The shroud of turin was widely dismissed as a medieval forgery after radiocarbon tests in 1988 dated it to the 13th or 14th century. Now a growing body of evidence is calling for reassessment of the shroud, which is kept in Turin, Italy.
The latest item comes from the London-based Journal of Optics, published by the Institute of Physics. Two scientists from the University of Padua, Giulio Fanti and Roberto Maggiolo, report in the journal's April edition the discovery of a heretofore-undetected reverse image on the shroud. They say the smaller, fainter image on the back of the cloth depicts just the face and hands. And it's a superficial image, adhering only to the outermost fibers, just like the image on the front. "It is extremely difficult to make a fake with these features," Fanti writes.
The fact that their study was published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal is significant and "a step in the right direction", says Barrie Schwortz, editor of Shroud.com. This is one of the most comprehensive of the many websites devoted to the phenomenon.
Schwortz, who is Jewish, was a shroud skeptic until he served as a photographer for the 1978 Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP). The five-day project was the most intensive investigation in the history of the image. Besides providing the first public viewing of the media age, the project reinforced the shroud's cachet as a truly unique religious icon.
But then, 10 years later, came the much-heralded carbon-14 tests, confirmed by three laboratories, dating the cloth to the Middle Ages. "It was like dropping an h-bomb, and seeing how long it takes life to come back," says Gary Habermas, chair of the department of philosophy and theology at Liberty University, who has coauthored two books on the shroud.
Science vs. Science
While most people concluded the shroud had been discredited, some significant questions have been raised. One of the main questions was whether the samples chosen came from an area of the shroud that was repaired.
"What if we can prove that the carbon dating didn't sample the original shroud but a rewoven area?" Schwortz asks.
He is awaiting word from another scientific journal, which is currently reviewing a paper on a chemical analysis by a STURP colleague. That colleague, Raymond Rogers, a retired fellow of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, claims the carbon-14 tests were done on a dyed piece of medieval-era linen and cotton. He theorizes the cloth came from an undocumented repair of the shroud. On April 9, 2004, National Geographic suggested that the test samples came from a patch repaired during the Middle Ages.
"It's a case of science vs. science, not faith vs. science," Habermas says. But until they're officially discredited, he says the carbon-14 tests are still the most powerful objection to the validity of the shroud.
Paul Maier, a professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University and an expert on early Christianity, says, "The paper trail doesn't go back far enough." The specific history of the shroud goes back only to the 14th century. "I tend to think something as important as this would've had more attestation [because] the early church was interested in hard objects [connected to the faith]."
Habermas still has doubts about the shroud. But he counters that there are a half-dozen images of Jesus on coins and paintings dating to around the sixth century that bear a remarkable congruency to the face on the shroud.
Some researchers have linked the shroud with reports of an image of Christ discovered hidden in the city walls of the Turkish city of Edessa in the sixth century. The image reportedly was later taken to Constantinople, where it disappeared in 1204.
Pollen from plants native to Turkey and Israel turned up on pieces of sticky tape that the late Swiss criminologist Max Frei had pressed onto the shroud. In recent years two Israeli scientists, Hebrew University botanist Avinoam Danin and Israel Antiquities Authority pollenologist Uri Baruch, said they confirmed Frei's pollen evidence. Danin also claimed to have found images of flowers, unique to Israel, in the shroud.
Since STURP, the closest examination of the shroud occurred in 2002. A Swiss textile expert, Mechthild Flury-Lemberg, remounted the shroud. She replaced a backing dating from 1534.
Flury-Lemberg said she discovered a stitching pattern on the shroud similar to the hem of a cloth found in first-century Jewish tombs at Masada. She said the weave's three-to-one herringbone pattern was authentic for a first-century cloth of unusually fine quality.
Two Israeli archaeologists announced in 1997 that they believed the shroud could not be 2,000 years old because a garment could not last intact for 20 centuries (ct, Oct. 27, 1997, p. 100). About three years later, however, archaeologist Shimon Gibson discovered shroud-wrapped remains in a tomb in Jerusalem's Hinnom Valley. Although this shroud was in tatters, it was submitted to one of the same laboratories that handled the Turin shroud. Scientists dated Gibson's shroud to the first half of the first century, making the tomb occupant a contemporary of Jesus.
Gibson's discovery was largely unheralded. But late last year Gibson released the results of the tests, which showed the tomb occupant had died of Hansen's disease. The shroud had covered the oldest confirmed remains of a leprosy victim.
Like Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, the shroud opens a window into the hearts of those who view it. "There is only one person it could've wrapped, even though science could never prove who it wrapped," Schwortz says. "The biggest irony of my life is that I spend most of my time trying to convince Christians that the shroud is authentic. God does have a great sense of humor."
Gordon Govier is the host and executive producer of The Book & the Spade, a weekly radio program focusing on biblical archaeology.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
An abstract of the article, "The double superficiality of the frontal image of the Turin Shroud" is available from the Journal of Optics. The full text is available for purchase.
More news about the Shroud of Turin is available from Shroud.com.
The official site of the Shroud, from the Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud of Turin, has lots of information on visiting Turin and on the 2002 restoration.
Shroudstory.com has articles, news, and facts about the Shroud.
Other Christianity Today articles on the Shroud of Turin includes:
Top Ten New Testament Archaeological Finds of the Past 150 Years | How do shrouds, boats, inscriptions, and other artifacts better help us understand the Christ of the Ages? (Sept. 23, 2003)
Cloaked in Mystery | Those who believe it is Jesus' shroud point to features on it that seem unique to Jesus' death, including pathological ones. (Nov. 16, 1998)
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Home delivery of new issues in print with access to all past issues online.
- View the complete archive.
- Join now and get print issues access to archive PDFs.