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Shrouded in mystery

Justin Brierley investigates why new evidence that the cloth is a genuine relic of the resurrection is capturing the interest of evangelicals and Catholics alike.

The long strip of linen cloth known as the Turin Shroud, which bears the faint image of a crucified and beaten man, has been an enigma and an object of reverence for centuries. For many Christians it constitutes nothing less than the burial cloth that covered Jesus in the garden tomb of Jerusalem. Others view it as a medieval hoax that continues to fool gullible people today.

The history of the shroud could almost come from the pages of a Dan Brown novel. The first mention of the shroud appears in the 1300s. In 1532, it was almost destroyed when an arsonist tried to burn down the chapel in Chambery, France, where it was being kept. The material acquired its black marks and diamond-shaped holes when molten silver from the box that housed the folded cloth was dropped onto it before the fire was extinguished.

The cloth takes its name from the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, where it has been housed for more than 300 years. It first came to truly global attention in 1898, when photographer Secondo Pia produced a negative black and white image of it, and suddenly the shape and features of the crucified man on the cloth leapt out for the whole world to see. Pilgrims started flocking to see the unusual artifact.

Since then, the four-by-one-metre piece of cloth has become the most scientifically tested object in history. Shroud research even has its own name, sindonology (from ‘sindon’, the Greek word in Mark’s Gospel used to describe Christ’s burial cloth). However, only in recent years have scientists and researchers started to understand the true nature of the faint image.

SEARCHING FOR TRUTH

As a journalist and apologist I have long been interested in pursuing evidence for the truth of Christianity. However, I had always considered the shroud to be a rather esoteric object, probably of interest only to superstitious devotees. In any case, hadn’t the whole thing been disproved in the 1980s as a medieval forgery?

It was only when I met Brian Miller, an American physicist turned evangelist, that I discovered there was more to the story of the shroud than I had realised. Far from being an item of interest only to Catholics and conspiracy theorists, he told me of a growing number of Protestant Christian scholars who take the credentials of the ancient cloth seriously.

Miller’s own faith was shaken while studying science at university and being challenged by the atheist agenda in the books he was reading. Learning about the shroud was part of his journey back to belief.

IF THE TURIN SHROUD IS THE PHYSICAL EVIDENCE OF THE RESURRECTION IT IS THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY OBJECT THE WORLD HAS EVER KNOWN

‘I remember praying and saying: “God, if Christianity is true, you have to show me.” That put me on a long journey and the shroud was near the end of that journey.’

Miller now regularly presents seminars on the evidence for the shroud being the burial cloth of Christ, and he believes it also provides evidence of Christ rising: ‘I realised, as a physicist, that this is really like a videotape of the resurrection.’

DEFYING EXPLANATION

But what does a videotape of the resurrection look like?

Those who say the shroud is a medieval forgery give a variety of explanations for the image on the cloth. It could have been produced by paint that simply faded over time to leave the sepia-like image. Or perhaps it was created by some inventive use of sunlight or chemicals. Or maybe it is the imprint left by a decomposing body.

Yet the nature of the image on the shroud seems to defy such explanations. The actual print on the surface of the material is only a few microns thick. Paint would have penetrated the cloth and left residues of pigment, according to Miller. Likewise, chemicals or bodily fluids could never have produced the clarity of the image. Instead, the image appears to be burned onto the surface of the material itself by a sudden burst of powerful radiation.

Dr Alan Whanger, a retired professor at Duke University, North Carolina, has spent decades researching the shroud. His interest developed in the late 70s when the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) had a professional team photograph and analyse the relic in detail for the first time. Whanger built on their findings by examining high-resolution photographs that uncovered new details of the image, as well as using 3D imaging techniques.

‘[It] is a complex image. It’s both a surface image, but also an image formed by radiation,’ says Whanger. ‘There’s surface radiation and then there’s something like X-radiation coming from within the body so that we can actually see part of the skeletal system on the shroud: the bones of the face, 24 teeth routes. We can see part of the bones in the hands and some in the feet.’

Whanger contends that no modern attempts to reproduce the image on the shroud, using the techniques available to medieval forgers, have ever been able to reproduce the complex nature of the image.

A RELIC OF THE RESURRECTION?

Miller, along with many others who are convinced of the shroud’s authenticity (‘shroudies’ as they are sometimes known), believe that the clarity and three-dimensional nature of the image show that it was caused by a strong burst of radiation from the body lying beneath the cloth. The implication? The image was produced by the resurrection of Jesus.

He admits that such an explanation sounds ludicrous to many scientists. But in the absence of other plausible explanations, a resurrection event seems to fit.

‘X-rays from the body left the body vertically columnated – which means in straight lines, not diffused like from a light bulb – and burned that image on the cloth. We can’t explain that; we can’t reproduce resurrections too easily today. The best similar explanation is that the atoms in the body actually came apart, releasing the radiation, which put an image on the shroud.’

DETECTIVE WORK

Whanger’s research demonstrates how, when the lighter and darker parts of the image are processed with 3D technology, an eerily realistic human face emerges. Could a medieval forger have had the foresight to create such an effect?

But the body and face were only the start. Whanger’s analysis of high-resolution photographs of the shroud has revealed what appear to be other objects, such as burial instruments around the body. Although indistinguishable to the naked eye, this area also yields the images of various flowers and the outline of a coin over one of the eye sockets of the skull. Back then, coins were used to keep the eyelids of those who had died in a state of shock closed.

Whanger says that the images of the flowers have been certified as species native to Jerusalem that blossom between March and April. Meanwhile, the coin bears marked similarities to a type of penny that was struck in AD 29 and circulated in Israel.

Not all shroud experts agree that the images Whanger has identified are as clear as he claims. However, for Whanger, these extraordinary finds were like pieces of a puzzle fitting into place, giving the cloth a location and a time stamp rooted firmly in first-century Jerusalem during the lifetime of Christ.

CROSS-EXAMINATION

Of course, multiple objections have been raised against the shroud over the years. The most prominent is that radiocarbon dating tests on the relic, permitted by the Catholic Church in 1988, returned the conclusion that the cloth was indeed of medieval origin. The story went around the world, settling the case once and for all in the minds of many.

THIS IS LIKE A VIDEOTAPE OF THE RESURRECTION

But Whanger and his team soon became convinced that the tests were flawed. They claim that the material tested was taken from a portion of the cloth that had been repaired by the nuns of Chambery Chapel after the fire of 1532, so the contaminated sample gives a false reading for the date of the shroud. Whanger says that the bungled testing seems highly irregular and suspicious. No further dating tests have been carried out or commissioned.

The debate surrounding the shroud’s history continues to exert a fascination on the public and new theories emerge year on year. In 2013, Italian scientists theorised that the image could have been produced by radiation caused by an earthquake in 33BC. Last year, historian Charles Freeman proposed that the cloth was created for medieval Easter rituals and that an early depiction shows that it looked different in the past.

Miller contends that none of these theories account for the elements of the image that continue to defy naturalistic explanations: that the image is singed only on the surface of the cloth, and that its three-dimensional nature and the prints of the flowers and coin that Whanger believes are present remain unexplained.

EVANGELICAL SHROUDIES

Theologians and apologists of many backgrounds, both Catholic and evangelical, are taking up the cause of the shroud. For instance, Dr Gary Habermas, an evangelical US theologian who is known for his academic work on the biblical evidence for the resurrection also regularly gives presentations on the shroud as supplementary evidence.

Richard Steel, an evangelical church pastor in Stratford-upon-Avon, believes the shroud stands above Protestant concerns about the veneration of relics in the Catholic tradition, saying: ‘If it is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, it’s one of the most important relics that the Christian Church has.’

As well as using traditional apologetic approaches in his recent book The Evidence for Jesus (Berforts Information Press), Steel uses the shroud as contemporary evidence for the resurrection of Christ.

‘At the moment of resurrection, Jesus’ body changed into his glorified body’, Steel says. ‘It left that indelible imprint of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection all in that moment.’

Father Fergal O’Duill, a Catholic priest of the Legionaries of Christ, regularly speaks to sceptical young people about the evidence for the shroud. He says it remains a remarkable object, representing the convergence of science and faith.

‘There’s this artificial idea that there’s conflict between faith and reason,’ he says. ‘The shroud is a meeting point for that. It’s harmonious and seems to unite people of faith and of science and different disciplines, who are saying this points to the truth of the incarnation, the passion and the resurrection.’

BELIEVERS AND SCEPTICS

If the Turin Shroud is physical evidence of the resurrection of Christ, it is the most extraordinary object the world has ever known. Tantalisingly, like many of the other evidences for Christianity, the lines of evidence that converge on the cloth allow many believers to be fully satisfied that it is authentic, while leaving enough doubt for sceptics to reject it.

‘A true believer needs no evidence; a true sceptic will accept no evidence,’ says Whanger. ‘But there are a lot of people in between who want some evidence to clarify their thinking and their belief.’

And as for me? Part of me would really like to believe it is the burial cloth of Christ, and I’ve been impressed by what I have heard. Who wouldn’t want a videotape of the resurrection?

As it stands, my faith in the resurrection wasn’t dependent on the shroud before I met Miller, and it still isn’t today. For now, I remain a believer in the resurrected Christ and agnostic about the shroud, though with a newfound admiration for the mysterious and strangely compelling image it bears.

You can hear Justin Brierley’s radio feature and a debate on the Turin Shroud on Premier Christian Radio, Saturday 4th April from 2pm.
The shroud is on display in Turin, Italy, from 19th April to 24th June

Converts of the shroud

As some evangelists are increasingly using evidence for the shroud as part of their case for Christianity, it has become an important part of the journey towards conversion for many people.

Sara Watson, a Canadian nurse, grew up in an atheist family but became a Christian at university after hearing a talk on the resurrection and the authenticity of the Turin Shroud.

‘There were a lot of things that tipped me over, but this was one of them,’ she recalls. ‘It blew my mind. For 20 years I’d believed that science and God were completely different, then in one moment to see them both together was kind of a shock.

‘I knew that I really had to look more into who this God person was. One of my friends gave me a Bible and I just started reading. I went from the picture of Christ in the shroud and all of the evidence to meeting Christ and having this one-on-one relationship with him. It’s been amazing.'

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