Kyle Deming, the Skeptical Christian, from his latest podcast, October 3, 2008:
The shroud of Turin is back in the news. For those who don’t know, the Shroud of Turin is a cloth that appears to have the image of a man who was buried after crucifixion. The shroud was discovered in the 1300s, and was immediately proclaimed as the burial cloth used by Jesus Christ.
Believers in the authenticity of the shroud point to certain evidences in favor of the artifact’s legitimacy. The method is difficult or impossible to duplicate, especially given the technology that would have been available to forgers in the 14th Century. Moreover, the image seems to be remarkably accurate. For example, wounds in the wrists indicate that nails were driven through the wrist during crucifixion. We now know that this was the custom in the ancient world. However, as a large body of Christian art attests, the belief up until very recently was that nails were driven through the hands. The fact that the shroud got this detail right is very surprising if the artifact is a forgery.
Nevertheless, skeptics of the shroud believe that the cloth does not date back far enough. They cite carbon dating results demonstrating that the material dates back to the 14th Century. These tests were conducted by three separate laboratories and seemed to put the issue to rest.
However, a slew of criticisms have been raised about the legitimacy of the carbon dating used on the shroud. John and Rebecca Jackson are two shroud enthusiasts who are trying to reopen the debate on the issue. They believe that the region of the cloth tested was contaminated, leading to skewed results. They hope to prove their hypothesis and then gain access to the actual shroud for more accurate dating. Oxford University has agreed to work with the Jackson’s.
Too bad that he has missed the bigger news on the carbon dating: Using some of the most advanced analytical equipment available, a team of nine scientists at the famed Los Alamos National Laboratory confirmed that the material used for radiocarbon dating of the shroud in 1988 was not part of the shroud’s fabric. Previously, micro-chemical tests had demonstrated that the cloth is at least twice as old as the medieval date determined by the now discredited carbon 14 tests. This gives new life to historical and forensic arguments that the shroud might indeed be the burial cloth of Jesus.
This news plays well into his personal story that follows. He is right as he continues:
I actually have a bit of a personal story here about the shroud. In my undergraduate chemistry class the professor gave us an extra credit quiz where we could analyze the argument for the legitimacy of the shroud’s dating. I wrote that the tests done were insufficient to confidently determine a date, since all three laboratories sampled the same area of the shroud. Thus, the possibility of contamination remained too high for us to make a confident assessment. He marked me off one point for my answer, and I listened as he explained to the class that the date should be considered authentic since it was confirmed by three separate scientific laboratories. He tried to turn the example into some sort of point about the difference between science and faith, and that they are compatible but deal with different subject matter, or whatever. I didn’t care about his philosophical musings, however, I wanted full credit for my answer! So I raised my hand to question his point reduction and argue that, since all three labs sampled from the same portion of the cloth, they did not adequately disprove the contamination hypothesis, and, especially given other evidences for an early date for the shroud, we cannot be confident that the results are accurate. In response, he rejected my claim, arguing that these scientists would never do something so silly as all analyze the same piece of cloth! Ironically, he virtually proved my point, since he implicitly admitted that examining one portion of the cloth was a methodological mistake. Yet, convinced that the scientists had wisely sampled different regions of the cloth to get an accurate date, my professor felt confident in his assertion that the shroud was a medieval forgery. I was a little mad that my professor reduced my grade because of his crass ignorance of the actual facts of the case, though I wasn’t motivated to continue the argument for a single point. His position though, seems typical of those who have undue confidence in the legitimacy of the dating.
My position on the shroud of Turin is solidly agnostic. I think that there are some compelling reasons to believe that the shroud is authentic, including the accurate portrayal of the crucifixion body. Nevertheless, the case is far from proved, and I think certain evidence points away from authenticity, such as its late appearance on the scene in the 1340s. To me, it seems rather silly, because the question of its date could probably be solved easily if access to the artifact was granted for sampling from different portions of the cloth. But, with the shroud withheld from scientific scrutiny, it will be difficult to determine the facts of the case. Hopefully Jackson is successful in securing permission for another analysis of the controversial shroud.