Is the Shroud of Turin authentic?
Or is it a forgery?
Published: 16 August 2019 (GMT+10)
Controversy surrounds the Shroud of Turin (hereafter ‘the Shroud’), which some say is the authentic burial cloth of Jesus Christ. This cloth shows the front and rear image of a man who appears to have undergone a lot of torture. Here we present our view on the authenticity of the Shroud. Due to several lines of evidence, we think that the Shroud of Turin is not the authentic burial cloth of Jesus Christ:
Bible: Our conclusions are primarily based on the biblical evidence, namely that according to John 11:44 and John 20:7 the Jewish custom was to bury their dead using several cloths, not just one. The Jews buried Jesus with a face cloth, which disqualifies the Shroud as being the burial cloth of Christ. Furthermore, Jesus was buried with seventy-five pounds of extremely sticky spices, according to John 19:40, whereas the Shroud shows no signs of them.
Morphology: Several features of the man in the Shroud appear to be distorted, and he is unusually tall, compared to the average height of a first-century Jewish man. Also, he was clearly not wrapped in the cloth, as the image does not show the sides of the head or body.
Physical Chemistry: It is also questionable why the blood stains have remained red so long after death.
Nuclear chemistry: Pro-Shroud researchers have always called the reliability of the multiple carbon dates that have been obtained from the Shroud into question. However, despite their attempted re-evaluation of the radiocarbon dates, the only conclusion one can draw from them is that the Shroud is not 2,000 years old. We reject the idea that Jesus’ body disappeared from within the Shroud while emitting neutron radiation, which supposedly left traces on the front and rear sides of the Shroud.
Provenance: Many false relics are known from the Middle Ages, including many from the regions of northern Italy and France. This raises the suspicion that the Shroud is also a forgery, since it was first displayed in the 14th century in France. There is no ‘paper trail’ that gives us a clear chain of custody and it cannot be known that earlier objects with similar claims (e.g. the Image of Edessa) are one and the same.
Manufacturing: It is possible that the image on the Shroud was formed by common biochemical reactions called Maillard reactions. But, even if the Shroud was once wrapped around a human body, this would preclude the body of Jesus because these reactions are associated with decomposition. We should also not overlook the ingenuity of medieval artisans. For example, Leonardo da Vinci was known for his detailed descriptions of anatomy and the mechanical structures that he engineered.
In the end, we do not know how the Shroud was made, nor do we know how old it is, but we also do not need to know. We lose nothing if it is not authentic. Even the Apostles did not appeal to physical evidence for the Resurrection. Instead, they appealed to eyewitness testimony. Those testimonies are still with us today, in the pages of the New Testament.
There is a controversial piece of linen cloth residing in a cathedral in Turin, northern Italy. Called the Shroud of Turin, it is claimed to be the burial shroud of Jesus Christ. Strangely, it bears the full-length frontal and dorsal negative imprint of a man’s body (figure 1).
The Shroud is a single piece of cloth about 4.3 meters (14.2 ft) long and 1.1 meters (3.6 ft) wide. It was first displayed publicly in the 1350s in Lirey, France. In 1532 the Shroud suffered fire damage in the chapel where it was housed. Since it was folded at the time, this resulted in a series of repetitive burn holes. Patches were then sown on to repair the more damaged sections. In 1578 it was passed into the hands of the Dukes of Savoy, who deposited it at the cathedral of Turin, in northwestern Italy. Further repairs were made to it in 1694 and 1868. In 1983 the Shroud was given to the Vatican, but it still resides in St. John’s Cathedral, under the guardianship of the archbishop of Turin.
Its authenticity has always been debated, but this has only gotten worse in recent years, and we regularly receive inquiries about it. Therefore, we have taken the time to examine the ‘for’ and ‘against’ cases based upon both scientific and biblical evidence. This review depends heavily on two recent books, both of which argue for the authenticity of the Shroud. The first is Mark Antonacci’s 2015 book, Test the Shroud at the Atomic and Molecular Levels.1 Antonacci is a lawyer and founder and president of Test the Shroud Foundation. He is a leading expert on the Shroud of Turin and has spent 30 years studying it. Second is Thomas de Wesselow’s 2012 book The Sign – The Shroud of Turin and the Secret of the Resurrection.2 Wesselow is an art historian who holds a Ph.D. from London’s Courtauld Institute of Art. He has researched the Shroud for 12 years. We also studied Sacred Blood, Sacred Image, the Sudarium of Oviedo,3 by Janice Bennett, who has a Masters of Arts in Spanish literature and a certificate in advanced Biblical studies from the Catholic Biblical School of Denver. From a somewhat skeptical position we also referenced Relic, Icon, or Hoax? Carbon Dating the Turin Shroud, 4 by Harry E. Gove, late emeritus professor of physics at the University of Rochester, New York. Finally, we also read but didn’t find much new material in The Truth about the Shroud of Turin, by journalist Robert K. Wilcox.5
Is it a genuine image?
The big question is, does the Shroud really bear the image of Jesus? Is it a genuine burial cloth of some unknown person, or is it just an elaborate forgery? Is it possibly a by-product of naturally occurring chemical processes? Or maybe a combination of these things?
Different groups have different stakes as to whether the Shroud is real. It is one of the most high-profile relics of the medieval Roman Catholic Church and is venerated by many Roman Catholic faithful. Therefore, the Roman Catholic Church has a very real interest in the authenticity of the Shroud. Despite this, the church itself does not make any direct claim that the Shroud is authentic.
On the other hand, atheists and skeptics do not believe the Shroud is real. Their atheistic worldview excludes a priori any kind of miracle. Thus, they inadvertently bias themselves when trying to refute the evidence allegedly supporting the authenticity of the Shroud. They fall victim to automatically explaining away evidence which in fact might be real.
Protestants are the least inclined to be biased as to whether the Shroud is real or not. Based on the principle of sola Scriptura, Protestants hold God’s Word to be the sole highest authority, and not any physical evidence. Catholic doctrine does not hold to sola Scriptura but also allows for tradition to help form their doctrine.6 Therefore, if the Shroud is real, it is one more proof that Jesus rose from the dead. But if the Shroud is fake, Protestants lose nothing, and Catholics should lose nothing, as long as they have not gone too far out on a limb in accepting it as real. The fact of the Resurrection of Jesus is what is at stake, not the Shroud. We do not need to look for any kind of physical evidence to verify our faith, rather we trust the testimony of the Holy Spirit in Scripture.
The biblical evidence
Since the Bible is our sole highest authority, and since it is the inerrant, holy Word of God, it would be fitting to start out with the description of Jesus’ burial in the New Testament. There are four mentions of Jesus’ burial cloth, two in the Gospel of Luke and two in the Gospel of John.
Luke 23:52–53 describes the way Jesus’ body was wrapped before he was entombed:
“This man [Joseph of Arimathea] went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid.”
Luke 24:12 describes how Peter found the Shroud after Jesus had risen from the dead:
“But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.” (emphasis added)
John 19:40 says:
“So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.” (emphasis added)
John 20:5–7 describes the burial cloth of Jesus in a little bit more detail:
“And stooping to look in, he [the ‘disciple Jesus loved’] 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.” (emphasis added)
This means that, at least according to Luke and John, there were multiple pieces of cloth, contrary to the single-piece Shroud of Turin. The only other possibility is that Jesus was wrapped in strips of cloth that were smeared with sticky myrrh and aloes, a cloth was placed over his face, then the wrapped body was laid on a separate linen sheet that the Bible does not mention. This sheet would then have to be folded over the top of the body, starting at the head. But not only would this be an argument from silence, the sheet should have become stuck to the spice-wrapped strips of linen and the inner cloth layers would have absorbed and otherwise obscured the blood and blood patterns on the body.
The Shroud depicts the face of a man on it, but John 20:5–7 states that Jesus’ face cloth was a separate piece of linen, set aside in a place beside the burial “cloths”. John 20:5 calls these cloths “τὰ ὀθόνια” (ta othonia), which is in the plural in Greek. A better understanding, from the Greek text itself, is that the body was wrapped in multiple strips of cloth and the face was covered by a separate cloth.
We see this in another New Testament passage that deals with then-current burial customs, and this occurred only a few miles from Jesus’ burial site. John 11:11–45 describes the resurrection of Lazarus by Jesus. Verse 44 describes in detail what Lazarus looked like when he came forth from his grave:
“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.’”
Even if it only specifically mentions his hands and feet, here Lazarus is bound with multiple clothes, just like Jesus was in John 20:7, with a separate napkin around his head.
What did Shroud researchers actually find?
A team of scientists from the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) examined almost every single thread on the Shroud. They were searching for evidence to support their view that it is truly the burial Shroud of Jesus Christ. They reported several physical characteristics which they claim have been “coded” into the fabric of the Shroud by some unusual process.
The image of the man in the Shroud
The most notable feature is the face and body of the image on the Shroud, which shows quite a bit of detail. The man’s eyes appear to be closed, and he has hair down to his shoulders. STURP scientists counted 130 ‘blood stains’ coming from the man’s body. His arms are crossed over his groin area. STURP scientists also claim that the man was scourged by a whip with a dumbbell-like tip, which they claim was commonly used by Roman executioners during the first century. Furthermore, based on the nature of the man’s wounds, it appears that he had been carrying a heavy object (possibly the crossbar) to his execution. The man also showed evidence that his feet and wrists (not his hands) were pierced, that he had been stabbed in the side, and that he had worn a crown of spiky objects (possibly the crown of thorns). Streams of blood are visible going down the back of the man’s hands.
However, several lines of evidence contradict the idea that the image in the Shroud was that of Jesus Christ. First, the shoulder-length hair should have fallen backwards, since Jesus was lying down in the tomb. Alternatively, his hair would not be free-flowing if his head was wrapped in a separate cloth. Instead, the man’s hair seems to be falling to his shoulders due to gravity. STURP scientists claim that they can detect signs of trauma that the man in the Shroud underwent. The man in the Shroud has a full beard, without any hair torn out. Thus, there is no sign of the trauma that would have happened when Roman soldiers tore out wads of Jesus’ beard when He was being tortured (Isaiah 50:6). This Old Testament passage is referenced by Matthew 26:67 and 27:30, during which the Roman soldiers strike Jesus in the face and also spit on Him. Even though the two passages from Matthew do not specifically mention that Jesus’ beard was torn out, we can still identify Jesus speaking in Isaiah 50:6 where this is specifically mentioned. Also, the famous ‘He was pierced for our transgressions’ passage in Isaiah 52 and 53 says:
As many were astonished at you—his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—so shall he sprinkle many nations. (Isaiah 52:14–15a)
Based on this passage, we wonder how the face in the Shroud can be so free of the trauma we would expect both from the relevant biblical passages and the way Roman soldiers were famous for treating condemned criminals.
The figure of the man in the Shroud also has unusually long fingers and long arms. Normally, a man’s arms below the wrist would not cover his groin when lying flat on his back – the wrists would only cover the groin when a person’s head and legs are raised when lying down. This would be an unusual posture for someone lying inside a tomb.
De Wesselow thus makes the surprising claim that the man’s head dropped about forty degrees on the cross and stayed that way due to rigor mortis. The rigor mortis in the arms, which were outstretched on the cross beam, must have been broken so that they would have fit under the Shroud, so why not the neck? But rigor mortis only begins to set in several hours after death, before which Jesus would have been laid in the tomb, so his argument is invalid.
Strangely, the width of the right leg is twice that of the left leg above the knee on the frontal image, but not on the dorsal image, however this might be due to distortion of the Shroud image based on the way it was (presumably) draped across the body. The man in the Shroud seems to lack a navel. It might be that the image might be too blurred for it to be noticeable. Although, if STURP scientists were capable of discerning small coins (see below), they should also be able to make out images of a navel as well.
The height of the man in the Shroud is 5 ft 10 in, according to Antonacci, although de Wesselow says it is a full 6 ft, but this doesn’t matter much. We must remember that people were shorter in times past, and even today the mean height of Jewish males in different parts of the world is at most 1.71 m (5 ft 7 in).7 While it is not inconceivable that Jesus was tall for his time, the height of the man in the Shroud makes it less likely that this really was Jesus Christ.
Antonacci writes on pp. 81–82 of Test the Shroud that the man in the Shroud was of a physical type found in modern times among Sephardic Jews. This is puzzling, because Sephardic Jews first appeared in the area around Spain only in the second millennium, possibly around as late as the 11th century.8 If the man in the Shroud resembled a Sephardic Jew, this would exclude the possibility that the Shroud is truly Jesus’ burial cloth. The fact that the man in the Shroud resembles a Sephardic Jew means that such a person could possibly have served as the model for a medieval forger to base the Shroud on. Worse, one wonders what, exactly, he is talking about, for there are essentially no physical characteristics that separate Jewish people from non-Jewish people, nor would any be expected. Even general differences would be incredibly difficult to make out in the Shroud image.
The Sudarium of Oviedo
The Sudarium of Oviedo (figure 2) is a 34- by 21-inch (0.86 x 0.53 m) cloth kept in a silver chest in the Cathedral of San Salvador in Oviedo, Spain. It has been studied extensively by the Investigative Team of the Spanish Center of Sindonology (EDICES). The term sudarium in Latin means a sweat-cloth and they are generally about the size of a napkin or a hand-towel. The Sudarium of Oviedo is large enough to completely wrap around the head of a person.
According to the results of the EDICES research team, the Sudarium originally covered the head of a crucifixion victim and became stained from the blood and pulmonary edema fluid flowing from the victim’s nose and mouth. The Sudarium was allegedly fastened to the back of the victim’s head by pointy objects. The team suggests this was perhaps the crown of thorns (Sacred Blood, p. 75). Whoever took the body down from the cross would have had to wrap his head in this cloth first. They also claim the Sudarium was re-wrapped around the head after the body of the victim was placed in a horizontal position, remained in place while the victim was transported to a nearby location, then removed and set aside. They claim it did not receive its stains from the Shroud and would not be expected to have the same stain pattern (Sacred Blood, p. 15). In the Bible, it would be the separate napkin that the disciples saw neatly folded beside the other linen garments in the empty tomb (John 20:7).
Strangely, they claim to have found traces of aloe, myrrh, residues of beeswax, vegetal wax, and conifer resin on the bloody parts of the Sudarium (Sacred Blood, p. 69). We have already mentioned the absence of these substances on the Shroud. But this raises a giant question: what explains the presence of aloe and myrrh on the Sudarium, if it was removed from the head when the victim was laid into the tomb, and prior to the body being covered in these sticky substances?
This story is even more questionable when you consider John 11:44, which states that when Lazarus arose from the grave, his face was still wrapped with a cloth. Why did they remove the Sudarium from Jesus’ face and not from Lazarus’ face? Or, if the Sudarium was just a sweat cloth that was used to cover and/or clean Jesus’ head, why was Lazarus’ burial different?
Other sources besides EDICES claim that the Sudarium was applied to the face of Jesus after He was covered by the Shroud, others say that it was used to support Jesus’ jaw as a sort of chin-band. Furthermore, four churches in France and three in Italy also claim additional or competing portions of the grave cloths of Jesus (Sacred Blood, p. 14). There is no consistent story.
EDICES also claims that there are seventy points of coincidence between the Shroud of Turin and the Sudarium of Oviedo (Sacred Blood, p. 84). However, de Wesselow claims in the Sign (p. 230) that this is far from straightforward. For example, the Sudarium has a taffeta weave and was coarser in texture. This fits with its suggested use for wiping sweat from the face or as a turban. Its weave is different from the herringbone weave of the Shroud.
Like the Shroud, the Sudarium has been carbon dated, this time by two independent laboratories. A lab in Tucson, Arizona obtained a date range from 642 to 869 AD. A lab in Toronto, Canada obtained a date range between 653 and 786 AD (Sacred Blood, p. 78). Yet again, the science does not support the age claims.
Also Like the Shroud, the early years of the Sudarium are surrounded by mystery. In 614 AD (curiously close to the carbon dates) it was allegedly transported from Jerusalem to Alexandria, Egypt and then to Spain, after Jerusalem was invaded by the Persians. Even Bennett admits that this journey is poorly documented and mixed with fantastic legends.
In conclusion, there is no reason to believe the Sudarium is authentic, that it had anything to do with the burial of Christ, or that it has any relationship to the Shroud.
Blood stains on the Shroud
Antonacci says in Test the Shroud, that because the Sabbath was coming, the Jews had little time to wash Jesus’ body before wrapping it in cloths and placing it in the tomb (p. 94). If the body was not washed, the Shroud should be smeared with blood, yet the wounds are clear and there is little evidence of ‘smearing’. Even more peculiar is the fact that the supposed blood marks on the Shroud are still visibly reddish in color, when it is a well-known fact that blood turns dark brown fairly rapidly after oxidizing in air. Some shroud proponents claim that the still reddish coloration of these blood marks is due to bilirubin, which is a chemically decomposed component of blood that is often pumped out of a person’s liver when in shock. Yet bilirubin is yellowish in color and is the chemical responsible for the condition called jaundice, or a yellowing of the skin.
Interestingly, de Wesselow contradicts Antonacci by claiming that the body of Jesus had been washed, in accordance to burial traditions in the Jewish Mishnah (The Sign, p. 124, referring to Mishnah Shabbat 23:5). But he also claims that a body would be wrapped only loosely in a single sheet called a sobeb/sovev. However, this provision came to us from sixteenth-century Jewish Law. Let us also not forget that Jewish tradition does not supersede biblical authority, which mentions that Jesus was wrapped in multiple cloths (John 20:7).
Results from blood pattern analysis by Dr. Matteo Borrini and Luigi Garlaschelli suggest that the trickle pattern of the blood on the man in the Shroud do not correspond to the way blood would have flowed from a wounded man, nailed to a cross with his arms at an angle of approximately 45 degrees (figure 3). Rivulets of blood on the back of the left hand are consistent with a person whose hands are stretched out at 35–45 degrees above horizontal. However, blood stains on the forearm on the Shroud could only come from someone holding their hands nearly vertically, in which case blood would flow all the way down the forearm, instead of at an angle (figure 4).9
Coins on the Shroud?
STURP scientists claim that inscriptions from small coins called leptons made imprints on the Shroud of Turin. This was supposedly part of Jewish burial customs in the first century, but this is not mentioned in any of the four Gospels. The scientists even claim that part of the inscription is visible on the Shroud’s material.10 This indeed might sound like convincing evidence, however, looking at the evidence in closer detail raises doubts about whether this is true.
The researchers claim that the letters UCAI from the word “TIBERIOY KAICAROC” (Tiberius Caesar) are visible alongside a curved staff, or lituus, on what seems to be a coin imprinted on the Shroud (figure 5). The letter U in UCAI forms the upper two bars of the letter Y in TIBERIOY (Test the Shroud, fig. 67). There is an obvious misspelling in the inscription, namely that there is a C instead of a K in the word KAICAROC. This could be due to the minters leaving off the vertical line from the K, creating a letter C instead. STURP scientists claim, however, that they have found four lepton coins with this self-same misspelling, meaning that this is not so uncommon (Test the Shroud, pp. 69–72).
While such coins might exist, one study concluded that some religious people are significantly predisposed in detecting what they think are actual words on relics of religious significance, such as the Shroud of Turin. In other words, their ‘eyes of faith’ may see something that others not only don’t see but which might not actually be there.11 The letters UCAI are short enough to be just a random pattern seen in the cloth.
The scientific analysis of pollen is called palynology, and while it cannot put a specific date on an object, it can still provide evidence of where the object had been located. What makes this possible is the fact that pollen is very durable and different plant species produce recognizably different pollen grains. Palynologists (scientists who study pollen) can usually narrow down the pollen to the genus of a given plant species and by comparing plant distribution patterns, especially of rare or geographically restricted species, can thus tell the location from which the pollen originated.
Sticky tape was applied to the Shroud in 1973 by palynologist Max Frei. Interestingly, pollen from twenty plant species was discovered. Initial results claimed these plants are abundant in Turkey, one of the places where the Shroud was supposedly located at on its long way to France, then Italy. But not all pollen researchers agree with Frei’s methodology or conclusions. Although there is general agreement about the genera of the pollen found on the Shroud, the species identification is suspect. Silvano Scannerini, a botany professor in Turin says that a more thorough analysis is necessary. An American pro-Shroud group called ASSIST has not been able to do this, despite the fact that they have had Frei’s original sticky tapes for over twenty years (The Sign, pp. 113–114). In the end, we cannot conclude anything about the palynology of the Shroud.
Also missing from the Shroud are any traces of spices. Besides wrapping the body in linen cloths, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (the Pharisee of John chapter 3 fame) wrapped the body “with the spices”:
“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.” (John 19:38–40) (emphasis added)
Nicodemus had spent a fortune buying 75 pounds of sticky resin from the myrrh and aloe trees. We are not exactly certain what the “aloe” of the Bible is (it is not the same thing as the common house plant), but myrrh resin is a sticky, gummy substance that would have definitely left traces behind. Not only would it have bound the linen strips together, but it would not have been possible to keep the spice mixture only on the inside of the linen strips. Anyone who has worked with flour, water, and newspaper to make papier-mâché objects knows how messy this process is. Working with the aloe-myrrh concoction would have been much worse. The fact that the Shroud lacks any detectable traces of myrrh, the fact that it is in a nice, flat configuration (not ‘stuck together’ in any way), and the fact that it is a single sheet all point to it not being the burial cloth of Christ.
Antonacci acknowledges the lack of myrrh or aloe in the Shroud (p. 87), claiming that only the inside of the Shroud was examined. But this is specious. Seventy-five pounds were used. There should be abundant evidence for these spices.
The Shroud’s whereabouts before the Middle Ages
The whereabouts of the Shroud (its ‘provenance’) was unknown prior to its public display in Lirey, France in 1355. According to some Shroud researchers, it was stolen from Constantinople, probably during the Fourth Crusade (1203–4). The object purported to be the same as the Shroud was known as the Mandylion in Constantinople prior to the Fourth Crusade, when many relics were transferred from the East to the West by crusaders.
But it is not at all clear that the Mandylion is the same as the Shroud of today. Not only is there a 150+ year gap between the Fourth Crusade and the Shroud’s appearance in Lirey, but the Mandylion was also supposedly displayed in France in the court of King Louis IX in Paris until it disappeared during the French Revolution (1789–1799).12 During its stay in Constantinople, the Mandylion was supposedly displayed for guests of honor in the Eastern emperor’s court. It was stored in a container in such a way that only the top fourth was visible (showing Jesus’ face), folded over itself and draped on a wooden beam. Thus, it was also known as the tetradiplon, Greek for ‘folded in four’.
From around the year 550 to 944, the Mandylion was purportedly in Edessa,13 then part of the Byzantine Empire, now in modern Turkey. Assuming the Image of Edessa is the same as both the Mandylion and the Shroud, this means that for a whole third of its existence (33 to 550 and 944 to 1355 AD), the whereabouts of the Shroud are unknown. The only historical attestation to the Shroud/Mandylion/Image of Edessa, either purported or real, comes from a supposed exchange of letters between King Agbar V of Edessa, who is supposed to have ruled there between AD 13–50, and Jesus Christ Himself. However, even historians and some Roman Catholic authorities reject the authenticity of these letters.14
The Shroud of today is almost certainly the same as the one first seen in France in 1355. It is possibly the same as the Mandylion from Constantinople (although the carbon dates contradict this, see below). And it is unlikely to be the Image of Odessa. But that is as far as we can trace it. Considering the biblical descriptions above, we would have to reject the authenticity of the Shroud even if it could be traced back to 33 AD Jerusalem. Yet we cannot get close to that in either time or geography, so all we can say is that the Shroud is ancient, but it is not the burial shroud of Jesus.
The Pray Codex
The Pray Codex is a collection of medieval documents written in Hungarian sometime during the late twelfth to early thirteenth century. It was named after György Pray who discovered it in 1770. According to some Shroud supporters, there is an interesting correspondence between the Pray Codex and the Shroud that, they believe, tells us that there may have been some cross-pollination of ideas. During the twelfth to thirteenth centuries the kingdom of Hungary had strong relations with the Byzantine Empire under King Béla III (1148–1196 AD), who as a young man spent eight years in the imperial court at Constantinople. Béla III predates the Fourth Crusade. If the Mandylion and the Shroud are one and the same, it is at this time that a drawing of the Mandylion could have been made, for later use in the Pray manuscript, which originated from this time period. At least, the presence of the Mandylion could have influenced the burial scene in the Pray Codex, or at least that is what some Shroud supporters hope.
One of the documents in the Pray Codex contains a depiction of the entombment of Christ (figure 6). On the dorsal side of the Shroud (the part that shows the back of the man, not the more familiar front image), two sets of four “poker holes” are visible next to the man’s upper legs. They form a pattern similar to a knight’s step pattern in chess (red circles, figure 7). Some people claim this pattern of poker holes is also depicted on the entombment scene on the Pray manuscript.
There are multiple problems with this, not the least of which is the that the holes are rotated 90 degrees with respect to the pattern on the Shroud (red square, figure 6). A similar series of holes can also be seen on the cloth covered with red crosses (red circle, figure 6). This might indicate that these circles are merely ornaments and no real correlation exists between the two. Such circles can also be seen on the angel’s wing and his belt (letters A and B, figure 6). These holes are unrepaired burn marks (figure 7), which would have been made in the 1532 fire, when the Shroud was already in France. This means that the entombment scene in the Pray Codex could not have been based on these features seen in the Shroud. The fact that the holes follow the scorched fold line is obvious.
The Shroud and the Pray Codex are approximately contemporaneous in time, although the maximum age of the Shroud (860 years before present, or approximately 1128 AD, table 1) would predate the Pray Codex. But we simply do not know which came first or what ideas were circulating among other artifacts that are now lost to us. The case for the corresponding holes was already weak, but it completely fails when considering the fire damage.
Dating the Shroud
One of the most common ways of dating a sample of organic material is by carbon dating. Radiometric dating in general may be controversial, but carbon dating can be quite accurate, especially for material in this age range. On April 21, 1988 four samples (figure 8) were removed from the Shroud to be analyzed. Each sample was about 50 mg in weight and 10x70 mm2 in size. It is important to note that the samples were taken from the main body of the Shroud, away from patches, but not necessarily far from the charred areas or the obvious water stains.
This area would have been inside the folded-up image when on display (figures 9 & 10). It would have been located on the top-most edge, above and to the left of the face. Even though the very edge would have been exposed, it would also have been protected by several layers of cloth. Thus, it may have been handled less frequently than some other sections, perhaps minimizing contamination from modern carbon.
The four samples were sent to three accelerator-mass-spectrometry (AMS) labs in Tucson (Arizona), Oxford (England), and Zurich (Switzerland) for independent testing. Three control samples were also included: 1) a piece of linen from a Nubian tomb dating to the eleventh to twelfth centuries, 2) a linen cloth from a mummy of Cleopatra of Thebes from the early second century, and 3) threads removed from the cope (a type of coat) of St. Louis d’Anjou from the Basilica of Saint-Maximin, France from the turn of the thirteenth century. Table 1 summarizes the age of the results as reported by the journal Nature. After applying strict calibration methods, the radiocarbon date of the Shroud ranged from 1260–1390 AD. Importantly, the dates for the other objects were appropriate to their expected timeframe.15
Objections to the radiocarbon dates
The fact that three labs independently dated the Shroud to the Middle Ages and not to the first century (closer to the date of the linen cloth from the mummy of Cleopatra) is a strong indication that the Shroud of Turin is a medieval relic. Proponents of a first century age of the Shroud know very well that dating the Shroud to the 13th–14th century is a major obstacle for them. Therefore, they have come up with several arguments to refute the radiocarbon dates.
Antonacci reveals to us on p. 310–314 of Test the Shroud that the radiocarbon dates from the Arizona lab are actually averaged values. In reality, the Arizona lab had performed eight measurements (two per day for four dates from May to June of 1988). These values are shown in Table 2. The lowest age value measured by the three radiocarbon labs was 540 years, which just so happens to come from the Arizona lab. The highest age is 795 years, coming from the Oxford lab. This would mean an age difference of 255 years. This large of a difference between Shroud samples which are only centimeters away from one another indicates that the radiocarbon dates are imperfect. That is why the Arizona lab averaged its age values. But even with a 225-year range, this puts the dates squarely in the late medieval period (1203–1458 AD).
Shroud proponents also claim that a large amount of external 14C contaminated the Shroud, making it look much younger than it really is. Outside contamination could come from oils from human skin and soot from candles, among other things. Riani et al.16 analyzed the dates measured by the three radiocarbon labs and concluded that the original sampling was based on poor experimental design. Based on the 12 samples measured by the three radiocarbon labs, they found a decrease of radiocarbon age the farther one gets from the main body of the Shroud. In other words, samples taken closer to the part of the Shroud where the body lay were dated older (less residual 14C, less modern contamination). Samples taken farther away from the center part of the Shroud were dated younger (more residual 14C, more contamination) The sample farthest away from the main body of the Shroud (measured by the Oxford lab) placed the material 750 years before present. This is a little younger than some of the other measurements, but even the oldest measurement is nothing close to 33 AD! According to Dr. Harry Gove, professor of physics at the University of Rochester, who developed AMS technology and witnessed the dating of the Shroud in the Arizona lab, if the Shroud really was from the first century, and contamination skewed the results to produce a younger age, then the shroud samples that they tested would have had to contain as much as up to one-third contamination, which is clearly implausible (Relic, pp. 291–292).
Even though the radiocarbon dates might be somewhat questionable, they are in line with the status quo. When we ‘carbon date’ objects of known historical age, we can often get to within decades, centuries at worst. The Shroud 14C results are what we would expect from such an object, in the condition in which it exists, from the time period in which it first appears.
What kind of process or event would be capable of creating surplus 14C? Antonacci claims in Test the Shroud that when Jesus rose from the dead, His body would have emitted neutrons into the cloth of the Shroud, thereby converting 12C into radioactive 14C. This is a huge assumption and forms one of the main thrusts of the supposed evidence for an old Shroud. Worse, in the earth’s atmosphere, 14C is created when a 14N is struck by a cosmic ray. Upon decay, it turns back into a 14N. 14C is not created from 12C.
Proponents of an older Shroud also advocate testing for the presence of radioactive 36Cl (chlorine, which comes from red blood cells), and radioactive 41Ca (calcium, which commonly occurs in cells). The half-lives of 36Cl and 41Ca are 301,000 years and 102,000 years, respectively. The age of the Shroud is negligible compared to these much larger half-lives. Theoretically, 36Cl or 41Ca on the Shroud would have also been created by this supposed neutron radiation, and they would not have had time to decompose significantly. However, if the Shroud is medieval and was not subject to neutron bombardment, it should have quite a bit of 14C and no 36Cl or 41Ca (since without neutron radiation these atoms would not arise).
If this isn’t unusual enough, Antonacci’s theory involves Jesus’ body disappearing during the Resurrection, along with the 130 blood marks reappearing in the Shroud afterwards. According to his theory, when Jesus’ body disappeared, this created a vacuum, which would have sucked the front and back part of the Shroud into a space filled with neutrons, which were responsible for encoding Jesus’ physical characteristics into the fabric of the Shroud. De Wesselow thinks the body was revivified instead of disappearing.1 Other pro-Shroud researchers are skeptical of Antonacci’s radiation hypothesis.17
How can we know for sure that neutron radiation caused the imprints of Jesus’ physical characteristics into the Shroud when He rose from the dead? The Resurrection is a supernatural event, and therefore it is off-limits to scientific examination. Why neutrons and not some other type of particle, if Jesus’ body emitted radiation? Matthew 17:2 says that Jesus’ face “shown like the sun”, and His clothes became “white as light” at the transfiguration. In Acts 9, Paul describes seeing Jesus after a flash of light. If Jesus emitted any kind of particle, it would have been particles of light rather than neutrons, which are invisible to the human eye. Worse, Peter, James, and John would have been instantly killed by the neutron radiation blast were they standing close enough to Jesus to see anything emanating from his body at the Transfiguration.
De Wesselow brings up another way to date the Shroud (The Sign, pp. 111–112). This method depends on the lignin and vanillin content of the Shroud fibers. One of the breakdown products of lignin is vanillin, and both are molecular components of the cell walls of the plants used to make the Shroud. After formation, vanillin is slowly lost from fibrous material, with a loss of 95% vanillin after 1,319 years at 25˚C. De Wesselow concludes that since vanillin was not detected on the Shroud, it cannot be dated to after the year 700 AD. While this evidence speaks against the Shroud originating from the 13th to 14th centuries, it still does not decisively prove that the Shroud was from the first century.
However, even de Wesselow admits that measuring the breakdown of lignin is a relatively imprecise dating method. For example, a lignin sample loses 95% of its vanillin content at 20˚C after 3,095 years. A fluctuation of only 5˚C results in an age difference of 1,776 years. We know that the Shroud suffered fire damage, which, we assume, could have caused the vanillin to boil off, meaning that the Shroud might be medieval after all. We also wonder why there is no evidence for the continuous breakdown of lignin. It is not like the cloth has been stored in a hermetically sealed vault free of oxygen and water for the past several centuries. Where is the vanillin?
There are multiple additional arguments that will not be covered in this review. One deals with the herringbone weave pattern in the fabric. This weave involves a horizontal thread passing under three vertical threads, then passing over another vertical thread. Another one deals with the presence of limestone particles on the Shroud, possibly identifying the burial site. Some other issues include a prior carbon dating result from 1982 and a letter from bishop d’Arcis of Troyes, France, which was written in 1389 to pope Clement VII alleging that the Shroud was a forgery. Suffice it to say that there is much controversy surrounding the Shroud, even among conservative Bible believers.
The Shroud of Turin is not the only potentially false relic from the Middle Ages. We know of many others, including:18
- The blood of St. Januarius in a vial in Naples, Italy
- A picture of Mary painted by St. Luke in an Augustinian church in Bologna
- A piece of Moses’ brazen serpent (Numbers 21:5 – 9; 2 Kings 18:4) in the church of St. Ambrose in Milan
- The table on which Jesus partook of the Last Supper in the church of St. John, Lateran in Rome
- The holy stairs which Jesus walked up to judgment before Pilate
- Water from the prison where the apostles Peter and Paul were kept
- The house in which Mary was born (the so-called Santa Casa), transported from Nazareth to Loretto
- Parts of the veil of Mary
- The ‘holy porringer’ in which food was made for the baby Jesus
Since fake relics were so common in the Middle Ages, we must take this into account when trying to decide if the Shroud of Turin is authentic. This is not a time in history where we are seeing real historical artifacts with solid provenance and detailed titles of ownership. Instead, this is a time where many, many people were lying about historical events and objects for multiple reasons, including increased prestige and financial gain.
How was it made?
Since a number of forged relics exist, it is quite possible that the Shroud of Turin is also a forgery.
Shroud protagonists may still ask that, if the Shroud of Turin is a fake, how was it then made? This is a good question, and multiple possibilities that we will not discuss here have been proposed. Some of these are interesting, and some much more speculative. Let us remember that the scientific method is used to disprove theories, not prove them. At this point, we can definitely say what the Shroud is not: the biblical burial cloth of Jesus Christ.
However, de Wesselow himself suggests a possible solution to this thorny question. In 1942, the French pharmacist Jean Volckringer drew attention to faint imprints made by plants on the paper that they were pressed onto (figure 11). Figures 38 and 39 of de Wesselow’s book depicts imprints of a partial human hand and lower abdomen and also a plant, both made by natural means. The figure of the human hand and abdomen was made when the abnormal chemistry of patient’s urine at the Jospice International hospice in Liverpool, England reacted with the underlying mattress to create a partial outline of his body.
De Wesselow suggests that the imprint is the result of what is known as a Maillard reaction, which occurs between carbohydrates (sugar molecules) and amines (such as amino acids, the building blocks of proteins). Maillard reactions can happen rapidly at low temperatures. These kinds of reactions happen in food chemistry, for example when a bread crust is browned, and within the cloths enveloping Egyptian mummies.
Ammonia and amines such as putrescine and cadaverine from a decomposing corpse may have reacted with the linen cloth of the Shroud to produce the outline of the body. This would contradict the idea that it was Jesus, the Son of God Who was wrapped in the Shroud because of Acts 2:27:
“For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption”. (emphasis added)
Also, let us not try to discredit the ingenuity of people from the Middle Ages/Renaissance time period. For example, Leonardo da Vinci was not only an artist, but also a scientist and engineer. He made detailed studies of the human body, and also devised pre-modern flying machines.19 It is possible that a little ingenuity combined with a basic understanding of natural processes could have allowed a medieval artist to create something like the Shroud of Turin. There are many possible ways it could have been created, included many not mentioned here. The point is that we don’t know how, but neither does the explanation that it formed in Jesus’ tomb seem to be valid.
Shroud supporters should not be dismayed if the Shroud is not authentic. Even the archbishop of Turin, Antonio Ballestrero, accepted the radiocarbon dates when they were announced in 1988.20 In any case, the Christian faith remains 100% intact. After weighing the relevant information, we must draw the conclusion that the Shroud of Turin is probably not the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. We have no good reason to accept it as authentic. Based on the evidence:
- Jesus was wrapped up in multiple burial clothes, not just one.
- A separate head cloth was used, which the Lord took off after He arose from the dead.
- Lazarus was buried in a similar manner to Jesus, with strips of linen for the body and a separate cloth for the head.
- The hair on the man in the Shroud hangs downward and his beard is also intact, both of which contradict Scripture.
- There is no trace of the large quantity of sticky spices with which Jesus is known to have been buried.
- The height of the man in the Shroud does not match that of a first century Jewish man. The arms seem to be distorted and disproportional. And the argument that the head is leaning forward is hard to believe.
- While the 14C dates of the Shroud may be contestable, there is still no positive evidence that the Shroud dates to the first century. Palynology has not helped to clarify anything.
- The historical record is incomplete. At best, there is a 500-year gap between the Crucifixion and the first attestation to the Image of Edessa.
This illustrates the necessity of applying the principle of sola Scriptura (Acts 17:10–11, 1 Corinthians 4:6, 2 Timothy 3:16–17). Even if the man in the Shroud displays several characteristics of a man who was beaten and whipped, similar to how Jesus was treated during His trial and execution, if there is any other evidence which contradicts the Bible, the claim must be rejected.
As a final note, we must keep in mind Romans 10:17:
“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
We must also remember 2 Corinthians 5:7:
“for we walk by faith, not by sight.”
Antonacci claims, “…if this evidence confirms that the passion, crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ were actual events in history, then its implications are mind boggling” (Test the Shroud, p. 329).
But if the Shroud is not authentic, we lose nothing. Worse, if the Shroud is false and we cling to it, we risk losing all credibility. Let us not look towards material proof of the Resurrection of Christ. The Apostles certainly did not do so, and there is nothing in the New Testament to indicate they were focused on physical evidence. Instead, every time one of the New Testament writers wanted to substantiate a point, they appealed to eyewitness testimony. They collated that testimony and recorded it in the final 27 books of the Bible. Consider the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3–8:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
This does not mean we have no evidence for biblical claims. Far from it, as any reader of creation.com should know. What it does mean, however, is that we do not require physical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. It was the centerpiece of redemptive history and was universally attested to by every New Testament writer. But the eyewitness testimony should be sufficient. Consider what Jesus said to Thomas in John 20:29:
“Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’” (emphasis added)
The authors would like to thank Lita Cosner for many useful discussions on the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin.
References and notes
- Antonacci, M., Test the Shroud at the Atomic and Molecular Levels, LE Press, LLC, Chesterfield, 2015. Return to text.
- De Wesselow, T., The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Secret of the Resurrection, Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York, 2012. Return to text.
- Bennett, J. Sacred Blood, Sacred Image, The Sudarium of Oviedo, Libri de Hispania, Publications about Spain, Littleton, CO, 2001 Return to text.
- Gove, H. E., Relic, Icon or Hoax? Carbon Dating the Turin Shroud, Institute of Physics Publishing, Techno House, Bristol, United Kingdom, 1996 Return to text.
- Wilcox, R. K., The Truth about the Shroud of Turin, Regnery Publishing, Washington DC, 2010 Return to text.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church (para 82), 2nd ed. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997 Return to text.
- jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13993-stature Return to text.
- Santachiara Benerecetti, A.S. et al. The common, Near-Eastern origin of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews supported by Y-chromosome similarity, Annals of Human Genetics 57(1):55–64, 1993. Return to text.
- Borrini, M. and Garlaschelli, L., A BPA approach to the Shroud of Turin, Journal of Forensic Sci ence 64(1):137–143, 2019. Return to text.
- Oommen, T.V., Shroud coins dating by image extraction. Shroud Science Group International Conference, Aug 14–17, 2008; ohioshroudconference.com/papers/p20.pdf. Return to text.
- Jordan, T.R. et al. Seeing inscriptions on the Shroud of Turin: The role of psychological influences in the perception of writing, PLoS One 10(10):e0136860, 2015 | doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0136860. Return to text.
- Runciman, S., Some remarks on the Image of Edessa, The Cambridge Historical Journal 3(3):238–252, 1931. Return to text.
- Edessa is a town in SE Turkey very close to the biblical site of Haran (Genesis 11:32 and 12:4) and the ancient archeological site called Göbekli Tepe. Return to text.
- Leclercq, H. (1907). The Legend of Abgar, In: The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved May 15, 2019 from New Advent:newadvent.org/cathen/01042c.htm Return to text.
- Damon, P.E. et al., Radiocarbon dating of the Shroud of Turin, Nature 337:611–615, 1989. Return to text.
- Riani, M., et al. Regression analysis with partially labelled regressors: carbon dating of the Shroud of Turin, Statistics and Computing 23:551–561, 2013. Return to text.
- Rogers, R., A Chemist’s Perspective on the Shroud of Turin, Florissant, CO, 2008. Return to text.
- Rev. John Dowling, A.M., History of Romanism: From the earliest corruptions of Christianity to the present time, Edward Walker, 114 Fulton Street, New York, 1845. Return to text.
- Kalb, C., Leonardo’s enduring brilliance, National Geographic, May 2019, pp. 56–93. Return to text.
- Waldrop, M.M., Shroud of Turin is medieval, Science 242:378, 1988. Return to text.