As both an historian of New Testament times and a Christian believer, I can easily accept the possibility that Jesus’ burial cloth might have survived for two millennia. On the other hand, my Christian faith in no way depends on the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. So I thought I could approach the question of the shroud’s authenticity without bias, although I confess to a certain initial skepticism.
Now, after reading four books on the shroud and numerous other recent publications about it, most by people who started skeptically as I did and have since come to believe, I am more doubtful than ever that the Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. I suspect that the shroud is either a deliberate forgery or, more innocently, the product of a later devotional art; I say this despite the fact that many questions about the shroud, including the technique by which the image was imposed on it, remain unsolved.
The cloth itself is a strip of linen 14.25 feet long and 3.58 wide. The linen is woven in a fine, durable, three-to-one herringbone twill. At some undetermined date a matching strip of linen 3.5 inches wide was attached along one of the long sides of the cloth.
Faintly visible on one side of the cloth are images of the 031front and back of a human body. These images, described by various modern investigators as “straw yellow” or “sepia yellow” in color, are oriented on the cloth in a head-to-toe fashion: If a human body actually caused the images, it would have to have been placed on its back on one half of the linen fabric. The remaining portion of the cloth would then have to have been drawn up over the head and face and stretched out over the trunk and the legs to form a complete burial shroud. The body is that of a 5-foot-11-inch bearded male Caucasian weighing about 170 pounds.
The body images reveal wounds and bruises. A number of them are associated with what would appear to be bloodstains. Moreover, they conform to what we expect from 032the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion.
The Biblical texts indicate that Jesus’ hands and feet were held fast to the cross by nails (Luke 24:40; John 20:20, 25, 27; see also Colossians 2:14). The wounds caused by nails driven through the hands or wrists could account as well for the angular bloodstains that appear on the forearms of the man of the shroud. His right wrist, hidden under the left hand, is not visible, but a blood flow can clearly be seen issuing from the base of the left hand and from both of the victim’s feet.
A multitude of small wounds cover the entire body, front and back, from the shoulders down. These conform to the wounds Jesus received when he was scourged by Roman soldiers preparatory to his crucifixion (Matthew 27:26, Mark 15:15, Luke 23:16, 22, John 19:1).
According to John’s Gospel, Jesus was pierced in the side by a Roman soldier’s lance (John 19:31–37). The man of the shroud has a wound with a large bloodstain around it at the rib cage on the right side. The dorsal image also shows a flow of blood at this point along the small of the back.
Around the head of the man of the shroud are smaller lesions from which blood has trickled downward. These seem entirely consistent with the wounds inflicted on Jesus when the soldiers who were mocking his supposed kingship pressed a “crown” of sharp thorns upon his head (Matthew 27:29, Mark 15:17, John 19:2).
While all this evidence is clear to anyone who views photographs of the shroud, some investigators believe that they can also discern bruise marks from blows to the face (see Matthew 26:68, 27:30; Mark 14:65, 15:19; Luke 22:63-64; and John 18:22, 19:3), bruises on the shoulders that perhaps would have been caused by the carrying of the cross (see John 19:17), and bruises on the knees which conceivably were received if Jesus took a fall under the cross’s burden.
The history of the shroud can be traced with assurance for only a little more than 600 years. In about 1357, the shroud was exhibited in Lirey, a village near Troyes in northeastern France. The Musée de Cluny in Paris still preserves a pilgrim’s medallion from this exhibition. On it appears the first known depiction of the double image of the shroud. The medallion also contains the coats of arms of Geoffrey de Charny and his wife, Jeanne de Vergy, then the owners of the shroud.
The de Charnys retained possession of the shroud until about 1460 when it passed into the hands of the family that held legal title to it until 1983, the House of Savoy. For a time, this family kept the shroud folded up in a silver reliquary chest in the chapel of their castle at Chambéry, a town about 50 miles east of Lyon. There, in 1532, a serious fire broke out. Flames quickly roared through the chapel and almost engulfed the reliquary containing the shroud. A daring intervention by Philip Lambert, counselor to the Duke of Savoy, and two Franciscan priests rescued the already burning reliquary with its precious contents. The reliquary was quickly doused with water to drown the flames. When the box cooled, it was opened to determine the damage to the shroud. The shroud had indeed survived, but a drop of molten silver from the reliquary had set fire to one edge of the shroud, scorching all its 48 folds. In addition, the water that had been poured on the reliquary left stains.
Despite this extensive damage, the body images themselves turned out to be only slightly harmed. During the next two years, a group of nuns repaired the numerous holes with patches. These patches, together with the scorch marks and water stains, are now the most easily visible features of the shroud. It is they, rather than the faint body images, that stand out when the shroud is placed on display.
About 45 years after the fire, the shroud was brought from southeastern France to Turin, in northern Italy. There, in the Royal Chapel of the Cathedral of St. John, it is still preserved, locked away behind grills in a double reliquary container. The outer chest, which is of iron, requires three different keys to open it. One was kept by the former King of Italy, Umberto II.a Another belongs to 034the Archbishop of Turin and the third to the cathedral’s official custodian.
During the late medieval and Renaissance periods, the shroud was exhibited frequently, both indoors and out. While it aroused considerable popular devotion and interest, the attitude of the Roman Catholic hierarchy toward it tended to be much more reserved. At the time of its first exhibition in 1357, the Bishop of Troyes, Henry of Poitiers, claimed the shroud was a fraud, basing his assertion on the testimony of the artist who had made it. Thirty years later, one of Henry’s successors, Pierre d’Arcis, wrote a long letter to Pope Clement VII (which, incidentally, still survives) in which he recalled his predecessor’s complaints and indicated that he shared Henry’s belief that the shroud was “a product of human handicraft” (manufactus) and “an artificial painting or depiction” (artificialiter depictus). He pleaded with the Pope to end its public display. The Pope, replying from Avignon, decided not to withdraw the shroud, but he did place a number of restrictions and reservations on its public display. There was to be no liturgical ceremony or pomp when the shroud was displayed, and on each occasion a priest was to announce to those present “in a loud and intelligible voice, without any trickery, that the aforesaid form or representation [the shroud] is not the true burial cloth (sudarium) of Our Lord Jesus Christ but only a kind of painting or picture (quaedam pictura seu tabula) made as a form or representation (in figuram seu repraesentationem) of the burial cloth.”1
While later churchmen were more receptive to the shroud—in 1578, for example, Charles Borromeo, then the Archbishop of Milan, journeyed to Turin on foot to venerate the shroud—no official affirmation of the shroud’s authenticity came from the church.
In 1670 a papal congregation granted an indulgence to those who would come and pray before the shroud. But such individuals would receive this privilege “not for venerating the cloth as the true shroud of Christ but rather for meditating on the Passion [of Jesus].” This kind of official reserve probably explains why in modern times the shroud has been so rarely placed on public display—only nine times in the last two centuries.
The most recent of these expositions occurred in the fall of 1978 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the shroud’s arrival in Turin. Over three million people viewed the shroud during this six-week period.
The crowds came partly because the shroud had been in the news so frequently during the five years preceding this display. In 1973 a group of European scientists had been allowed to inspect the shroud with a view to 035providing for its future preservation. Their observations, some favorable to the shroud’s authenticity, some not, were widely reported. These reports caught the attention of two U.S. Air Force scientists, John Jackson and Eric Jumper. Jackson and Jumper used equipment designed for creating three dimensional topographical projections from satellite photographs of the moon and the planets to examine photographs of the shroud. Their surprising discovery was that they could generate an undistorted three dimensional image of the man of the shroud, a feat that they claimed would be impossible if the shroud were simply an ordinary painting. These findings stimulated interest in the shroud within other segments of the scientific community and led Jackson and Jumper to think seriously of an all-out scientific investigation at the time of the shroud’s proposed public display in 1978.
Thus was born the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), a project that eventually included more than 30 physicists, chemists, computer specialists, biophysicists, spectroscopists, and experts in photomicroscopy from institutions as varied as Oceanographic Services, Inc., the Los Alamos National Scientific Laboratory, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. Some of these scientists clearly were motivated by the chance, as they saw it, to demonstrate by scientific means the truth of the Christian faith, but others, including several agnostics, were attracted by the shroud as a complex puzzle to be solved.
The STURP team never enjoyed any formal institutional sponsorship but depended entirely on its own ability to generate funds and to obtain the use of scientific equipment. Jumper, Jackson and Thomas d’Muhala, the latter on loan from the Nuclear Technology Corporation, proved to be organizational wizards in meeting the many problems of putting together a large and complex scientific expedition that had to operate on a limited budget and within a very tight schedule.
But even their great skills failed when it came to the production of a final joint report. This report, at one time promised for 1980, has not appeared, and deep divisions within the group now make it unlikely that it will ever appear.
We are not, however, without information on the work of the STURP project. Since 1978, at least three new books have appeared, as well as innumerable articles relating to the shroud.2 I shall refer to the books as Hellerb (1983), Tribbec (1983) and Stevenson-Habermastd (1981). A fourth book, by Ian Wilsone (1978), published before the 1978 scientific study, is in many respects still the most valuable, although naturally one must look to the other 038three for information based on the 1978 tests.
Despite the fact that a full report on the 1978 investigation of the shroud is not available, it is nevertheless clear that the scientists have not yet solved the problem of whether the shroud is a first century artifact.f Perhaps it is time for historians, especially Biblical historians, and archaeologists to weigh in with their views, since they offer important perspectives quite different from the physicists’ and biologists’. Later in this article, I propose to engage in such a discussion, although naturally against the backdrop of evidence available from what are sometimes exaggeratedly referred to as the exact sciences.
However, the first, and perhaps foremost, problem that calls into question the authenticity of the shroud is the appearance of the bloodstains—even assuming what appear to be bloodstains are in fact from human blood. On the latter point, Italian specialists who examined the stains in 1973 were unable to obtain positive readings when they tested the supposed bloodstains. Two experts on the 1978 team, John Heller (the author of one of the post-1978 books) and Alan Adler, ran a series of sophisticated experiments on the supposed bloodstains on the shroud and concluded the stains were in fact made by human blood. Heller’s book is primarily an account of how the tests were conducted and how he and Adler analyzed the results and reached their conclusions. I was convinced by their evidence that the purported bloodstains were in fact bloodstains.
On the other hand, not everyone has accepted their experimental results. Walter McCrone, a renowned microscopist who made the discovery that Yale University’s Vinland Map was a forgery, has argued that the so-called bloodstains derive from a red iron-oxide earth pigment. McCrone notes that tiny red-orange particles are found everywhere adhering to the fibers of the shroud. McCrone believes these particles are iron-oxide residue from paint used to create or enhance the body images found on the shroud.
Heller and Adler rejoin that these particles are blood particles abraded from the stain areas on the shroud as it was repeatedly folded and unfolded through the centuries.
The difficulty with McCrone’s theories is that none of the scientists with access to the samples from the shroud itself has been able to confirm McCrone’s findings by experimentation.
Other investigators have also questioned whether the purported bloodstains are in fact blood. Samuel Pellicori, an optical physicist and spectroscopist who was also a 039member of the 1978 expedition, observed: “The red color [of the blood caught in the fibers of the shroud] is startlingly reminiscent of recent blood and not at all what one would expect after a minimum of 600 years.” For him the color of the bloodstains on the shroud remains “a mystery.”3
The uniform redness of what purports to be blood on the shroud is, it is true, difficult to explain, especially in light of the intense but variable heat to which the shroud was subjected in the fire of 1532. Within the silver reliquary there was a temperature gradient ranging from about 900° C at the top of the reliquary where the silver began to melt, to below 200° C at the bottom of the reliquary where the shroud remained unscorched. Organic substances exposed to such different temperatures would have decomposed, changed color, or volatilized at different rates from the top of the folded shroud to the bottom. The absence of such variations suggests that the shroud was not painted with organic pigments, but also raises questions regarding the theory that the purported bloodstains were produced by actual blood.
Nevertheless, on balance, in view of the many tests conducted by Heller and Adler that did prove positive, I am prepared to accept these stains for what they purport to be—human blood.
But that is far from proving the authenticity of the shroud. The problem with the bloodstains—even if that is what they are—is that they are so clear and precise in outline. This is evident even from photographs of the shroud. Not only are these stains very sharply outlined, but the blood frequently takes a downward gravitational course as if it flowed down while Jesus was suspended on the cross. The direction of the blood flow is not what it would have been if the bleeding had occurred while Jesus’ body lay in a horizontal position in the tomb. Clear examples of such bloodstains are those running down the forehead and the arms of the man of the shroud.
Those who are convinced of the shroud’s authenticity argue that Jesus’ body was not washed before burial and that the shroud therefore reflects blood flows that occurred mostly before Jesus’ death on the cross. That is a critical element in any argument that the shroud is authentic. As Ian Wilson recognizes: “Only on the view that Jesus was not washed can the authenticity of the Turin Shroud be upheld.”4
One of the four Gospels indicates that several women came to Jesus’ tomb on the morning after the Sabbath in order to anoint his body (Mark 16:1). From this, various investigators of the shroud conclude that the anointing had been previously omitted because the Sabbath had begun shortly after Jesus’ body had been taken down from the cross. They then appeal to a text from the Mishnah,g Shabbat 23:5, which gives a description of what may legally be done to preserve a corpse on the Sabbath. A dead body may be anointed and washed, says this text, only if the limbs are not moved in the process. With this restriction, argue these investigators, those burying Jesus would have had scruples about anointing him and they would have left his body unwashed as well. To this it may be said, first, that those burying Jesus did not scruple to carry his body some distance, to place it in the tomb, and then to roll a large stone in front of the entrance (Mark 15:46). If they were willing to do all this “work” on the Sabbath, they would not have hesitated to wash and anoint Jesus’ body. It is difficult, too, to know if this Mishnaic legislation, which restricts the anointing of a corpse on the 040Sabbath to such narrow circumstances, accurately reflects normal Jewish practice 200 years earlier, although the Mishnah certainly incorporated many older traditions. Washing a corpse on the Sabbath may well have been permitted at the time of Jesus’ death. In any case, the point of the Mishnaic prescription is that actions needed to preserve a corpse for decent burial, actions such as washing the body, are so important that they take priority over Sabbath rest. Since even the Gospel of Mark says nothing about omitting such customary action, it is safer to suppose that Jesus’ body was washed on the evening after his death.
But even if we accept as a fact that Jesus’ dead body remained unwashed when he was laid in the tomb, we must then also suppose, given the fact that the bloodstains are precisely defined, that the nails were pulled from Jesus’ hands and feet and that his body was then taken down from the cross, carried some distance to the tomb, and laid upon the linen shroud, all without smearing or rubbing the bloodstains! This, it seems to me, stretches credulity to the breaking point.
If the writer of the Gospel of John is historically correct in reporting that a very large quantity of spices was wrapped with the burial garments around Jesus’ body (John 19:39–40), such materials would almost certainly have smeared and distorted the bloodstains.
In their book, Stevenson and Habermas recognize that where the blood still remained wet around the wounds, the linen would have become loosely attached. Eventually separating the fabric from such areas, if this occurred in any normal way, would have been like removing a bandage; further deformation of the bloodstains would surely have occurred. They therefore appeal to a miraculous cause: The images on the shroud were produced by a flash of light at the moment of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But appealing to a miracle is not necessary in this case; a rational explanation would suffice.
Tribbe does make an effort to face these issues—one of the few writers to do so: He recognizes that the bloodstains would surely have been smeared when Jesus was taken from the cross. He therefore postulates that Jesus’ body was washed before burial and that the stains on the shroud were from blood which flowed from the wounds after Jesus’ body was laid to rest in the tomb. One problem with this suggestion is that it requires us to suppose that even the superficial wounds continued to bleed for a very considerable time after Jesus’ death, a most dubious medical possibility. An even greater difficulty with this explanation of the clear and precisely outlined bloodstains is that if they reflect blood that flowed after Jesus was laid in the tomb, the blood flowed up to more elevated portions of the body, instead of down. In short, the blood flows do not run in the right direction if they occurred while Jesus’ body lay on its back.
In these circumstances, Tribbe is forced to resort to an appeal to a “paranormal spiritual event.”5
My own religious faith certainly allows for the possibility of such miracles. But I am most hesitant to affirm such a miracle when a natural explanation suffices. In this case, it is far more likely that we have caught an artist or forger in a simple mistake.
Given the findings of Heller and Adler, we may assume that this artist (or forger) used real blood in creating the various stains.
However, Heller and Adler make no claim that the blood on the shroud dates to the first century rather than to the 15th century. Indeed the blood they used as a control in the tests was Heller’s own blood, with which they stained a piece of 16th century Spanish linen. This they assumed to be comparable to blood from any previous period.
Thus the bloodstains, not actually demonstrated to be first-century blood, present a series of problems related to the fact that their outline is so clear and precise and that they flow in the wrong direction if they occurred while Jesus lay in the tomb.
Other aspects of the physical depiction of the man of the shroud also arouse suspicion. Take the simple fact that the face and hands stand out with particular emphasis. Many other anatomical features, on the other hand, are not clearly delineated. Some apologists explain this by saying that the more elevated portions of Jesus’ body were imprinted more clearly on the shroud. This, however, fails to explain why such areas as the chest and the toes are defined poorly or not at all. More probably it is art rather than nature (or miracle) that explains why the face and hands stand out so clearly, for these are the bodily features that habitually receive prominence in artistic portraits.
In addition, many features of the body reflect a too “appropriate”—and therefore “artistic”—modesty. The buttocks are only faintly outlined and the genital region is altogether invisible. If the shroud actually preserves an imprint of Jesus’ naked body as he lay in the tomb, we would expect that imprint to have formed without 042hesitancy and reserve. The apparent absence of any navel could even be an effort to remind the viewer of the teaching of the virginal birth of Jesus.
The treatment of the hands loosely joined at the pelvic region presents special problems. Recent research by two scholars well-known to BAR readers, Rachel Hachlili and Ann Killebrew, indicates that in this period in the Jericho and Jerusalem areas, people were customarily buried with their arms at their sides.6 It is true, however, that at Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scroll community lived in the first century A.D.), burials were excavated in which the hands seemed to be joined on the torso.7 However, this burial posture from Qumran is also known from the 14th century. See, for example, the dead body depicted in the Book of Hours of Philip IV of France.8
In any event, neither of these examples can be said to attest to the covering of the genitals with the joined hands. In a relaxed position, a man’s joined hands will not cover his genitals if he lies on his back. He will reach the genital area with his hands only by stretching his arms downward. The body on the shroud, however, is relaxed; the elbows extend out beyond the body as though resting on the surface of the tomb. On a dead man’s body, joined hands will cover the genital region only if the elbows are propped up on the body and the wrists tied together so as to hold the hands and arms in place. The relaxed arrangement of the body on the shroud rejects this possibility.
To depict a relaxed body on which joined hands cover the genital area requires several anatomical oddities that are conveniently provided on the shroud. The fingers of the right hand are extremely long; the index finger, for example, is at least five inches long. The right forearm also appears to be several inches longer than the left. (Because the elbow areas were damaged in the fire of 1532, we cannot be absolutely certain about this.) Only these improbable elongations allow the right hand to cover the genital area. Thus is modesty preserved. This is artistry, not the brute reality of actual death.
Jesus’ face as depicted on the shroud also gives me difficulties. It looks very much as we would expect it to look in any medieval or modern portrait. Christians of the second, third, and fourth centuries who painted pictures and carved statues of Jesus had no information about Jesus’ exact physical appearance, and their images of him show very great variety. At times he is beardless with short hair; at other times beardless with long hair; at still other times he has a short beard and short hair, and sometimes he is depicted with the more familiar long hair and full beard. An example of this last type, a mid-fourth century portrait of Christ found at Rome in the Catacomb of Commodilla, is rather close in type to our own 20th-century depictions.
Beyond this, however, these early Christians were more interested in portraying the inner nature of Christ rather than his actual bodily appearance. Christ as the Good Shepherd often is a more youthful figure with shorter hair, Christ the Lawgiver usually resembles contemporaneous depictions of Roman emperors, and Christ as the True Teacher of Wisdom has the mature years and full beard proper to philosophers and teachers in late Roman times. Since a full beard was also a symbol of sovereign divinity—gods like Zeus and Sarapis were always shown with such beards—artists increasingly depicted Jesus with a beard to make manifest his own divine nature and his equality with God the Father. From the late fourth century onwards Christ is usually, but not always, depicted with long hair parted in the center and a full beard.
This tendency to settle upon a single quasi-canonical image for Christ was accelerated by a general preference in late Roman and Byzantine times for schematic portraits. Such portraits, whether of emperors, Christian saints, or Christ himself, made use of a few fixed symbols to identify with clarity the individual depicted. Often a characteristic arrangement of facial hair helped serve this purpose. To argue, as some proponents of the shroud’s authenticity do, that the image of Jesus’ face seen on the shroud gave rise to the conventional depiction of Jesus employed in Byzantine and Western European art is to ignore the impact of broader cultural and artistic trends occurring in late antiquity. In any case, the pre-14th-century history of the shroud is far too obscure to justify such a conjecture. A far more likely explanation of the “typical” character of the shroud’s portrayal of Jesus is that a 043forger or devotional artist would naturally tend to copy a conventional likeness. Indeed, the forked beard of the man of the shroud suggests a medieval date since this type of beard occurs only infrequently in earlier depictions of Christ. In short, the face of Jesus on the shroud shows clear links with known artistic patterns. If in some amazing way we could obtain a genuine photograph of Jesus, his face would probably look very different from any of our images of him, since these all derive from the conceptualizations and conventions of art and theology.9
Suspicions are also aroused when we attempt to compare the depiction on the shroud with the accounts of Jesus’ suffering, death and burial found in the Gospels. Certain features of the shroud image, such as the wounds in the hands and feet and the marks of the scourging, are in accord with all four of the evangelists’ accounts. But other features do not enjoy this same uniform attestation. To cite just two examples, only the Gospel of John reports that Jesus’ side was pierced with a lance (19:31–37), and the Gospel of Luke gives no indication whatever that Jesus was crowned with thorns prior to his crucifixion. Dealing with such problems is not, of course, a matter of counting up references. Luke almost surely had quite definite reasons for deliberately passing over in silence the crowning with thorns, and John certainly could have had access to evidence unavailable to the other evangelists. But if in assessing the shroud, someone points with enthusiasm to the wound in the figure’s side as showing clear agreement with the Gospel evidence (in reality only with that found in the Gospel of John), this person must then explain why he or she does not accept other evidence from that same source that also is not in harmony with the other Gospels. An investigator cannot just pick and choose a set of details from the different Gospel accounts that best accords with the evidence seen on the shroud. Such a procedure ignores problems posed by the Gospel evidence and indeed tacitly assumes that the shroud is genuine. Since a later artist or forger could have worked with one eye attentively turned to the Biblical text, the Gospel evidence must be scrutinized with care to see if indeed it supports the authenticity of the shroud. In fact, this evidence raises some problems.
Although all four Gospels describe Jesus’ burial, they do not agree in all details. According to the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 27:59, Mark 15:46, Luke 23:53), Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus in a sindon, i.e., a large linen cloth, and laid him in the tomb. The shroud’s defenders equate this with the shroud itself. The Gospel of John describes a different bodily wrap: “They then took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths (othoniois [a plural noun]) as is the Jewish burial custom” (John 19:40). This same Gospel adds (John 20:5-7) that after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter and the “Beloved Disciple” saw the linen cloths (othonia [plural]) lying in the tomb and, in addition, saw a separate cloth called a soudarion, probably a wrapping for the face. In short, John reports that Jesus’ body was wrapped not in one but in several cloths.
If a soudarion was used to cover Jesus’ face, the shroud for his corpse could not possibly bear an image of the face, for the face would have been separated from the shroud by this soudarion.
Some suggest that the soudarion was probably only a chin strap designed to hold shut the jaws of a deceased person (compare John 11:44). This suggestion may well be correct. If so, the use of such a soudarion in the burial of Jesus would have permitted the image of his face to appear on the shroud. Initially, some investigators of the shroud thought they could detect such a chin strap in photographs of the shroud. Then, a new series of photographs taken in 1978 showed that the supposed strap at the sides of the face was actually an irregularity in the weave of the linen fabric that earlier photographic reproductions had picked up and enhanced; the blank space found at the crown of the head between the frontal and dorsal images was not caused by the knotted portion of a chin strap, as previously believed, but was simply a blank space. If a chin strap was part of Jesus’ grave wrappings, it is not to be seen in the shroud. Proponents of the shroud readily accept as historical the account of the lance wound reported in John 19—and only there. They should be equally ready to accept the soudarion of chapter 20 or be prepared to offer strong reasons for rejecting this tradition. The evidence of the shroud itself allows for no soudarion, either a head covering or a chin strap.
Moreover, as we have seen, John’s Gospel indicates that Jesus’ body was wrapped in several linen cloths (othonia). This too is a problem for the shroud. Some have attempted to interpret othonia as a collective singular in order to conform the account in John to the language of the other three Gospels (sindon). But it is much more likely that the author of John was referring to more than one cloth.10 Some suggest that the various cloths designated by the term othonia were placed on top of one another, so the innermost one would be the shroud, but such an arrangement of the cloths remains a pure conjecture. While this hypothesis at least offers a possible solution for John’s use of othonia, the shroud shows no sign whatever of the soudarion that John clearly states was part of Jesus’ grave wrappings.
One feature of the shroud may even rest on later Christian tradition rather than on Gospel evidence, a situation that would, if true, render the shroud particularly suspect. Defenders of the shroud’s authenticity interpret marks on the shoulders and knees of the man of the shroud as bruises and abrasions. The bruises on the shoulders occurred, they say, when Jesus carried his cross (John 19:17). The cuts and abrasions on the knees resulted from falls, falls that caused Jesus’ executioners to force Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ cross (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26). However, it is not quite so easy to combine the Gospel evidence to produce this version of events. Probably for theological reasons, John insists that Jesus carried his own cross. He makes no mention of any help from Simon. On the other hand, the passage in Mark 15:20–21 can be interpreted as saying that Jesus never carried the cross at all.
Since John almost certainly had a deliberate purpose in downplaying Jesus’ weakness and need for help, Simon’s assistance seems most probable as an historical occurrence. Yet the fact remains that none of the Gospels gives any reason why Simon was forced to march along with the cross. Later Christian tradition supplied a theory to fill this Biblical lacuna: Jesus fell one or more times with the cross and so needed help. This interpretation then became an entrenched part of the Christian imagination and piety, appearing for example in the later representations of the “Stations of the Cross.” If the shroud indeed records the bruises from such falls, this is in conformity not with evidence from the New Testament but with later Christian tradition. This is what we would expect from a later artisan but not of an authentic object.
Some investigators have sought to demonstrate the shroud’s authenticity by appeals to detailed features that could not have been known or understood by a 14th century forger. None of these efforts to establish the shroud’s authenticity has been successful or convincing.
For example, Professor Francis Filas, S.J., of Loyola University in Chicago thought he saw coins on Jesus’ eyes. Then, in the late 1970s, a Jewish burial from shortly after the time of Jesus was excavated near Jericho. The investigator, Rachel Hachlili, initially suggested that two coins found in the skull had originally been placed on the 045dead man’s eyes and then later had dropped into the skull.11 Filas naturally saw this as strong supporting evidence for his theory.
However, further work on the Jericho site made it clear to Hachlili that her initial assessment of the data had been premature. She went on to discover a second skull with a single coin in it. Since one coin will not cover two eyes, it seemed more probable that these rare examples of coins in association with skulls—at Jericho only two instances out of 192 burials investigated—represent a Jewish adaptation of the Greek custom of putting one or more coins in the mouth of the deceased. That person would then be able to pay “Charon’s fee,” i.e., the cost of a boat trip across the River Styx into the Underworld.12 Thus, coins on the eyes remain unattested in Jewish practice in the first century A.D.
In the case of the shroud, however, Filas believes he can even detect the kinds of coins that were placed on Jesus’ eyes. They are small bronze lepton coins minted during the middle years of Pontius Pilate’s procuratorship in Judea (29–32 A.D.). Filas has produced shadowy photographs of one of these coins in support of his contention.h Admittedly, it is most unlikely that a later artist or forger would have known of such coins. But are these particular coins actually there in the image on the shroud?
Filas’s claim that the coins are visible highlights another problem with many claims by those who support the shroud’s authenticity: The image of the shroud is very faint. For the naked eye the optimal viewing distance is about six to ten feet away; closer up the image blurs and dissolves. The eye of the camera, on the other hand, tends to enhance the actual light-dark contrasts and to produce a clearer-than-life image. But the photographic image that clarifies can also deceive. Many tend to see in the photographs not what is there but what they want to see. We have already noted that the chin strap thought to be visible in earlier photographs of the shroud disappeared in the 1978 photographs. Earlier photographs seemed to indicate, too, that Jesus wore his hair in the form of a pigtail. This also disappeared in the 1978 photographs. Filas’s claim that he sees two particular coins on the shroud is subject to the same uncertainty.
A final problem with the shroud’s authenticity is its lack of any convincing history prior to the 14th century. More than half of Ian Wilson’s book is an effort to reconstruct such a history. But most of it is sheer unsupportable conjecture. Wilson may have done an imaginative job with limited scraps of evidence, but Heller is certainly correct in calling Wilson’s history of the shroud “a fanciful collage.” Just one detail: Part of Wilson’s chain includes a sighting of the shroud by Robert de Clari in 1204. De Clari was a soldier in the Fourth Crusade who reported having seen the shroud of Jesus in Constantinople. It is barely possible that Robert de Clari saw the Shroud of Turin in 1204 at Constantinople, but since more than 40 different supposed shrouds of Jesus are reported in the medieval period, it is very probable that de Clari saw something else. And this is one of Wilson’s stronger links in his pre-14th-century historical reconstruction.
Given all these various difficulties, especially the implausibility of the bloodstains, the iconographic and anatomical irregularities, the anomalies with respect to the Biblical evidence, and the early history—or lack of it—of the shroud, I find the authenticity of this object quite suspect. On the other hand, no one has provided a completely satisfactory explanation of how the image on the shroud was produced. In the absence of such an explanation, despite massive modern scientific efforts to produce one, the inference is drawn that it was somehow produced by a miracle.
Two characteristics of the image are especially puzzling: As early as 1898 it was noted that highlights of the image are dark, and recessed areas are light, producing what can best be compared to a photographic negative, rather than a positive. Second, as I mentioned above, John Jackson and Eric Jumper discovered that they could produce a more or less undistorted three-dimensional image from a computer analysis of the 1931 photographs of the shroud. (An example of this type of image is shown on the front cover.) This meant that a direct correlation exists between the intensity of color at any point on the shroud and the proximity or distance of the cloth from whatever object produced this color. The lighter the color, the further the cloth from the object. Attempts to analyze a two-dimensional portrait in a similar fashion produce a severely distorted image.
A final miracle-suggesting feature of the shroud is that the image could not have been painted on it. The shroud image blurs and fades when viewed from closer than six feet. It is very unlikely that a painter could paint an image that would have this effect. Such a painter would even have had trouble seeing the work as it progressed! Moreover, both earlier studies and the 1978 investigation of the shroud indicate that there are no signs of brush marks 046or other “directional” strokes that would indicate that the shroud had been painted.
While obviously I cannot prove it, my impression is that an artist (or forger) scorched a linen cloth with a properly heated statue or, more likely, a pair of bas-reliefs, using whole blood to create appropriate stains.
Such a technique would explain the lack of paintbrush marks, the unusual “photographic” negative and the image’s three-dimensionality.
Obviously a scorching technique would not produce any brush marks. A statue or relief would also produce the three-dimensional image that Jackson and Jumper have detected. For example, if an appropriately heated statue or bas-relief were used to scorch the linen, the tip of the nose would be scorched dark, and recessed areas like those around the eyes would be light, precisely what we find on the shroud.
Those who reject the “scorching” theory argue that a statue, when heated enough to scorch a piece of cloth, will burn holes in the fabric where raised portions like the nose touch it.
If the “scorching” theory is correct, we would have to reply that modern experimenters—and there have not been many—have simply not yet mastered a technique that was available to some medieval craftsman.i If I must choose between accepting this as a fact or concluding that the shroud image was produced by a miracle, I will, on the basis of the present evidence, choose the former.
I say this even while recognizing that the “scorch” theory does not account for all the experimental data observed in connection with the shroud. For example, Samuel Pellicori reports that ultraviolet light caused those portions of the shroud scorched in the fire in 1532 to fluoresce but did not cause the body images to fluoresce, although they too would have been produced at an earlier period by a scorching technique.
At this point we can conclude only that the shroud remains a fascinating, unfinished puzzle—not all the pieces are yet in place.
For those interested in pursuing the subject further, I would recommend Wilson’s book, despite the fact that it was written before the 1978 studies of the shroud, despite my strong reservations about Wilson’s efforts to reconstruct the early history of the shroud and despite his conclusion that the shroud is indeed authentic. Wilson is almost always careful and precise in his presentation of the evidence, and when he is speculating you know it. He is also fair to the views of those who argue against the shroud’s authenticity.
Heller’s book can also be recommended, with reservations. It definitely is not “The Report” of the 1978 expedition but, as Heller himself states, it is “A Report” of one participant who did not himself go to Turin but who did make one of the more significant discoveries, that the blood seen on the shroud is real blood. The reader is told perhaps more than he or she wants to know about the preparations for the Turin expedition, of the various follow-up scientific gatherings and about Heller’s own inner reactions, but the book as a whole is gripping and engaging.
Both Tribbe and Stevenson-Habermas, like Wilson, attempt to discuss all the scientific, Biblical, and historical issues relevant to the shroud. Also like Wilson, Tribbe and Stevenson-Habermas believe the shroud is authentic, but they are such enthusiastic proponents that they make general and sweeping statements even to the point of sometimes giving incorrect factual information. Nevertheless, Tribbe’s book does contain flashes of insight and is eminently readable. Stevenson-Habermas’s is simply too imprecise and carelessly formulated to recommend.
As both an historian of New Testament times and a Christian believer, I can easily accept the possibility that Jesus’ burial cloth might have survived for two millennia. On the other hand, my Christian faith in no way depends on the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. So I thought I could approach the question of the shroud’s authenticity without bias, although I confess to a certain initial skepticism. Now, after reading four books on the shroud and numerous other recent publications about it, most by people who started skeptically as I did and have since come to believe, […]