Shroud Of Turin - Burial Cloth Of Jesus?

The Holy Turin shroud legend says that this ancient linen cloth was the burial shroud of Jesus of Nazareth. Does scientific evidence support the mythology?

In a chapel behind the alter in the Cathedral of John The Baptist in Turin, Italy, is stored an ancient burial shroud that is displayed only a few times each century. The cloth -- 14-feet-three inches long, by three feet-seven inches wide -- contains the straw-yellow image of a man who is clearly the tragic victim of a crucifixion, complete with blood, scourge marks, a spear wound in the side, nail marks on the wrists and feet, and wounds around the top of the head where a crown of thorns would have been.

Controversy surrounding the identity of the man on the shroud has swirled for centuries. Likewise, how the image got there in the first place has been the subject of much heated discussion. Some think the image is the result of a skilled artist's brush. Others believe the image is a fluke of nature -- like random clouds forming pictures in the sky. Still others -- including some of the scientists who have studied it up close and personal -- believe the linen is the authentic burial shroud of Jesus of Nazareth and that it is His image that appears there.

To believe that the Shroud of Turin is the actual burial cloth of Jesus Christ is a leap of faith -- it has certainly not been proven historically or scientifically. As Shroud researcher John Heller writes, "There is no such thing as a scientific test for Jesus, and there probably never will be." And don't ask science how the image of the crucified man got on the ancient linen. They can tell you what the image is made of, but they can't tell you how it got there.

Not even the Catholic Church, who now owns the Shroud, will say whether the cloth is authentic. It has never declared the Shroud an official relic. But apparently the Church believes that the Shroud does bear considerable significance -- perhaps that it is even sacred. Security surrounding the Shroud is enormous. Three keys are required to open the reliquary containing the Shroud. And churchmen, as well as the laity, believe that touching the Shroud, even with a personal item like a handkerchief or a business card, transfers a mystic quality to the object.

In 1978, 40 American scientists were allowed five days for a hands-on examination of the Shroud. Thousands of experiments were performed, pages upon pages of data and documentation were gathered. The purpose was not to prove or disapprove the legend of the Shroud. Rather, their task was to determine how the image got there in the first place and, in doing so, determine whether the Shroud was a hoax.

The notion that the Shroud of Turin is actually a clever painting rather than a divine image is not a new idea. The Shroud has always had its detractors. A most troublesome problem is that the Shroud cannot be traced with any certainty before 1354. Before that, there are only fleeting references to its existence.

Of course, the linen burial cloth is mentioned in all four Gospels. After Jesus' death on the cross Joseph of Arimathea, an honored member of the Sanhedrin and a secret disciple of Jesus, begged Pilate for the body. He would bury Jesus in a new tomb tunneled in solid rock, that he had prepared for himself. The governor of Judea granted the request. Then Joseph gave the body of Jesus a hasty, temporary burial because the Jewish Sabbath was only a few hours away. After the Sabbath he, and others, would return to prepare the remains for a permanent interment.

The last reference to the linen in the Scriptures was when Simon Peter entered the tomb after Jesus' resurrection, after the women had reported that the tomb was empty. The disciples "did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering himself what had happened." (Luke 24:11-12 NIV) NOTE: According to Biblical scholar Rev. Albert Dreisbach, the plural references to the linen arise from acknowledged problems in translation from original text languages.

A few further references to the linen are found in the sixth and seventh centuries. The Shroud was supposed to have been housed in the church of Our Lady of Blachernes in Constantinople when that city was sacked during the fourth Crusade in 1204. After that, no one knows what became of it. Then the family of Geoffrey de Charny came into possession of the cloth in 1354.



Religious relics were all the rage in the Middle Ages. Splinters of the "true cross," for instance, were scattered all over Europe. The dried blood of various saints turned liquid during feast days. Yet, no one was in a hurry to declare the Shroud authentic. Pierre d'Arcis, Bishop of Troyes, even wrote to Pope Clement VII that his predecessor had uncovered the artist responsible for the image. Cynicism abounded in the Church and political circles, while the faithful took the cloth at face value. Then an accidental discovery was made that forever cast doubt that the Shroud was the product of human hands.

In 1898, Secundo Pia was photographing the Shroud for the first time. (Artists had painted it in the past, but Pia wanted an exact copy.) When he developed his plates, he got the shock of his life. The image, which should have been a negative, was a positive. That could only mean that the image on the cloth was actually a negative. Impossible! No artist was able to paint a true negative image, especially an artist in the Middle Ages who had no idea what a negative was. Science and the cynics suddenly sat up and took notice.

Paul Vignon, an agnostic and a professor at Sorbonne University in Paris, was the ideal person to study Pia's photographs and make some scholarly conclusions. Vignon and his associates studied blowups of the plates eventually and came to three presumptions: the image could not have been painted by conventional means, the image was the imprint of a crucified human corpse with real blood and real wounds, and the man on the cloth was probably Jesus of Nazareth.

Vignon's conclusions were startling, but they were still conclusions based mostly on observation. Vignon did not have direct contact with the Shroud. Even if he had, he could not have done much more than to subject the image to the scrutiny of a microscope. At the time there were few experiments that could have taken the place of astute observation. The world would have to wait 76 years for technology to catch up with the Shroud.

Nineteen seventy-six brought another startling discovery, this time from scientists in America's space program armed with sophisticated technology. The VP-8 is an image analyzer used by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and is programmed to interpret darker as farther away and lighter as closer. It is used to give photographs from outer space, sent by radio, a third dimension. If a photograph or a painting is put into the VP-8, the computer misreads shadows and the resulting image is greatly distorted. But when a photo of the man on the Shroud was placed in the VP-8, the 3-D image was perfect -- an impossibility, even with the best photograph.

Air Force Academy researchers John Jackson and Eric Jumper had been studying material about the Shroud for some time as a hobby and the VP-8 discovery was all they needed to jump into serious research. They wanted to discover how the image got there. Jackson and Jumper consulted other scientists and their infectious enthusiasm spread like a wildfire. The Holy Shroud Guild and its president, Father Adam J. Otterbein and vice-president Father Peter Rinaldi, got into the act when Jackson and Jumper asked the organization to sponsor a scientific conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in March 1977. This led to the formation of the Shroud of Turin Research Corporation (STURP) and the possibility, through the intercession of Otterbein and Rinaldi, that the group would be permitted a hands-on investigation of the Shroud the next year when it was displayed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of its arrival in Turin.

Unfortunately the group had to reckon with the Centro de Sindonologia, a group of clergy and laity who took upon themselves the authority to grant or deny access to the Shroud. Some members were blatantly anti-American and attempted to torpedo the project. Luckily the real power behind the Shroud, Archbishop-Cardinal Balestrero, was an highly enlightened cleric who short-circuited the Centro's bid for control, including an 11th-hour attempt at censorship of any scientific papers that members of STURP might wish to publish.

For over 96 hours, the 40 scientists of STURP were allowed access to the Shroud of Turin. Dozens of scientific disciplines were brought to bear: physics, optics, botany, nuclear physics, entomology, pathology, hematology, and others. There was no Carbon-14 dating at the time, however, because all testing was to be nondestructive.

STURP's hypothesis was simple. Is the Shroud of Turin a fake and, if not, whose image is on the cloth? Between 100,000 and 150,000 man hours were expended to answer the questions. Millions of dollars worth of scientific equipment was involved. The final answer to the first part of the question was no -- the Shroud was not a fake. The answer to the second part remained unanswered. They did, however, discover what the image was made of -- in the words of John Heller, a member of STURP who wrote the book "Report on the Shroud of Turin", the image was formed by "dehydrative acid oxidation of the linen."

"We do know," Heller continued, "that there are thousands on thousands of pieces of funerary linen going back to millennia before Christ, and another huge number of linens of Coptic Christian burials. On none of these is there any image of any kind. A few have blood and stains on them, but no image."

The Turin scientists made some other startling discoveries. The blood on the Shroud was real and ancient. Holy Land pollens, which would have been present around Passover time, were found on the cloth. Dirt was found on the linen at the image of the feet -- travertine gragenite dust from the area around Jerusalem. The image is anatomically perfect -- in total accord with both the physiological results of a crucifixion and the Biblical description of Christ's Passion. Not one point of science and religion was at odds.

The most amazing thing about the Shroud is the composition of the image itself. The straw-yellow color is consistently the same shade over the entire cloth. The color touched only the very tips of the fibers and are like the pixels in a halftone photograph. The more pixels gathered in one place, the darker the image.

In 1988, fibers of the Shroud of Turin were finally subjected to a Carbon-14 test, which reported that the Shroud dated from the thirteenth of fourteenth century. Inquiries were made and it was quickly discovered that the testing samples were taken from an area only three inches from a place on the Shroud were a fire in 1532 nearly destroyed it, thereby negating the results. While the result of the Carbon-14 test was widely reported in the press, the Vatican's repudiation of the results was met with resounding indifference.

Then, as now, the Shroud of Turin remains a mystery. Even the considerable forces of late twentieth century technology has failed in its efforts to unlock it's most provocative secret -- the true identity of the man on the cloth. Science can tell us what it is, but cannot tell us what it means.

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