Could the Shroud of Turin be Jesus’ actual burial cloth?

MARK’S QUESTION:

Is the Shroud of Turin really the burial cloth of Jesus?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Is Italy’s celebrated Shroud of Turin an authentic relic of Jesus Christ from the 1st Century that undergirds belief in his crucifixion and resurrection? Or a hoax from medieval times? Or an ingenious work of pious art? Or what? The Religion Guy will attempt to fairly summarize key aspects of this seasonal topic.

Quick answer: There is no undisputed, empirical proof that this was Jesus’ actual burial garment from 20 centuries ago, and chances are there never will be. Yet that’s not all. Mysteries hover, and it’s likely the debate will be unending to judge from recent decades.

The Holy Shroud (Santa Sindone in Italian, so students of it are called “sindonologists”) is “the most studied ancient artifact in existence,” says an organization of devotees. Probably true. The aged linen cloth, secured in Turin’s Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, measures 14 feet 3 inches by 3 feet 7 inches. It contains two faint brown images, front and back, of a thin, bearded man 5 feet 7 inches tall, showing blood stains and wounds consistent with crucifixion.

All four New Testament Gospels record that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus’ corpse in linen. Three Gospels say he used a “linen shroud” in the singular. But John states that on Easter morning Jesus’ empty tomb contained “linen cloths” plural. John also mentions a separate “napkin that had been on his head.” If that napkin covered the face, then why is there a face on the Turin shroud?

Since 1578 the shroud has been in Turin, where it is occasionally put on public display. More than 2 million pilgrims from many nations visited the last exhibition in 2015. Existing records can trace the garment to France as far back as 1357. Historians tell us it’s impossible to tell whether accounts before that refer to the Turin shroud or a different cloth. Documented provenance that would help establish authenticity is lacking.

During a French exhibition in 1389, the local bishop called the shroud a “cunningly painted” fraud that was “attested by the artist who painted it.” Yet in later times popes believed the relic was Christ’s own shroud. The Catholic Church has never officially pronounced on authenticity but commends veneration of the cloth because of its inspiring image of Jesus.

Modern-day excitement began with the first photographs taken in 1898. They produced the image you see all lover the Internet, which is defined and dramatized when viewed in the photographic negative. The photos aroused immense curiosity about how such an image could have been produced.

That leads to the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STuRP) organized by Colorado physicist John P. Jackson. His researchers shipped tons of equipment to Turin in 1978 for the only extensive scientific examination to date. Dozens of tests over six days involved x-ray, microchemical, ultraviolet and infrared analysis, and computerized image enhancement.

The team found that no paint or other pigments on the fibrils (micro-fibers) produce the ghostly image. Instead, it results somehow from oxidation, dehydration, and a chemical “polysaccharide structure.” Assorted techniques applied to other pieces of old linen could not produce the same sort of image. STuRP concluded, “The answer to the question of how the image was produced, or what produced the image, remains now, as it has in the past, a mystery.” Still true nearly four decades later.

The blood stains consisted of hemoglobin and serum albumin. Pollen samples removed from the shroud by sticky tape were later subjected to microscopic analysis by Israeli botanist Avinoam Danin. He found that the pollen came from plant species that grow only in Israel or nearby countries. That was said to establish that the cloth originated in the Holy Land, not Europe.

STuRP could not date the cloth through carbon-14 testing because the church denied permission to take textile samples that would be destroyed in the process. But in 1988 the Vatican allowed removal of samples the size of postage stamps that were sent to three carbon-14 laboratories. The results dated the fabric’s origin between 1260 and 1390, so most observers concluded this was either pious medieval art or a conscious fraud.

But proponents proceeded to debunk the debunkers. Britain’s Ian Wilson popularized belief in “The Blood and the Shroud: New Evidence that the World’s Most Sacred Relic is Real” (1998). Historian Charles Freeman responded that the book was “immensely enjoyable, but essentially fictional.”

Then Alan Whanger at Duke University Medical Center, among others, theorized that the carbon-14 samples were contaminated if they came from parts of the shroud that suffered fire and water damage long ago. Whanger also thought fungi and bacteria in the fibers could have skewed the dating. Others thought the carbon-14 tests might have mistakenly used medieval material that was grafted onto the original textile during repairs.

Subsequently, a team led by Giulio Fanti at Padua University issued a disputed claim that infrared light and spectroscopy examination of the fibers put the origin between 300 B.C. and A.D. 400, potentially spanning Jesus’ lifetime. Then nuclear scientist Alberto Carpinteri at the Turin Politechnico figured a Jerusalem earthquake in A.D. 33 might have released neutrons that produced the image (and corrupted the carbon-14 dating).

If intrigued by all this, you could attend the latest international conference for enthusiasts July 19 – 22 in Pasco, Washington. Speakers will survey the 35 years of “shroud science” since STuRP with the latest on neutron emission and other theories about image formation, dating, pollen, DNA evidence, the “missing years” in the shroud’s medieval history, and the “politics” of the carbon-14 dating.

 

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.