The Trials of the Shroud

Science vs. Faith—Why the Jury Is Still Out

On August 26, 1988, The London Evening Standard carried banner headlines declaring the Shroud of Turin a fake. Radiocarbon testing at Oxford and two other laboratories dated it to the fourteenth century, and a leak from the Oxford lab resulted in a premature release of the news. As the story was picked up by media around the world, it was undoubtedly disheartening, if not shattering, to millions of Christians who had come to believe that the shroud was the burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth, and the empty tomb served as proof that he had in fact risen from the dead.

The cloth, measuring 14 feet, 3 inches by 3 feet, 7 inches and kept in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, displays the image of a man who apparently had been crucified after having been scourged. It includes multiple blood stains and smears, what appears to be a wound from a spear piercing his side, a wound in one wrist (which overlaps the other wrist), a single spike through both feet, and head wounds consistent with a “crown of thorns,” all in accord with biblical accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus in the first century AD. Most importantly, the human imprint on the cloth cannot be explained by science and is taken by “believers” as evidence of some kind of miraculous radiation burst that was the resurrection, the very foundation of Christianity.

On February 16, 1989, Nature, a highly regarded scientific journal, stated that “results provide conclusive evidence that the linen of the Shroud of Turin is medieval,” and on March 9, 1990, the British Museum began an exhibition entitled, “Fake: The Art of Deception,” which included a life-sized transparency of the Shroud.

Science had haughtily spoken, and Christians who had moved from blind faith to conviction in their belief that consciousness survives death and that we live on in another realm of existence were humbly forced to revert to faith alone. It was yet another impeachment of religion in a more enlightened age. Or was it?

Ten years before the radiocarbon testing, during October 1978, a team of American scientists known as the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), headed by Dr. John Jackson, a professor of physics at the U. S. Air Force Academy, spent five days in Turin studying the shroud. The team, which included 33 members from various disciplines, concluded that there is no evidence that an artist created it, the primary theory of debunkers. “No pigments, paints, dyes, or stains, have been found on the fibrils,” the 1981 official summary of the STURP team reads. “X-rays, fluorescence, and microchemistry on the fibrils preclude the possibility of paint being used as a method of creating the image.”

The STURP scientists further concluded that the image is not the result of a scorching and that the blood stains were likely present before the image, a critical point weighing heavily against the forgery theory. Further, the blood flow followed gravity in every instance. “We can conclude for now that the Shroud image is that of a real human form of a scourged, crucified man,” the report ends. “It is not the product of an artist. The bloodstains are composed of hemoglobin and also give a positive test for serum albumin. The image is an ongoing mystery and until further chemical studies are made, perhaps by this group of scientists, or perhaps by some scientists in the future, the problem remains unsolved.”

More than two years earlier, during February 1976, Jackson and Robert Mottern of the Sandia National Laboratory, viewed the shroud with a VP-8 Image Analyzer, which revealed that the image is three-dimensional, not two-dimensional, as it would be with a work of art.

In effect, the STURP team could tell what the shroud wasn’t but not what it was. While the later radiocarbon testing seemed to rule out the Jesus connection, scientists and inquisitive minds were still left to wonder how it was produced and why. If not the work of an artist or forger, how did it come to be? If not Jesus, then who? To the pure scientist, the questions of “how” and “why” are more important than the question of “who”; and so the radiocarbon testing was by no means the end of the story, even though it put a damper on it for a time.

The extant shroud kept in an underground vault at the Turin cathedral can be traced back to AD 1349, within the range of 1260 to 1390, the years finally decided upon, considering margins of error, by the scientists doing the radiocarbon testing. It was on April 10 or April 16, 1349, that Geoffrey de Charny, a French knight, wrote to Pope Clement VI and informed him that he had possession of the shroud, which he is believed to have acquired in Constantinople. He further told the pope that he would be building a church in Lirey, France. The first known exposition of the shroud was held in Lirey around 1356.

The history of the shroud before 1349 is sketchy and inconclusive, but it has been surmised that the mystical Face of Edessa, referred to as the Mandylion of Constantinople, was in fact the shroud of Jesus. It was folded in four, so that only the face was displayed and seen. Vague legends have this shroud located in Edessa, an early Christian community some 400 miles northeast of Jerusalem, during the first few centuries and then brought to Antioch, between Jerusalem and Edessa, where it remained until about 540, before being returned to Edessa. In or around 943, the emperor in Constantinople acquired it from the emir of Edessa for 12,000 pieces of silver and a promise to end a siege on Edessa. It then remained in Constantinople until Charny somehow gained possession of it, although there are indications that it may have been in Greece for a short period.

All four gospels of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—refer to the shroud, saying that Joseph of Arimathea took the body down and wrapped it in a linen cloth. John states that Nicodemus assisted Joseph. We further read in John that disciples John and Simon Peter, upon discovering the empty tomb of Jesus on the third day, “seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.” (Though controversial, John, the disciple, is believed to have been the same John who authored the gospel of John.)

The inference by many Bible scholars has been that the linen cloth (or “clothes”) remained undisturbed in place where it was wrapped around the body, while the “napkin,” or face cloth, was set aside. If the body was, for whatever reason, stolen during the night, one long-held theory, the question presenting itself is why the tomb robbers would have unwrapped a decomposing body before carrying it off, especially considering that it was against Mosaic Law to touch a corpse. It would have been much more hygienic and easier to transport if left wrapped within the shroud.

Like the shroud, the so-called “napkin” is believed to still exist today and is referred to as the Sudarium of Oviedo. The 33-by-21-inch “sweat cloth” has been preserved in a chapel in Oviedo, Spain, since the seventh century. It is said to have been draped over Jesus’s face before the shroud was placed over him. Also controversial, as is everything concerning the shroud, forensic studies have suggested that the blood on both the sudarium and the shroud are of the rare AB type and that they “line up” with each other. “From the forensic point of view, it is clear that the shroud wrapped the dead body of a man who had been whipped, crowned with thorns, and crucified,” concluded Guillermo Heras Moreno, Jose-Delfin Villalain Blanco, and Jorge-Manuel Rodriguez Almenar, three Spanish scientists who examined various studies and weighed them. “The Sudarium of Oviedo wrapped the head of a body whose death is perfectly compatible with crucifixion and the wounds inflicted before death visible on the Shroud. The two deaths are very similar.”

Skeptics point to the historical fact that crucifixion was a common form of execution in Jesus’s time and that the image on the shroud, however mysterious it might be, could have been the imprint of any one of hundreds, even thousands, of humans executed by crucifixion. The believers counter with the blood evidence suggesting a crown of thorns as well as the spear wound in the lower abdomen. Though speculative, it seems unlikely that others who were crucified would have been mocked with a crown of thorns. The spear wound cannot be ruled out with other crucifixion victims, but it is consistent with biblical accounts. Nor is there historical evidence that others were so brutally tortured, as the blood evidence shows, before being crucified.

Adding to the evidence are microscopic traces of flowers and spices taken from both the shroud and the sudarium that are unique to the area around Palestine and used in burials in that area. However, among 49 species of plants identified in one study of the shroud, 16 species were from northern Europe.

More recent studies with the 3-D image analyzer point to the fact that there are contours in the image, thus strongly suggesting that the shroud was in fact wrapped around a human body. Such contours are not found in paintings or other art work, adding even more to the argument against it being an artistic endeavor by Leonardo da Vinci or some other artist from his era. And while the image of the face on the shroud appears to be a man much older than 33, the age at which Jesus is said to have been put to death, Ray Downing, a computer graphics artist, was able to eliminate the contours and turn the two-dimensional image on the shroud into a three-dimensional figure, the result being a much younger man, one of perhaps 33.

While nothing is proven with absolute certainty, so much of the research suggests the Shroud of Turin was the Shroud of Jesus. Nevertheless, it is difficult to argue with the radiocarbon tests from three separate laboratories. Based on those tests, the shroud isn’t even close to being 2,000 years old. But science isn’t infallible. Early in 2005, Raymond N. Rogers, an internationally renowned chemist as well as a member of the STURP team, published a paper in Thermochimica Acta, a peer-reviewed journal, stating, “As unlikely as it seems, the sample used to test the age of the Shroud of Turin in 1988 was taken from a rewoven area of the Shroud. Pyrolysis-mass spectrometry results, from the sample area coupled with microscopic and microchemical observation, prove that the radiocarbon sample was not part of the original cloth of the Shroud of Turin. The radiocarbon date was thus not valid for determining the true age of the Shroud.”

It has been surmised that repairs were done in the area of the shroud subject to radiocarbon testing as a result of water damage, fire damage, pieces being clipped from it to give to certain dignitaries, or because damage resulted from its having often been hung from that edge for exhibitions.

While radiocarbon testing has dated the Sudarium of Oviedo to around AD 700, the history of the sudarium goes back to approximately AD 570, and the laboratory noted that later oil contamination could have resulted in faulty testing.

This possible error in testing the shroud has been subject to much debate, and it is highly unlikely that it will ever be resolved or that scientists will get an opportunity to carbon date other sections of the shroud, especially inner sections that would not have been subject to repairs or contamination to the same extent as the edges. In effect, science has failed to provide anything conclusive relative to the shroud. Those scientists claiming that the radiocarbon testing was valid must reconcile that evidence with the historical fact that Emperor Constantine abolished crucifixion as a means of execution in the Roman Empire in 337. They are left to provide some history attesting to crucifixion being a form of execution somewhere in Europe or the Middle East during the period 1260 to 1390. And they must explain how the shroud and sudarium match up, even though the sudarium dates back to at least the sixth century.

There are simply too many uncertainties, too many conjectures, too many inferences and too many suppositions—too much speculation for science. However, applying the legal rules of evidence to all of the research carried out to date can help us arrive at some conclusions even if not based on evidence as stringent as that required for laboratory science. Based on the many studies of the shroud, as documented at the shroud’s official website (https://shroud.com), the evidence supporting the argument that the shroud is a forgery clearly does not meet the “beyond a reasonable doubt” test of our criminal courts. In fact, the evidence in favor of it bearing the image of a man brutally beaten and crucified is strong enough to convince any reasonable person that it was a burial cloth wrapped around some human being. The evidence holding that the person once wrapped in the shroud was the man known as Jesus of Nazareth is not nearly as strong as the evidence pointing to its authenticity as a burial cloth for someone, but when one considers the crown of thorns and the blood match-up with the sudarium, it might very well meet the “preponderance of evidence” standard of our civil courts, meaning that the evidence for it outweighs the evidence against it.

As for how the image got on the cloth and what happened to the body, neither science nor the law is qualified to comment, other than that the body was likely not carried away by humans. That part of the story is more a matter of faith.

The idea of taking the Shroud of Turin to court is on its face absurd, but the application of the legal rules of evidence makes perfect sense. The most probable verdict:

  • It is not a fake or forgery, as science has judged it.
  • It was once wrapped around the corpse of a man who had been tortured and crucified.
  • It was more likely the shroud of Jesus than that of another crucified person.

 

CAPTION: STURP scientists, including Raymond Rogers (L) and Dr. John Jackson (R) examining the Shroud in October 1978.

A Hungarian manuscript from 1192–1195 discovered by György Pray shows the burial of Jesus. Notable are the L-shaped patches near the hands, suggesting a series of burn holes on the Shroud of Turin, and the unusual herringbone weave of the cloth in the lower panel, also suggesting the Shroud.

By Michael E. Tymn