An unconvincing Shroud story

A review of The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Secret of the Resurrection by Thomas de Wesselow
Penguin Books Limited, 2012

An unconvincing Shroud story

reviewed by Lita Sanders

For millions of Christians, Easter is the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The declaration of the empty tomb goes back to the very earliest records we have about Christianity, and from the beginning this formed the foundation of Christianity’s beliefs about what Jesus’ followers have to look forward to in their own resurrections.

Just after Easter, art historian Thomas de Wesselow released a book that promises to revolutionize how we see the Resurrection, and what some Christians think is a genuine artifact—the Shroud of Turin—as a witness to the sort of Resurrection that he’s arguing for.

The credentials game

It may seem like a cheap shot to ask what right someone has to pontificate about matters like these, but particularly when an individual makes claims that would overturn decades and even centuries of research by specialists in the field, we have a right to ask on what authority he makes these claims. If someone wrote a book saying that cigarette smoking didn’t cause cancer, but that fresh fruit and vegetables were the culprits, we would have a right to ask if he had any actual training in oncology. But from a New Testament studies point of view, de Wesselow’s claims are just as absurd.

De Wesselow has a Ph.D. in art history, specializing in Italian art. This would qualify him to research the Shroud, if it is in fact a medieval forgery (putting it in the realm of an artistic piece). But if it is (as he claims) an actual first-century shroud, then that puts its study in the realm of archaeology (Is the Shroud actually from the first century? Does it conform with what we know about first-century Jewish burial practices? Are there any other cases where a body has left such an imprint on an ancient shroud?), and de Wesselow has absolutely no qualifications to speak on these fronts.

He may be qualified to speak about whether or not the Shroud could possibly be a work of medieval art, but he certainly has no stated qualifications regarding early Church history or New Testament interpretation. Yet he has the audacity to make sweeping claims about the doctrine of the Resurrection in first-century Judaism and early Christian thought and the composition and compilation of the New Testament canon. These flaws are the ones which are the most relevant (and the ones which the reviewer is particularly qualified to talk about), so the review will center around these.

The Resurrection

At nearly the beginning of the book, de Wesselow states:

It would help, of course, if we could say for certain what the first Christians understood by the concept of the Resurrection—especially those who claimed (as did Paul) to have seen the Risen Jesus. As yet, scholars have been unable to agree on this issue, mainly because it is inextricably linked to the contentious interpretation of the Resurrection itself. (p. 5)

He goes on to use this supposed uncertainty about what the Resurrection is to concoct his own fanciful version of what Jews and Christians must have meant when they talked about resurrection. But in fact there are two very good, in-depth studies on the Resurrection that explain in detail what exactly ‘resurrection’ meant to Jews and Christians. The first made it into de Wesselow’s bibliography: The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T. Wright (although apparently he read it very selectively!). The second didn’t but should have: The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach by Mike Licona. Anyone interested in researching the subject further is directed to those works: for the purposes of this review a single quote will suffice:

Resurrection, therefore, seems to possess two meanings in the second-Temple period, with considerable fluidity between them. In each case the reference is concrete: restoration of Israel (‘resurrection’ as metaphorical, denoting socio-political events and investing them with the significance that this will be an act of new creation, of covenant restoration); of human bodies (‘resurrection’ as literal, denoting actual re-embodiment). Nothing in the entire Jewish context warrants the suggestion that the discussion in 1 Corinthians 15 was about ‘resurrection in heaven’, or that the Jewish literature of the period ‘speaks both of a resurrection of the body and a resurrection of the spirit without the body’. Some Jews speak of eternal disembodied bliss, but this is not described as ‘resurrection’; when ‘resurrection’ is spoken of, it is the second stage in post-mortem life, not the instant destiny upon death. Nothing here, either, would prepare us for the use of ‘resurrection’ to mean ‘that after his crucifixion … Jesus entered into the powerful life of God’ or ‘the passage of the human Jesus into the power of God’. … Anyone who used the normal words for ‘resurrection’ within second-Temple Judaism would have been heard to be speaking within this strictly limited range of meaning.1

So in other words, there were all sorts of ways to talk about shades and spirits existing after death. There was veneration of beloved teachers who had died, there were even ways to talk about seeing ‘the angel’ of a person who had died and communicating with the dead. But none of these phenomena were called ‘resurrection’—if you’re talking about Resurrection in the context of Judaism in Jesus’ day, you’re talking about the revivification of a body that was previously dead. De Wesselow is simply lying when he shrugs and says, “Well, I guess we don’t know what the Jews thought about Resurrection!” And it’s even more spurious when he uses this supposed ignorance to build his fanciful theory.

The Resurrection according to The Sign

De Wesselow is an agnostic, and of course as such he rejects the historicity of the Resurrection, if by ‘Resurrection’ one means the conventional version where Jesus’ corpse is transformed into a living resurrection body and He walks out of the tomb and spends the next forty days appearing to various people. He is by no means the first to be skeptical about the Resurrection, but most people accept that the tomb was empty—the Jews in Jesus’ day who rejected the Resurrection argued that the body had been stolen (if the corpse had been in there, disinterring the remains would have put a speedy end to the Resurrection stories). Most skeptics simply say that the body was stolen, or Jesus wasn’t really dead and revived after a suitably long nap, or that it was Jesus’ ‘evil twin brother’ who was put in the tomb and Jesus went into hiding someplace else, or any number of other (increasingly improbable) theories. But in a twist, de Wesselow says that the sightings were real; it was the empty tomb that was added later to embellish the legend:

There are two consistent features of the tomb-stories that might have provided the necessary stimulus; the discovery of an empty tomb and the encounter with the angel(s). In modern scholarship the angels have generally been dismissed as superfluous additions to the story, while the empty tomb has been considered its essential raison d’être. … Originally, the focus of the story was about the women’s visit to the sepulcher was the encounter with the angel(s), i.e. the discovery of the Shroud, not the discovery of an empty tomb. The missing body was added to the story at a later stage. For centuries people have assumed the angels to be legendary and the empty tomb to be historical; in reality it was the other way round (p. 243).

But what we know about the Gospel narratives makes this sort of embellishment highly unlikely, and what we know about Jewish conceptions of the Resurrection of the dead makes it impossible. The Gospels are dated, even by most liberals, to sometime in the first century. By anyone’s estimation, the Synoptics were penned well within the lifetime of people who would have been witnesses to the Resurrection, and John was penned by the close of the first century (at the latest according to most mainstream scholars), well within the lifetime of the second generation. Mythology simply cannot replace historical events that quickly, especially when Christianity was taking root in the midst of hostile Jews (who would have been more than happy to disinter Jesus’ remains however many times were necessary to put an end to the movement, if those remains were still anywhere to be found), and among pagans who viewed the Resurrection as not just impossible, but repugnant. The historical evidence indicates that the remains were missing—that’s the only satisfactory explanation for the Jewish story that the body had been stolen, and for Jesus’ followers claiming that He was raised from the dead.

The appearances

The disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb was a necessary component for the Resurrection to have any plausibility, but not sufficient. We can see this from the reaction of the first to arrive at the tomb—they assume not that Jesus was risen, but that his body had been stolen—Mary Magdalene begs Jesus, who she mistakes for a gardener, to tell her where His corpse is, presumably so she can take care of the remaining funerary rites (John 20:11–18).

In first-century Judaism, the Resurrection of the dead was seen as an eschatological event—when God judged the world, the dead would be raised—some Jews thought that all the dead would be raised, while others supposed that only the righteous would be resurrected. Jesus’ disciples weren’t expecting Him to be resurrected, because there wasn’t a category in Judaism to describe one individual being raised before everyone else to prove that He really was the Messiah (somewhat understandably, given that Judaism wasn’t expecting the Messiah to die). So nothing short of seeing an actually-resurrected Jesus would have convinced them. It is the only sufficient explanation for the disciples’ sudden certainty about the Resurrection of Jesus.

De Wesselow claims that each of the Resurrection appearances and sightings of the angels associated with the Resurrection of Jesus were actually sightings of the Shroud. Anything that he can twist to support his theory he accepts as an oblique transmission of evidence for the Shroud being the symbol of the Resurrection. But anything that is incompatible with this is dismissed as later embellishment: “Obviously, a great deal of this narrative—including the eating and speaking—is fictional” (p. 272). If someone does exegesis by simply accepting whatever can be twisted to fit the desired view and throwing out everything else without the slightest evidence that it should be, then it’s possible to find evidence for practically any belief one wants to support. But this is hardly responsible interpretation of the text.

The early skeptics

A couple of times now it has been suggested that the Jews and other early skeptics of the Resurrection could have simply produced the corpse, and Christianity would have died in its infancy. That they did not do so indicates that they could not do so—however it happened, the tomb was empty.

But if the Resurrection claims had somehow come about because of the Shroud, surely these unbelievers would have recorded this somewhere in their records. We would expect to see somewhere in the ancient anti-Christian writings claims that Jesus’ followers went mad and began to worship an image of their dead rabbi—there are pagan and Jewish writings about Christians from the first century, and none of them mention anything that could be said to be support for the Shroud theory.

But what about the Shroud?

Is the Shroud authentic or a medieval forgery? The first part of the book is concerned with this question. To summarize de Wesselow’s argument, he argues that the body of Christ was washed when it was taken from the cross, the rigor mortis broken in the arms to enable the body to fit in the cloth (but still present in the head, explaining the odd position of the head in relation to the body—it was still at the 40-degree angle where it was hanging at the time of death, making it look like there was no neck). The body was washed, removing dirt and blood, but after washing, more blood leaked from the wounds on the body. He claims that Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb hastily, only covered loosely by the linen shroud (explaining the minimal distortion in the image). In the tomb, he claims a Maillard reaction (the same sort of reaction that causes fruit to go brown) between amines released by the corpse and starches present on the Shroud produced the image.

To further bolster his case, he argues that all forgery methods available in medieval times are insufficient to explain the Shroud. Nicholas Allen’s proto-photographic shroud copy produces a 3D negative, but also includes directional lighting, which is not present on the Shroud, and Joe Nickell’s reproduction made by laying a cloth over a bas-relief representation of Christ’s face and dabbing it with iron oxide is much cruder than the image on the Shroud. But he fails to address Luigi Garlaschelli’s 2009 work that attempted to reproduce the Shroud using red ochre.

But there are problems with the Shroud itself that means that it could not have been made by contact with a human body. For instance, rigor mortis probably would not have lasted long enough to hold the head in the correct position for the duration of time required to form the image. All of the Gospel narratives say that the body was wrapped in the Shroud, and one wonders why someone would simply carefully drape the body in a Shroud—if there were time enough for that, surely there would be time enough to wrap the body more securely? In either case, there should be more distortion than is seen on the Shroud image, particularly at the top of the head, and the face should be rounder from distortion. De Wesselow explains the separation between the two figures by saying that a cloth was used to bind the chin to keep the mouth from gaping open. This would explain a separation between the two images, but not the lack of distortion. So while we don’t know exactly how the Shroud was produced, it wasn’t produced by being wrapped around a human body.

How was Jesus buried?

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention linen (Greek sindon) used to wrap Jesus’ body. Matthew 27:59 leaves it ambiguous whether it should be translated “in clean linen cloth”, leaving the possibility open that it was strips, or “in a clean linen shroud”, as does Mark 15:46 and Luke 23:53. De Wesselow discounts John’s narrative as a reliable source, arguing that it’s late and too steeped in the tradition of the physical resurrection, but we disagree. And John happens to give us the most detailed description of Jesus’ burial.

John says that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were instrumental in burying Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for permission to bury the body, and Nicodemus brought 75 pounds of spices. Linen is mentioned here, too, but a different, less ambiguous word is used—othonion, which refers to strips of linen. They bound the body in the linen strips and layers of the spices. The same word othonoion is used in 20:5 for the strips that were left laying in the tomb, but 20:7 also refers to a soudarion, a cloth used to cover the face.

De Wesselow claims that John’s burial account is fanciful, reflecting the burial he feels Jesus should have received rather than the one He actually did, and points to discrepancies between the burial narratives. But especially regarding the Passion and Resurrection narratives, the Gospels differ in which details they choose to include, doubtlessly theologically motivated part of the time. But if we look at the various narratives as different portraits of the events that transpired, each providing a different, yet accurate, perspective, we can bring them together to create a reconstruction of the events that does justice to each account.

The Synoptic Gospels emphasize the hurried nature of the burial, but John too recognizes that the burial was rushed—the tomb where Jesus was laid was chosen mainly because it was nearby and the Sabbath was on hand. Even so, it’s difficult to imagine that Jesus’ followers would have simply dumped the body of their beloved Lord into a tomb only hurriedly covered with a sheet. It’s not inconceivable to imagine that they hurriedly started the burial process with the strips of linen and the spices, while planning to come back after the Sabbath to finish. As Carson says:

The mixture of spices brought by Nicodemus, one hundred litrai, was a little less than the seventy-five pounds specified by the NIV—65.45 pounds, to be more precise (hence NEB’s ‘more than half a hundredweight’, where a hundredweight is 112 pounds avoirdupois). Mention of so large an amount is neither an error nor an exaggeration. Five hundred servants bearing spices participated in the funeral procession of Herod the Great. In the fifth decade of the first century, Onkelos burned about eighty pounds of spices at the funeral of Gamaliel the elder. The implication in the present narrative is that two wealthy men used their servants to carry the spices, help take Jesus’ body down from the cross, and then prepare him for burial. At a guess, Joseph saw to the legal steps while Nicodemus secured the spices.2

While the use of a shroud to cover Jesus’ body is conceivable based on the wording used in the Synoptics (and the omission of a mention of one in John doesn’t rule it out), nothing in any of the Gospels requires that there be a shroud. Plus, if John’s Gospel is correct about the strips of linen and spices used to wrap Jesus’ body, any shroud would be on top of that, and thus an impression couldn’t have been made of the body.

Carbon dating

In 1988, some samples from the Shroud of Turin were tested using accelerator mass spectrometry, and yielded a result dating the Shroud material to 1260-1390, firmly in the medieval era. De Wesselow says that several factors could yield an incorrect date: contaminations, reweaving, or some sort of fraud (p. 171). But there’s no significant evidence in support of any of these conjectures, and at the end de Wesselow says: “But can we legitimately reject the carbon-dating result without determining exactly what went wrong? Of course we can. Archaeologists routinely dismiss ‘rogue’ radiocarbon dates out of hand. … The 1988 test may therefore be declared null and void, even though, without further direct study of the Shroud, it is unlikely we will ever be able to say definitively what went wrong” (171).

De Wesselow implies several times that the Vatican’s refusal to allow further testing is suspicious, but this is not necessarily the case. The 1988 testing required the destruction of a small part of the Shroud—as would most ways of dating the Shroud. Even as a medieval forgery, it has value as a rather unique piece of art, so one shouldn’t be surprised at the Vatican’s reluctance to cut it up to satisfy the curiosity of conspiracy-mythers who wouldn’t accept a result that didn’t match up with their beliefs.

Would Christians expect a Shroud?

Christianity in the first century was differentiated from most other religions in their particular lack of physical objects of devotion. There were no Temples or statues of gods and goddesses. There were no relics, no charms to ward off evil spirits. Not only is there no evidence that an image of Jesus’ body was left on the Shroud, all the evidence is to the contrary. All the physical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection consists of the empty tomb now that His resurrected body has ascended to Heaven.

De Wesselow spins a fantastic just-so story where so many unusual things happened ‘just right’ to form the image, and then his interpretation of the Resurrection narratives assumes that his thesis about the Shroud is correct. When John includes statements that don’t allow for his thesis, he simply throws ¼ of the evidence out as unreliable.

People who want to believe that the Shroud is real, and who are already convinced of any number of conspiracy theories surrounding it, will find The Sign to be an invaluable resource. For anyone else, it is a piece of engaging, well-written nonsense. For all the reasons expressed above, the Shroud could not be from the first century, it could not have been made from being wrapped around someone’s body, and even if it had been, an impression of Jesus’ rotting corpse on a burial cloth would not be considered any sort of resurrection. And even if his followers had been delusional enough to think this was the case, it’s not the sort of message that would convert anyone. De Wesselow’s argument is based on profound ignorance of Second Temple Judaism, and what early Christians always meant when they talked about Resurrection.

Jesus is risen indeed—but we don’t need a Shroud as proof of it.

Published: 24 April 2012


  1. N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 204. Emphasis in the last sentence added. Return to text.
  2. Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel according to John (629–630). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans. Return to text.

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