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The Never-ending Shroud of Turin Debate

Full-length image of the Turin Shroud before the 2002 restoration.
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Full-length image of the Turin Shroud before the 2002 restoration.

The Shroud of Turin, a fabric bearing the negative image of a crucified man, is arguably the most researched Christian relic. Some believe it is the actual burial cloth that was folded over the historical Jesus after his crucifixion. Those who think the shroud is a miraculous imprint believe it was created by divine energy while Jesus rested in his tomb. This belief is countered by others who do not think that evidence exists to support the relic’s authenticity.

Researchers argue about The Shroud’s miraculous authenticity. Many approach their research with predetermined results in mind and ignore anything that goes against their desired conclusion while emphasizing any study that supports their opinion. Religiosity, or lack of, sometimes causes Shroud researchers to demonstrate a stronger bias and use weaker methods than with other research topics.

Why is the shroud so important

Bishops and Cardinals Venerating The Shroud
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Bishops and Cardinals Venerating The Shroud

The Shroud of Turin is supposedly not made by human hands, but through divine intervention. If the Shroud was truly made from Jesus’ body and face, it has recorded his exact likeness. Since Jesus’ body was, according to religion, resurrected into heaven, there are no corporeal elements remaining. Due to this, anything that touched the body of Jesus has become immensely important. The Shroud also has supposed blood stains which would have come directly from the body.

Against The Shroud’s Authenticity

Historical Evidence Points to a Forgery

The pilgrim medallion of Lirey, prior to 1453, drawing by Arthur Forgeais, 1865, via the Catalogue of the Musée National du Moyen Age, Paris, A souvenir from Lirey by Mario Latendresse
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The pilgrim medallion of Lirey, prior to 1453, drawing by Arthur Forgeais, 1865, via the Catalogue of the Musée National du Moyen Age, Paris, A souvenir from Lirey by Mario Latendresse

The Shroud does not show up in historical records until the 14th century. The earliest evidence of its existence is a pilgrim medallion that depicts an image of The Shroud. This should be considered strange since it is such an important relic, one would think it would be mentioned often.

Once The Shroud was documented in written, historical record, most of the primary source information points to an inauthentic relic. The Bishop of Troyes, Henri Portiers, condemned The Shroud as a fake and a painter was identified during the 14th century. The cloth was subsequently hidden for 34 years until the Anti-Pope Clement said that it could be venerated as an icon, but it must be noted at every showing that it is not authentic.

It is also important to note that there were “corporations of relic forgery” during the 14th century because forgers could sell their pieces to important figures and make large sums of money. It is not out of the question to think that The Shroud could be one of these forgeries.

Lack of Biblical Representation

Anarchist Grafitti in Turin against The Shroud
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Anarchist Grafitti in Turin against The Shroud

The Gospel of John describe multiple clothes or linens wrapping of the deceased body of Jesus instead of this single shroud. The bible also did not mention any sort of image on the cloth which would have been seen as a miracle and something important to include.

Scientific Data dates The Shroud later

Full Length Negative Image of The Shroud of Turin
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Full Length Negative Image of The Shroud of Turin

In the 1980’s a team of researchers carbon-dated The Shroud. The results dated the cloth to the years 1260-1360, much later than Jesus’ death. C-14 carbon dating is widely accepted amongst the scientific community.

Scientists argue that no natural process that could possibly print an image from a dead body onto cloth. Decaying bodies do not make these images or this would be a common phenomenon. One would have to believe in supernatural causes to believe the image was printed from the body.

Even though there was iron found in the blood spots, the presence of iron alone does not prove that it is actually blood. Studies do not show any signs of potassium, which is an essential element of blood. Around the time that The Shroud was found in the 14th century, tempera paints were made with animal collagen that included iron. This ultimately supports the argument that a medieval painter created the image more than a miraculous print.

For The Shroud’s authenticity

Historical records may have mixed up the name

Hans Memling, Veronica Holding Her Veil, c. 1470.
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Hans Memling, Veronica Holding Her Veil, c. 1470.

Believers state that The Shroud actually did exist in records before the 14th century, it was just referred to as The Edessa Shroud. This shroud was discussed in written records dating back to the first century. They also argue that Henri Portiers was from a different church and may have declared The Shroud’s inauthenticity in order to keep the city of Turin from becoming a strong center of power and pilgrimage money. Relics had the power to change a city’s entire economy and Portiers did not want to lose power to Turin.

Believers consider the details point to its authenticity. Since relics were forged so often and never scrutinized, there is no reason that the forger of this relic would have put such extreme levels of forensic detail and biblical accuracy into the image. It would have been accepted as truth with much less effort on the part of the forger.

Biblical Records just miscommunicated about The Shroud

18th Century Photograph of the Chapel of the Shroud
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18th Century Photograph of the Chapel of the Shroud

Though The Shroud is not mentioned in the Gospel, some say that The Gospel of John was the last one made, and therefore, the least reliable. The book could have gotten the information wrong. They also mention a simple mistranslation of The Bible. The original word used to describe the body wrappings may be better translated to the term shroud, not linens based on our knowledge of the original language.

Scientific Data is not 100% accurate

Secondo Pia's 1898 negative of the image on the Shroud of Turin has an appearance suggesting a positive image. It is used as part of the devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus. Image from Musée de l'Élysée, Lausanne.
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Secondo Pia’s 1898 negative of the image on the Shroud of Turin has an appearance suggesting a positive image. It is used as part of the devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus. Image from Musée de l’Élysée, Lausanne.

Believers argue that carbon dating is not always accurate and cannot be taken for a true fact. It has been proven wrong in some instances. The piece of cloth tested could have also changed the results. The Shroud survived a fire and new cloth was added to the edges in the Middle Ages, bringing up a later date in the tests.

They also believe the image was created by divine energy and presence through a scientific process called photolysis. In this process, the holy energies of Jesus radiated light from his body and imprinted onto the cloth lying on his body. This caused a 3D, photo negative effect in the image. Believers cite the accuracy of the 3D image when giving reasons that The Shroud is an authentic relic.

Turin shroud positive and negative
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Turin shroud positive and negative

Since The Shroud of Turin could be such an important relic, believers viscerally want to prove its validity. Nonbelievers seem to have a similar passion to prove that their belief is unfounded. Now that miracles and the grace of God is questioned and tests can be done to prove at least some facts, The Shroud has experienced stronger scrutiny than ever before. The Shroud seems to have some conflicting information and it is hard to figure out what is true due to the faulty scholarly studies written on it.

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Marcus Aurelius sacrificing, 161-180 A.D., photographer Matthias Kabel via Wikimedia Commons
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