Like many Catholics, I have a fascination with what this artifact could mean to Christianity. For hundreds of years historians and scientists have studied it with more intensity than any artifact in history. What makes it so controversial and yet significant to Christians is how it seems to correspond directly to the Gospels’ explanation of the crucifixion of Jesus.
It is believed by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. It’s 14 feet long, three feet wide and has images of a crucified man on the front and back along with blood, dirt and water stains due to its age.
Scientists have been hoping to provide answers to the authenticity of its origin for many years. The man pictured on the cloth resembles strongly an image of the crucified Jesus.
The Shroud was originally owned by King Umberto, the Duke of Savoy (the former ruling family of Italy); his family had possession of the Shroud for six centuries. Ultimately it was given to the Church to safeguard.
In 1898 a lawyer, Secondo Pia, took the first photograph of the cloth and his negative showed details that could be seen clearly. His photograph set off a huge interest by researchers. In the 1970s John P. Jackson, a physicist from the University of Colorado, discovered the markings were consistent with a body that had been crucified and that the stains were human blood and the shadings were three-dimensional, which clarified how the imprint ended up on the cloth.
In 1978 Barrie Schwartz, a Jewish technical photographer, was invited to participate in the first ever in-depth scientific examination of the cloth, known as the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STRUP). He reluctantly agreed to be part of STRUP, expecting to prove that this was a painted image from the Middle Ages.
After many years of study, he now believes it is authentic.
“For 17 years I refused to accept its authenticity,” he said. “The last argument holding me back was related to the blood. I had a conversation with Alan Adler, a blood chemist. He said that ‘a high content of bilirubin on the Shroud, explains why the blood on the Shroud is red. When a man is beaten and has had no water, he can go into shock and the liver starts pumping out bilirubin. It makes the blood stay red forever’.”
Schwartz further discussed what the Shroud tells us of the Passion and the torture Jesus suffered. “His face was severely beaten, and was particularly swollen around the eyes reminding me of a boxer who’s just lost a match,” he said. “The man has been severely scourged. Not only do we observe the wounds on the back, but the thongs wrapped around the body and hit the front as well…. He has a spear wound on his side. His legs are not broken, as was typically the case with men who are crucified. His head and scalp are covered in wounds. In art we often see the Crown of Thorns depicted as a small circle resembling laurel leaves around Christ’s head. That is not realistic. The soldiers actually took a thorn bush and smashed it down on his head. We see the back of one hand, which indicates that the nails were driven not through the center of the palm, but an inch closer to the wrist. It was not unusual that a soldier would make this mistake after doing 20 crucifixions in such a short time period.”
There are many scientists that adamantly disagree with these findings. They believe this was likely a painting based on the several pieces of information.
“The Bible gives clear details of Jesus’ burial cloth – linen strips and a separate cloth for the head; which conflicts with the one large rectangular piece of this shroud,” said one scientist. “In addition, respected, trusted and very reliable scientific carbon dating has placed the shroud’s origin around the 14th century, between 1260 and 1390 CE.”
When the book entitled DNA of GOD? was published, many scientists were hoping to put this theory to rest and prove that the Shroud of Turin could not be from the time of Jesus but was from the middle ages. Scientists were initially excited that it would finally be proven that this artifact was a painting and came from sometime in the middle 13th to late 14th century. They thought for sure that the book’s author, researcher Dr. Leonico Garza-Valdes, would put to rest any supernatural theories.
Instead, this San Antonio pediatrician with an unusual hobby – archaeo-microbiology – came to discover that bacteria produces an organic coating over time (which he calls a “bioplastic coating”) on ancient textiles such as the Shroud. This coating which he discovered on Mayan artifacts as well, distorts the carbon dating process which ultimately suggested these objects are significantly older than the previous data had indicated.
Because of these findings, it again became possible that this artifact did originate in the first century and could definitely be the authentic burial cloth of Jesus.
The book, entitled Turin Shroud – First Century after Christ!, summarized results in a simple manner: “The result of the 1988 radio carbon dating is statistically wrong and the three new dating methods demonstrate that the shroud has an age compatible with the epoch in which Jesus Christ lived in Palestine.”
After a visit to see the shroud, Pope Benedict XVI said, “It is a winding sheet that was wrapped around the body of a man who was crucified, corresponding in every way to what the Gospels tell us of Jesus.”
Earlier pontiffs also commented on the shroud. Pope Pius XII in 1936 said it was “a holy thing perhaps like nothing else,” and during a 1980 outing to Turin, Pope St. John Paul II used the word “relic,” saying “the shroud was a distinguished relic linked to the mystery of our redemption.”
Robert Perry wrote an essay entitled What Does the Shroud of Turin Mean?
“Here is a summary of my conclusions about the Shroud of Turin,” he writes. “The Shroud contained a real human body which suffered actual wounds and stained the cloth with genuine blood. This body was crucified, almost certainly by the Romans, and was buried in a manner consistent with ancient Jewish burial practices. The body was very likely Jewish and was almost certainly that of Jesus of Nazareth. The image on the cloth is not composed of material added to the cloth. Instead, it appears to be a kind of scorch, caused apparently by the dead body emitting some form of radiant energy, which resulted in a kind of photographic negative. Though not certain, this appears to be the most reasonable conclusion one can draw from the evidence.”
At the end of the day, the controversy continues because it’s not yet proven that this artifact is in fact the burial cloth that wrapped Jesus. So why do so many people still believe in its authenticity?
Clearly, there are so many unanswered questions related to this artifact having to do with carbon dating, with the length of the man’s hair, with the actual cloth itself, and with the wounds shown on the cloth. All of these have been explained, yet still not to the satisfaction of scientists.
It is also possible that in time it could also prove the Resurrection and that too will send scientists back to the examination table. There is evidence for and against its authenticity and it appears this controversy will continue for years to come.
When Pope Francis visits the Shroud in late June, he will likely come to a similar conclusion as popes before him. This artifact is an amazing reminder of the Crucifixion and must be regarded as a validation of everything we have learned in the Gospels about the man Jesus Christ who suffered horribly and died so that we could enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
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