A verse in the epistle to the Hebrews asserts that faith is “the substance of things hoped for – the evidence of things not seen.” The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an event forever hoped for, but it is also an event unseen.
Believers in the Shroud of Turin, however, insist that the Shroud is the substance of this hope and the evidence of this unseen event. It is, they believe, the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. It has been venerated as such for centuries, and since the 17th century, when it came to Turin, has been the cathedral’s best-known treasures. Popes have come to gaze on the Shroud; Benedict XVI said when he visited in 2010 that “we see, as in a mirror, our suffering in the suffering of Christ”.
Sceptics pooh-pooh the whole story. They refer to the 1987 Carbon-14 dating and say, “It’s medieval. Science has spoken. That settles it.” But the believers bounce back, and year by year, as modern technology advances, more and more evidence accumulates which causes anyone who reads the research to be sceptical of the sceptics. The most recent claim – that the blood on the Shroud is from a torture victim – has re-opened the debate.
The delicious irony is that it is our sceptical, scientific society that has empowered all the new evidence. The Shroud’s relationship with modern technology began in 1898 when Secondo Pia took the first photographs of the Shroud. When he developed the negative he noticed that it showed a positive image of a human face. He concluded that the image itself was therefore, in effect, a photographic negative. The question immediately arises, “If the Shroud is a medieval forgery how did they do that?”
Professor Nicholas Allen of South Africa proposed that the materials and knowledge to produce a “photograph” existed in the Middle Ages. He then proceeded to produce a Shroud-like image on a piece of linen using his theoretical process. However, the imaging expert Barrie Schwortz, not himself a Christian, has challenged Allen’s work, which he says only accounts for some of the Shroud’s properties.
Like a tennis ball, the hypotheses are whacked back and forth. One scientist proposes a new idea of how the mysterious Shroud could have been produced only to have another researcher argue that it was impossible.
In 1987 the Shroud was subjected to carbon-14 dating technology which dated it to the 13th century. Predictably, the result has been criticised for a range of reasons. The most recent critique argues that the samples used for the 1987 test were taken from an edge of the Shroud that was not simply patched in the middle ages, but patched with a difficult-to-detect interweaving. The Carbon-14 tests (it is argued) were therefore compromised.
A different sort of dating test was conducted by Giulio Fanti of Padua University in 2013. This technology uses infra-red light and spectroscopy to measure the radiation intensity through wavelengths, and from these measurements a date can be calculated. Fanti’s method dated fibres from the Shroud to 300 BC–400 AD. Of course, there are critics who argue that Fanti’s methods are unreliable.
There is now a mountain of evidence about the Shroud, but too many dismiss the possibility of the Shroud’s authenticity based on the Carbon-14 dating alone.
However, a good detective does not rely on one piece of evidence. Instead he gathers and weighs all the facts. Here are the pieces of evidence which I find compelling.
1) The image. It is not a stain, nor is it painted on the Shroud. It is not burned on in a conventional heat application method. Instead it is seared on to the cloth with a technology that has yet to be explained. Not only can scientists and historians not reproduce the image using medieval technologies, they can’t reproduce it with modern technology.
Italian scientist Paolo DiLazzaro tried for five years to replicate the image and concluded that it was produced by ultraviolet light, but the ultraviolet light necessary to reproduce the image “exceeds the maximum power released by all ultraviolet light sources available today.” The time for such a burst “would be shorter than one forty-billionth of a second, and the intensity of the ultra violet light would have to be around several billion watts.”
2) The 3D capabilities of the image. The image of the man on the Shroud can be read by 3D imaging technology. Paintings fail this test.
3) The evidence of crucifixion. The wounds of the crucified man are all consistent not only with Roman crucifixion, but the details of Jesus’ particular crucifixion – the scourging, the crown of thorns, no broken bones, and the wound in the side. In addition, medieval paintings show the nails in the palm of Christ’s hands, the Shroud shows the nail wounds in his wrists which is anatomically correct. The flesh of the palms would not have supported the weight of the man’s body.
4) Geography. Pollen from the Shroud is not only from the Jerusalem area, but from Turkey and the other places the Shroud is supposed to have resided. Dust from the area of the image by the knees and feet is from the area around Jerusalem.
5) The evidence of Jewish burial customs. The Shroud details are perfectly consistent with first-century Jewish burial customs. There are even microscopic traces of the flowers that would have been used in the burial-flowers that grew locally and were known to be used for burial. In addition, traces of the spices used for Jewish burial have been discovered.
6) The blood and the image. The bloodstains on the Shroud are real human blood, not paint. The flow of the blood accurately reflects crucifixion and subsequent burial. The image was seared on the linen after the bloodstains. The fact that the bloodstains retain their reddish colour is evidence that the blood came from a person under extreme duress. The most recent finding again suggests that the crucified man was tortured.
7) The type of cloth. The cloth is consistent with fabrics from first-century Israel, but not with medieval Europe. A forger would have had to not only forge the image, but would have had to have detailed knowledge of linen weaves of the first century and then not only reproduce it, but age it convincingly.
We are not obliged to believe in the Shroud; it is undeniably mysterious. Having said that, it is also mysterious how dismissive most sceptics are. They cry out for scientific evidence, but when evidence is produced few really examine it closely. They simply shrug and say, “Well, we just don’t know. Nothing has been proven. All we have is an old cloth for which there is no explanation as yet.”
One of the principles of creative scepticism is that the obvious answer is usually the right one. The obvious answer, to my mind, is that the Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ.
I believe the Shroud is authentic, but if sceptics come up with a convincing answer to the questions the Shroud presents I am open-minded. My faith is rooted in the Resurrection, not the Shroud itself. The fact that the Shroud remains a mystery is a reminder of that other verse from the New Testament that “we walk by faith and not by sight.”
This article first appeared in the August 4 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here