Voice of Reason: The Truth Behind the Shroud of Turin

While science and scholarship have demonstrated that the Shroud of Turin is not the burial cloth of Jesus but instead a fourteenth-century forgery, shroud devotees continue to claim otherwise.

In medieval Europe alone there were more than forty "True Shrouds," although the Turin Cloth uniquely bears the apparent imprints of a man, crucified like Jesus in the gospel narratives. Unfortunately, the alleged "relic" has not fared well in various scientific examinations--except those conducted by Shroud partisans like those of the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), whose leaders served on the executive council of the pro-authenticity Holy Shroud Guild.

The following facts have been established by various distinguished experts and scholars:

The shroud contradicts the Gospel of John, which describes multiple cloths (including a separate "napkin" over the face), as well as "an hundred pound weight" of burial spices--not a trace of which appears on the cloth.

No examples of the shroud linen's complex herringbone twill weave date from the first century, when burial cloths tended to be of plain weave in any case.

The shroud has no known history prior to the mid-fourteenth century, when it turned up in the possession of a man who never explained how he had obtained the most holy relic in Christendom.

The earliest written record of the shroud is a bishop's report to Pope Clement VII, dated 1389, stating that it originated as part of a faith-healing scheme, with "pretended miracles" being staged to defraud credulous pilgrims.

The bishop's report also stated that a predecessor had "discovered the fraud and how the said cloth had been cunningly painted, the truth being attested to by the artist who had painted it" (emphasis added).

Although, as St. Augustine lamented in the fourth-century, Jesus' appearance was completely unknown, the shroud image follows the conventional artistic likeness.

The physique is unnaturally elongated (like figures in Gothic art), and there is a lack of wraparound distortions that would be expected if the cloth had enclosed an actual three-dimensional object like a human body. The hair hangs as for a standing, rather than reclining figure, and the imprint of a bloody foot is incompatible with the outstretched leg to which it belongs.

The alleged blood stains are unnaturally picture-like. Instead of matting the hair, for instance, they run in rivulets on the outside of the locks. Also dried "blood" (as on the arms) has been implausibly transferred to the cloth. The blood remains bright red, unlike genuine blood that blackens with age.

In 1973, internationally known forensic serologists subjected the "blood" to a battery of tests--for chemical properties, species, blood grouping, etc. The substance lacked the properties of blood, instead containing suspicious, reddish granules.

Subsequently, the distinguished microanalyst Walter McCrone identified the "blood" as red ocher and vermilion tempera paint and concluded that the entire image had been painted.

In 1988, the shroud cloth was radiocarbon dated by three different laboratories (at Zurich, Oxford, and the University of Arizona). The results were in close agreement and yield a date range of a.d. 1260-1390, about the time of the reported forger's confession (ca. a.d. 1355).

Those who defend the shroud as authentic offer explanations for each damning piece of evidence, but these often veer toward pseudoscience and pseudohistory. For example, they offer various objections to the radiocarbon date, suggesting that it could have been altered by a fire in 1532, or by microbial contamination, or by imagined medieval repair in the sampled area--even by a burst of radiant energy from the Resurrection! However, none of these claims has merit. Clearly beginning with the desired answer, shroud enthusiasts work backward to the evidence, picking and choosing and rationalizing to fit their belief--a process I call "shroud science."

Some researchers have even claimed to see--Rorschach-like in the shroud's mottled image and off-image areas--a plethora of objects that supposedly help authenticate the cloth. These include "Roman coins" over the eyes, "flowers of Jerusalem," and such crucifixion-associated items (c.f. John, ch. 19) as "a large nail," a "hammer," "sponge on a reed," "Roman thrusting spear," "pliers," and other hilarious imaginings including "Roman dice."

Also reportedly discovered were ancient Latin and Greek words, such as "Jesus" and "Nazareth." Even shroud author Ian Wilson (The Blood and the Shroud, 1998, p. 242) felt compelled to state: "While there can be absolutely no doubting the sincerity of those who make these claims, the great danger of such arguments is that researchers may 'see' merely what their minds trick them into thinking is there."

In contrast, the scientific approach allows the preponderance of objective evidence to lead to a conclusion: the Shroud of Turin is the work of a confessed medieval artisan. The various pieces of the puzzle effectively interlock and corroborate each other. In the words of Catholic historian Ulysse Chevalier, who brought to light the documentary evidence of the Shroud's mid-fourteenth-century origin, "The history of the shroud constitutes a protracted violation of the two virtues so often commended by our holy books, justice and truth."

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. He is author of numerous investigative books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (Prometheus Books, 1983, 1998) and Detecting Forgery (University Press of Kentucky, 1996).