, or even transformed, and walked away. Meher Baba suggested Jesus went back to India and ended up living in Ladakh. Another story promoted in the popular book Holy Blood, Holy Grail is that he married, had children, and traveled to France. In this theory, Jesus’ bloodline is the actual grail. Like any great murder mystery, having no body means the truth might never be known. Regardless, Jesus’ disciples had their personal experience of the transformational event that led them to their own actions.
Credulous researchers have differing theories as to the Shroud’s immediate fate. Some researchers suggest that it might have been Joseph of Arimathea who owned the tomb in which Jesus’ body was placed, and it was he who collected the Shroud after Jesus left. Others suggest it might have been Peter or Mary. Undoubtedly the first person to find it would have recognized the symbolic and perhaps energetic significance of the object.
So why is there no record of the Shroud early on? A powerful icon of Jesus, even if not an energetic imprint, would have been a dangerous artifact at the time of Jesus’ execution. So if it was authentic, it was likely kept quiet and hidden away. J.R. Watts suggests in his Shroud Codes website and forthcoming book that all references to the Shroud and its miraculous nature were deliberately obscured in the descriptions from the disciples in order to protect the secret of the Shroud. Certainly throughout history different groups have had an interest in the idea of a Shroud artifact recording Jesus’ sacred death.
The Historian Daniel Scavone goes one step further and suggests, since Joseph of Arimathea is connected to the Shroud, and since the myth of the Shroud is identified with the blood and body of Jesus, the Shroud might be the source of the Grail myth. Scavone refers to a fifth century Georgian document that records Joseph’s travels to the Britio Edessenorum, which was the Royal Palace complex in Edessa at the time. The term Britio was confused with Britain, leading historians to think that Joseph and the grail went to Britain.
The Georgian manuscript also describes how Joseph caught Jesus’ blood in the burial Shroud. Scavone suggests that the theme of a “vessel” holding the blood recorded in Byzantine texts, and first seen in the West during the First through Fourth crusades, sparked the initial writings on the grail. In these texts the Shroud was described as containing body and or blood, as would a container. The first description of the grail described it as a cup, and this image stuck. The Mandylion did have an actual secret: it was more than a face; it was the whole cloth and contained Jesus’ blood as well. This was the original secret of the grail along with the physical record of Jesus’ transformation. Thus, it seems logical that the Templars believing this grail had supreme mystical significance would have recovered the artifact in Constantinople and subsequently protected it with their lives from the Inquisition upon their return to France.
The mystery of the Shroud is certainly not clear or near to being solved, but the evidence suggests the possibility of a miraculous or transcendent experience involved in its creation and its correlation to Jesus. The subject of Jesus’ life invokes a wide gambit of spiritual and metaphysical speculation, and perhaps no aspect of it more so than the circumstances and ultimate import of his death. The supernatural implications of the Shroud of Turin crystalize some of those debates and invite the curious to explore the physical implications of a living god or ascended being as perhaps even the Christian Bible does not.
Patrick Marsolek leads groups and teaches classes in extended human capacities, consciousness exploration, personal development, and compassionate communication. He is the author of Transform Yourself: A Self-hypnosis Manual and A Joyful Intuition. See http://www.PatrickMarsolek.com for more information.