The Shroud of Turin. Do you believe?

The Shroud of Turin is one of those wonderful mysteries that God seems to dangle in front of us as a way to test our faith. The fact that science cannot explain how the image was formed is fascinating.  Of course, just because science is unable to explain something doesn’t mean we should jump to a religious conclusion.  You have to follow the evidence where it leads. There are some that say the Shroud is a fraud, and they point to the Carbon 14 dating completed in 1988 as the definitive proof of that. But, they’re probably not aware of recent evidence that seriously questions the validity of that carbon dating, and which was corroborated by a scientist from the team that originally studied the Shroud.

A shocking photograph

For hundreds of years the shroud was moved from place to place and venerated by the church faithful as the burial cloth of Jesus. Not too many others outside the church took notice.  The fuss began when the first photograph of the 14-foot piece of linen was taken in 1898. The photographer couldn’t believe his eyes. The images on his plates were a negative that showed the clear image of a face. Of course, he was immediately accused of perpetrating a fraud. It wasn’t until 1931 that a second photograph was taken, and to the shock of many, it showed the same thing.

This is the first remarkable piece of evidence that the Shroud is not a fake. No one trying to fake the burial cloth of Jesus would know how to paint a negative image on cloth, let alone have reason to. If they were going to fake it, they would paint a positive image.

© 1997 Barrie M. Schwortz

Forty years later some scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratories took that 1931 photo and used a piece of equipment called a VP-8 to analyze the image. The VP-8 was a relatively new piece of equipment at the time that could analyze the dark and light areas of a subject, plot them on a grid, and create a 3-dimensional image. It was used to create topographical images for medical research, satellite relief maps, etc. The thing is, it doesn’t render an accurate proportional view from a photo because the light and dark areas in a photograph don’t accurately represent the distance of the features from the film (nose, eye sockets, cheek bones, etc.). So, every photo you analyze with the VP-8 comes out very distorted, and almost unrecognizable.  But, that didn’t happen when a picture of the Shroud was analyzed. It showed a face with proportionate features as you would expect to see if scanning an actual object. This further proved that the image on the shroud was not a painting or drawing. The image had to be created while the cloth was laying on the subject for the proportions of the face to be represented accurately. In a recent documentary, Pete Schumacher, the field engineer for the team that created the VP-8 said:

“It’s a very unique image. The only one of its kind in the world. Nothing else like it. 3-dimensional relief. The front and back of a whole human being. No other. No where. No how. No way. I don’t know any way to make it. I’ve never heard of a way to make it. Just the Shroud of Turin.”

Back then, the scientists at Los Alamos were just as intrigued, to say the least. They formed a research team called the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), and in 1978 were granted access for five days to study the Shroud. During that time they performed thousands of tests day and night, and when they were done, they had more questions than answers. They were still unable to determine how the image got on the cloth. It was clear from their examination that the image on the shroud contained no pigments, no dyes, no bonding agents. It could not have been painted or drawn on the cloth. Plus, they confirmed that the stains on the Shroud were blood stains, and there were hidden serum stains (the liquid component of blood) that were only visible using UV Fluorescence Photography.

Did Carbon 14 dating settle the question?

All living things have the same amount of Carbon 14 when they’re alive. When they die, the Carbon 14 decays at a known rate, so by using equipment that can count the number of Carbon 14 atoms, you can get a fairly accurate estimate of the age of something. In 1988, Pope John Paul II agreed to let scientists do Carbon 14 dating on the shroud.  This was controversial. It was not that the church was afraid of the outcome–they actually wanted to know the answer to settle the question. But, Carbon 14 dating requires that the sample be destroyed. So, a decision was made to select a piece of the cloth near the edge of the shroud that already showed signs of being severely damaged.  That sample was divided into four pieces and sent to three different labs.

Based on the results from the four tests, the date of the Shroud came back as 1260 – 1390.  Headlines around the world immediately proclaimed that the Shroud was a medieval fraud. Certainly, this settled the question once and for all, right? It had to be from that time period. But, what about the image? If this was not the burial cloth of Jesus, then must it be a fraud? If not a fraud, then what was it?

The faithful knew this could not be a fake. Part of that was simple faith, but part was based on common sense. It might be some accidental image from an actual burial cloth, but it could not be a fraud. It was too good.   Science had proven the image was not painted or drawn. What we had was a proportional, negative image. Photography hadn’t been invented yet.  Plus, even if someone had the ability to create such an incredible hoax, why would they go to such great lengths to create an image that would not be understood or appreciated for hundreds of years? How would they know that a negative image would be so puzzling over six hundred years later?

In addition to the fact that we still can’t explain how the image got on the cloth, there are other reasons to believe that the Shroud is the actual burial cloth of Jesus.  The wounds were clearly consistent with that of a man who was crucified, and that includes wounds around the head where the crown of thorns would have been placed on Jesus. The blood-flow and where it collected is what you would expect. Even the thumbs on the image were folded under the hand as would happen if a nail had been driven through the hand or wrist. The only answer for me and others was that the Carbon 14 dating was wrong somehow.

God has a good laugh

After the carbon dating results were released, there were many theories that came out about why it might be wrong. There were a couple of amateur sleuths that did some research of their own based on photos from the STURP team. They noticed that the weave in the area where the sample was taken from was different than the rest of the cloth.  They did some research into a practice known as French Reweaving, where damaged garments were repaired with special needles, literally one fiber at a time.  On larger areas, a patch of newer material would be cut and the individual fibers from the new material would be woven into the fibers of the older material, and dyed to match the color of the original fabric.  They also noticed that based on the altered weave in the sample used for the carbon dating, you would expect the results in the carbon dating. On the areas where there it looked like there was more modern material, the dating was later.  In the sample that had the least amount of modern material, the dating was earlier. They estimated that if the material had all been the linen that made up the original shroud, that it would have been dated closer to 2,000 years old. They wrote a paper on the subject.

One scientist, Raymond Rogers, who was Director of Chemical Research on the original STURP team called folks like this the lunatic fringe, and he was known to get quite irritated. He happened to have some samples that were taken from the corner immediately adjacent to the area that was cut for the Carbon dating. He decided this would give him the opportunity to debunk this latest fantasy. He checked his sample, and was stunned to find cotton fibers interwoven with the linen. He was able to get some samples that were saved from material that was used for the actual radio carbon dating and he also found cotton. Some fibers he sent off for independent verification also showed that they were separate pieces held together by a mordant (a gum-like substance used to set dyes). Of course, all of the testing the STURP team did on the area of the Shroud with the image showed no evidence of dyes. Also, one of Roger’s colleagues looked back at the UV Fluorescence images of the small area where the Carbon 14 sample was cut from, and it was obviously different from the rest of the cloth. He said it was clear that the carbon samples were cut from the worst possible area.

Shortly before he died, Rogers published a paper in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, Thermochimica Acta. He believed that the carbon dating was correct, but only for the damaged section of the Shroud, and that the results told us nothing about the main body of the shroud where the image is. Rogers did not believe in miracles, but did change his mind on the possible authenticity of the Shroud. He was quoted as saying about the Shroud: “I’m coming to the conclusion that it has a very good chance of being the piece of cloth that was used to bury the historic Jesus.”

What about you?

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2 Responses to “The Shroud of Turin. Do you believe?”

  • Comment from Laura Droege

    Wow, this is really interesting. Honestly, I didn’t know very much about the Shroud of Turin before reading this, so I don’t know what I think about its authenticity. But it’s definitely worth thinking about.

    • Comment from Rick Yuzzi

      It’s a wonderful mystery. I hope they’ll take the step of trying the carbon dating again, this time on a piece of the original material. There is concern that chemicals in the box they are keeping the Shroud in to protect it will make the carbon dating no longer be valid, but Raymond Rogers (mentioned in the post) pointed out that the dating could be done on a portion of the material that was charred in a church fire, and that would still produce an accurate result because it is already converted to carbon.