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shroud of turinIn June I had the joy to spend a week in Italy. One reason for my pilgrimage was to venerate the Shroud of Turin. I had been intrigued by the supposed burial cloth of Christ since I was in college, and as I was in England leading a pilgrimage with Joseph Pearce, I did not want to miss the chance of traveling to Turin to see the shroud.

I was not disappointed. After taking the high-speed train from Rome, a decent restaurant and an overnight stay, we walked the few blocks from our hotel first thing in the morning to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. We hustled, crowd free down the pathways set up to accommodate the tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the world who would, like us, have a few minutes to stand in silence before the famous, mysterious linen winding sheet of Christ.

After my visit I am more convinced than ever not only that the Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth of Christ, but that the mysterious image was produced by a blast of radiance from the resurrection. Those who wish to research the shroud can find scholarly and popular articles here and here. The most interesting thing about the shroud is the more scientific research is done the more the claims to authenticity accumulate. Not only is the image on the shroud that of a crucified man, but a particular crucified man.

He wore a crown of thorns. His legs were not broken. His face was punched. His side was pierced in a way consistent with a Roman spear. His back shows the marks of a severe flogging consistent with the flagellum used by the Romans. In other words, all the wounds match those not just of any crucified man, but those unique to Jesus of Nazareth.

Other details match in an extraordinary way. Fabric experts acknowledge that the particular linen cloth matches that used in the first century by wealthy individuals. The chemical traces on the cloth match the herbs and spices that were known to be used for Jewish burials in Roman times. Pollen from the shroud matches that present in Jerusalem in the first century. New scientific dating techniques counter the 1988 carbon 14 dating which identified a medieval date and they date the shroud to the first century.

Most mysterious is the image itself. In 1978 a team of American researchers were finally given access to the shroud. They ran a whole series of tests covering the range of scientific disciplines. Their analyses found no sign of artificial pigments and they concluded, “The Shroud image is that of a real human form of a scourged, crucified man. It is not the product of an artist.” What formed the image? The scientists were stumped and admitted that “no combination of physical, chemical, biological or medical circumstances” could adequately account for the image.

Paolo Di Lazzaro

Paolo Di Lazzaro

So what formed the image? The best description is that it is an extremely delicate singe marking. Italian physicist Paolo Di Lazzaro concedes in an article for National Geographic that every scientific attempt to replicate it in a lab has failed. “Its precise hue is highly unusual, and the color’s penetration into the fabric is extremely thin, less than 0.7 micrometers (0.000028 inches), one-thirtieth the diameter of an individual fiber in a single 200-fiber linen thread.”

Di Lazzaro and his colleagues at Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA) experimented for five years, using modern excimer lasers to train short bursts of ultraviolet light on raw linen, in an effort to simulate the image’s coloration.

They came tantalizingly close to replicating the image’s distinctive color on a few square centimeters of fabric. However, they were unable to match all the physical and chemical characteristics of the shroud image, and reproducing a whole human figure was far beyond them. De Lazzaro explained that the ultraviolet light necessary to reproduce the image of the crucified man “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.”

The scientists shrug and say the only explanation lies beyond the realm of twenty-first century technoscience. In other words, the extraordinary burst of ultra violet light is not only beyond the ability and technology of a medieval forger: It is beyond the ability and technology of the best twenty-first century scientists.

Consequently, I wrote an essay some time ago asking atheists who insist on “evidence for the existence of God” why they did not take time to study the Shroud of Turin. I suggested that if God did not exist, then the natural world had to be a closed system. If, however, just one miracle could be proven to have happened, then nature is not a closed system. If that miracle was intelligible then there had to be an intelligent force outside the system that was greater than the system. The resurrection of Jesus Christ would be that one necessary miracle. It is, after all, the miracle of miracles.


Secondo Pia

It is therefore ironic that it is only in this modern technoscientific age that the mysterious qualities of the Shroud of Turin have been unlocked. Ever since the photographer Secondo Pia discovered the shroud’s negative image in 1898 the forensic, archeological, documentary, cultural, chemical, physiological and physical evidence has accumulated. If there were ever any hard evidence for a miracle, this is it.

Therefore those who ask for evidence for the existence of God should take the time to examine the Shroud of Turin. The atheists who I conversed with dismissed such an idea scornfully. Should they ever be unbiased enough to explore the relic objectively. What they find may at least budge them from their atheism into agnosticism, and from there it is only a short hop to believing in everything.

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16 replies to this post
  1. As I understand it, the wounds of the figure imaged in the shroud show a man crucified on a Y-shaped cross, not a T-shaped cross. Since the T-shaped cross was already a familiar Christian symbol by the time anyone could have been interested in making a forgery, while the Y-shaped cross has never, so far as I know, been especially prominent in Christian imagery, that would by itself be near-conclusive proof that whatever the shroud is, it is not a forgery.

  2. The carbon dating conducted by 3 independent labs has really hurt proponents of the authenticity of the shroud. Whether the testing was faulty or not, the common person these days accepts carbon dating as scientifically conclusive. Yes, there are many arguments that the testing was flawed, and the carbon-dating does not explain how the image got on the shroud, but unfortunately the average person looks no further than the carbon dating results.

  3. How on earth would you be able to tell from the wounds if it was a Y or T shaped cross? Maaaybe you could figure out what angle the arms were when nailed to the cross (even this is doubtful, since the image is anything but clear.) But this would tell you nothing about the shape of the wood behind the nails.

  4. Don – if you read up on the shroud you will realize that newer, more refined dating techniques contradict the carbon 14 tests and place the relic in the first century. Michael – it is not a medieval shroud. Textile historians have examined the linen and confirmed that it is consistent with a fine weave and type of linen consistent with wealthy burials in the first century

  5. Yes, Fr., I completely agree with you about the carbon dating. I am just saying that most “non-believers” won’t look any deeper than the original, supposedly “conclusive” results.

  6. Michael – Not only is the weave of the linen cloth of the Shroud a 1st century middle eastern type and not a medieval type, the characteristics of the linen plant suggest an earlier variety. Also the retting process is consistent with early middle eastern practices as determined by chemical signatures, not European practices of the Middle Ages. If you reflect on your remark carefully, you will, I am sure, discern the strong influence of unexamined assumptions which strict adherence to science and reason would avoid.

  7. let’s assume for the sake of argument that it is not what we think it is. surely then it is something extremely interesting and baffling…and the answer to the question, “what is it?” should occupy many scientists/archaeologists? i mean, isn’t this one of the most significant unexplained artifacts in the world?

    i think the “objective” scientific community is intuitively terrified of it. that is why we don’t have an answer to that….

  8. loriannnincehelser – Strictly speaking, the “we don’t know yet” response is appropriate for an untested object, or for an object for which a number of alternative natural explanations are plausible but in progress or foreseeable, or even more generally for an object for which the question of mechanism of origin doesn’t even arise. None of these apply to the Shroud.

    The Shroud is one of, if not the most, tested physical objects in history. A number of congruent but completely independent lines of evidence support its authenticity as a relic of the crucifixion of Jesus the Nazarene. These are not trivial indicators or characteristics of authenticity, but numerous, mutually reinforcing, detailed to an overwhelming degree, and specific to the single case. As a result, the null hypothesis – that the Shroud is a deliberately concocted fraud produced by the state of knowledge and technology of the middle ages in Europe – is wildly unrealistic, a deliberate abuse of science and logic to entertain for any who take the time to obtain even a casual knowledge of it.

    “We don’t know yet.” is only true in the most crude and general sense, almost a metaphysical lament about our state of existence. In that sense, it’s an almost meaningless observation in relation to the Shroud. The issue, then, comes down to the use of our faculties of reason.

    So, which is more reasonable proposition to believe, (a) the Shroud’s fundamental physical properties were produced by a process or processes that had no relation to the life of Jesus the Nazarene, that are entirely natural but fundamentally affect matter in diverse ways and radically coherent patterns yet leave no trace of their operation when they do so, that exist as a fundamental force in the universe yet are not known and have never been hypothesized, or (b) that the Shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus the Nazarene consistent with the results of nearly every rigorous these it has been subjected to, and it was preserved by his followers who immediately after his death and Resurrection believed that everything associated with him was precious beyond measure?

    It is not necessarily a bad thing if we all take our time to answer. In the end, it is not a requirement of Christian faith to answer (b), and it is theoretically conceivable that a new discovery might disprove authenticity of the Shroud. But it should be clear that basing our answer on facts and logic is perfectly compatible with Christian faith, and should be so either way.

  9. Like Fr. Longnecker, I’ve long been fascinated with the shroud. The fact that no one has been able to prove it to be a fraud in spite of what I imagine to be great effort makes me believe that the shroud could indeed be what it says it is. On a recent family vacation we stopped in Alamogordo, NM at a storefront “Shroud of Turin Museum.” It was a little cheesy but very earnest display of true to size images and facts about the artifact. The curator’s enthusiasm was catching. The guy is definitely a true believer, not just in the shroud, but in Jesus Christ. My only fear is that some might become so “wrapped up” (irony intentional) in the authenticity of the shroud that their faith would hinge only on this one object and they might be devastated should it be proven a fake.

    Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” -Luke 4:12

  10. The big obstacle for me is that it was accused of being a forgery at the time – and in fact the forger had supposedly confessed. What would have been the motivation for such a false accusation (if it was false)?

  11. Good article. A casual reading of Di Lazarro’s comment though gives the impression the image is a result of paint or some other applied substance. Not so. The figure of a crucified man formed due to cellulose degradation of only the uppermost aspect of the shroud’s linen fibrils in the image areas. Some see in this a resurrection event, heat/intense light etc, something perhaps hinted at by Di Lazzaro’s own experiments with excimer lasers on linen. The shroud is indeed a stumbling block for those who prefer their rejection of even the possibility of miracles, of Christ as fulfilling all Old Testament prophecies, to be confined simply to the realm of subjective mind. Closed systems indeed.

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