The Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin is a 14 foot piece of cloth, stored at the current Cathedral in Turin, Italy, which has a faint image on the front and the back of a man who appears to have been crucified. The claim is that this is the burial shroud of Jesus Christ. As a scientist, and a non-Christian, with no ‘cross to bear’ on this subject, I have been fascinated by the amount of evidence presented by scientific researchers indicating that the Shroud is, indeed, genuine, and not a forgery by a medieval artist, as has been claimed by its detractors.

 Here, I would like to present the evidence supporting the proposition that the Shroud is genuine. I do this because I find the subject interesting, and hope to share it, but also because there is a conclusion to be drawn from the evidence that gives new insight into the story of Jesus’ life and death…and a possible explanation of why the Church seems so anxious not to have the Shroud proven to be genuine..

 First, a very brief history of the Shroud. The historical record dates from 1349, when Geoffrey de Charny, a French knight, writes to Pope Clement VI reporting his intention to build a church at Lirey, France. It is said he builds St. Mary of Lirey church to honor the Holy Trinity who answered his prayers for a miraculous escape while a prisoner of the English. He is also already in possession of the Shroud, which some believe he acquired in Constantinople.

 Before this, we have a long history of mentions of a cloth similar to this. In 544 AD, a burial cloth was discovered ‘above the gate’ in the city’s walls. In 944, this cloth was forcibly transferred to Byzantium (Constantinople). There are numerous records describing this cloth.

 Thus, we have a connection between the Shroud Cloth and the Edessa cloth, but no real proof that the two are one and the same, though the coincidence is compelling.

 Further evidence of the authenticity of the Shroud comes from the researchers who were given a week to scientifically examine the Shroud, in 1988. From these investigations, we are presented with the following information:

  •  The image on the Shroud is that of man of about 30. He has blood on his head, blood on his wrists, and blood on his legs, above the feet. The blood on the head corresponds to the Gospel account of the Crown of thorns. The blood on the wrists corresponds to the spot where the Romans were known to have nailed victims to the cross, as is the blood on the feet.
  • The victim’s back has 109 blood images that resemble a dumbbell. This corresponds to the 36 scourges the Romans were said to have given Jesus prior to the crucifixion; the Roman whips had dumbbell-shaped leather bars on the ends of the whip, three dumbbells per whip.
  • The image on the Shroud has no thumbs. The reason for this anomaly was described in 1990, when a forensic pathologist discovered that a nail put through the wrist caused a nerve in the wrist to bring the thumb over onto the palm of the hand, hiding it from above.
  • The image on the Shroud can be resolved by computer into a perfect three-dimensional image, which is what one would expect if it was an image of a human being, but not what one would expect if it was a painting.
  • There is no paint or pigment on the Shroud. The images of the blood are, in fact, blood. Different scientists working independently conducted immunological, fluorescence and spectrographic tests, as well as Rh and ABO typing of blood antigens that prove it beyond any doubt
  • Avinoam Danin, a botany professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a leading authority on the flora of Israel, along with Uri Baruch, a pollen specialist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, reported that the combination of pollen spores lodged in the Shroud’s surface, as well as floral images mysteriously “imprinted” on the face of the cloth, could only have come from plants growing in a restricted area around Jerusalem 

There is much, much more, of course, and there are arguments against many of these points. However, the principle argument against the authenticity of the Shroud comes from a Carbon 14 dating of the Shroud, which yielded results indicating the Shroud was made in 1350, exactly what one would expect if the Shroud was a forgery.

 This result is the most disputed part of the entire Shroud history. The research group had outlined a very specific sampling plan for this Carbon 14 dating, indicating various sections of the Shroud to be sampled, including blind samples from other similar pieces of cloth, and total anonymity to the laboratories doing the testing, to ensure no prejudice either way with the results.

 Instead, the Church specified who was to take the samples, this person took samples from places not at all specified in the sampling plan, and sent them to different laboratories without controls and without anonymity. The Shroud researchers are confident that the samples were taken from sections of the cloth that were repaired by Medieval artisans in the 14th century, and NOT from the original sections of the cloth. The Church will not allow additional sampling. The Church is very reluctant to allow further sampling of the Shroud; this is understandable, considering the age of the Shroud, and its potential religious importance. However, its actions in this respect throw some doubt as to the Church’s eagerness to settle the question of the Shroud’s authenticity? Could there be a  reason why the Church is reluctant to settle the question of the age of the Shroud?

 One possible answer is suggested in Holger Kersten’s, book “The Jesus Conspiracy” Kersten suggests that the flow of blood evident on the Shroud indicates that the image on the Shroud is that of a living man, not a dead man. That is, Jesus survived the crucifiction, spent a day or so in the tomb, recovering from his experience on the Cross, and then left, leaving an empty tomb. If the Shroud can be shown to be genuine, the basic tenets by which the Church lives, that of the Resurrection of Christ, are wrong.

 This is not a new idea. As far back as 1917 the theologian E. Grimm wrote in his book Die Ethik Jesu (‘The Ethics of Jesus’) about the Pauline idea of Salvation, ‘However much this teaching has become rooted among the Christians, the real Jesus knew nothing about it.’ There is widespread agreement in theological research today that the tradition of the story of the empty tomb is historically older than the legend of the resurrected man. At first the report that the tomb of Jesus was empty circulated in the early communities, and only later did Paul tell the story of the miraculous Resurrection of the Lord. In ‘ his early accounts Paul only spoke of a revealing, a seeing or appearance of the ‘Son of God’. Only afterwards did he formulate his theology of the resurrected man

 From an historical perspective, these are all interesting questions, the answers to which we shall probably never be certain. The possibility that the Shroud is genuine provides an important historical link to the past and, and possible new insights as to the events that began the largest religion in the world. For an historian, this is very exciting.

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