It’s said to contain the image of Jesus Christ himself. But is the shroud a hoax?
In October 1988, members of the international media gathered expectantly at the British Museum in London to hear the verdict from science on the authenticity of one of Christianity’s most famous relics: the Shroud of Turin. Said to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, the shroud contains the unmistakable image of a man with wounds consistent with those endured by Jesus in the crucifixion accounts in the Bible.
However, the verdict from the carbon-14 (C-14) test put the date of the shroud at between 1260 and 1390 CE.1 This date, more than 1,200 years after the death of Christ, was widely reported as definitive. Now the prevailing belief in the secular media and academia is that the shroud is a hoax.
But is it really? And, if so, how would this affect the evidence that Christ indeed rose from the dead as portrayed in Scripture?
The Shroud and the Resurrection
To be sure, Christianity stands or falls on the truth of the resurrection. The stakes are as high today as they were two millennia ago when the Apostle Paul confessed to the church in Corinth, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”2
But few Christians base their belief in the resurrection on whether the Shroud of Turin is authentic. Instead, the empty tomb; the testimony of eye witnesses to the risen Christ; the failure of alternative explanations by skeptics; and the radically changed lives of those who talked, ate, and saw Jesus ascend back into the clouds give believers sufficient hope for tomorrow and power for today.3
Still, the question of the authenticity of the shroud is a topic that intrigues people of all backgrounds. Explanations of the incredibly detailed image of a bloodied six-foot-tall man cluster into three categories.
Contrived Medieval Relic
One explanation is that the cloth and image are medieval forgeries—albeit very well done forgeries. Bolstered by the C-14 dating from 1988, virtually all skeptics of the resurrection and many evangelical Christians lean in this direction.
To them, the shroud is but one of hundreds of venerated objects remaining from the once-burgeoning commercial trade in relics from medieval Catholicism. The Protestant Reformation originated in part due to superstitions and the shameless hawking of religious relics said to be body parts of saints and pieces of the “true cross.”4
Many modern Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, regard the Shroud of Turin as just another fraudulent relic, especially since the carbon-14 analysis showed it to have originated during a period rife with the veneration of relics.5
Genuine and Miraculous
The traditional and opposing explanation is that the shroud is genuine, and the image is some form of supernatural burst of light that occurred when Christ was brought back from the dead. Those who hold to this view contend that the miracle left behind evidence in the form of radiation and that the accuracy of the carbon-14 dating was compromised by contamination of the cloth.
Those who promote the view that the shroud is authentic and miraculous believe that medieval forgers would not have had the ability to produce such a stunning piece of photographic-type imagery.6 They point to the lack of medieval technology to support their belief that it is not a manmade image.
Genuine But Natural
A third explanation has gained some scientific favor in recent years: the shroud may be the genuine burial cloth of Christ, but the image has a natural explanation. Two recent pieces of scientific work point in this direction.
In a paper published in February 2014, Alberto Carpinteri and his research team from the Laboratory of Fracture Mechanics in Italy claim that both the carbon-14 date and the image could have been the result of naturally occurring neutron radiation from an earthquake said in both biblical and non-biblical sources to have occurred at the time of resurrection.7 This paper is undergoing review by a group of “shroud scholars,” according to the official website of the Shroud of Turin Education and Research Association, Inc.8
In January 2014, I attended a presentation by a retired professor of the University of Texas Health Science Center, who put forth yet another theory on the origin of the image: microbial action. Dr. Stephen J. Mattingly, a microbiologist who has conducted work on the shroud, believes that bacterial agents can explain both the apparent younger age determined by carbon-14 testing and the very presence of the image itself.
Mattingly explains that it is likely that the cloth is a first-century linen containing pollen from the Jerusalem area. In a 2011 interview, Mattingly discussed how the microbes “multiplied in the wounds of a person who died very slowly, and whose corpse was then washed and wrapped in a linen sheet for burial. Washing the body made the wounds sticky, so the cloth stuck fast and became impregnated with bacteria. . . . The bacteria died, shedding proteins that oxidized, causing a stain in the cloth that turned yellow and darkened.”9
Mattingly has replicated his theoretical process using intentional injury and bleeding from his own hand. The photographs of the microbial images from his hand appear strikingly similar to the photographs of the shroud. Moreover, the bacterial growth over the years could also have affected the accuracy of the dating process, he says.
Mattingly, like many other critics of the 1988 sampling, recommends another carbon-14 dating test be run to address his concerns regarding contamination. Critics contend that at least two fires and considerable handling of the shroud as it was reportedly moved around over the centuries would contribute to the contamination.10
If Mattingly is correct in his microbial-based theory, he is sure of one thing: the conditions that created the image resulted from someone who was dehydrated and had been subject to painful torture and death—who was “a bloody mess,”11 in his words.12
The truth is that the eventual scientific determination of whether the Shroud of Turin is Jesus’ burial cloth or a clever medieval hoax is a needless distraction from what we already know about the resurrection and how that should affect our lives. Does a fourth leg on a three-legged stool make it more useful? For those who want to believe, there is a sweet spot between blind faith and certainty regarding the resurrection—a reasonable faith.13