Is the Shroud Genuine?

Two years ago an Italian scientist published a book entitled The Mystery of the Shroud, an examination of the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, the cloth that many believe to be the burial cloth of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels. This book asserted that contrary to scientific studies from the late 1980s, the 14-foot piece of linen cloth, which is stored in an underground vault in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, dates not from medieval times but from the time of Christ. Il Mistero Della Sindone, by Giulio Fanti, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Padua, dates the cloth between 300 B.C. and A.D. 400, a period that includes the dates of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Professor Fanti’s tests focused mainly on the rate of decomposition of linen threads over time.

Arguments over the shroud, in front of which Pope Francis prayed during his visit to Turin this June, probably began when it was first displayed in the late 14th century. In fact, the most compelling argument against its authenticity is that relatively late date. Where was it before that? Why would such a precious religious artifact be absent from the historical record? Wouldn’t something so important to believers have been the object of popular devotion long before the 14th century?

Advertisement

On the other hand, the arguments in favor of its authenticity are strong too. To begin with, the image of the brutalized man on the shroud (who bears holes in his hands and feet, a gash in his side, the marks of scourging on his back, pinprick wounds on his forehead and has longish arms and an attenuated torso—all consistent with crucifixion) is a perfect photonegative. Even if it was a medieval forgery, how could forgers have known about negatives? Moreover, how could they have concocted an image that appears in three dimensions when analyzed by contemporary scientists?

Other compelling proofs: the peculiar weave of the linen dates to the time of Jesus; and, believe it or not, the pollen and dust found on the shroud (some around the knees of the man) are native to Jerusalem.

And so on. For those who believe in the shroud’s authenticity, every new confirmation confirms. For those who don’t believe, every possible doubt (particularly critiques of the science behind the investigations) encourages disbelief and eye-rolling dismissals. As the saying goes, “For those without faith, no explanation is sufficient. For those with faith, no explanation is necessary.” (Speaking of authenticity, that quotation is either from a character in The Song of Bernadette, Franz Werfel’s novel about the Marian apparitions in Lourdes, or from an even loftier source, St. Thomas Aquinas.)

I’m not saying that people who doubt the shroud’s authenticity are faithless. Needless to say, it’s not essential to believe in the Shroud of Turin to be a good Catholic. Rather, most of us have a “confirmation bias,” which inclines us to give greater weight to arguments that prove what we already believe.

I tend to believe things that are still unproven. Why? Because religious legends have a funny way of being proven true. My favorite example is the story of the Pool of Bethesda.

According to Chapter Five of the Gospel of John, Jesus, while visiting Jerusalem, heals a paralyzed man beside a pool “which has five porticoes.” Until the 19th century, many scholars believed there was no such pool. The pool in the story was, some believed, an “allegorical” pool, or the entire story was fabricated and added to the Gospel later. Some believed that the idea of the five porticoes was an allegorical representation of the five books of Moses or a “construct of the imagination,” as Francis J. Moloney, S.D.B., says in his commentary on the Gospel of John.

At the turn of the 20th century, however, excavations in Jerusalem uncovered not simply a pool but, as the archaeologists gradually cut into the rock, the foundations for colonnaded walkways or porticoes—five of them, exactly as John had described.

So I give these things the benefit of the doubt. My general reaction is, “Who knows?” My faith does not depend on the shroud’s authenticity, but neither am I eager to disprove it. If I get to heaven (a big if), and Jesus says, “That was a clever forgery by some lucky medieval artists,” I’ll say, “O.K.” But if Jesus says, “That was indeed my shroud,” I’ll say, “O.K.” Frankly, if Jesus says anything to me, I’ll say, “O.K.”

For now, I’ll revere the shroud not simply as an object of faith (that’s the somewhat weaker stance: it’s important because people think it’s important) but as something else: the possibility of something great, something remarkable, even something holy.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bill Collier
2 years 3 months ago
While my faith doesn’t turn on the authenticity of the Shroud, after more than 35 years of reading and studying about this cloth--the most studied artifact in all of history--I think it is highly likely that the Shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus. Reasonable explanations have been posited for the inaccuracy of the radiocarbon dating that placed the cloth’s age as more than a millennium after the Crucifixion. In any event, delving into the large and varied writings and resources about the Shroud is a pleasurable effort in and of itself. It’s hard to imagine any other inquiry that combines such disparate research areas as pathology, botany, geology, textiles science, biochemistry, hematology, photography, Jewish burial customs, and art history (just to name a few). And when study of the Shroud is linked with learning about the Sudarium of Oviedo—a bloody cloth that has been continuously kept in a cathedral in Oviedo, Spain since the 7th century and that may have been the face cloth placed around Jesus’s head as He was removed from the Cross—then the description by John in his Gospel of two cloths folded in the tomb on the day of the Resurrection may be historically accurate: “Simon Peter, following him, also came up, went into the tomb, saw the linen cloth lying on the ground, and also the cloth that had been over his head; this was not with the linen cloth but rolled up in a place by itself." John 20: 6-7.
William Atkinson
2 years 3 months ago
One should always take the position that religious artifacts are not what social communities make them out to be until absolute proof is established. All through history religious and other beliefs have given humanity a horrific false pretense and in the end created an environment of false faith and beliefs that resulted in taking mankind down a pathway of evil and destruction. There is nothing more heartbreaking than to find something that humanity has cherished through history to be false and unprovable. Some, even great theologians and magisterium, also Patristic Fathers have often condemned as the works of Satan the evil one.
Bill Collier
2 years 3 months ago
William-- Suppose the image on the Shroud is shown to be a human construct. Wouldn't it still serve the worthwhile purpose of reminding us about the immense suffering of Christ during the Passion and about greatest act of humility in human history (i.e., God, in human form, lowering Himself to the indignity of crucifixion and the tortures that preceded it)? In addition, if the image is man-made, then it was created by the greatest artist who ever lived, by someone who, centuries before photography was invented, was able to paint an anatomically correct human image in a photographically negative manner. In addition, because the image is a surface phenomenon (i.e., occurring on only the outermost fibrils of each linen strand), the artist could not check his/her work close up. The closer one gets to the surface of the cloth, the fainter the image becomes. Moreover, the blood on the cloth is real (Type AB), but it has been found to contain high levels of bilirubin, the substance in red blood cells that causes jaundice when red cells burst. Certainly, the overwhelming stress of the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the carrying of the cross, etc. could have caused hemolysis resulting in high levels of bilirubin being released into the blood's plasma, but how would a medieval forger known that it would be necessary to spike the blood with bilirubin, and why bother to do it if the people living at that time had no sophisticated knowledge of hematology? There are many other unique characteristics of the Shroud that argue against the image as having been of human origin. Still, all that is on the cloth is a vivid reminder, at least to me, of the depth of Christ's Passion.
William Atkinson
2 years 3 months ago
1st of all Bill, we can recreate the shroud today using technology from the 12th century. 2nd, when people use something like the shroud as their belief system adoring and worshiping it greater harm is done. Christians are 1st followers of Christ, remember Jesus's put down to Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan" and how direct Jesus was to his close followers when they questioned Him as to who God was? Jesus couldn't be more direct in sayin "No one knows the Father" But Follow Him, and He will lead them" and how more direct can He be when He told them what they had to do to follow him, many then turned away cause they couldn't stomach His direction, His words. He slammed them hard and direct and it hurt His multitudes of followers. Just visit for a week or so the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City and you'll see the minions who, never go to confession, never receive Eucharist, but spend hours and hours worshiping the tunic of Juan on display. Such was the early church everyone received the Eucharist, today if your a sinner, you don't attend, you aren't registered, you are poor, you don't meet the strict criteria imposed by Rome or local church you are denied the very Christ that came to lead you. As far as reminders go, a Holy card would surfice, not a piece (a whole forest harvested to give) the true cross, aa cloth that washed the face of jesus, or one of the thousand of nails sold as the true nails of the cross, and on and on. After mass one day a lady told me "I don't know who Jesus is - I don't know who God is - I don't know about religion, but Father you are my salvation", I do think those who put so much credence (creed) in such objects as these things are as I said, going down the ill fated path.
Henry George
1 year 4 months ago
William, It is not clear at all that we can re-create the Shroud from 12th century technology. Even if we could, you do not answer how the "markings" on the Shroud match with the Sudarium in Spain. Nor why an ancient weave is present in the Shroud ? Where are people denied communion or never go to communion at Guadalupe ? Jesus does not "Put Down" Peter, but rebukes his way of thinking, which is, unfortunately, how most of us think. Why the "Put Down" on those who believe because of what they see ?
William Atkinson
2 years 3 months ago
Fr. Jim: You didn't answer your own question. Is the shroud genuine? You just left a confused audience more confused. Why ask the question?
J Cosgrove
2 years 3 months ago
My wife and I plus a couple friends went to Turin in 1998 and saw the Shroud. It was on display that year for several months. As a result, I read quite a lot about it. It is definitely genuine, in the sense that it is an image of a crucified main. So those who claim it is a fake, do not have any explanation as to how it originated. It was made by no known technology known to man today let alone known in the 14th Century. The best guess is that it appeared in France as a result of the crusades, specifically the 4th Crusade which led to the sack of Constantinople in 1204 and subsequent rule of the Byzantine empire by the West for about 60 years. For a complete review of all Shroud information see: https://www.shroud.com It is is probably the most studied artifact in history.
Henry George
2 years 2 months ago
I do not know if there is any method to prove a "Historical Fact". Who can provide an absolutely secure chain of evidence for anything from the past ? It is highly doubtful that the Shroud of Turin is a late Medieval forgery because: a) The weaving of the linen is not found in Medieval weavings. b) The pollen on the Shroud is from Israel. c) We have an early painting of the Shroud being shown in the Balkans from the 1100's. d) The King Abgar of Odessa - had a linen that had the face of Christ on it that had been sent to him by Christians - as recorded by later Church Historians. e) The nail holes are through the wrists and not the hands. f) As mentioned above the Sudarium in Oviedo, Spain, has holes in it that match the holes in the Shroud. The "Face Cloth of Christ" is said to have been in Spain since 631 AD. The blood and lymph stains on the Sudarium match those on the Shroud and seem to have arisen from the same face. g) Damascus Calcite was found on the Shroud. No one can be forced to believe anything but there is more than enough evidence pointing to the possible authenticity of the Shroud of Turin that there is evidence conclusively pointing to a fraud. The Carbon Dating may be very distorted as the Shroud was singed in a fire in 1532.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

25,000 children and pilgrim sang the pope “Happy Birthday" today in St. Peter’s Square.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 17, 2017
A reflection for the third Sunday of Advent
Elizabeth Kirkland CahillDecember 16, 2017
Homeless people are seen in Washington June 22. Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., chair of the U.S. bishops' domestic policy committee, released a statement Nov. 17 proclaiming that the House of Representatives "ignored impacts to the poor and families" in passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act the previous day. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
The United States is thwarting the advancement of millions of its citizens, a UN rapporteur says.
Kevin ClarkeDecember 16, 2017
Why not tax individuals for what they take out of society instead of what they contribute?
Paul D. McNelis, S.J.December 15, 2017