Of course, I’m talking about the Shroud of Turin here—this “Catholic relic” appears to some to be the burial shroud of Jesus, and as such it seems made to order for Protestant scorn, and it is so startling that even the Vatican has been reluctant to display it over the centuries. But frankly, it’s been subjected to every kind of scientific test you can imagine over the last 45 years or so, and, despite occasional claims to the contrary, nobody has yet proved it a hoax. Personally, I am not a dogmatic supporter of the Shroud’s authenticity, but I find it intriguing, and I don’t believe that the Bible rules it out.
There are a number of good (and quite a few bad) books on the subject, so I haven’t been tempted to take it up myself before now. I finally decided to write about it in response to a negative article on creation.com that I just ran across. I will describe the Shroud and its history below, discuss the forensic evidence in its favor, then propose a scenario for its authenticity that I think accurately accounts for the culture of Jesus’ day without breaking Scripture.
Description of the Shroud
The Shroud of Turin is a single, fire-damaged sheet of linen about 14 feet long and 3.5 feet wide (more precisely, 8 x 2 Royal Cubits, where the Royal, or Long, Cubit is 20.67 inches). On one face of the sheet is a faint image of the ventral and dorsal (front and back) sides of a dead, naked, adult male, lying flat and with hands covering groin. It appears that the cloth was laid flat, and a body laid on it with the feet close to one end. Then the other end of the cloth was folded in half lengthwise over the top of the head and down to cover the feet, staining the cloth with blood. The image, apparently that of a crucifixion victim, appeared on, or was applied to, the cloth at some time after the blood staining.
To the naked eye, the Shroud is a faint yellow monochrome, with the image appearing as a photographic negative. Enhanced photos of the Shroud are printed as photo negatives of the negative image that is on the cloth itself.
The intensity range of the image, rather than representing color as in a black and white photograph, records the varying distance between the draped cloth and the surface of the body.
In contrast to the human image, which is confined to an extremely thin layer on one side of the cloth, blood residue deposited on and within the weave of the cloth formed a fluid stain penetrating into the fibers. These stains are consistent with contact between the wounded body and the cloth, and between corresponding locations on the two lengthwise halves of the cloth.
I first learned about the Shroud when National Geographic published an article about it in their June 1980 issue. The thrust of that article was that a large team of American Scientists of various specialties, with lots of expensive equipment, had travelled to Turin, Italy, where the Shroud is kept, and done a lot of very intricate testing. They found a great deal of evidence supporting its validity, and none proving it a hoax. Nobody has ever been able to figure out how in the world it was made. The one hope of the research team was that a carbon 14 (C14) test would either prove it genuine or show that it is a recent forgery, but since the test sample is always destroyed during carbon dating, the church at that time would not let them damage the cloth to test it. By 1988, the Vatican did give permission to test a small sample, and the carbon test was finally done. With a big sigh of relief by doubters, the date obtained was 14th Century, AD. Case closed, right?
A murky provenance
Not so fast! The indisputable chain of custody only goes back to the 1350’s, more or less matching the carbon date, but there is also anecdotal evidence that it might have been around much longer.
Earlier provenance is based on sketchy data from sources that cannot be verified with certainty. Purportedly, a disciple of Jesus’ (not one of the 12) named Thaddaeus salvaged the cloth and took it to Edessa (the site now known as Urfa, Turkey). Edessa was Seleucid originally but became a Roman vassal city in the early 3rd Century. In the early 7th Century, it passed to Persian (Sassanian), and shortly thereafter, Muslim control.
Medieval legend holds that the Shroud remained in that city and was secreted behind a tile inside a city gate during parts of those years of conquest. The image on the cloth was mentioned in several apocryphal documents, and the cloth itself came to be called the Mandylion. That term is from a Greek word meaning a towel or tablecloth, and it referred to a loose military garment, open at the sides, that was draped over Medieval armor, more or less resembling a serape). In AD 943, the Byzantine Emperor (presumably Constantine VII) ransomed the Mandylion from the emir of Edessa and took it to Constantinople, where it was kept in the Blachernae Church. In AD 1204, it disappeared after Constantinople was sacked by Christian crusaders during the 4th Crusade. Legend holds that it was thereafter in the custody of the Knights Templar until the 1350’s, when it is known to have been exhibited a number of times in Lirey, France.
Archaeological evidence is scant. The coin shown below is from the 7th Century and seems to me to tie the Mandylion to the Shroud of Turin fairly convincingly.
The Sudarium of Oviedo
There is a funerary face cloth called the Sudarium of Oviedo that is believed by many to be the cloth mentioned in John 20:7 “also the cloth that had been around his head, lying not with the sheets but in a separate place and still folded up.” This is an ancient linen cloth with bloodstains, but no mysterious image. Documentation for this cloth goes back to at least the 7th Century, since it has remained in one place for all that time. According to photoofjesus.com,
A 1999 study by the Spanish Center for Sindonology, investigated the relationship between the two cloths. Based on history, forensic pathology, blood chemistry (both the Shroud and the Sudarium have type AB blood stains), and the blood stain patterns being exactly similar and congruent on both cloths, they concluded that the two cloths covered the same head at two distinct, but close moments of time.
If the Shroud is genuine, then I think it probable that the Sudarium is, as well, but that isn’t my subject here. What is germane to this discussion will be mentioned below.
The Sudarium should not be confused with another legendary cloth allegedly connected with the crucifixion, the Veil of Saint Veronica (Berenike).
Forensics—findings and objections
Carbon 14 dating is known to be very accurate, to within a predictable range, so the stories from before the 14th Century can’t be true, can they? Well, unfortunately, in this case there are a couple serious problems with the dating. One is that the Shroud has allegedly been exposed to centuries of contamination by extraneous carbon from multiple surroundings, making it virtually impossible to accurately calibrate the test. Another is that repairs have been made to the Shroud on at least two occasions. One was after it was damaged by molten silver during a fire in 1532, but the patches sewn on in that case were sufficiently clumsy that it was easy to avoid them. An earlier repair, though, was so skillfully patched, by expert interweaving of threads, that the newer linen of the patch was undetected until years after the 1988 carbon testing—and of course it turned out that it was apparently the fabric of that patch that was tested, not the original fabric which theoretically still could date to the 1st Century. Subsequent non-radiometric dating methods have reportedly raised the probability of an early origin.
The image on the cloth is not painted, nor is it dyed, or inked or otherwise applied. It has the appearance of the cloth itself being scorched, but not at high temperatures. Modern science cannot say with certainty how this scorching occurred, though some sort of radiation is probably the cause. Neutron radiation has been proposed, but since the image penetrates the cloth only to a very small percentage of its thickness, then anything more energetic than an alpha particle beam (Helium-4 nuclei) makes no sense to me.
The effects of various electromagnetic radiation types (light wavelengths less energetic than those on the chart) on textiles have been studied. From a layman’s point of view, I think that what makes the most sense is a pulse in the ultraviolet range, which is known to cause cellular damage to the surface layers in fabric. Shroud researcher John P. Jackson proposed that vertical exposure to UV as the Shroud collapsed into a vacuum after Jesus “dematerialized” beneath it, could account for the image, in all respects. I’m not qualified to critique his work other than to say, “It makes sense to me”, in a general fashion. To be clear, if He dematerialized, then He immediately rematerialized at some other location. Biblical precedent for this is seen in Philip’s departure from the Ethiopian road and materialization in Azotus , on the way to Antioch, and in Jesus’ appearance before “Doubting Thomas” after His resurrection.
The blood stains on the cloth have an unnatural appearance, particularly on the enhanced views, because they penetrate the weave and are not part of the “scorched” image. Furthermore, they fluoresce in views like the right pane of the following photo. Creation.com is confused by these views, thinking that the blood is floating above the skin and hair, where it should be a crust or pool on the skin and should be beneath the outer layers of hair. In reality, what we see here is a contact transfer of blood to the cloth. Forensics show that the blood was on the cloth before the image was deposited. If this is Jesus’ authentic funeral shroud, then the blood on the cloth is from shortly after His death, when it was only partly coagulated. The image, on the other hand, is from a later time, presumably at the instant of His resurrection.
Creation.com also questions the drooping hair on the image, thinking that it should be collapsed to the surface Jesus was lying on, not hanging as if He were standing up. I don’t agree. Scripture says that He was beat over the head with a stick while wearing the crown of thorns:
17 They dressed him in purple and wove thorn branches into a crown, which they put on him.
18 Then they began to salute him, “Hail to the King of the Jews!”
19 They hit him on the head with a stick, spat on him and kneeled in mock worship of him.
—Mark 15:17–19 CJB
As I can personally attest, head wounds bleed profusely. Jesus was savagely beaten over the head while wearing a crown of thorns, so he bled heavily through His hair before even going to the cross. By the time He came down from the cross, some 9 hours later, most of that blood would have hardened like hair spray.
The cloth of the Shroud is not the cheap material used for menstrual rags, burial wrappings, or even middle-class clothing, but rather a high-grade cloth used for upper-class clothing and tapestries, very rare and expensive at the time. The weave was a herringbone twill, with threads composed of 70 to 120 fibrils of flax. Expert examination indicates that it was hand-spun, bleached, woven by hand, then washed with soapweed. These were characteristics of 1st Century linen weaving (in Medieval times, bleaching was commonly done after weaving of the cloth). This weaving technique was practiced by Syrian weavers, and remnants of such cloth were found at Masada, dating from no later than AD 70. Some folks object that this cloth isn’t really a luxury product because better fabrics from the time were composed of linen/wool blends. That was not an option in Judea, because:
¶ “‘Observe my regulations.
“‘Don’t let your livestock mate with those of another kind, don’t sow your field with two different kinds of grain, and don’t wear a garment of cloth made with two different kinds of thread.
—Leviticus 19:19 CJB
The blood-like deposits on the Shroud have been verified to be aged blood. It is red, more like fresh blood, because it contains high concentrations of bilirubin, along with creatinine, ferritin and myoglobulin, all of which, in the concentrations found, are proteins characteristic of blood shed under tremendous physical trauma, like that of torture. Washing with soapweed also helps to preserve the hemoglobin color.
Blood staining of the cloth and bruising on the image is consistent in all respects with the testimony of Scripture. There is blood on the wrists and feet, from the nails. The Greek allows for extension of “hand” to include the wrists, as would be anatomically required to hold a grown man to a cross with nails. There is blood on the side, from the Roman spear. UV studies reveal a halo of fluorescence around this blood. Serum separated from the blood accounts for that and matches scripture describing “blood and water” from the wound. There is blood on the head from the crown of thorns and the beatings. There are bloody, dumbbell-shaped marks all over the body due to 130 lashes with a Roman flagrum. There are swollen cheeks and a broken nose from beatings. There are abrasions on knees and shoulders from stumbling from the Praetorium to Golgotha (Gulgolta).
Creation.com criticized what they considered to be blood flow patterns inconsistent with gravity, but my own examination of photo evidence doesn’t bear that out.
Various types of pollen were found on the Shroud. Concentrated around the head region, in particular, there is a large amount of pollen from the thistle Gundelia tournefortii, a spiny plant common in the Jerusalem area that blooms (and pollinates) in the spring. The “crown of thorns?”
Creation.com also criticizes the proportions of the body on the Shroud. First, they are concerned that the image shows a man about 5 ft. 10 in. in height, which they think, probably correctly, is taller than most 1st Century Jews. Yet, people of all ethnicities vary in height, and that would not make Him a freak among His own people. Perhaps they were obliquely referring to Isaiah’s prophecy:
He was not well-formed or especially handsome;
we saw him, but his appearance did not attract us.
—Isaiah 53:2 CJB
I think that is saying that Messiah will not be a heartthrob who attracts people by His physical charisma. Other detractors have claimed that it also implies that He will not stand out in a crowd because of His height. I am not convinced. Being a bit taller than average would help Him speak to crowds.
Creation.com also sees distortions in the lengths of the image’s limbs, the thickness of one leg and the size of the head. Once again, I’m not convinced. The image appears to be a vertical projection onto a cloth that is draped over a real three-dimensional person, and thus not perpendicular to the cloth at all locations. This would be expected to cause apparent foreshortening of perspective in places.
Is the head disproportionately small for the body? Perhaps. That has been explained by some as rigor mortis freezing (but see my next paragraph) the head in a downward tilt, from hanging on the cross. I think it is more likely that His Head was resting on something in the tomb; perhaps he was still wearing the crown of thorns.
Creation.com thinks it is ridiculous to believe that Jesus’ hands could be over His groin, because they believe He would have gone into rigor mortis on the cross, with His arms frozen at an upwards slant. But that is a ridiculous suggestion, and they should know better—rigor mortis is part of the decay process, and Jesus didn’t decay! Acts 13:37 (ESV) ” but he whom God raised up did not see corruption.”
Many detractors are convinced that the image should not show a beard, because:
I offered my back to those who struck me,
my cheeks to those who plucked out my beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
—Isaiah 50:6 CJB
I wear a beard. I don’t think it could be plucked out aside from small amounts at a time. They tried. This is Hebrew poetic hyperbole. It emphasizes a point using exaggeration. Not uncommon in the Psalms and Prophets. Looking at the Shroud image, it appears that the beard is forked, and in fact, that was noticed and incorporated into the commemorative coin shown above. That was either His style, or the plucking was partially successful.
Others don’t think that there is enough damage to Jesus, per:
Just as many were appalled at him,
because he was so disfigured
that he didn’t even seem human
and simply no longer looked like a man,
—Isaiah 52:14 CJB
Again, this is poetic hyperbole. I’ll bet that if you were to find a severed and mangled human hand on the ground, you would recognize it as human remains!
Okay, here’s where I start the fun part.
The writers on creation.com are, I’m sure, good Christian folks, but I often disagree with their interpretations of Scripture, and more often with their analyses of science and history. Regarding their treatment of the Shroud of Turin, I certainly do agree, unequivocally, that the Shroud is completely unnecessary as proof of Jesus’ existence, His crucifixion, His resurrection, or His deity. However, I don’t think they have a good understanding of 1st Century Jewish burial practices. Here I will challenge their perceptions of how the Shroud appears to contradict Scripture.
The primary objection of creation.com was that the person in the Shroud evidently was not given the entire customary treatment. They suggest, in part, that Jesus could not have been entombed in a one-piece linen shroud because Lazarus was not—his body was washed, then slathered with aloe and wrapped with aloe-impregnated linen strips (plural) before entombment:
44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
—John 11:44 ESV
The truth is that even in Judea, with all its customs, there wasn’t just one way to be buried, because the legal precepts of Torah didn’t speak about it all that much. If you were rich or a king, you got the plush treatment, coffin and all. The indigent sometimes got tossed out the Dung Gate and put in a pauper’s grave. That’s evidently how landowners Chananyah and Shappira (Ananias and Sapphira) ended up.
1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property,
2 and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it.
6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
7 ¶ After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.
10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.
—Acts 5:1–10 ESV
I submit here that Jesus and Lazarus were handled in different manners because the circumstances of their deaths were different. Jesus was as a convicted felon. Lazarus died at his home at a time more suitable for “standard practice.” Because Lazarus was in good legal standing, there was not a hard and fast requirement for him to be buried the same day, though that was the ideal. He would have been taken to his family tomb as soon as practical, dressed in normal clothes. Then, at some time during the days of mourning, probably soon after rigor mortis broke some 36 hours after death, he would be prepped for his long sleep. This included wrapping him in multiple strips of linen that were smeared in spices (usually myrrh and sticky aloe) in order both to bind the cloths to each other and to the body, and to mask odor. A separate small piece of linen (a facecloth) was also provided to cover or wrap the head.
When Jesus was brought down from the cross, burial on the same day as death was required from:
22 “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree,
23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.
—Deuteronomy 21:22–23 ESV
But clearly there was simply no time for the normal burial customs to take place before the sun set. I think that Joseph or one of the others climbed up and wrapped the facecloth around His face and the crown of thorns. Jesus was then taken down and laid on a bier, most likely on top of the shroud brought by Joseph, so that His shame could be covered. His clothes had been plundered by the Roman soldiers, so he was naked.
The evidence of the Shroud shows Jesus’ torture and death just as described in Scripture, when understood in its cultural context. The events surrounding His final words and His death are described plainly in Matthew 27:45–56 and the parallels. His crucifixion began at around 9:00 am (e.g., Mark 15:25 “It was nine in the morning when they nailed him to the stake.”), and the darkness began around noon. He died at “about the ninth hour” which, by Jewish counting, was somewhere around 3:00 pm. Evidently His dead body remained on the cross for most of the rest of the afternoon because, while Luke is silent on the timing, the other three Gospels are united in placing the approach of Joseph of Arimathea to Pilate at “around evening.”
I will propose a likely scenario for what followed, harmonized with John 19:38–42, since that is the version stressed by creation.com and others:
38 ¶ After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body.
39 Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight.
40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.
41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.
42 So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.
—John 19:38–42 ESV emphasis added; see below for discussion
The crucifixion was on Friday, Nisan 15. Jesus had celebrated His last Passover Seder the night before, and it was now the 1st day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was, in Jewish law, a Sabbath (Heb. Shabbat). The next day was to be the 7th day weekly Shabbat. Restrictions for the two days were similar, except that the mid-Passover weekly Shabbat was always considered to be particularly important. In the case of consecutive Shabbatot, it was permissible to prepare for the second one on the day of the first one.
So, when Joseph spoke to Pilate, dusk and the start of the Saturday Shabbat were rapidly approaching, as emphasized in Mark, using a Jewish English translation:
42 Since it was Preparation Day (that is, the day before a Shabbat), as evening approached,
43 Yosef of Ramatayim, a prominent member of the Sanhedrin who himself was also looking forward to the Kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Yeshua’s body.
—Mark 15:42–43 CJB emphasis added
There was a delay, because Pilate needed to check precedent, then once Joseph had permission, he barely had time to do what absolutely had to be done before the Temple shofarim (ram’s horn trumpets) signaled that the sun had sunk below the horizon and Shabbat had begun. First, he must walk quickly from the Praetorium (probably Herod the Great’s palace) to the nearby crucifixion site at Gulgolta (I believe that to be the site under the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, just outside the city wall of that day). Then with the help of Nicodemus and the Disciples, he had to lower Jesus to the ground, remove the nails from His wrists and heels, place Him on the bier, and carry Him the short distance to the tomb.
“Linen wrappings”, or a shroud?
John 19:40 says “wrappings”, plural othonion (Gr. ὀθονίοις), which may refer to the customary saturated linen strips, but I think it meant, simply, the Shroud and the headcloth. Since Biblical Greek has no punctuation, I suggest that for comparison with the synoptics, vs 40b should be translated “bound it in linen cloths, with the spices”. In other words, the binding strips and the spices were stored in the tomb for later processing, as soon as ritually permitted. There simply could not have been enough time that day!
The three synoptic Gospels all refer to “a linen sheet”, singular sindoni (Gr. σινδόνι a different Greek term probably referring to the fineness of the cloth).
Mark 15:46 says “Yosef purchased a linen sheet; and after taking Yeshua down, he wrapped him in the linen sheet (σινδόνι), laid him in a tomb which had been cut out of the rock, and rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb.
Matthew 27:59 uses the same singular, sindoni, as Mark, “Yosef took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen sheet, (σινδόνι) 60 and laid it in his own tomb, which he had recently had cut out of the rock.”
Likewise, Luke 23:53 “He took it down, wrapped it in a linen sheet (σινδόνι), and placed it in a tomb cut into the rock, that had never been used.”
Is there any other Scripture that might verify my interpretation?
The Jewish custom was to seal a tomb, then come back in a year to pick up the dry bones and put them in an ossuary or a family niche. I can think of no reason why it would be necessary to open up a tomb two days later to renew spices already applied, yet that is what creation.com suggests was going on early that Sunday morning:
1 When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.
3 And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”
—Mark 16:1–3 ESV
Joseph was not able to complete the customary preparation of the body because it was the Sabbath, and an even more important Sabbath was about to start. He did what could be done quickly, then he left Jesus wrapped in the shroud he had brought, rolled the stone into place, and notified Jesus’ mother that she would need to complete the process—which was really the family’s job in the first place. Washing the body, then applying the cloth strips and spices was a job that it would have probably taken them at least two or three hours to complete.
Creation.com approached this subject much as they do in their creation articles. They started out their story the way I do, by reading key books and articles on the subject. But they were looking for talking points, not for real issues. Their minds were made up going in. This shows up in several places. For one, they were quick to comment on the “floating blood” on the image’s head. Yes, that’s what it looks like, but “looks like” isn’t always enough. If they had read in depth, they would have learned that those big blobs were contact stains in the cloth, not part of the image on the cloth. In the picture, those stains fluoresced, like white teeth under black light at a party.
Another very major fault with the creation.com approach is that most Hermeneutics don’t allow you to make theological decisions based on a single passage. The creation.com article shows why. Their case was built on John’s account of the burial, but John contradicts all three of the synoptic gospels. By “contradictions”, I’m not implying error. The four Gospel writers viewed events from four different directions, and each had a point he was trying to make. Think about the old saw about the blind men and the elephant. The exegete’s responsibility is to study the Scriptures together to find the harmony that is there!
A third fault in the post is that they were so sure of the end result they were going to get that they rushed into the fight with wild punches. Rigor mortis is part of the decay process. Do they really think that Jesus began to decay? I don’t think so!
A fourth, and the last I will mention, is that they wrote from a shallow understanding of culture. The Bible is God’s autobiography. It touches on other things, but it’s not a self-help book, it’s not a science text, it’s not a history, and it’s not a civics book. To fully understand the cultural context of Judea, you have to go beyond Scripture and examine extra-Biblical sources. Their understanding of 1st Century burial practices is superficial.
Nobody will ever be able to prove that the Shroud is authentic. Some folks think that an artistic genius like Leonardo DaVinci could have pulled off a hoax like this, but why would he? Besides, yes, he did conceive of helicopters back in his day, but he didn’t build one! To successfully produce what the technology of his day could not allow him even to see boggles my mind.
Frankly, I would like for this to be genuine. Prior to the incarnation, God in all three persons was spirit. Whenever he materialized to a physical form, it was transient. Until Jesus took on flesh. I’d like to think that there is a commemoration of that flesh, here on earth!