Saturday, January 5, 2013

Is the Shroud of Turin real?




At the schools where I work I have a talk series called “unsolved mysteries” wherein I investigate 
Front view of the Shroud of Turin
some of the miracles or apparent miracles that seem to confirm the truth of Catholicism. If you have been following my blog, you will see that I regard these remarkable phenomena as evidence for Catholicism- and to me each one is so convincing that even looking at one of them should produce real credence in the claims of Catholicism in the mind of a skeptic.  Here is a bit about my favorite one, the Shroud of Turin.  I decided to write about this based on what I know and from having done some investigating online.  I will try to represent the facts as accurately as possible, but please don’t hold me to the high standards expected of professional journalists or investigators!  If I am wrong about something, I will gladly admit it and amend my article. If you want a more precise article, I suggest Wikipedia.  I have every intention of presenting a biased account, while not being misleading!



The Shroud is believed to be the one that Jesus was wrapped in when he was crucified. The theory goes that when he rose his image was left on it, and so the shroud is a long piece of linen which had the brownish imprint of an apparently crucified man. The first thing that you need to know about the Shroud of Turin is that no one knows if it is real.   The Catholic Church has not made a claim one way or the other.  This is important, because even if the Shroud were proven to be false, this would not disprove Catholicism.  In my mind some of the other miracles would!  If Padre Pio’s Stigmata, or Our Lady of Guadalupe were proven false, this would have massive implications because the Church has declared Padre Pio and Juan Diego (who gave us the Our Lady picture) to be saints.  If they turn out to be charlatans, this calls into question the whole authority of the Church to teach on matters of faith and morals, and it could even be reasonable concluded that the Church knew they were fraudulent and was in on the hoax.  None the less, it should be stated that while the Church has not made a formal statement on the matter, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI clearly seemed to believe in it themselves.

The shroud first appears in undisputed history in France in 1390.  Immediately we should be suspicious of this, since this is an era where relics and faked relics are turning up all over Europe, as people cling to the hope found in Christ while the black plague takes its toll.  Add to that the fact that the Bishop of the region declared the thing a fake and says the forger confessed, and we should really have a closed case.  But none the less, the thing survived and was revered, burned in a fire, damaged by water, repaired by nuns, and analyzed by 20th century science.   Notably in 1988 it was subjected to  carbon dating, wherein a sample was taken and sent to 3 separate labs, all of whom concluded that the shroud was created in 1260-1390AD.  At this point of course many people declared the shroud a fake- but the intrigue goes on.  While the accuracy of the science goes largely unchallenged, the theory is that there was a ‘sampling error’- that they took a piece of the cloth that was not from the original cloth, possibly from a patch.  One of the scientists who worked on STURP (Shroud of Turin Research Project) even published an article in 2005 saying that "The worst possible sample for carbon dating was taken.”

It should be noted that since that time, a nuymber of other mechanical and chemical tests have been performed on the Shroud, dating it to between 280 BC and 220 AD, according to CNN.

Whatever the case, it seems that much the evidence presented so far is against the shroud, and indicates that it is a fake or at least a likely fake, and not really good evidence for Christianity.  A part of me would like to say that the Carbon Dating was so conclusive that whatever else, the thing is not real. But when I started looking into this I found the evidence to be overwhelmingly in favor of considering the thing to be real-  so much so that I could not so easily dismiss it, and began to take seriously the sampling error argument!

There’s a lot of evidence that I am not particularly interested in, although they support the argument;

·         The linen was of a type consistent with 1st century Jerusalem.

·         The chemical signatures of dirt found on the cloth are identical to those in 1st century limestone tombs in Jerusalem.

·         There is pollen and a flower imprint on the shroud consistent with springtime in Jerusalem- and some consistent with Edessa and Constantinople, where the shroud is believed to have travelled before going to France.

·         In 1902 the image was declared “anatomically flawless”, and while since then there have been arguments both in support and against this, most people, even skeptics, agree that this is the case and therefore the image must have been created using a real human body.

·         NASA scientists detected impressions of 1st century Palestine coins on the eyes.

And so on.  But what fascinates me the most is the way the image was created!  If you do your homework you will discover that the image has been, to some degree, duplicated- by painting a man in olive oil and wrapping a linen shroud around him and baking the shroud in the oven for several days.  So it could have been faked- but consider the following;

In 1898 the shroud was photographed for the first time by a man named Secondo Pia.  While developing his photos, Secondo Pia made an astonishing discovery- The shroud was a negative!  For those of you too young to remember film cameras, when a camera would take a picture, it would appear on the film with all of the colours reversed- light would become dark, yellow would become blue, etc.  You may have an app on your smart phone that allows you to do this even now.  Take a negative of a negative, and you get a positive.  Here’s the question that bothers me- why would some hoaxer in the 14th century make his image a negative when technology to discover that will not be invented for 500 years?  Granted, it could be done, with the whole olive oil and oven thing- but why bother?  How would you even think of that in the first place?  Why not just paint the thing?

On the other hand, if it was real, it makes sense that at the moment Jesus rose he emitted some super powerful light that left the imprint on the cloth just as happens on film in a camera.  Even then no one knows quite how it was done, but it is believed that the high resolution indicates that the light source lasted only for hundredths of a second.  (There are some who propose that Leonardo Da Vinci created the hoax himself, using an Arab photographic technology.  The fact that we have a clear historic record going back to 1390, well before was born, does not appear to be an issue. In my opinion theories like that do more to hurt the skeptic’s case than help it!)

The implications of Secondo Pia’s discovery were such that he was accused himself of fraud, until he was vindicated in the 1930’s.  In 1978, STURP (Shroud of Turin Research Project) was created to conduct scientific tests on the shroud.  As is consistent with other miracle investigations in the church, scientists were selected who were unbiased, many of them not even holding that Jesus rose.  I once heard a fascinating testimony by a Jewish photography expert asked to analyze the shroud, who protested that he did not believe in it, but after his analysis he declared it authentic.

In 1976 the shroud was placed under a VP8 Image Analyzer, used by NASA to create 3-dimensional images of the moon.  Astonishingly, it created a 3 dimensional image of a man.   This is astonishing because even other photographs fail to do that.  And they could not duplicate it.  More incredibly, the image has since then been made into a hologram, which is supposed to be impossible for 2-d objects.  The hologram reveals even more about the shroud.  The thing that stood out to me when I saw it (in a museum in Rome) was that the body appeared to be hovering over the cloth, not right against it. The implication is that it was photographed at a small distance- as if Jesus body somehow began hovering, with the shroud ballooning around it, then emitted the radiation which caused the image, possibly at the moment that he rose.

The other piece that astounds me is the evidence of the blood. First , the blood was on the shroud before the image. (Some dispute this). This would be extremely strange for someone to fake- paint blood streaks down where the arms will be, and arms on after.  The blood from the wounds, including the scourging, is consistent with the tortures described  in the passion narrative, to a degree that is not described and should not have been known to a 14th century fraudster.  Such as the nature of the roman scourge. Or the fact that he is pierced through the wrist, not the hand, as he was always portrayed in medieval art.  The blood from the side is separated into red blood cells and serum- as happens when someone dies, and as is attested by John “blood and water came out.”  Which by the way can only be determined under UV light.  The rest of the blood is from a living person- rather, they were living when the man bled.  

So, suppose someone was faking this.  They would have had to get a living man’s blood onto the shroud, then a dead mans, in the exact right places such that 21st century science could not conclusively show it to be wrong, scourging marks accurate, pierced through the wrist, include undetectable serum on in the side wound, then photograph the whole thing using technology newly introduced from the Arab world, such that it would create a negative image with a high enough resolution to create holograms, and then they have to bother to include flowers and pollen and coins….

Does it take more faith to believe that this is real, or to believe that it was faked?

So why does it only appear in 1390?  I would suggest that it was known about all along.  We know of something called the “Image of Edessa”, which was said to show the face of Christ. That disappears, and then Constantinople claims to have the burial cloth of Jesus.  That too disappears during the crusades, when Constantinople is sacked in 1204.  A French knight claims to have the burial cloth in Lirey in 1353.  Is it possible that it is all the same cloth?  I would put to you that it is possible and reasonable to think so.


In fact, I think there is evidence that this is the case in Byzantine Icons.  Judge for yourself the similarities in the images- shoulder length hair parted in the middle, long thin nose, thin mustache, gaunt cheeks, often a 2 part beard.  Anyone ever ask you how we know what Jesus looked like?

But what’s really striking are the eyes.  Often Jesus’ left eye is distorted in Byzantine art.  Notice that this is also the case on the shroud!  Is it possible that when Jesus was arrested that he was struck on the cheek, and his left eye was swollen?  That artists who created the icons copied the shroud, and ended up with the same line- unintentionally distorting his left eye?

To me the evidence is remarkably in favor of regarding the Shroud as genuine.  Furthermore, if it is genuine, this indicates that Jesus really rose from the dead- and of course the implications of that are staggering.  I admit that the evidence of the Carbon dating is strong-  but to me it does not outweigh the body of evidence in favor of the authenticity of the shroud, especially in that  there are such strong indications that there was a sampling error.   I leave it to you- is the shroud real, or just an utterly remarkable fake?

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