The Shroud of Turin, an alleged relic of the burial of Jesus after his crucifixion, is to miracle-researchers what the Zapruder film is to JFK assassination conspiracy-buffs. The herringbone linen sheet, 14 feet three inches by three feet seven inches, contains a faint image that some believe is the frontal and dorsal impression of Jesus’ body made after his death. It is probably the most extensively studied, intensely debated evidence of a purported miracle in history.
The mystery is compounded by the relic’s sketchy provenance. There is only a brief mention of Jesus’ sudarium, or burial shroud, in the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ burial and resurrection. Matthew 27:57-59, for example, explains that when Joseph of Arimathea obtained Jesus’ body from Pilate, the Roman governor, he “wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and placed it in his own tomb that he had cut in the rock.” There is no description, however, of Jesus’ followers retrieving it from his empty tomb.
According to relic’s custodians, the earliest historical account of its existence dates back to 1353, when the French knight Geoffroy de Charny laid the shroud in a chuch that he built in the Champagne region. After that, it passed through numerous sets of hands, and was nearly destroyed by fire in 1532.
From then until the turn of the 20th Century, the Shroud of Turin was more of a local curiosity than an international sensation. After all, it was just one of numerous pieces of cloth that various European custodians proclaimed to be the burial shroud of Jesus; the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1911 cites competitors in Besançon, Cadouin, Champiègne, and Xabregas, among others. Obviously, they couldn’t all be real, and the multitude of apparent fakes tended to diminish the credence given to any one of them. What may have separated the Shroud of Turin from the pack was a lucky accidental discovery.
As Mark Oxley describes in his 2010 book Challenge of the Shroud: History, Science and the Shroud of Turin, it was not until 1898, when an amateur photographer named Secondo Pia was allowed to photograph the shroud, that the details of the images on it became clear. Oxley writes:
Bloodstains and injuries could be clearly seen. The face, instead of being ethereal, appeared strikingly lifelike against the dark background of the negative.
Pia’s discovery that the shroud seemed–at least to believers–to be a detailed image of Jesus’ body, complete with signs of various injuries, may have been what led scientists to begin studying it. The earliest research was done by Paul Vignon, a professor of biology at the Institut Catholique in Paris. In his 1902 book, The Shroud of Christ, Vignon concluded that the image on the shroud was a “vaporigraph” caused by ammonia given off by Jesus’s corpse. Vignon claimed that when the vapor came in contact with the oil-and-aloe impregnated linen, it produced the shroud’s deep reddish-brown stain, in a manner similar to a photographic emulsion exposed to light.
Vignon’s findings, as gratifying as they were to believers, were not accepted by everyone. A scholar named Canon Ulysse Chevalier subsequently unearthed late 14th-century correspondence between the Bishop of Troyes and Pope Clement VII, in which the Bishop wrote that the shroud had been painted by an artist who admitted to the forgery.
But that challenge only seemed to fuel the fire. Four additional photographic studies of the shroud, conducted under more exacting conditions, were done between 1931 and 1973, and with the advent of modern scientific tools such as carbon dating, researchers began to scrutinize the relic even more closely. In 1969, the archbishop of Turin was persuaded to let a group of scientists briefly examine the shroud. In 1978, a scientific consortium, the Shroud of Turin Research Project (whose acronym is the odd-sounding STURP), spent 120 consecutive hours subjecting the shroud to X-ray, fluorescence and chemical tests.
STURP’s findings created a sensation.The group not only found no pigments, dyes, paints or other clear evidence of fraud, but also ruled out Vignon’s theory that chemicals produced by the body had created the image. They also made another peculiar discovery: the image had not penetrated the cloth, but was confined to the fabric’s top layers.
There are no chemical or physical methods known which can account for the totality of the image, nor can any combination of physical, chemical, biological or medical circumstances explain the image adequately…We can conclude for now that the Shroud image is that of a real human form of a scourged, crucified man.
STURP’s work did contain one major omission: the scientists didn’t use carbon dating to try to establish the precise date of the relic’s origin. When three laboratories in the U.S., Great Britain and Switzerland performed that test on samples from the shroud in 1988, their findings were a stinging refutation of STURP. They concluded that the fabric dated back to between 1260 and 1390, roughly around the time that the shroud made its first documented appearance in France.
But believers in the shroud refused to accept that verdict, and sure enough, yet another scientific study came along to challenge it. In the 1990s, a Russian scientist named Dmitri Kouznetsov suggested that the carbon dating might have been thrown off by the effects of the 1532 fire, and American microbiologist Leoncio Garza-Valdes found evidence that the shroud’s fibers had been contaminated with other organic material produced by bacteria, which he suggested had in turn thrown off the carbon-dating tests. In 2005, University of California researcher Ray Rogers, a former member of the STURP team, published a paper describing his own chemical analysis of the shroud, which showed it to be between 1,300 and 3,000 years old. He also contended that the 1980s researchers mistakenly had tested a portion of the shroud that actually was a patch, sewn into the relic to repair fire damage.
As this 1998 Time magazine article details, testing of the blood samples found in the shroud led to even more intriguing findings. The blood was found to be human and belong to the AB group, which only accounts for 3.2 percent of the world’s population–the highest incidence of which is among Jews from Iraq and northern Palestine. In 1995, a DNA test was conducted on a sample, which revealed only that it was human in origin. As Alan D. Alder notes in his survey of the scientific literature, DNA testing of the shroud is problematic, because of the likelihood that the relic has been contaminated over the centuries by various people who touched it.
Thus, the mystery continues.
For more on this subject, visit Mysteries of the Bible: Secrets of the Shroud.