imageAcilius, in the Red Panther blog, wonders, Does the Shroud of Turin disprove the Gospels?

In April, I noticed a post on Rod Dreher‘s blog about the Shroud of Turin.  Mr Dreher had been impressed by a book, Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery: Six Holy Objects That Tell the Remarkable Story of the Gospels, by David Gibson and Michael McKinley, a companion volume to the CNN series of the same awkwardly punctuated name.  The other day, I saw that the Reverend Mr Dwight Longenecker, a former Anglican priest turned Roman Catholic, had also posted about the shroud, quoting at length from an article at National Geographic in which the shroud’s puzzling nature is explored.

Quoting Longenecker, Acilius writes:

De Lazzaro explained that the ultraviolet light necessary to reproduce the image of the crucified man “exceeds the maximum power released by all ultraviolet light sources available today.” The time for such a burst would be shorter than one forty-billionth of a second, and the intensity of the ultra violet light would have to be around several billion watts.”

The scientists shrug and say the only explanation lies beyond the realm of twenty-first century technoscience. In other words, the extraordinary burst of ultra violet light is not only beyond the ability and technology of a medieval forger. It is beyond the ability and technology of the best twenty-first century scientists.

He goes on:

What could explain all of this?  If no known technological process could have produced the image on the shroud, and the only unknown technological processes that could have produced it would be the result either of the greatest design fluke in history or of contact with visitors from outer space, perhaps we should discard the forgery hypothesis and turn next to a search for a natural process that could have produced the image.  There may in fact be such a process.  Lightning is an extremely energetic and poorly understood phenomenon; it was only in 2009 that it was discovered that lightning often produces significant amounts of antimatter in the upper atmosphere.  No one had expected to find this, and no one can explain it.  Bursts of ultraviolet radiation is a lot less exotic than appearances of antimatter, and so would be significantly less surprising as phenomena associated with lightning.

So, perhaps at some point in the middle decades of the first century CE in or near the city of Jerusalem the body of a man who had been scourged, jabbed in the side with a spear, mounted on a cross, fastened to that cross with nails through his wrists and feet, and subjected to a group of small puncture wounds on the forehead was wrapped in the shroud that has been on display in Turin for the last several centuries.  Before that man’s body was buried or entombed, it was struck by lightning, producing a burst of ultraviolet rays that created the image on the shroud.  This event, occurring in an urban area and centering on the body of a man whose gruesome death a crowd would have witnessed at most a few hours before, would certainly have been very much discussed.  One must suppose that people would try to find religious significance in it, and that in the course of those discussions many people would claim, whether truthfully or not, to have been associated with the man during his lifetime.

Perhaps the whole story of Jesus, as it has come down to us, grew from the reactions to this event.  Or perhaps the story of Jesus as we have it represents the conflation of several stories.  It is difficult to imagine that the man whose image is preserved in the shroud is not the man whose crucifixion is described in the Gospels, but not so difficult to imagine that stories about another man, who was also crucified in Jerusalem around the same time and who was well-known locally before his crucifixion as the leader of a new religious movement, would be combined with the story of the man whose crucifixion was followed by the spectacular event of a lightning bolt and the transformation of his burial cloth into the object we now see in Turin.


Nowhere in the New Testament does it say that Jesus’ body was struck by lightning after it was removed from the cross.  If the image on the shroud turns out to have been created by lightning, the evidence connecting it with first-century Jerusalem, the fact that its appearance in first-century Jerusalem would certainly have caused great excitement there, and the similarity of the wounds the man had to the wounds the Gospels attribute to Jesus makes that silence a tremendous obstacle to accepting the historicity of the Gospels, I would say a far bigger obstacle than any of the gaps or discrepancies of detail that New Testament scholars have yet uncovered.

All the other problems fade pretty quickly once you start thinking of the Gospels as what they originally were, a collection of liturgical resources more akin to a hymnal than to a biographical study.  The Gospels are series of pericopes, distinct passages designed to be read aloud or recited at particular moments in worship services.  So, for Christians, there seems to be a great deal at stake in the question of what precisely the Shroud of Turin is.  If the recent studies of it are all wrong, if the researchers have been led astray by their religious biases and it is after all a forgery from the Middle Ages, then the crisis is averted.  If the studies hold up, and if the image does prove to be the result of a lightning strike, do Christians have a way out?

A bit of speculation too far, I think. But it is thinking, and thinking is a good thing.