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The Gibson Study Really Says Nothing About the Shroud of Turin

Heather Pringle, writing in Beyond Stone and Bone, the weekly blog of Archaeology Magazine, asks by way of her posting title, "Who Made the Shroud of Turin?" It is a fair question, one that invites us to do some thinking. The question is prompted by a claim that new archeological evidence argues against the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. It doesn’t, as we will see. Let’s look first at what Pringle wrote in the blog:

In December [2009],  Shimon Gibson, an archaeologist and senior research fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jersualem (sic), announced tantalizing results from a new study that he and Boaz Zissu,  an archaeologist at Bar Ilan University, just completed on a 1st century B.C.  shrouded burial they excavated in a tomb in Jerusalem.  Gibson and several colleagues published the first part of the study in a paper in PLoS One on December 16th.Gibson and his colleagues radiocarbon-dated the tattered vestiges of the excavated shroud to 95 B.C.E .  And their careful examination revealed that the mourners in question employed two very different pieces of cloth to wrap the unknown dead male. They wrapped the individual’s head in linen cloth,  and his body in wool cloth–a practice that Gibson says was part of traditional Jewish burial practices at the time.   Moreover,  this practice fits with the biblical description of the two pieces of cloth that Jesus cast off after he rose from the dead.  The Shroud of Turin,  by comparison, consists of just one large piece of cloth said to have covered both the head and body of Jesus.

And Gibson and his team found another critical difference.  The tattered cloths they excavated were woven very simply,  with a two-way weave.   The  Shroud of Turin, however,  exhibits a more sophisticated weaving pattern,  known as a twill weave.

Two arguments are tendered. Both hinge on a single supposition: what has been found defines what is customary or typical relative to geography, time, culture and religion. Gibson tells us that the use of two pieces of cloth "was part of traditional Jewish burial practices" at the time and that it is consistent with scripture. That is one part of his argument. The other is that the weave was a simple "two-way" weave and not the twill pattern of the Shroud. Is it reasonable to think that two cloths used in the manner Gibson proposes is typical. And is a simple weave typical?

Moreover, we need to ask if Gibson is right in his understanding of traditional Jewish burial practices and his interpretation of scripture? He might be, serendipitously. The fact of the matter is that we really know far too little about the burial practices in the late-Second Temple era in and about Jerusalem to make such assumptions. Pringle goes on to say:

No one will be able to draw any definitive conclusions about the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin based on this new study.  The comparative sample size is miniscule, and archaeologists need to see much more in the way of Jewish burial shrouds from the period in order to establish what the customs really were. . . .

I remember, somewhat vaguely, sitting in a high school history class as the teacher explained how archaeologists determined new levels of an excavation by noting the changes in pottery style. Most of us were quite happy with the explanation and made notes in our notebooks, knowing full well that we had an answer for a question that would inevitably be on a mid-term exam. But one student wasn’t happy with the simplicity of the explanation.

How did the archaeologists know that at any one level they had not come across the home of a rich family and at another level the home of a poor family, he had wanted to know. That might have been the reason why the style of pottery was different. How did they know that there weren’t other reasons? Maybe one of the clay pots was from a trade caravan bringing goods from distant cities. Might there be other reasons, as well, including religious practices or personal preferences? So how did an archaeologist know that any given pottery fragment was typical?

I don’t recall if he used the word, "typical." But that was the gist of his questions. My history teacher was well prepared to answer. It required, he told us, many samples from several places in a dig before they could say a style of pottery was typical for a given level. Exceptions, indeed, were often found; and yes, possibly for the very reason the student had suggested. Archaeologists should never draw sweeping conclusions based on a single sample.

For the very same reason, we must be leery of claims that a single fragment, dated to approximately a century before the burial of Jesus, is typical. Palestine, including Jerusalem, at the time of Jesus, had a complex multifaceted society. We know of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They had very different ideas about such things as an afterlife and we might suppose, therefore, there might have been some differences in burial practices. In fact, there is evidence that that was so. There were different family groups, as well; major families such as Hasmoneans and the Herodians and other family groupings as well. The tombs carved in the limestone outcroppings around Jerusalem is a testament to this. They were family tombs. There were also claims of ancient tribal and monarchial patrilineal descent; the Levites for example and in the case of Jesus, at least according to scripture, the House of David. There were in Jerusalem Hellenized Jews who lived a different lifestyle that was criticized by many religious Jews. There were detested Jews who were Roman citizens. Paul was one. There were political factions, such as the Zealots who wished to see Rome expelled from Judea. We must not overlook the fact that Jerusalem, because it was a significant city, was populated with Jews from other parts of the Judea. Typically, if we dare to use that word, families and lineages, people from different geographies and people of different economic and social status, develop different traditions. We don’t have direct evidence from ancient sources such as the Mishna, Talmud or Semahot to suggest that a shroud or manner of shrouding was typical. But the content of these texts does suggest that there were differences in burial practices and even debate.

Tombs varied greatly. There were large complex tombs and very simple tombs, some with burial niches and some without. Ossuaries (bone boxes) used for ossilegium (second burial) varied greatly. Some were ornately decorated and some were simple. Inscriptions varied. In fact they were sometimes in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and in one case Latin. Ossilegium, though common, was not apparently universal. There also seems to be archaeological evidence that the burial practices evolved during the brief period that Jerusalem’s carved out tombs were used.

Given all this, it is hard to believe that a single type of burial shroud or a single method of shrouding existed that could be called typical. Indeed we might suspect that simple weave cloth as well as very fine linen cloth was used if such a variety of cloth was available.

One consequence of the Roman conquest of Judea, incidentally between the time period determined for what we might call the Gibson shroud and the burial of Jesus, was the expansion of trade. The Romans built new roads and improved existing roads. Jerusalem was along the overland trade route between Egypt in the south and Syria to the north. Nearby Caesarea, formerly the Hasmonean Jewish city of Straton’s Tower, became a major Roman port city. Alexandria in Egypt and Damascus in Syria were major textile centers producing linen for clothing, temple vestments, curtains, sailcloth and burial shrouds. Fine and expensive as well as simple linen cloth would certainly have been available in Jerusalem’s marketplace.

Would this have included twill weave linen, specifically herringbone twill? Although we have no geographic specific examples from the time of Christ, it is reasonable to presume that the answer is yes. Fragments of herringbone twill have been found in the ancient Hallstatt salt mines near present-day Vienna among the mummified remains of a Celtic people dating back about four centuries before Christ. Herringbone twill cloth, made from horsehair, has been found in Ireland dating from possibly as early as the arrival of Celtic people on the island around 600 B.C. Other complicated twill patterns going back to at least 200 B.C. and probably earlier have been found with mummies discovered in the Tarim Basin in present-day Xinjiang, China. Probably, the oldest examples are from Northern Italy where a six foot long piece of twill linen cloth was found with lozenge patterns that may date to the third millennium B.C.

It should be understood that twill weaving is not a technological innovation over simple weaving. In simple weaving the weft yarn is passed over one warp thread then under one warp thread, over one, under one, and so forth. In twill weaving the weft is passed over two, three or four warps and under one, and so forth. (The Shroud of Turin is a three hop twill). This gives the cloth a diagonal wale. A good example of twill is the fabric of an ordinary pair of blue jeans. A herringbone pattern is sometimes introduced into a twill weave by, every now and then, reversing the hop so that the diagonal wale is reversed.  The resulting appearance resembles the backbone pattern of a herring, hence the name herringbone. It is an artistic technique and other artistic patterns can be created by a talented weaver.

The other argument by Gibson, as Pringle explains it, is that two cloths were used, a linen cloth over the head and a woolen shroud for the rest of the body. Pringle goes on to say:

Moreover, this practice fits with the biblical description of the two pieces of cloth that Jesus cast off after he rose from the dead. The Shroud of Turin, by comparison, consists of just one large piece of cloth said to have covered both the head and body of Jesus.

But is that what scripture really says? John’s Gospel is our source for considering this:

[The beloved disciple] bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. (John 20:5-7, NRSV)

Scholars do not agree on what this means. The late, great Anglican biblical scholar, John A. T. Robinson, thought the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head might have been a chin band used to tie his mouth closed. Other scholars think it might have been a sudarium, a dishcloth sized cloth that had been used to cover the face of the deceased prior to burial and then removed before the body was enshrouded. If the Sudarium of Oviedo (in Spain) is authentic, as many believe because blood patterns appear to match bloodstains on the Shroud of Turin, then that would explain the second cloth. Frankly, we don’t have a definitive answer on how to interpret this passage of scripture. Nothing, however, in scripture rules out a single shroud. It is simply a matter of interpretation and there is no good foundation for it. Pringle is right when she writes:

No one will be able to draw any definitive conclusions about the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin based on this new study [by Gibson].  The comparative sample size is miniscule, and archaeologists  need to see much more in the way of Jewish burial shrouds from the period in order to establish what the customs really were. 

Indeed. In fact, if we are going to argue non-authenticity from a fragment of a burial shroud we must consider other evidence and other experts as well. This quotation from a PBS interview with Mechthild Flury-Lemberg, a textile expert who has been studying the Shroud since 1980 is very telling:

She first noticed that the entire cloth was crafted with a weave known as a three-to-one herringbone pattern. "This kind of weave was special in antiquity because it denoted an extraordinary quality," she says. . . . Flury-Lemberg also discovered a peculiar stitching pattern in the seam of one long side of the Shroud, where a three-inch wide strip of the same original fabric was sewn onto a larger segment. The stitching pattern, which she says was the work of a professional, is surprisingly similar to the hem of a cloth found in the tombs of the Jewish fortress of Masada. The Masada cloth dates to between 40 B.C. and 73 A.D. The evidence, says Flury-Lemberg, is clear: "The linen cloth of the Shroud of Turin does not display any weaving or sewing techniques which would speak against its origin as a high quality product of the textile workers of the first century."

So might Jesus’ burial shroud have been a high quality, perhaps not-so-typical, linen fabric? Jesus’ burial, itself, was not typical. Crucifixion victims were not buried in the sort of tombs found in the Jerusalem outcroppings, though a single exception has been found. Nor were peasants. And Jesus was both. Crucifixion victims were usually left on their crosses until their bodies rotted or were eaten by wild dogs and vultures. The remains were thrown in charnel pits. We are told in the biblical narrative that a member of the Sanhedrin, clearly someone of means and status, asked Pilate for Jesus’ body and offered a tomb for the burial. Mark’s Gospel tells us that Joseph of Arimathea bought a linen cloth and wrapped Jesus’ body in it. Might this man of means have purchased an expensive three hop herringbone linen shroud. It is perfectly plausible.

One sentence Pringle wrote warrants repeating: "No one will be able to draw any definitive conclusions about the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin based on this new study." 

While Gibson’s study is intriguing and informative, it offers no evidence one way or the other about the Shroud of Turin. In fact, it is silly to even suggest any archaeological connection.

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