Shroud Skeptics Bump against Science

On Good Friday, I received this e-mail from a reader in France:

Your article about the shroud of Turin makes me almost hysteric, I was almost dying of laughter. Thank you for this high piece of burlesque.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Nowadays, everyone and his dog knows that the shroud was created in 1347, simply in applying the shroud about a statue prealably [sic] englued with human blood. Nobody is sufficiently credulous enough to believe the élucubrations about the Christ having been envelopped [sic] with this shroud.

Even the catholic Church denies the “authenticity” of this relic.

I don’t know which article of mine the Frenchman had in mind, as I’ve written several. And I had to look up élucubrations (“wild imaginings”). But clearly the correspondent had been reading about the shroud on Good Friday — and it unnerved him. If the shroud is authentic, then it is an image of a man who was brutalized in a singular way, distinctly different from any other known crucified victim, and medically identical to Gospel record of the torments suffered by Jesus of Nazareth.

The writer described himself as “almost hysteric,” perhaps more truthfully than he knew. Shroud skeptics insist that the Shroud of Turin has been discredited. But it hasn’t: If anything, science is more intrigued than ever by the 14-foot length of linen. The advent of new technologies since the first team of experts was assembled in 1978 makes more sophisticated investigations possible. My correspondent (and other skeptics) mistakenly assumes that a statue can “simply” be smeared with human blood and a cloth wrapped around it to reproduce the image on the shroud, presumably as the original “forger” did in the 14th century. And yet, to date, despite numerous attempts, no artist has been successful in this quest.

Experts in many disciplines have added to the growing body of knowledge about the Shroud of Turin: Physicians, historians, botanists, chemists, artists, anthropologists, physicists, textile consultants, and photographers. Their collective assessment is that, while we do not know how the image was made, we do know how it was not made. The confounding of science thus far forces a certain respect for the artifact, whatever one believes it to be: a holy relic, a pious work of art, a 14th-century hoax.

The 1988 carbon-14 tests date the shroud between 1290 and 1360. For skeptics, this “scientific fact” clinched the matter — until 2005. Ultraviolet investigations now show that samples used for the C-14 test were taken from an area of the cloth that fluoresces much differently from the main image-bearing portion of the linen. In short, the C-14 samples were from a section that had been patched in the Middle Ages. The fibers in the patched area were spliced to blend old and new threads such that the patch was not visible to the naked eye. Most intriguing is the 3-D property of the image when viewed with NASA’s VP-8 Image Analyzer. Seen with this technology, the mystery deepens.

My French correspondent was also mistaken in his claim that the Catholic Church has denied the authenticity of the shroud. What the Church has said is that it does not have the scientific expertise to pronounce the shroud authentic; and since it is not a matter of faith, the Church has no specific competence to do so regardless. Still, on the occasion of the 1988 exhibition of the Shroud of Turin, Pope John Paul II called it a “unique gift“:

In the light of Christ’s presence in our midst, I then stopped before the Shroud, the precious Linen that can help us better to understand the mystery of the love of God’s Son for us. Before the Shroud, the intense and agonizing image of an unspeakable torment, I wish to thank the Lord for this unique gift, which asks for the believer’s loving attention and complete willingness to follow the Lord.

On April 10, the Shroud of Turin was once again displayed for public viewing, and it will be seen by millions before the exhibition closes at the end of May. On May 2, Pope Benedict XVI will himself visit the shroud; one must assume that if the Vatican considered it to be a hoax, the pope would not permit its officially sanctioned display — much less attend it.

Over the past 30 years, many researchers have been drawn to the mysteries of the Shroud of Turin. Evident on that ancient cloth is a compelling body of evidence that scientists cannot dismiss and so must study. What does that evidence say about faith? About science? Can it be that the Shroud of Turin functions as a fifth Gospel — a Gospel saved for the age of science? 


  • Mary Jo Anderson

    Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions (Catholic Answers Press, 2005).

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