The Shroud of Turin: What’s your take?

As you may have heard, after ten years behind closed doors, the Shroud of Turin is about to go on display.

The book I’m reading at the moment, The Jesus Legend by Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd has had me thinking a lot about discussions over the historicity of Jesus and his death and resurrection, so although I’ve known about the shroud for years (I first watched a video about it when I was eleven or twelve), seeing it in the news piqued my interest.

The news story notes, “But experts stand by carbon-dating of scraps of the cloth that determine the linen was made in the 13th or 14th century in a kind of medieval forgery.” Reality is never, of course, that simple, and the facts are more accurately stated by saying that there are some experts who think that the Shroud is a medieval forgery, and there are some who do not believe that it is.

The case for the medieval origin of the Shroud of Turin was published as “Radiocarbon Dating of the Shroud of Turin,” Nature 337:6208 (1989), 611-615. The late Ray Rogers, in 2005, published a critique of that re-dating of the shroud, arguing that the method used was flawed. Discussions of his evidence and other material can be perused over at the Shroud of Turin Story website. Another significant peer reviewed work is M. S. Benford and J. G. Marino, “Discrepancies in the radiocarbon dating area of the Turin Shroud,” Chemistry Today 26:4 (2008).

But, sceptics aren’t convinced. For example: “A Skeptical Response to Studies on the Radiocarbon Sample from the Shroud of Turinby Raymond N. Rogers, Thermochimica Acta 425 (2005) 189-194,” by Steven D. Schafersman, Science Consultant and Administrator, The Skeptical Shroud of Turin Website.

I’m not a chemist and I have absolutely no expertise in analysing fabric samples. Explore those arguments for yourself and see what you make of them. As best I can tell, they indicate that the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin as an artefact from the first century that appears to depict wounds like those we would expect on the body of Jesus of Nazareth remains, from a scientific point of view, an open question.

My non-believing readers might not appreciate me pointing it out, but I do see something of an asymmetry in why a person, depending on whether or not they are a believe or a sceptic, might accept or reject the shroud as authentic. For a Christian believer like me, the shroud of Turin is unnecessary. Were it to prove genuine, of course it wouldn’t prove the resurrection of Jesus, and besides, the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus tends to be made without reference to the shroud. However, if I were a sceptic who made a habit of claiming that there’s no evidence for Christianity, I would really feel that I needed the shroud to be a fake. If it’s a fake, nothing is proven, but if it’s real, then there’s a pretty tangible piece of evidence for the historical Jesus of Nazareth, as well as his means of death.

For what it’s worth, however, as someone who firmly believes in the historical Jesus, his death by crucifixion and also his bodily resurrection from the dead, I’m sceptical about the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin.

I cannot find a single historical source that provides clear support for the claim that it was a first century Jewish practice to wrap a body for burial with one large cloth in the manner depicted by the Shroud of Turin. I have seen paintings from the sixteenth century depicting this kind of preparation for the burial of Jesus, but since it’s no secret that the Shroud of Turin was already regarded as a holy relic by that stage, it’s easily explicable why an artist might have believed that this is how Jesus was wrapped.

John 11:44, “The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth.”

John’s Gospel gives the most detail about how Jesus’ body was prepared for burial:

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. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.

One single sheet of linen, not wound around the body but laid over the front and back of the body simply cannot have held seventy five pounds of myrrh and aloes. From what I’ve been able to gather, applying spices like this involved winding cloth round and around the body, applying the spices in between the layers. The body is not merely covered with cloth, or even loosely wrapped. It is, as John says, bound with cloths and spices. According to C. Johnson, “The presence of the myrrh and the nard would have made the burial clothes become extremely rigid. The burial clothes were never extended to cover the head or face but only wrapped the body.” This is confirmed in the case of Lazarus, whose face had a separate covering.

What I’ve said thus far would imply that Jesus was not wrapped in a single large shroud, but was wrapped in multiple linen cloths, with a face cloth that would have been on Jesus’ head. Only one of the Gospels, John, makes reference to the cloths that remained when the tomb of Jesus was found empty. Chapter 20 verses 3-7 read:

So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.

Unless there was some reason why I was hoping to find something else in this passage, the natural conclusion that I would draw is that there were cloths covering Jesus’ body, and a different cloth covering his head.

So I’m content for the debate about the Shroud of Turin to rage on. I’m happy for the evidence under the microscope to say what it will, but the Shroud of Turin, as best I can tell, just isn’t what Jesus was buried in if the New Testament is anything to go by.

Glenn Peoples

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31 thoughts on “The Shroud of Turin: What’s your take?

  1. I’ve just watched a documentary on youtube about it, by the BBC called Shroud of Turin – New Evidence 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKj56swhuVQ (part one of five).
    It was very good. It seems that in medieval times, new cotton cloth was cunning interwoven into the linen shroud in France (I think) in order to repair the cloth. One of the original researchers said this was rubbish to begin with and that he could disprove it in five minutes (as he still had some of the original sample taken) and another of his researchers told him to go ahead and do it. In fact, he found that there WAS cotton fibre skillfully interwoven into the shroud, probably at this later date, in order to make repairs. He also found traces of gum pigment on these newer cotton fibres which would have been done to match the coloring of the original material. Another researcher on the videos says that it should have been noted on the photos that his team had taken in 1978 that the cloth was of a different makeup and that was not a good area for samples to be taken from.

    The upshot is, that the medieval date would pretty much have been expected, given what we know about the area the sample was taken from. So, from what I can see, the dating they gave in 1988 (that the shroud was from medieval times) was wrong.

    It is well worth watching all five parts of the video.

  2. I’m not sure if your links mention this, but I heard one interview about this cloth and it was pointed out the weave in the cloth was unique to the time and place of Jesus, and suggested that the cloth was the right age, given that method of weaving was not repeated in later years.

    If this is correct, then it would suggest the cloth is authentic to the right period, at least.

  3. Yeah Zen, as I looked through the websites that discuss the method of weaving and whether or not it shows anything is one of the things people dispute.

    It’s one of those issues where no matter how straight forward and simple the presenter makes it sound (no matter which perspective they are advocating), you can rest absolutely assured that somebody has answered them. And somebody has answered them, and so on.

  4. Zen, yes. It is the herringbone style pattern they think is from around that time. Fabric samples are few but archaeologists have found samples of cloth from a rubbish dump at the Roman fort of Krokodilo which have samples of wool with a similar weave, dated with absolute certainty from AD 100 to 120. I am also halfway through reading The Shroud, by Ian Wilson (that I saw at the ‘red shed’).

  5. At the very most all that could ever be proves is that this is a cloth used to bury someone in the 1st century in Palestine… at the VERY most. And even then it would be a sort of “so what” situation.

  6. Well Max, it would be more than just a person buried in the first century. It would be a somebody who had fatal injuries that are coincidentally a lot like those we would expect Jesus to have had.

  7. Well a crucified person from the first century… which narrows it down a lot… and a crucified Jew? Can you tell that from the shroud? But there were still of people that fit that category!

    I would also want to see some sort of evidence that a shroud relic tradition existed in the early church… is there anything like this?

  8. Interesting that none of the comments address the posts main point. Fabric weaves and dating techniques are irrelevant in light of the fact that the Gospel depictions of Jesus’ burial don’t match the traits of the Shroud at hand – strips wrapped around the body and a separate face cloth. Now, you is faced with accepting a possible fraud or accepting the account of the books that you believe are sufficiently accurate to base your life and faith upon.

  9. Scott, I thought Glenn explained fairly clearly that the authenticity or otherwise of the cloth was ultimately irrelevant to the central belief.

    I suspect also that there has already been robust discussion around the shroud fitting in with the eyewitness account, and may have quite a logical explanation to consider.

    I fully agree that it is a great point and one certainly worth delving into.

    I think if it’s a forgery (although I think that’s the wrong word, it might simply have been created as a work of art) it’s a very very clever one, because the process of making it apparently confounds the experts. At the least, it would prove that just because the times were medieval or older, doesn’t mean that minds were any less sharp or any less wise.

    In today’s world, information and technology changes rapidly and there is a tendency for some people to fall into the trap that we are somehow cleverer for all this new knowledge. Yet we seem to be here only because we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

    What a great mystery!

  10. My gut reaction to the shroud has always been “who cares?” Ever since learning about the church’s abuse of relics in Church History lectures with Bob (ah.. those were the days) I’ve held them in contempt. The shroud is another relic. I’d rather see it burned.

  11. As far as it’s history – where it had been – the book I am reading makes a strong argument for the Shroud being the fabled ‘Image of Edessa’, that also ended up in Constantinople.

    Still not sure about how the size of the shroud relates to the Gospel accounts. I suppose it also depends on the translation. Some translations speak of the cloth that “was around Jesus head”. In the book I am reading they say John uses the word epi ‘over’, rather than peri which is ‘around’.
    They also say that (according to the Jewish expert at the University of London) that the Jews believed in the resurrection at the end of time, and thus everything that formed part of the body, including blood, should be buried with it.

    “As expressed in the Jewish Code of Laws, ‘One who fell [eg, in battle] and died instantly, if…blood flowed from the wound, and there is apprehension that the blood of the soul was absorbed in his clothes, he should not be cleansed’. In these circumstances, therefore, those preparing the dead person for burial had to wrap a ‘sheet which is called a sovev straight over any clothes, however blood-stained. This sovev had to be an all-enveloping cloth, that is a ‘single sheet…used to go right around’ the entire body.

    The book also asks the question that if it was just a face cloth covering Jesus face, why did it need to be ‘rolled up’ as is mentioned in John?
    Being rolled up infers something bigger.

  12. I don’t think there’s a translation issue here: “On” or “over” are equally problematic for the Shroud of Turin, because in either case the sentence indicates that there was a separate cloth for the head, which is coroborated by the account of Lazarus being raised from the dead who had a cloth around his head.

    As for the “one sheet” idea, this is addressed by the fact that Jesus was wrapped and covered with 75 pounds of spices. One sheets covering the front and back is just not going to hold that. So the Gospel account itself favours (I daresay even requires) that Jesus body was wrapped with spices, unlike the body depicted on the shroud. Exegetically I see no way around this.

    The face cloth was, according to the John’s Gospel, wrapped, folded, or perhaps just as we would say “screwed up” by itself (the actual Greek word entulisso means twisted up), so there’s nothing requiring a large roll of cloth. The point, however, is that it was a separate piece, not part of a larger sheet that was on the body.

  13. I’m new to this so bear with me 🙂

    Could the shroud have been used temporarily, as in when Jesus was taken down from the Cross, and maybe carried in it to the tomb? (not sure where the embalming took place)

    Or, could it have been the first layer, and the linen strips & embalming wrapped around it?

  14. Hmm, well Matthew 27:58 says

    Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock.

    That sounds like one sheet there. Mark 15 also mentions a linen cloth –

    So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock.

    Luke says much the same, but you are right about John being different.
    As far as the spices go, some of the other Gospels mention that the women *prepared* the spices on the day that Jesus was buried, brought them the next day but didn’t get a chance to apply them as Jesus had already risen. If His body had been anointed, would they have had a reason to roll the stone away?

    Mark 16 –

    When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

    Luke 23 –

    The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb

    It is interesting, to be sure 🙂
    Personally, I am more inclined to believe in the shroud than not, but I don’t think it matters either way if someone wants to or not.

  15. Interesting, I was actually reading Bill Craig’s discussion of the Shroud a couple of days ago. Craig was arguing it was a forgery, but when he went into the evidence I was surprised how strong the case for its authenticity was.

  16. Now, you is faced with accepting a possible fraud or accepting the account of the books that you believe are sufficiently accurate to base your life and faith upon.

    another possibility, it could be that the gospels are not perfectly precise to the detail on the burial, and that it wouldn’t matter one bloomin bit. There’s reasonable innerrancy, that scripture is perfectly reliable in it’s divine and human authorial intent, then there’s stupid innerancy, that the biblic has to be correct down to every sneeze and wheeze, as if any descrepency had an iota of bad reflection on the meaning and intention for the understanding of God, man, and world that is put foward.

    FYI, I believe the shroud is real, and if I’m wrong, it’s far from a game changer.

  17. I agree with you Rob. I think that if each Gospel were exact on every detail, you would get people complaining about that and suggesting that the whole Bible had been written by one person.

    I know that as far as the Catholic Church is concerned (who are now the official owners of the Shroud), belief or unbelief in it is not a matter of Doctrine and people are free to make up their own minds.

  18. Y’know, Paul, as much as I’d agree that depictions of Jesus as white are historically inaccurate, I sincerely doubt it’s even remotely fair to assume the reasons are quite as racist as that video asserts. Do you know of any major (or even noteworthy) teaching in any period of history that was based on Jesus looking like a European?

    Rather, artists of the time were used to, y’know, drawing Europeans. Since they were from Europe. Although a bit of latent racism is always underpinning much of what humans do, one shouldn’t ignore the simple fact that not everyone gave two hoots about accurate artistic recreations of times and places past and distant.

    But hey, whatever allows one to demonize old churchmen. 😉

  19. So we have renaissance artists doing frescoes and painting the top of chapels with ornate masterpieces – but these painters didn’t have the talent to depict a dark-skinned Arab? They only had blue paint in their pallets left when it came to doing the eyes?

    Since the Catholic Church was one of the major benefactors to these artists – so what do you think would have happened if say De Vinci had of painted Jesus and the disciples at ‘The Last Supper’ as all Jews? No white faces?

    Naturally the bloody Catholic Church was racist and it still depicts Jesus as an Aryan-Warrior to this day as do other churches – when they know damn well anyone living in this region at that time, with this parentage would have been dark-skinned, brown-eyed Jew/Arab.

    Clearly the painters of the shroud continued to perpetrate this presumptive historic lie by re-creating the anthropological inaccuracies modern-science now makes clear.

    They painted Jesus in the shroud like thousands have – before & after – in essence – what people want to see.

    Cheers.

    Paul.

  20. Regarding ‘the image on the shroud is a white guy’ comments… I thought I’d mention I’d recently saw the History Channel special where CG specialists recreated the shroud image in 3D. After compensating for the fact the the cloth wrapped the face rather than it being a flat image, I was surprised how ‘Isreali’ the final rendering appeared. Interesting show. Catch a rerun if you can.

  21. I’m actually one of those people who take notice of these kind of things. When I look at a picture depicting Jesus, I almost always note what the eye color is and how light/dark the skin color is. Probably because the seculars make a lot of fuss about it.

    Few famous paintings have blue eyes Jesus, but a lot (most?) modern books/illustrations don’t have blue eyes Jesus. In fact I rarely see light skin Jesus, they’re almost always tan.

    I think no one knows the physical appearance of Jesus. May be He had blue eyes and light skin, who knows?

    Paint Jesus as an arab, an asian, a negro, an eskimo, an indian, whatever, it really doesn’t matter.

  22. Interestingly, Matt, In his fairly early book The Son Rises, Bill Craig cited the shroud as evidence for the empty tomb, then later, as you say, he changed his mind when new evidence came to light.

  23. Paul, I’m not saying they didn’t have the talent to paint Jesus as an Arab, I’m suggesting that maybe they didn’t really care. Either way, I haven’t really heard of medieval massacres of black people because Jesus was totally white. If there’s such thing as a “victimless crime,” I’d certainly nominate painting Jesus as the wrong race.

    Also, have you ever seen non-European depictions of Jesus? Japanese art makes Jesus look Japanese, Russian Jesus looks (surprise!) like a Russian, etc. Those unbelievable racists.

  24. CPE: I’m willing to go to three Christchurch Churches of your choosing – pick a Pacific Island congregation for all I care – to see all these dark-skinned and brown eyed renditions.

    There’s a Chinese run-one about 2kms away.

    Contact me through my blog with your e.mail and I’ll have a $200 bet they will display European likeness’s of Jesus.

    Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, eh.

    See ya.

    Paul

  25. Paul: I can’t remember the last time I’ve actually been to a church that had a picture of Jesus in prominent display, to say nothing about putting photographs of said images on their webpages.

    However, that hardly is an excuse for laziness – surely someone with as much internet-savviness as yourself can perform some simple searches for images of Jesus from other cultures, no?

    Like this Japanese image of Jesus, for example.
    http://travel.webshots.com/photo/2773849540075516174EqiWGm
    And here’s a post that, at the bottom, has several depictions from around the world:
    http://barbadosfreepress.wordpress.com/2007/04/06/we-know-what-jesus-didnt-look-like-dont-we/
    And, a big repository of such images:
    http://www.nairaland.com/nigeria/topic-240898.0.html
    Have fun with them. One person on the last link points out, “Throughout the ages, mankind puts a face on an image that is closest to him. Look at images of the Buddha and you will see the same – there are Indian Buddhas, Chinese Buddhas, Thai Buddhas etc.”

    But I suppose artists’ tendency to draw things that look familiar isn’t as good a “story” as the church being a bunch of EVIL RACISTS.

  26. The Shroud? Look at the narrowness of the face, even narrower in real life if that image is based on a piece of fabric that was wrapped AROUND the face. And compare that super narrow face with actual skeletal evidence of the rounded shapes of first century Jewish male faces, and also compare it with the super skinny faces found in Medieval paintings. I provide some examples on my blog:

    http://edward-t-babinski. blogspot.com/search?q=shroud

    The blog piece debunks other notions as well.

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