Mystery in Linen: The Shroud of Turin

That I am able to determine, very few people have never heard of the purported burial cloth of Jesus Christ known as the Shroud of Turin – so-named for the city in Italy in which the controversial relic has been reserved for roughly half a millennium. The image on the cloth is quite literally an icon – in terms of both religion and popular culture – and for those curious enough to delve deeper into the mystery than the physical pages of newspapers and magazines or the virtual pages of internet websites, it remains a tantalizing mystery.

Ever since it surfaced in France in the mid-1300s, the Shroud of Turin has gathered its share of both skeptics and devotees, with each side having its brief day in the sun before the other  returns to make its case. In the late 1970s the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) conducted a week-long examination of the burial cloth that involved every physical and chemical test possible (with the exception of radiocarbon dating). Based on the data gathered, STURP concluded that the image on the cloth consisted of oxidized, conjugated and dehydrated fibrils in the topmost layers of the linen threads. The nature of the image precluded the use of paint, pigment, dye, heat or any other artistic technique that we know was used in the 14th century.

However, in the late 1980s a highly questionable radiocarbon test of a sample taken from the Shroud dated it to the 1300s. While the test results appeared to preclude any possibility of authenticity, it did not answer the question of precisely how the image got there – a question that empirical science cannot yet explain. Does this mean the image was miraculously created when Christ rose from the dead?

Not according to empirical science, which likewise affirms that it can neither demonstrate nor disprove the existence of God or of the supernatural. After examining all of the data accrued on the Turin Shroud to date, a true scientist will tell you that he has no idea how the image was formed.

Lately, the the fickle wheel of fate revolved yet again and these days, researchers are not as keen to dismiss the Shroud as the fruit of the labor of some medieval steppenwolf.

A series of experiments conducted by Italian researchers indicate the Shroud of Turin is likely authentic, but the team has not yet reached a definite conclusion.

Decades of research on Jesus’ proposed burial cloth have revealed an array of conflicting ideas surrounding the shroud’s authenticity. However, researchers from Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development believe their findings undermine previous theories that the shroud was faked in the medieval period, the Telegraph reports. The new claim seems to again be stirring controversy, as many point to previous research to the contrary.

Last year scientists were able to replicate marks on the cloth using highly advanced ultraviolet techniques that weren’t available 2,000 years ago — nor during the medieval times, for that matter.

Research in the 1980s suggests the image was “forged” on the cloth between 1260 and 1390, but scientists have determined the hypothesis was based on testing material from a patch likely used to to repair the cloth after a fire, the BBC reports.

Since the shroud and “all its facets” still cannot be replicated using today’s top-notch technology, researchers suggest it is impossible that the original image could have been created in either period.

I’m not sure I agree with this pronouncement and were I the spokesman for the research team, I would have worded things differently:

Our team succeeded in replicating the Shroud image utilizing ultraviolet light in a technique that would not have been known or available before the 20th century.

While this finding lends weight to the position that the image on the linen cloth was not created artificially, we cannot rule out the possibility that a 14th century artist employed a yet undiscovered technique. Moreover, we have no empirical data at this time that affirms the image is the effect of a supernatural cause.

Keep in mind that if the Shroud linen can unquestionably be radiocarbon dated to the first century, this will not constitute proof of authenticity – although it will certainly lend credibility to the argument. It will make the case for artistry much more difficult insofar as it strains credulity to accept that a sizable piece of nondescript first-century linen cloth could survive perfectly intact for 1,300 years only to be selected as the final canvas for an astonishing man-made icon created in an age that would never know the difference.

On the other hand, if the Shroud linen can be unquestionably radiocarbon dated to the 13th or 14th century we would be compelled by logic to rule out the possibility of authenticity. I suppose that someone, somewhere would argue that the energy and unique radiation of the resurrection somehow affected the quantity of C-14 in the linen, resulting in a date that, mirabile dictu, coincides with the appearance of the Shroud in the historical record. As it happened, that argument surfaced after the results of the 1988 tests were announced – an argument that was as laughably ad hoc then as it is now.

To date, the Vatican refuses to submit the Shroud to any further poking, prodding or cutting – much to the anguish of those who are made restless by the mysterious. For all we know, that may be precisely the destiny that Rome has chosen for this strange and remarkable linen mystery: one is tempted to think they are motivated by divine spite and the imagination flickers with images of aged prelates cackling and wheezing in delight at the frustration of scientists and skeptics denied their one final chance for a conclusive answer.

I suspect their motives are less spiteful than sublime, as if to hint at something Jesus once said: “…an evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.

As for me? Heh…I rather enjoy a good mystery.

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One Response to Mystery in Linen: The Shroud of Turin

  1. Greg Caggiano says:

    I have been fascinated with this since I was little, when I watched a documentary on it. I like to believe it is real, because no one has ever been able to prove that it was made by an artist (some have called it a Medieval photograph). The only person in history who would have been clever enough to fool people with this would have been Da Vinci, who comes after the radiocarbon dating of ~1300. And no one has ever been able to replicate it to a T, because every means of creating it leaves some trace, whether it be paint, oils, elements of some kind, etc.

    I did not read this whole article because I am trying to do five things at once and only scanned it, but radiocarbon dating cannot even be used with accuracy here, because the Shroud was trapped in a church fire during the middle ages, and was actually, and literally, cooked inside the metal vault it laid in (hence the reason for those large brown bars that go up and down the shroud–that was caused when the metal melted onto it). This would affect the dating, because the carbon age would have sped up due to the intense heat.

    We will NEVER know the truth, and the Vatican, I believe, does not want to have it confirmed OR denied. They see it as an object of faith/worship, and that is fine with them, and I guess that is all that really matters.