The Shroud of Turin—Is It the Burial Cloth of Jesus?
Is this the face of Jesus Christ? Millions of persons around the world believe it is. Why?
THIS face is part of the image on a piece of linen cloth called “the most important relic in the history of Christianity”—the Shroud of Turin.
This 14-by-3 1⁄2-foot (4.3-by-1.1-m) cloth is claimed to be the “fine linen” (Mark 15:46) used to wrap the body of Jesus after his death. On it is formed the faint image of a blood-stained body with wounds that are said to correspond to those inflicted on Jesus. The cloth, it is asserted, was laid lengthwise over and under the body so that one sees the front and the back of a man, and this is centered between two dark streaks resulting from fire damage.
World attention was focused on the relic when, after a long-awaited public display, which drew millions of observers, permission was granted a team of scientists to examine the shroud carefully. For five days and nights during October 1978, these 45 scientists, armed with four tons of sophisticated space-age instruments, pored over the relic. In fact, Science News reported:
“Five yards of linen kept on an altar in Turin cathedral are the subject of more precise scientific tests than probably any other religious relic.”
Even before the findings of the scientists were published, newspapers and books hailed the shroud as:
● “A Proof of the Existence of God”
● “The Fifth Gospel Written in Blood”
● “A Literal ‘Snapshot’ of the Resurrection”
● “The Photograph of Christ”
What Christian would not like to know the physical appearance of Jesus? To think that there is, as some claim, tangible proof of the resurrection certainly creates excitement. On the other hand, how would you feel if the shroud proved to be a fraud? How misleading! By drawing such great attention, could it be sidetracking persons, causing them to ignore weightier matters?
Would you not want to know all the facts? Just how should a Christian be affected by this relic?
First, let us examine just why so many scientists are excited about the shroud.
Why Are Some Excited?
The herringbone weave of the cloth was popular in Palestine during the time of Christ, and pollen taken from it was found to be from plants that at one time grew in that land. The preservation of linen from Jesus’ day is nothing extraordinary, for linen cloths dating even before then still exist. What makes this cloth unique is the image on it.
Back in 1898, when the shroud was photographed for the first time, something completely unexpected happened that attracted the attention of scientists. When the pictures were developed, the image was found to be in reality a negative. (In photography a negative is what you see on the developed film where the whites and blacks are reversed.) The faint markings on the shroud appeared to come to life in the negatives. With exceptional detail they showed the full figure of a man.
Marks were observed in the wrist and the foot as if these had been pierced. Also noticed were a large bloodstain on the right chest area and numerous dumbbell-shaped wound marks that resemble the lead balls used on Roman scourges during the time of Christ. Bloodstains were seen on the top of the head, suggesting the use of a crown of thorns.
The greatest puzzle is how the image was formed. Recent tests failed to find any traces of pigment known to have been used during the Middle Ages, when the shroud made its first documented appearance. By the use of powerful microscopes, the image was found to be made up of tiny “yellow-red to orange granules” that sat on top of the weave. Whatever caused the image did not penetrate the cloth. Apparently, according to authority Ian Wilson, “it would seem to have been a ‘dry’ process as from some physical force reacting with the surface fibers of the Shroud threads, the granules thereby being formed, as it were, from the fibers themselves.”
The latest theory, according to physical chemist and shroud authority Ray Rogers, is that the image “was formed by a burst of radiant energy.” Some feel this occurred when Jesus was resurrected. However, are all convinced?
Why Some Have Serious Doubts
A number of serious Bible scholars doubt its authenticity because of the Scriptural record. The Scriptures suggest conditions during Jesus’ burial that were contrary to what is seen on the shroud. For the shroud to be authentic, two conditions must have existed when the image was formed: (1) the body could not have been washed, for the bloodstains are clearly visible, and (2) the linen cloth would have to have been laid loosely over the body, not pressed against it. “The figures [on the shroud] had not been produced by mere contact of the linen with human flesh,” affirms shroud backer Edward Wuenschel. He adds: “Such contact would have caused considerable distortion, and there is little or no distortion in the figures on this shroud.”
The accounts of Jesus’ burial by Matthew (27:59, 60), Mark (15:46) and Luke (23:53) are quite brief. But they all say that the body was “wrapped” in “fine linen.” Was the body so quickly prepared that it was not first washed? Such treatment by Jews would be highly unusual. Why? Contemporary Jewish historian Josephus says that, unlike some of their enemies, “the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men.”
The apostle John, who was an eyewitness, fills in some additional details confirming that “much care” was taken with Jesus’ body before it was buried. He reports:
“He [Joseph of Arimathea] came and took his body away. Nicodemus also . . . came bringing a roll of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds of it. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it up with bandages with the spices, just the way the Jews have the custom of preparing for burial.”—John 19:38-40.
What was the “custom” of the Jews in preparing for burial? Virtually the only contemporary evidence is in the Greek Scriptures. There it shows that the body was first washed and then oils and spices were used to anoint it. (Acts 9:37; Matt. 26:12) The fact that Joseph and Nicodemus made use of the myrrh, aloes and bandages and “bound up” the body indicates that they had at least begun the customary Jewish preparation of the dead.
Ancient Jewish non-Biblical writings also indicate that it was their custom to wash the body and to use spices, but not to preserve or embalm the body as some claim; rather, as the Talmud says, “The spices are to remove the bad smell.” Such preparation of the corpse was not forbidden even on the Sabbath; as the Mishnah (2nd century C.E.) says: “They may make ready [on the Sabbath] all that is needful for the dead, and anoint it and wash it.”—Shabbath 23:5.
That the two men took steps to prepare the body for burial is also indicated by what was found in the empty tomb after Jesus’ resurrection. John tells us:
“He [Peter] viewed the bandages lying, also the cloth that had been upon his head not lying with the bandages but separately rolled up in one place.” (John 20:6, 7)
There is no mention of the “fine linen” (Greek: sindón), but reference is made to “bandages” (Greek: othónia) and a “cloth that had been on his head” (Greek: soudárion). It may be that the “fine linen” was torn up into strips, providing the “bandages.” All of these had to be wrapped around the body. However, if this is true, the bandages would hold the shroud close to the body and cause a “contact print” and not allow the projected image found on the shroud. If the bandages were under the shroud, they would likewise distort the image.
The fact that a separate piece of cloth is mentioned as being “upon his head” shows that a different piece covered his head, whereas the shroud clearly shows the image of the head on the same cloth that covered the body. However, some try to contend that this headcloth is actually the shroud. Yet this Greek word is variously translated as “napkin” (AV) or “handkerchief” (Catholic Confraternity Version), and at Luke 19:20 it is applied to a piece of cloth in which one keeps money. How could this be identified with a 14-foot (4.3-m) shroud! Others feel that this headcloth was a chin strap to hold the mouth of the corpse in place. If so, that would mean the shroud is not mentioned by John as being in the empty tomb. Certainly, since he details the “bandages” and the ‘headcloth,’ would it not seem likely he would have mentioned the “fine linen” or shroud, if it had been there?
The Scriptural account suggests that the body was washed and bound with myrrh and aloes according to the Jewish custom. All was completed except the anointing with oil and spices,* which the women intended to do the following Sunday morning. (Luke 23:55, 56; Mark 16:1) Such preparations would have made impossible the present image on the shroud. Concerning the Bible account, shroud supporter Rodney Hoare admits:
“This section in St. John has for years been the main argument in the attack on the authenticity of the Shroud, and a very powerful argument it is.”—The Testimony of the Shroud, p. 120.
An Unusual Silence of Early Christian Writers
If the graveclothes of Jesus had his image upon them, does it not seem to you it would have been noticed and become a subject for discussion? Yet, beyond what is in the Gospels, there is complete silence in the New Testament about the graveclothes.
Even the professed Christian writers of the third and fourth centuries, many of whom wrote about a host of so-called miracles in connection with numerous relics, do not mention the existence of a shroud containing the image of Jesus. Some claim that the shroud had been hidden during all these years. Still, even after the supposed burial shroud of Jesus had been “discovered,” according to seventh-century writers, there is no mention of an image on it. Shroud advocate P. A. Beecher lists a considerable number of individuals who saw the shroud between the seventh and thirteenth centuries, one who even “kissed it,” and yet not one mentioned the image. This is hard to understand, since 15th- and 16th-century viewers, according to Jesuit scholar Herbert Thurston, “describe the impressions on the shroud as so vivid in detail and colouring that they might have been quite freshly made.”
It was not until 1205 that a French soldier, Robert de Clari, reported seeing “the sindon [shroud] in which our Lord was enveloped . . . stretched upright, so that one could easily see the figure of our Savior.” Concerning this long period of silence, Ian Wilson, a backer of the shroud, asks some very searching questions:
“How could such a fascinating piece of cloth as the Shroud of Turin, if genuine, have gone totally unrecorded over thirteen centuries, suddenly to turn up in fourteenth-century France?
“Could it have been hidden away all the time, due to Jewish and Roman persecution of Christians, followed by the danger to all image-bearing objects during the period of the iconoclastic controversy (725-842)? This was most unlikely.
“There were four hundred years from the conversion of Constantine the Great to the onset of iconoclasm, during which many previously ‘hidden’ relics came to light, including the entire True Cross, the crown of thorns, the nails, the purple cloak, the reed, the stone of the sepulcher, and many others. There was ample opportunity for such an important and unmistakable relic as the Turin Shroud to come to light. Yet there was no record of any such event.”
One cannot but wonder, in view of the significance of this relic, why it took almost 1,200 years before mention was made of the image on it.
Scientific and Historical Problems
Many theories have come and gone as to how the image was formed. Most scientists agree that the latest findings have shown that the whole image was produced from the same cause, perhaps from some process that “scorched” it.
This scientific conclusion presents some problems, for it indicates that the impression on the shroud should be basically one color, simply varying in intensity. Yet 16th-century viewers indicated that it was made up of two different colors. Not only did artistic reproductions of the time show it multicolored, but one observer, Chifflet, said:
“The figure of Turin shows hardly anything but dark crimson stains, . . . the marks of the wounds seem to be painted in over the impression of the body, which is in a thin pale yellow.”
One could wonder if today’s shroud is the same as the one displayed back in the 14th century and labeled a fraud by the then Roman Catholic bishop Henry de Troyes (France) and said to have been “cunningly painted.” Joseph Hanlon, writing in New Scientist, raises an interesting possibility:
“But could there have been a double fake, one in the 14th century and another in the last century? The shroud was widely shown in the 15th and 16th centuries, but not later. Could it be that the first fraud became too obvious? . . . Might the shroud’s owners have done a better job in that time, using modern technology and medical knowledge, including tests such as Barbet’s, and using ancient linen from the middle east? Might a statue have been created solely for this purpose, heated to give an impression on the cloth, and then destroyed? . . . Nevertheless, there have been a number of sophisticated Victorian archaeological frauds, so we cannot ignore this possibility.”
Others have suggested the use of a mixture of myrrh and aloes rubbed over a bas-relief (a picture with three-dimensional features) to produce a similar image. However, Adam Otterbein, president of the Holy Shroud Guild, concluded: “How the image was formed may be a mystery to the end of time. . . . It’s doubtful whether science will ever be able to prove how this was done.”
Does It Affect Your Faith?
Obviously the debate about the shroud will continue for some time. But does this seem to you to be God’s way of verifying the resurrection of his Son? How were persons in the first century convinced? Instead of relying on cloth that once draped a dead man, Jehovah saw to it that over 500 living eyewitnesses testified about the risen Christ. (1 Cor. 15:3-8) In the wake of such evidence, the graveclothes pale into insignificance.
Yet by such publicity could the shroud, even if it were authentic, overshadow this real evidence of the resurrection? Could it sidetrack persons into resting their faith on this piece of cloth? Even shroud scientist John Jackson said:
“But if someone were to base his faith completely on an unusual piece of cloth, that would really be a form of idolatry.”—The Catholic Digest, April 1979.
It is very easy for a person to let his heart become enticed by the intriguing possibilities of the shroud. But will interest in the shroud create genuine faith? Will it help us to keep “walking by faith, not by sight”? (2 Cor. 5:7) What if it is proved to be a fraud? Would you lose your faith in the resurrection or at least develop some doubts? If you are excited by the shroud, just why? Does your faith need a brace such as this? Could it in reality prove to be a weak crutch? These are meaningful questions for every Christian to consider.
Though we live when people thrive on the spectacular, how often such has stolen attention from important matters. For instance, Franco Barbero, a Roman Catholic priest, remarked: “I wonder what would have happened in the Turin Church if all the energy spent and concentrated on this initiative had been concentrated on the preaching of the Word!” (Italics ours)
Yes, the “preaching of the Word,” not the displaying of relics, is what will build genuine faith. It is what will create a sure hope that “does not lead to disappointment.” (Rom. 5:5) This hope assures us that the same One who resurrected Jesus will again act, not by “sending” a piece of cloth to amaze the world, but by using his glorified Son to bring to its end a corrupt world that lacks true faith. At the same time he will deliver into a new order of righteousness persons of genuine faith.—2 Pet. 3:13.
Such anointing would not have necessitated the removal of the graveclothes, for they could have merely poured the sweet-smelling oils over the body. (See Mark 14:3, 8; it shows, while still alive, Jesus was “anointed” for burial, yet the woman merely “poured it [oil] upon his head.”)
[Blurb on page 18]
Why did none of the Bible writers or early “Christian” writers mention a shroud with the image of a man?
[Blurb on page 19]
The Bible account is “a very powerful argument” against its authenticity, says one shroud supporter.