For those who may not have heard of it, or have just a vague idea about it, the Shroud of Turin is an intriguing cloth roughly 14 feet long by 3.5 feet wide. There is an image on the cloth of a man whose numerous wounds are consistent with what one would expect to find on the body of a person who was beaten, flogged, and crucified like Jesus was. This, along with other factors, have led some to conclude that the Shroud is actually the burial shroud of Jesus. Others have rejected it for numerous reasons. Some skeptics do so because of their antisupernatural bias or because they believe the scientific data has proven it to be false. Some Christians believe the Bible itself contradicts the idea of a burial cloth such as the Shroud. So is the Shroud simply an elaborate hoax, a genuine relic of a crucified man, or could it actually be the burial cloth of Jesus?
My Initial Reaction
When I first heard about the Shroud of Turin I quickly rejected any possibility of it being genuine for a few reasons. First, the Bible says in John 20:6–7 that when Peter and John entered the tomb, they saw a cloth that had been around Jesus’ head lying in a different spot than the linen cloths (plural). This sure didn’t sound like it was consistent with the Shroud at all. Second, I know that the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in Medieval times, produced no shortage of relics for their faithful to venerate. I simply thought the Shroud was another relic, and as a Protestant, I had no use for it. Third, the carbon dating tests performed on the Shroud in 1988 showed that the cloth was from the years between 1260–1390 rather than the 1st century.
But as I studied the issue more, I found out some extremely interesting details that may adequately address each of these objections. Before continuing, let me hasten to add that if the Shroud is the legitimate burial cloth of Jesus or if it isn’t, it will have no bearing on my belief in the Resurrection of Jesus. I have absolute confidence that Jesus rose from the dead, just like the Bible explains, and I don’t need an intriguing cloth to bolster my faith in any way. Nevertheless, there are several reasons why the Shroud shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed.
The Bible and the Shroud
As a Christian who views the Bible as the final authority, I believe that if the biblical accounts contradict the data about the Shroud of Turin then the Shroud is not and cannot be the burial cloth of Christ. As I mentioned, this was my first thought about the Shroud and the main reason I paid little attention to it for several years.
The Shroud essentially consists of one long cloth (see right), yet the Bible describes multiple cloths being in the empty tomb on the morning of the Resurrection. So how could this cloth actually be the burial cloth of Jesus?
In my initial reaction I had failed to understand the burial practices of Jews in the first century and to account for the rest of the biblical data. For Jews who were buried in tombs, there were certain regulations that were followed as the body was prepared for burial. Normally, the bodies would be washed, but not in certain circumstances related to the person’s death. According to the Mishnah, Jewish custom stated that if a person bled more than 1/4 log of blood after death (a log was equal to the amount needed to fill six eggs), then the body would not be washed and the blood would be buried with the victim. Jesus bled after His death (remember the spear in the side), thus He would have had mingled blood on His body (life blood mixed with blood that flowed after His death), so His body would not have been washed. Also, the hands were tied together by a linen cloth, as were the feet, and another thin linen cloth was wrapped from the top of the head around the bottom of the chin, presumably to hold the jaw shut (there may have been a few other cloths used to hold the body in place). This is perfectly consistent with John’s account of the linen cloths in the empty tomb:
Then Simon Peter, who had been following him [John], arrived and went right into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen cloth lying there, and the face cloth, which had been around Jesus’ head, not lying with the strips of linen cloth but rolled up in a place by itself. (John 20:6–7, NET)
So John describes multiple cloths in one place and then the head cloth rolled up in a place by itself.
This description of burial cloths is also portrayed in John 11 in the account where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.
When he had said this, he shouted in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The one who had died came out, his feet and hands tied up with strips of cloth, and a cloth wrapped around his face. (John 11:43–44, NET)
Notice that Lazarus had his feet and hands tied with strips of linen and a cloth wrapped around his face. These descriptions are consistent with what is displayed on the Shroud of Turin. While linen strips are not clearly visible near the feet, hands, and head, it is clear that the feet are held close together, as are the hands, and, based on the way the hair appears on the Shroud, it isn’t too difficult to think that a cloth was wrapped around the sides of the face to hold the jaw shut, pushing the hair back.
By comparing the Gospel accounts of the preparation of Jesus’ body, we see that the biblical data is consistent with this description too. John 19:40 mentions that Jesus’ body was wrapped with strips of linen along with some spices from Nicodemus. This could be a reference to the three small strips (feet, hands, face) or to the three small strips and the large shroud. Matthew mentions that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus’ body in a clean linen cloth (Matthew 27:59). Mark mentions that Joseph bought some fine linen and wrapped Jesus in it (Mark 15:46). Luke 23:53 mentions that Joseph wrapped the body in linen, and Luke 24:12 states that Peter saw only strips of linen cloth in the tomb when he entered the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection.
While these descriptions don’t need to be understood in a manner perfectly consistent with the Shroud (e.g., perhaps the biblical writers were implying far more than a few strips of linen), they can certainly be understood in a way that perfectly matches the Shroud.
A Roman Catholic Relic
It is true that the Shroud has been housed in a cathedral in Turin (Torino), Italy since 1578. However, the Shroud was technically never owned by the Roman Catholic Church until 1983, when Humberto II of Savoy died and willed the Shroud to the pope and his successors. I had just assumed that they had owned it for centuries.
In and of themselves, relics are not bad things, but the idea that one needs to venerate or genuflect before a relic to gain some type of indulgence is not found anywhere in Scripture. It also strikes against Jesus’ words on the Cross (“It is finished”), which explain that the work for our salvation was fully accomplished by Christ at Calvary. There is no need for the veneration of relics.
With that being said, the fact that it could be considered a Roman Catholic relic does not mean that the Shroud is a hoax or fraud. For example, what if Rome came into possession of an actual original manuscript of Scripture? Would I (and other conservative Christians) quickly dismiss it as a fraud or a hoax because we disagree on major points of doctrine with Rome? I would hope not. While this might be a cause for a healthy dose of skepticism, the item should be examined on its own merits rather than who owns it. In a sense, I was committing a form of the genetic fallacy because I dismissed the Shroud simply because I do not agree with the group who owns it (the genetic fallacy occurs when someone rejects an argument simply because they don’t like the source of the argument).
Dating the Shroud
In 1988, the Vatican gave permission to a group of scientists to use radiocarbon dating in an effort to date the Shroud. Four samples were sent to three different labs (one to Oxford University, one to the Swiss Institute of Technology in Zurich, and two to the University of Arizona). The results: the Shroud dated to 1260–1390 AD. While many people continued to believe the Shroud was still authentic, the scientific evidence seemed to have shown that it could not have been. Added to this radiocarbon date is that it is often reported that the Shroud first surfaced in the mid-1300s in Lirey, France. These two similar dates, arrived at independently, seem to close the case on the Shroud. But do they really?
First, the carbon dating of the Shroud has in recent years been shown to be erroneous. According to some objectors, it wasn’t that there was a problem with the carbon dating process itself, but the sample that they used from the Shroud was taken from one of the worst possible places. Sue Benford and Joe Marino continued to study the Shroud and realized that the sample used to date the Shroud was composed of cotton from the 16th century combined with the much older linen via a process known as French reweaving, an intricate process that unwinds the actual fabric and weaves the new material with the old. This would mean that the carbon dating results would be somewhere in between the 1st century (if it is that old) and the 16th century.
While this all sounds like a nice conspiracy theory, it turns out that Benford and Marino, despite strong initial skepticism from the scientific community, are probably right. The first and fourth samples of the cloth were sent to Arizona, while the second section went to Oxford, and the third to Zurich. It is quite interesting that the four samples returned with the following ages: Arizona1 (1238), Oxford (1246), Zurich (1376), Arizona2 (1430). Notice that each succeeding section dated younger than the previous portion of the cloth. Benford and Marino’s contention was that the older dates had more of the actual Shroud cloth and less of the rewoven section, while the younger dates were the opposite.
Furthermore, these aren’t just the findings of conspiracy theorists, one of the original members of STRP (Shroud of Turin Research Project from 1978), Ray Rogers, was initially extremely skeptical of these claims. He was quite upset that people continued to doubt the carbon dating and said he could shoot their theory full of holes in a heartbeat. He went back to the lab and within hours realized that Benford and Marino were right. The reserve sample he still had access to clearly showed both cotton and linen. Dr. Rogers even found more evidence that Benford and Marino had missed that the samples were from a rewoven portion of the Shroud. This particular sample contained dyes or stains, something that is not found anywhere else on the Shroud, further supporting the idea that this section was from a repair done in the 16th century, which was stained to make the new cloth match the old. Rogers stated that the ultraviolet images of the Shroud taken by STRP in 1978 reveal that the sample was taken from “the worst possible spot” on the Shroud. Rogers published a paper in Thermochimica Acta in 2005, just five weeks before he died of cancer, in which he demonstrated that the 1988 radiocarbon dates were irrelevant to the dating of the Shroud because the sample area was vastly different than the rest of the Shroud. It was later found that this portion of the Shroud had a resin to hold together two types of material. (This episode points out a serious problem with radiometric dating: in addition to other unprovable assumptions, one must assume that the sample has not been contaminated or else the results can be quite skewed.)
Second, there are several historical reports of the Shroud, or something that sounds just like the Shroud, from long before the mid-1300s. In his book on the Shroud, Ian Wilson traces the history of this cloth back to the first century from its alleged start in Jerusalem to Edessa to Constantinople to Livey to Turin. Wilson believes that the image of Edessa, a cloth displayed regularly in the 10th century showing what people believed to be the face of Jesus, was what today is called the Shroud of Turin.
There is so much more that could be written here. All of my initial objections to the legitimacy of the Shroud of Turin have been answered. So do I believe the Shroud is the actual burial cloth of Christ? Honestly, I don’t know.
There is nothing in Scripture indicating that Jesus’ image was on the burial cloths. Also, even if the Shroud is genuinely from the 1st century, it does not prove that it is the burial cloth of Jesus, although it would beg the question as to why only one burial cloth of a crucified man from the 1st century bears such an remarkable image. Even with our sophisticated technologies, no one has been able to duplicate the Shroud. Numerous theories have been proposed as to how the image came to be on the cloth, but none of these account for all of the data, which are too numerous to go into in this article, but there are many “non-kooky” websites devoted to the Shroud that you can check out for this info. Be sure to look for the three-dimensional quality of the scan from the VP8 Image Analyzer, the precision and details of the various wounds perfectly matching those described in Scripture, the blood and serum stains, and the pollens found on the Shroud. It is perhaps the most unique and intriguing artifact in the world. So study all the details and make your own decision.
As mentioned earlier, I do not need the Shroud of Turin to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus to believe in the Resurrection of Christ. The Bible states that Jesus rose from the dead so that settles it. Moreover, His Resurrection was predicted multiple times, it was the central message of the earliest Christians, the risen Lord was seen by more than 500 eyewitnesses, the church would not exist without the Resurrection, staunch skeptics converted after seeing the risen Lord, the tomb was empty three days after Jesus was buried, and countless Christians can testify to the Lord’s working in their lives.
Thanks for reading.