The news that scientific experiments carried out at the University of Padua have apparently dated the Shroud of Turin can be back to the 1st century AD is just the latest in series of claims and counter-claims about its authenticity.
The Turin Shroud is a linen cloth bearing the image of a man who appears to have suffered physical trauma in a manner consistent with crucifixion and is commonly associated with Jesus Christ. The shroud measures approximately 14.3 × 3.7 feet, and bears the faint, reddish-brown image of the front and back view of a naked man just under 6 feet tall, with a beard, moustache, and shoulder-length hair, with his hands folded across his groin.
The image appears to include:
– one wrist bearing a large round wound, consistent with piercing.
– upward gouge in the side penetrating into the thoracic cavity, fluid drainage from the wound suggesting a post-mortem injury.
– small punctures around the forehead and scalp.
– scores of linear wounds on the torso and legs, consistent with the dumbbell wounds of a Roman flagrum.
– swelling of the face from severe beatings.
– streams of blood down both arms, with the main flow at an angle suggesting that the arms were outstretched at time of death.
– large puncture wounds in the feet, suggesting piercing by a single spike.
The origins of the shroud and its image are the subject of intense debate among scientists, theologians, historians and researchers, and it continues to be one of the most studied and controversial artefacts in human history.
Is the Shroud of Turin an authentic 1st century AD burial cloth of a Middle Eastern man (believed to be Jesus Christ), or the work of a brilliant medieval European forger? Here is a summary of the arguments:
1. Historical records
For: Reports about the burial cloth of Jesus existed for centuries before the Turin Shroud appeared in the medieval historical record. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke state that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped the body of Jesus in a piece of linen cloth and placed it in a new tomb. Christ’s burial cloth was reportedly owned by the Byzantine emperors but disappeared during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204.
Against: There are no definite historical records concerning the shroud prior to the 14th century. The first reference to what is now known as the Turin Shroud appears in France in 1390, when Bishop Pierre d’Arcis writes to Antipope Clement VII, stating that the shroud was a forgery and that the artist had confessed.
2. Radiocarbon dating
Against: In 1988 the Vatican allowed scientists to radiocarbon date a sample taken from a corner of the shroud. Independent tests concluded with 95% confidence that the shroud material dated to 1260–1390 AD.
For: Although the quality of the radiocarbon testing itself is unquestioned, criticisms have been raised regarding the choice of the sample taken for testing, with suggestions that the sample may represent a medieval ‘invisible’ repair fragment rather than the image-bearing cloth. The shroud was damaged by fire in a French chapel in 1532 and triangular patches were sewn onto the cloth by nuns to repair the burn holes. Carbon from the fire damage may have skewed the carbon dating by more than 1,000 years.
3. Ancient fabric
Against: In 2000, fragments of a burial shroud from the 1st century AD were discovered in a tomb near Jerusalem, believed to have belonged to a Jewish high priest or member of the aristocracy. The shroud was composed of a simple two-way weave, unlike the complex herringbone twill of the Turin Shroud. Based on this discovery, the researchers stated that the Turin Shroud did not originate from Jesus-era Jerusalem.
For: German textile expert Mechthild Flury-Lemberg found that a seam in the cloth corresponds to a fabric found at the fortress of Masada near the Dead Sea, which dated to the 1st century and is consistent with first-century Syrian design.
4. Dirt particles
For: In 2002, American Scientists Joseph Kohlbeck and Richard Levi-Setti examined some dirt particles from the shroud surface. The dirt was found to be travertine aragonite limestone. Using a high-resolution microprobe, Levi-Setti and Kolbeck compared the spectra of samples taken from the shroud with samples of limestone from ancient Jerusalem tombs. The chemical signatures of the shroud samples and the tomb limestone were found to be identical.
Against: Kolbeck himself acknowledged that this is not absolute proof that the shroud was in Jerusalem and that there might be other places in the world where travertine aragonite would produce the identical trace chemical composition – though none are known.
5. Blood stains
Against: In 1978, American chemist Walter McCrone identified the reddish-brown stains on the shroud as containing iron oxide and concluded that its presence was likely due to simple pigment materials (red ochre and vermilion tempera paint) used in medieval times, which produces images with unusual transparent features.
For: Neither X-ray fluorescence examination nor infrared thermography has detected any pigment. Chemists John Heller and Alan Adler identified the reddish stains as blood and interpreted the iron oxide as a natural residue of haemoglobin. Forensic pathologist Pier Luigi Baima Bollone later identified the blood as belonging to group AB, a common blood type among Middle Eastern people but fairly rare among medieval Europeans. Anthropologist Dr. Andrew Merriwether found that no blood typing could be confirmed and the DNA was badly fragmented, but he stated that it is almost certain that the blood spots are blood.
6. Flowers and pollen
For: The image of pressed flowers on the shroud was first noticed by Dr Alan Whanger in 1985. In 1997 Israeli botanist Avinoam Danin reported that he had identified several species, including Chrysanthemum coronarium, or garland chrysanthemum, a species native to the Mediterranean. He reported that the outlines of the flowering plants would point to the body being interred in March or April and that the “[the assemblage] occurs in only one rather small spot on earth, this being the Judean mountains and the Judean Desert of Israel, in the vicinity of Jerusalem.” Max Frei, a Swiss police criminologist, stated that of 58 different types of pollens found on the shroud, 45 were from the Jerusalem area, while 6 were from the eastern Middle East, with one pollen species growing exclusively in Constantinople, and two found in Edessa, Turkey.
Against: American skeptical investigator Joe Nickell argued that the flower images are too faint for Danin’s determination to be definite, and that an independent review of the pollen strands showed that one strand out of the 26 provided contained significantly more pollen than the others, perhaps pointing to deliberate contamination. Botanist Jacques-Louis de Beaulieu also stated that Max Frei was a self-taught amateur palynologist (study of pollen), was not properly trained, and that his pollen sample was too small.
For: In 1997 physician and forensic pathologist Robert Bucklin noted that the image’s series of traumatic injuries extending from the shoulder areas to the lower back were consistent with whipping, and marks on the right shoulder blade were signs of carrying a heavy object. Bucklin concluded that the image was of a real person, subject to crucifixion. In 1998 medical examiner Frederick Zugibe considered the shroud image and its proportions as authentic, but concluded that the blood flow images were consistent with a body that had been washed. In 2010 Giulio Fanti, professor of mechanical measurements, wrote that “apart from the hands afterward placed on the pubic area, the front and back images are compatible with the Shroud being used to wrap the body of a man 175±2 cm tall, which, due to cadaveric rigidity, remained in the same position it would have assumed during crucifixion”.
Against: In 2010 Gregory S. Paul, an American researcher in paleontology, stated that the proportions of the image are not realistic, as the forehead is too small, the arms are too long and of different lengths and that the distance from the eyebrows to the top of the head is non-representative. He concluded that the features can be explained if the shroud is a work of a Gothic artist.
8. Image analysis
Against: Researcher Jacques di Costanzo suggested that the image was formed using a three-dimensional object, such as a sculpture. To demonstrate, Costanzo constructed a bas-relief face and draped wet linen over it. After the linen dried, he dabbed it with a mixture of ferric oxide and gelatine. The result was an image similar to that of the Shroud. Art historian Nicholas Allen argued that the image on the shroud was formed in the 13th century by a medieval photographic technique described in the Arabic Book of Optics, which at that time had been translated into Latin. To demonstrate, he successfully produced photographic images similar to the shroud using only techniques and materials available in the medieval period.
For: In 1976, NASA researchers Peter Schumacher, John Jackson and Eric Jumper analysed a photograph of the shroud image using a VP8 Image Analyzer, which was developed for NASA to create 3D images of the moon. They found that, unlike any photograph they had analyzed, the shroud image has the property of decoding into a 3-dimensional image. They could not replicate the effect when they attempted to transfer similar images using techniques of block print, engravings, a hot statue, and bas-relief.
9. Writing on the cloth
For: In 1979 Italian scientist Piero Ugolotti claimed to have found Greek and Latin letters on the shroud written near the face of the image. These were further studied in 1997 by Professor André Marion, whose digital analysis reportedly revealed other writings, including: INNECEM (a shortened form of Latin “in necem ibis”—”you will go to death”), NNAZAPE(N)NUS (Nazarene), IHSOY (Jesus) and IC (Iesus Chrestus). The uncertain letters IBE(R?) have been conjectured as “Tiberius”. In 2009, Barbara Frale, a paleographer in the Vatican Secret Archives, stated that it is possible to read on the image the burial certificate of Jesus of Nazareth, imprinted in fragments of Greek, Hebrew and Latin writing. She stated the text on the shroud reads: “In the year 16 of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius Jesus the Nazarene, taken down in the early evening after having been condemned to death by a Roman judge because he was found guilty by a Hebrew authority, is hereby sent for burial with the obligation of being consigned to his family only after one full year.” Since Tiberius became emperor after the death of Octavian Augustus in AD 14, the 16th year of his reign would be within the span of the years AD 30 to 31.
Against: Linguist Mark Guscin disputed the work of Professor Marion, stating that the inscriptions made little grammatical or historical sense. Frale’s methodology has also been criticised, partly based on the objection that the writings are too faint to see.
10. Coins placed on the eyes
For: In 1978, the same NASA researchers detected the impressions of coins placed on both eyes of the image. Having distinguished what seemed to be four letters “UCAI” near the arch of the eyebrows, Italian coin expert Mario Moroni identified these as part of the inscription of a lepton coin minted in 29 AD during Pontius Pilate’s governorship of Judea. “UCAI” was part of “TIBEPIOU CAICAPOC”
Against: In 1980 Professor Levy Yitzhak Rahmani, Director of the Jerusalem Museums and specialist in Judaic cemeteries, said there was no archaeological evidence that there was a 1st century Judaic custom of putting coins on the eyelids of the dead.
Whether you accept the Shroud of Turin as the genuine burial cloth of Jesus Christ, or believe it to be the artistic work of some medieval genius, it is a remarkable artefact which modern science can’t completely explain. If you are merely willing to accept it as the 1st century artefact of a historical figure from the Middle East, do you need a leap of religious faith to believe that the image captures the moment that Jesus Christ was resurrected? If not, where did it come from? Flash-like electromagnetic radiation? Electrostatic corona discharge? What was the origin of the energy source?