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

Shroud of Turin: Let’s include the basic facts, please March 29, 2013

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.

* Second, reporters really need to mention the fact that there were always doubts about those results because the fibers appeared to have been taken from cloth in a section of the shroud that was repaired — with interwoven cloth — after a fire in the Middle Ages. The Telegraph gets that part, too.

* Third, I think it is necessary to mention the issue of the Middle Eastern pollen and spores found on the cloth, which have been tested several times with interesting results:

(Fanti) said his tests backed up earlier results which claimed to have found on the shroud traces of dust and pollen which could only have come from the Holy Land.

* Finally, and this is tricky, it’s important to address the religious beliefs — pro or con — in the research team. Why ask the faith question? From the beginning, there have been religious believers of various kinds (Catholics, evangelicals, Jews) on both sides of these debates and there have been religious skeptics on both sides, as well.

In this case, the research has interesting, and strongly Catholic, roots:

Mr Fanti, a Catholic, said his results were the fruit of 15 years of research. … Mr Gaeta is also a committed Catholic — he worked for L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, and now works for Famiglia Cristiana, a Catholic weekly.

The Vatican has never said whether it believes the shroud to be authentic or not, although Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once said that the enigmatic image imprinted on the cloth “reminds us always” of Christ’s suffering.

His newly-elected successor, Pope Francis, will provide an introduction when images of the shroud appear on television on Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday, which commemorates the resurrection.

So what else is essential in this “just the facts” list for journalists? What other factual information can briefly be mentioned that has been address by believers and skeptics on both sides? In a key fact paragraph, this story mentions:

Scientists have never been able to explain how the image of a man’s body, complete with nail wounds to his wrists and feet, pinpricks from thorns around his forehead and a spear wound to his chest, could have formed on the cloth. Mr Fanti said the imprint was caused by a blast of “exceptional radiation”, although he stopped short of describing it as a miracle.

I think it’s essential to note that the image, the “imprint” — whatever it is — is so faint that, other than in areas that appear to be blood or water, it does not even penetrate individual fibers of the individual threads in the cloth. It appears to be a light scorch on the tops of the fibers. That would have required adding a few extra words.

Also, and here is the part that keeps stunning open-minded skeptics as well as the believers, the image has been shown — unlike ordinary paintings and photographs — to contain 3D information similar to photos taken from deep space. (See the History Channel video at the top of this post.)

Yes, the quality of that information has been debated, but I haven’t heard anyone totally dismiss it. Also, the shroud contains a photo-negative image, even through — whether of ancient or medieval origins — it long predates photography.

So I think this story misses maybe one or two absolutely necessary facts. Otherwise, this is about as straight and dispassionate a story as one can get in a mainstream news source, when dealing with this very emotional and divisive subject.

Four out of five stars, in other words.

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