When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, British mountaineer George Mallory famously replied, “Because it’s there.” I like to think that something of that same spirit led me to spend 23 years studying the mystery of the Shroud. I certainly lack Mallory’s intrepidity — I only mean the part about the mountain being there. Now, after 4,100 blog posts, several conferences, and endless discussions, I find myself back where I started 23 years ago: skeptical but mystified — with a dash of hope the Shroud might be real. When I started learning about the Shroud, I had quickly become convinced that it was authentic. And I was enthusiastic. But then, little by little, I became discouraged with the quality of the scientific evidence. I now realize there is no good evidence that the Shroud is authentic. Then again, there is nothing indisputable that says it’s not. And that is why I am where I am today: mystified.
I would like to comment briefly on a few key topics, particularly hyperbole and reality. First . . .
Conducted in 1988, C14 test results strongly suggest that the Shroud is medieval. Controversies about sampling protocols, proper statistical analysis, suggestions that the cloth was mended, and even suggestions that the resurrection of Jesus released radiation that produced more carbon-14 isotopes, may never be settled. But nothing so far suggested has appealed to serious scientists who are not themselves Shroud enthusiasts. On that basis alone, I could easily accept the results were it not for a few historical clues that challenge the C14 test results. See Is Proof Possible?
At one time, I believed that there were sufficient identifiable pollen grains to argue that the Shroud had at one time been in the Jerusalem area. It turns out that there aren’t. Recent DNA analyses have revealed that the pollen found on the Shroud is not consistent with a Middle Eastern origin. The study’s authors concluded that the pollen is most likely from Europe, and that the Shroud may have been contaminated beyond usefulness with pollen from the Americas and China. You would be hard-pressed to find a more respected open-access, peer-reviewed journal than Scientific Reports, a sister publication to Nature, in which to read about the study. See Uncovering the sources of DNA found on the Turin Shroud.
Three Dimensional Image
The summary of STURP’s 1981 conclusions was wrong the day it was written. It reads, in part: “The computer image enhancement and analysis conducted by a device known as a VP-8 image analyzer reveal that the image contains unique, three-dimensional information encoded within it.” What is true is this; the image’s own relative brightness, but not anything encoded within it, can be plotted into a three-dimensional image that appears to have depth and volume. The VP-8 as well as many off-the-shelf graphics software programs are capable of doing this. That is interesting but not unique or particularly important. It is possible the image’s brightness represents real three-dimensional information, but there is no way to know for sure. The oft-stated assertion that the “image actually eliminates photography and painting as the possible mechanism” is simply not true. See The Evidence.
We don’t know how the image was formed. We don’t even know the chemical nature of the image. Among very competent scientists, some believe the various shades of brown color of the image is within the cloth, meaning the chemistry of the fiber was altered. Others think it is on the outside of the fibers. Scorched fibers versus painted fibers are examples of this — though scorching and painting have been pretty much ruled out. Pretty much? Or completely? Experts differ. Much work needs to be done. See The Evidence.
In recent years, certain researchers have put forth the idea that the images were potentially created through radiation. However, notions such as this, alongside explanations for the inaccuracy of carbon-14 dating, have not gained substantial traction among reputable scientists outside of the close-knit community of Shroud enthusiasts. See Images Still a Mystery, Radiation Is Not the Answer.
Exaggerations and hyperbole have plagued Shroud research since 1963 when John Walsh famously wrote this highly quotable summation to his 1963 book, “The Shroud”:
The Shroud of Turin is either the most awesome and instructive relic of Jesus Christ in existence or it is one of the most ingenious, most unbelievably clever products of the human mind and hand on record. It is one or the other; there is no middle ground.Walsh, John. The Shroud. c. 1963 (republished 2012)
We loved it, and those of us who wanted the Shroud to be authentic, repeated it over and over. It is an overstatement. And, of course, there is a middle ground if you just stop to consider the loaded adjectives.
Others, without any basis for doing so, have since proclaimed the Shroud of Turin to be 1) the most studied artifact in history, 2) a fifth gospel, 3) a witness to the Resurrection or even 4) the Holy Grail. Now one group, with an admirable evangelical zeal, has gone so far as to lay claim to what may be the epitome of hyperbolic false dichotomies:
The Shroud of Turin is either the greatest hoax ever perpetrated or it is a deliberate and purposeful sign from God.Sign from God (Accessed August 5, 2023)
That’s also a non sequitur, comparable to the illogical connections employed by Screwtape to bewilder Wormwood in C. S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters.” Perceptive readers won’t be swayed. Discerning debaters steer clear of such pitfalls, just as skilled trial lawyers understand the perils of leaving juries to contemplate non sequiturs and misleading either-or scenarios. This approach conveys two distinct messages: 1) The evidence lacks strength, and 2) alternative theories undoubtedly warrant consideration.
That “Sign from God” ponderance opens a Pandora’s Box of possibilities. None of them are hoaxes.
- In his book “The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Birth of Christianity,” Thomas de Wesselow proposes the notion that the disciples of Jesus inferred the Resurrection and subsequently initiated the origins of Christianity from an unintentionally created, naturally occurring image.
- In 2001, Shroud scholar Father Kim Dreisbach, in his work “Thomas and the Cenacle Reconsidered,” presented a perspective akin to this amid the ongoing discussions regarding the interplay between the physical and spiritual aspects of the post-resurrection appearances, without dismissing the Resurrection itself.
- In 2016, Michael Tite, who played a pivotal role in overseeing the 1988 carbon-14 dating process on behalf of the British Museum, put forth the idea that the Shroud’s image could have naturally emerged as a result of the medieval killing and public disgrace of a Christian crusader.
- In a November 2014 article featured in History Today, British art historian Charles Freeman advanced the idea that the Shroud might have functioned as a prop employed in an Easter ritual known as the ‘Quem Quaeritis?’
- Another suggestion put forth is that the Turin Shroud could have served as a covering for Jesus while he lay at the base of the cross or was transported to his tomb, and that an image naturally formed due to the intense sunlight. This cloth might not have been interred with Jesus.
The list of non-hoax possibilities goes on and on. And that’s healthy so long as we are trying to find a solution to a mystery and we are not inventing conspiracy theories.
Could the Shroud be a medieval hoax and also a sign from God? Why not? Could it be neither? That, too.
What is a sign from God? How do we come to think so. Mount Everest, known as “Sagarmatha” in Nepali and “Chomolungma” in Tibetan, is considered a sacred sign from the divine in some Hindu and Buddhist cultures. Constantine saw a cross in the sky with the words “In hoc signo vinces,” which he interpreted this as a sign from God that he should convert to Christianity. Joan of Arc heard voices telling her to save France. In today’s culture, those words have almost become a trivial idiom for the consequence of good luck like finding your car keys. For me the Shroud of Turin is a sign from God to pay attention to what Jesus said:
Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.'”
John 10:25 (NRSV)
. . . not the Shroud as proof.
George Mallory and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine disappeared on the mountain in 1924, and it is not known if they ever reached Everest’s summit. In 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa from Nepal, were the first climbers to make it to the top and prove it. Mallory’s body was finally discovered in 1999, but his camera was not found. If it is ever found intact, frozen, and thus possibly preserved, the film might provide the evidence needed to support what many claim: that Mallory was the first person to make it to the top. Otherwise, it may remain a mystery forever.
Without good evidence, the Shroud of Turin may also remain a mystery forever.
I’d like to know the truth about the Shroud. Actually, I hope it turns out to be Christ’s burial shroud. But if it’s not real, it doesn’t matter. My belief in Christ and in his resurrection is based on faith, not proof. It has been that way for most Christians everywhere for 2000 years.
Some say we can use the Shroud to prove the Resurrection. At best, we might be able to prove that a man with wounds that are consistent with the scriptural narrative was wrapped in the Shroud and that same man, later, came to be not wrapped in it. That does not rule out a gruesome medieval creation (not necessarily a hoax) such as the one proposed by Michael Tite or John Dominic Crossan, an Irish-American scholar, famous for his engaging New Testament lectures at DePaul University (Catholic), who upon reviewing the evidence wrote:
My best understanding is that the Shroud of Turin is a medieval relic forgery. I wonder whether it was done from a crucified dead body or from a crucified living body. That is the rather horrible question once you accept it as a forgery.
If we could prove that the cloth was placed in the tomb, we might deduce that the tomb was opened enabling it to be retrieved. We cannot really prove that the body of Jesus was not still there. We think it was not there because we are conditioned to think so by the Easter story of the Resurrection. There is nothing wrong with that, but it’s not proof.
And we must remember that the Resurrection is much more than the disappearance of Jesus’ body. It is about victory over death. “He is risen,” we proclaim. The Christ shows himself to us in startling ways, according to the Gospel accounts. None of that can be proven by the Shroud.
At the risk of repeating myself, let me say that though I am not Catholic I put great stock in the Catechism of the Catholic Church when it says of the Resurrection, “No one can say how it came about physically. Still less was its innermost essence, his passing over to another life, perceptible to the senses.”
For the time being, until more substantial scientific and historical evidence emerges, it would be wiser to call it a mystery. And we should refrain from attempting to substitute faith with proof.
As for me, after 23 years of study, I am very, very skeptical but mystified — with a dash of hope that it’s real.