One of the strangest things I had ever heard of in my early Christian life is the supposed burial shroud of Jesus Christ, popularly known as the Shroud of Turin. It didn’t take me long to dismiss it as just another Roman Catholic faux relic. From reading the Gospel of John I had the impression that Jesus had been wrapped in multiple cloths, with a separate cloth covering his face. This suggested to me that a single body-length cloth could not have been what Jesus was buried in. Finally, reports of a medieval carbon 14 dating in the late 1980’s seemed to put a nail in that particular coffin as far as I (not to mention most of the world) was concerned.
That is, until a friend of mine loaned me a book by Dr. Kenneth E. Stevenson, Image of the Risen Christ: Remarkable New Evidence About the Shroud (Toronto: Frontier Research Publications, 1999). The information in this post will be based on Stevenson’s book because he was one of the original study team sanctioned to examine the shroud. As the official spokesman for the team, he is in the best position to comment on the scientific findings.
It turns out that most of the actual science about the shroud was never directly released to the general public, but rather to several obscure technical and scientific journals designed for specialists in their fields. Because of this, the opinion of the general public is based on a limited amount of information, provided primarily by people with an interest in either disproving or doubting that it might be what its seems: the burial cloth of Jesus.
Where Did the Shroud of Turin Originate?
But where did it come from, and how did it come to be associated with Jesus? It turns out that there is a series of extra-biblical stories and legends that may connect the shroud to Jesus of Nazareth.
It was “discovered” in the 1300’s in France, but there is evidence in art history that it was known before. Based on study of Byzantine icons, the shroud image must have been known in the 500’s AD., when the image of Christ in the churches became more standardized. (p.32). The image that changed how Christ was represented is known as the “image of Edessa” or “the holy Mandylion,” a cloth found in 525 buried in a wall in Edessa (now Urfa), Turkey. In 944 it was taken to Constantinople, where it was rarely displayed, but revered as the true likeness of Christ.
In 1204 the Mandylion disappears in the sack of Constantinople by a marauding mob of crusaders from Western Europe. Historian Ian Wilson proposes that the Knights Templar hid the shroud. As King Philip tries to destroy the Templars, he burns to death, among others, leaders Jacques de Molay and Geoffrey de Charnay, whose name is virtually identical to that of the man who mysteriously turns up with the shroud in the mid 1350’s. Perhaps the same family?
In legend it is said that Abgar V, first-century ruler of Edessa, was stricken with leprosy. He wrote to Jesus in Palestine, asking him to come and cure him. Jesus is said to have sent a letter declining to come, but promising to send a disciple instead. Jude Thaddeus arrives some time after Jesus’ death and resurrection, bearing a holy cloth imprinted with the image of the Saviour.
Abgar V really existed, and we know that his area was evangelized shortly after Jesus’ resurrection. There is a tradition that a holy image of the Lord was associated with this evangelization. Unfortunately his son Mannu reverts to paganism and persecutes the Christians, and the image disappears from history until the cloth is discovered in the wall of the city centuries later.
Now we have a historic link, however tenuous, with Jesus’ time and locale.
Scientific Study of the Shroud
A team of scientists and historians, invited by the Vatican, studied the cloth in 1970’s and 1980’s. Dr. Stevenson is among them from the outset. Among their discoveries that did not reach the public:
Pollen samples from the cloth indicate that it had spent time in Israel, Turkey and France before resting in Turin, which is backed up by a legends about where a remarkably similar cloth (by different names) was kept in ancient times.
Gilbert Raes, whose field is ancient textiles, concludes that the weave is consistent with the Middle East in the first century A.D. Microscopes show traces of cotton, which was not used in Europe, but was common in the Middle East. He concludes that the loom on which it was made was a first-century Middle Eastern loom and that the cloth is a genuine first century cloth.
Conclusion: A European forger would have had to go to a great deal of trouble to pick up cloth woven in the first century on a loom in the Middle East, and pick up pollen spores from non-European plants to rub into it. That would have been very unlikely unless the forger had been able to link the various legends together and then gather the proper materials to create the forgery.
Even if a particularly clever forger had access to all of the materials and information above, that would only account for the materials used, and not how the image was put into the cloth. This is where the real problem for the forgery theory begins.
The image itself has been applied in a way that resembles a photographic negative, in which the light areas and dark areas are the reverse of what one would expect of a painting. It seems highly unlikely that a medieval artist would have conceived of reversing the lights and darks until the advent of modern photography.
Even that isn’t the worst problem for the forger. How did he get the image there in the first place?
There is no dye, ink, stain, paint or acid residue on the cloth. The image is somehow imprinted on the surface of the fibres, but not the interior, defying explanation. Modern science has yet to be able to reproduce that kind of image by any known method. Any methods touted as successful by outside researchers have failed to reproduce the quality of the image and have failed to affect only the surface of the fibers. In addition, most have left residues or scorch marks that were not found on the original shroud.
The original shroud also contains what scientists call “three-dimensional data encoded in it.” This means it had to have been draped over (not wrapped around, like a mummy) a three-dimensional object to leave that kind of impression. Again, no process for leaving that kind of information is available to modern science. To imagine that a 14th century artisan could produce it staggers the imagination.
The scientists determined that the image could not have been painted or etched with acid using either ancient or modern technology. The closest thing to a theory about it is that it may have somehow been “scorched” onto the fabric. Nobody has been able to figure out how to do it without burning the fabric or going deeper than the surface. Perhaps a “burst” of radiation of a nature unknown to us could have been the cause. Whatever it was could not have been present in the body while it was still alive, because it would have killed the man. (There are many signs that he died of wounds, not radiation. More on that later.)
Conclusion: How the image got there is still a mystery that science has not been able to solve. It is difficult to believe that a 14th century forger had figured out a method that can baffle modern science.
The Carbon 14 Dating Issue
Dr. Stevenson points out that the highly-touted Carbon 14 dating of the shroud had several problems:
- Samples were not sent in a way that was double-blind. Researchers knew which samples were the shroud and which were the control fabrics, allowing bias to enter the testing.
- The labs that created the less-destructive technique that was used were eliminated from testing, leaving less experienced labs to do the testing.
- The method itself does not test well with artifacts of known ages, often 400 years or more off due to the “de Vries effect” and “secular variance.”
- The labs did not account for “bioplastic” film on cloth, which would make it appear younger. For instance, Egyptian burial cloths test younger than the mummies inside them by 400-1000 years. Now researchers know why. The exterior cloth would be invaded by bioplastic-forming bacteria, but not the mummy itself.
For all of the reasons above, we cannot allow the Carbon 14 test to be the ultimate determinant of authenticity, especially when so much other data points to an earlier date and the impossibility of reproduction by known methods, ancient and modern.
Evidence of a Unique Crucifixion
Mentioned earlier is the unlikelihood of death by radiation. The reason? The image shows remarkable anatomical detail of a sort that we do not see until the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. Within that detail, the image itself shows clear signs of crucifixion. Actually, they are signs of a very specific, historically-recorded crucifixion that was unique in several respects. Here are a few of the details.
- We can see nail holes in wrists and feet. (Nothing unusual there in crucifixion.)
- There are at least 120 gashes along his back and upper legs, complete with blood traces on the cloth. (Not always a feature of crucifixion, but definitely there in Jesus’ case.)
- There is a wound that would have been between the 5th and 6th ribs on the right side, also with blood traces. (Very unusual for crucifixion, but definitely recorded for Jesus).
- There are also signs of lacerations all over the top of the head of the person in the shroud, as if a “cap of thorns” had been placed on his head. (Only in Jesus’ case, so far as any records of crucifixion mention.)
- The legs were not broken, but the knees had abrasions. (This suggests that the victim fell to his knees at some point while carrying something heavy, such as the cross. It also indirectly recalls that Jesus was so weak that Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the cross-piece for Jesus, who had probably fallen and could carry it no further.
In spite of the evidence of cruel death imprinted in the cloth, there is no indication of decaying flesh contaminating the cloth. Whoever the victim was did not stay in the cloth long enough to decay within it, as any other corpse would. If it is a burial cloth, it is unique in this respect.
What about the “head piece” that had me so convinced of the impossibility of it being for Jesus? Scholars assigned to the shroud studied first-century Jewish burial customs. It turns out that Jewish burials usually used multiple cloths. Hands and arms were bound across the pelvis, with feet bound together. Another strip of cloth was wrapped around the chin and over the top of the head to keep the mouth shut. It didn’t cover the face (pp. 96-102).
So the “head cloth” described in the Gospel was more than likely used as a chin strap to hold the mouth shut, without hiding the face. (Modern morticians sew the mouth shut nowadays, as I discovered when I briefly worked in a funeral home. I suppose that nobody wants to see a corpse that looks like it is ready to speak at any moment.)
The image fades in the places you would expect that type of chin strap to be located. Go figure.
If not Jesus, who is it?
The research into ancient burial cloths highlights one more, very important question. Why is it the only such cloth ever discovered in the world? Jesus was not the only person buried in such a cloth, so why have there never been other cloths discovered that had a person’s image impressed into it?
Could that be because Jesus’ experience of resurrection from the dead as the Son of God is unique, and therefore created a unique artifact?
I think I’ll definitely go with a “yes” on that one.