Shroud of Turin: Let’s include the basic facts, please

Readers who have been following GetReligion for some time, or even reading my Scripps Howard News Service columns, may remember that I have been keeping up with the debates about the Shroud of Turin since the mid-1980s, when I worked at The Rocky Mountain News in Denver. That meant that I wasn’t that far from some of the key American players in this lively field, both in Colorado Springs, Colo., and in Los Alamos, N.M.

Thus, over the decades, I have ridden the news waves about this fascinating 14-foot piece of herringbone linen through clashing reports about carbon dating, tests on pollens, tests on alleged blood stains, etc., etc., etc.

My all-time favorite quote on this subject, from a trip down to Los Alamos, was from a skeptic involved in the research: ““We’ve tested every method we can think of and none of them work. … It seems like we have proven that the shroud doesn’t exist. The only problem is that it does. In the end, it’s still there — staring at us.”

Shroud news tends to get more coverage in Europe than in the United States and the latest comes from The Telegraph, under a majestic double-decker headline that reads:

Turin Shroud ‘is not a medieval forgery’

The Turin Shroud is not a medieval forgery, as has long been claimed, but could in fact date from the time of Christ’s death, a new book claims

Now, veteran Turin watchers will know that the Catholic Church authorities have always walked a high wire on this subject, being extra careful not to express endorsement or condemnation on any tests. That is what makes some parts of this story — from the newspaper’s correspondent in Rome — so interesting.

Experiments conducted by scientists at the University of Padua in northern Italy have dated the shroud to ancient times, a few centuries before and after the life of Christ.

Many Catholics believe that the 14 ft-long linen cloth, which bears the imprint of the face and body of a bearded man, was used to bury Christ’s body when he was lifted down from the cross after being crucified 2,000 years ago.

The analysis is published in a new book, “Il Mistero della Sindone” or The Mystery of the Shroud, by Giulio Fanti, a professor of mechanical and thermal measurement at Padua University, and Saverio Gaeta, a journalist. The tests will revive the debate about the true origins of one of Christianity’s most prized but mysterious relics and are likely to be hotly contested by sceptics.

Scientists, including Prof Fanti, used infra-red light and spectroscopy — the measurement of radiation intensity through wavelengths — to analyse fibres from the shroud, which is kept in a special climate-controlled case in Turin. The tests dated the age of the shroud to between 300 BC and 400AD.

Please let me stress that my point in noting this story, yes on Good Friday in Western churches, is journalistic. My goal here is to create a kind of journalistic FAQ about key facts that need to be mentioned in basic Shroud of Turin coverage. The Telegraph story includes most of them, so let’s walk through it.

* First, it is essential to cover the 1988 carbon-dating tests that claimed medieval origins for the cloth. Thus, readers are told:

The experiments were carried out on fibres taken from the Shroud during a previous study, in 1988, when they were subjected to carbon-14 dating. Those tests, conducted by laboratories in Oxford, Zurich and Arizona, appeared to back up the theory that the shroud was a clever medieval fake, suggesting that it dated from 1260 to 1390.

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