What is the Shroud and Why Should We Study It?

On the face of it, the Shroud of Turin is an unlikely object for serious scientific study or religious edification. The Shroud is an old linen cloth thought by many Christians to be the burial shroud that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus draped around the body of Jesus before they laid Him in the tomb. This seems hardly possible. Furthermore, the cloth is imprinted with an image. To the naked eye, the details of this image are hard to discern. It is ghostly, dim, and it fades into a hazy blur as the viewer approaches the cloth. How plausible is the claim that this is a highly detailed image of Jesus Himself as He lay in the tomb?

Yet the Shroud of Turin will not be consigned to the category of colorful but bogus relics such as the crown of thorns, the crucifixion nails, and the rod of Moses. Some medieval bishops were sure that the Shroud was a painting, but a painting is one thing that scientists of the twentieth century who have studied the Shroud are sure that it is not.

The irony of the situation is that the mystery of the Shroud has deepened as scientists have inspected it with ever-more sophisticated instruments. In 1898, when the Shroud was first photographed, the image was found to be a negativeÑits light and dark values were reversed when it was "printed" on a piece of photographic film. This "print" was far more detailed and life-like than the original. Then in the mid-1970s, microscopic examination of the cloth failed to turn up any sign of pigment, dye, ink, powder, or any other substance that an artist could have used to paint the image. Also in the mid-1970s, an image analyzer connected to a computer found that the Shroud image contains three-dimensional information, a wholly astounding and unexpected discovery, and one which still has no convincing explanation.

Millions of Christians became intensely interested in the Shroud when the photographs of the negative image were published in books, magazines, and newspapers throughout the world. These photos revealed a crucified body in extraordinary detail. Believers and unbelievers alike could count the scourge wounds, observe a bloody wound in the manÕs side, see his pierced wrists and feet, and note the signs of a beating in the face. The man of the Shroud, it seemed, suffered and died very much the way the Gospels say Jesus of Nazareth suffered and died.

Thus began the phenomenon of the Shroud. It is very much a twentieth-century phenomenon in need of more study as we begin the twenty-first century. The Shroud of Turin was an unexceptional relic until people began to examine it with modern scientific instruments. The result of the many scientific tests has been a remarkable possibility: the more we learn about the Shroud, the more likely it seems that the cloth is what it appears to beÑthe burial garment of Jesus Christ.

The phenomenon of the Shroud consists largely of intense reactions to the possibility that it is genuine. If archeologists digging in a ruin somewhere in the Mediterranean world had unearthed a cloth imprinted with a mysterious image of some unknown person, the discovery would probably be greeted with a moderate amount of excitement and curiosity. But the Shroud of Turin is said to bear an image of Jesus Christ. Thus peopleÕs opinion of the Shroud often reflects what they think about Jesus, rather than calm reflection on the possibility that an object with religious value may have survived since the first century a.d. We should take a closer look at some of these reactions.

A common response to the Shroud is instant disbelief: it canÕt be genuine. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Yves Delage, an eminent professor of anatomy and a well-known agnostic, read a paper to his colleagues in the French Academy in which he concluded that the man of the Shroud was Jesus Christ. He was greeted with derision and outrage. Every scientist who has seriously studied the Shroud has met with some version of this response. Instinctive disbelief is a common reaction.

The disbelieving viewÑthe assumption that the Shroud cannot possibly be genuineÑhas its source in something other than scientific reasoning. It is hard to believe that the actual burial garment of Jesus Christ, imprinted with a detailed image of his body, possibly reposes today in a cathedral chapel in Turin, Italy. Yet archeological artifacts, including burial clothes, survive from times earlier than the first century a.d. and there are things in the universe more curious than a mysterious image on a linen cloth. The likely reason for instant disbelief is that the Shroud may have something to do with Jesus Christ, along with the suggestion, seldom entirely absent in a discussion of the Shroud, that something miraculous is involved in its preservation and its image. In short, the Shroud seems to offend something in the modern temperament. It touches a nerve. Yet, mere disbelief does not deal realistically with the question of the ShroudÕs possible authenticity.

Some peopleÕs response is one of hostility. Madalyn Murray OÕHair, the noted American atheist, labeled the Shroud a fraud in a speech at Easter 1981. (Her speech was an attack on Jesus Christ and the church.) People who become hostile about the Shroud are often hostile to Christianity and to the man who is at the center of the Christian faith. Some single out the Shroud as an object of their emotional unbelief. The atheistsÕ unbelief mimics Christian faith, just as organized atheism mimics organized religion.

Many Christians view the Shroud with suspicion and are wary to talk about its possible significance. Many of these people are ProtestantsÑboth conservative and liberalÑbut others are Catholics. Their complaint is that the Shroud distracts Christians from more important elements in the Christian lifeÑthe Bible, fervent faith in God, and service to others. These Christians have a point. Relics have not always strengthened Christian faith. Relics have distracted Christians from more important things, and they have been abused. However, the remedy is not to dispense with all relics, but to investigate their authenticity. The Shroud of Turin, if authentic, can build faith. It could possibly reveal details of JesusÕ crucifixion and deathÑand Atonement, the sacrificial act that Christians believe brought about manÕs salvation.

At the other extreme are Christians who revere the Shroud. For a few, it is more important than the Bible, correct doctrine, loving service, or any other aspect of Christian life. These Christians, like those who are suspicious of the Shroud, need to take a more balanced approach. The intensity of many of these reactions is in a sense understandable. The Shroud may be important. The stakes are high. The fact that the Shroud relates to Jesus Christ elicits emotional responses, but also makes it imperative that we not reach conclusions swiftly or lightly. Any conclusion that the Shroud is genuine must be based on a convincing body of facts. Caution is also in order if it seems likely that the Shroud is authentic. If the Shroud really is the burial garment of Jesus, we must carefully consider how to fit it into the scheme of our Christian faith and life.

Yet these real scientific and pastoral problems do not fully explain the phenomenon of the Shroud. It also has spiritual roots. The claim about the Shroud involves Jesus Christ, and His claims on us are great as well. The Shroud seems to suggest that He died the way the Scriptures say He did. If so, he may have risen from the dead the way the Scriptures say He did.

Until this century, the Shroud of Turin has been almost exclusively an object of interest to Roman Catholics. Catholics have viewed it, written about it, studied it, venerated it, and protected it. In recent years, however, the Shroud has become an object of intense interest to many others as well, including evangelical Protestants and secular scientists. In fact, many of the scientists who have studied the Shroud have been agnostics, and there is a great deal of general public interest in the Shroud among unbelievers as well as believers. Why has this burgeoning interest arisen in an object traditionally associated with the Catholic Church?

One reason has been changes in Roman Catholic piety. The old-style Catholic piety which sometimes led to the attribution of miraculous and wonder-working powers of the Shroud and other relics, is becoming a less prominent feature of daily Catholic life. At the same time, evangelical Protestants have realized that the Shroud, if authentic, contains valuable information about Jesus Christ, and that its implications could potentially help the cause of evangelism in the modern world. Viewed properly, the Shroud can build faith, not misdirect it.

However, the main reason for the new interest in the Shroud is, ironically, the advancement of science. Science may have shaken the beliefs of many Christians, but it has only deepened the mystery surrounding the Shroud of Turin. Instead of debunking the Shroud, the intensive scientific investigations during the 1970s made it even more intriguing. Public interest has increased as chemists, physicists, engineers, and technicians admit their bewilderment with the image and the process that formed it.

The skeptical world-view which often accompanies modern science has ironically created a climate conducive to serious interest among Christians. The question of authenticity has become more important than ever before. In the Middle Ages, the Shroud of Turin was of value primarily for personal piety. The church encouraged Catholics to use it as a way of meditating on the passion and death of Jesus Christ, but it did not make official claims that the Shroud was really the burial garment of Jesus. By contrast, the Shroud today begins to look as if it could challenge unbelief by offering physical evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The skeptical modern mind is receptive to such evidence precisely because it is skeptical. For some, perhaps, it is the only type of evidence that would be convincing.

This is why the Shroud is potentially so important. This is an age characterized by widespread rejection of the supernatural and the miraculous. This skepticism has invaded even the church. Many modern personsÑeven theologians, Bible scholars, and pastorsÑhave a skeptical view of the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. "Scientific reasoning" compels them to doubt that Jesus actually rose from the dead. Many of them understand the resurrection as a "spiritual" phenomenonÑJesus "rose" in the minds of His disciples, and He lives on today in the "memory" of His followers.

It is hard to imagine a more effective challenge to this "scientific" view than the Shroud. In an age when science is making faith in the Gospel difficult, science may yet support evidence for the GospelÕs validity.

However, I cannot reflect on the possible significance of the Shroud until I assess the evidence for its authenticity. This I will do in the following chapters. I will adopt a cautious, even skeptical, posture; where facts are incomplete or hard to interpret, I will say so. Yet I will try to assess the facts about the Shroud and make judgments about their significance. A major goal will be to reach a verdict. Science and historical evidence cannot prove that the Shroud of Turin is the burial garment of Jesus Christ, but it may be possible to reach a likely conclusionÑ"beyond a reasonable doubt," to borrow the American legal term. Most scientific conclusions about complex phenomena are actually judg-ments of probability. Scientists gather facts, and then create theories to explain those facts. The theories themselves are not facts. When scientists say they have reached a conclusion, they usually mean that a certain theory is the most likely explanation for the observed facts. My goal will be to reach a conclusion of this type to account for the known facts about the Shroud of Turin.

Like many who have studied the Shroud, I was initially skeptical of it. I first heard about it while I was a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy. I later returned to the Academy to join its faculty as a teacher. Studies of the Shroud by my friends at the Academy persuaded me to examine the facts carefully and eventually drew me into the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP). I co- authored Verdict on the Shroud to provide a serious but popular presentation of the scientific data about the Shroud, as well as a presentation of a carefully reasoned conclusion about its possible significance.

Because the Shroud is an unusual object for scientific study, you must clearly understand the framework within which I will present and assess the facts. We will not assume that the Shroud is genuine, or in any way favor a miraculous explanation of its image. At the same time, I cannot prejudice my study by rejecting the miraculous a priori, assuming that supernatural events cannot occur. In other words, my treatment of this subject will be balanced. I will avoid both a pious approach, which interprets every fact as proof of the validity of the Shroud, and a skeptical approach, which refuses to view the evidence objectively. I intend to treat the available data fairly so that my conclusions rest firmly on the known facts.

To this end I would caution the reader to read carefully and to weigh the evidence accordingly. Do not allow skepticism about miracles or a distaste for relics to mislead you. View the evidence as impartially as possible so that you can reach whichever conclusion is best supported by the facts.

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