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Deep Questions with Chase Thompson:

Aug 16, 2019

Today,  I think it would be helpful to have an episode that takes a broad and wide view of The Shroud - that covers all of the basics, so that we’re all on the same page. That’s the focus of this episode - let’s call it an overview of The Shroud of Turin, but the material we cover won’t all be introductory level. 

As I mentioned in the first episode, I first heard about The Shroud way back in the very early 80s from In Search of.   PLAY CLIP

Hearing Mr. Spock - Leonard Nimoy - talking about The Shroud was fascinating to my young mind, and understanding that their might - just might - be a possible artifact from the time of Jesus - that Jesus actually touched - that could actually have a real picture of Jesus - inarguably the most famous person that ever lived - was mind-blowing. So, I read up on The Shroud as I grew older. Most of my Presbyterian church leaders didn’t believe in The Shroud - dismissing it as a Catholic hoax, but I wasn’t fully convinced. The fact is - once you see pictures of it, then you begin to take it at least a little bit seriously. If The Shroud is a fake - it is an amazing one, and the deeper you dig into it, the more remarkable it becomes. 

Some Terms You Should Know: 

  1. Icon:  An icon is a religious work of art, usually a painting. Sometimes icons are statues or carvings, or other artistic renderings. Most of the time those pictured in icons are Jesus, Mary, or other saints in the Bible. Some Christians, including many Reformed Christians, consider paintings of Jesus to be violations of the second commandment of the Bible - "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image"

    The oldest surviving icon of Jesus - dating from the 500s - is copied below.

Let’s answer 4 big questions today in our overview: 

  1. What exactly is The Shroud?

The Shroud of Turin is a linen cloth that is 14.5 feet long and 3 feet, 7 inches wide and has the somewhat faded negative image of a man on it.  Essentially think of the image like a photo-negative - the areas of dark and light are reversed. The darkest areas of the imprint of the man in The Shroud appear light, and vice-versa. The weave of The Shroud is a fine herringbone twill weave. I’m not an expert on textiles, but most experts that I’ve read seem to think that such a weave would have been possible and used in 1st century middle eastern areas. Like all things related to The Shroud, that is debatable.  The burial cloth of Jesus is indeed listed in the Scriptures, so we know that the body of Jesus was actually wrapped in a linen cloth. There is not enough of a description of that cloth to know whether or not The Shroud is similar. As many have pointed out, there is no Scripture whatsoever that seems to indicate some kind of miraculous imprint of Jesus was left on the burial cloths. To be fair, there is no Scripture to indicate that the disciples examined the cloths, only that they saw them. Considering that there is very little information in Scripture about what happened directly after the resurrection of Jesus, and that the Bible writers focused on The Great Commission there, I don’t think it is a very strong argument from silence to say that because the Bible doesn’t mention something miraculous regarding the burial cloths of Jesus, therefore it did not happen.

John 19: 38 After this, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus—but secretly because of his fear of the Jews—asked Pilate that he might remove Jesus’ body. Pilate gave him permission, so he came and took His body away. 39 Nicodemus (who had previously come to Him at night) also came, bringing a mixture of about 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes. 40 Then they took Jesus’ body and wrapped it in linen cloths with the aromatic spices, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 There was a garden in the place where He was crucified. A new tomb was in the garden; no one had yet been placed in it.

John 20: 20 On the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark. She saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran to Simon Peter and to the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put Him!” 3 At that, Peter and the other disciple went out, heading for the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and got to the tomb first. 5 Stooping down, he saw the linen cloths lying there, yet he did not go in. 6 Then, following him, Simon Peter came also. He entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. 7 The wrapping that had been on His head was not lying with the linen cloths but was folded up in a separate place by itself. 8 The other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, then entered the tomb, saw, and believed. 9 For they still did not understand the Scripture that He must rise from the dead. 

The figure on The Shroud is interesting. He is tall - significantly taller than the average Jewish man of the first century, which was, according to different sources, somewhere between 5’2 and 5’5. The Shroud figure would be anything from around 5’8 to 6’2, with a figure around 5’11 seeming to be fairly likely. The man is well built and quite muscular, and has a beard, shoulder length hair, and a moustache. The Shroud is in excellent condition for its age, but not in mint condition. It has survived numerous fires and movings, and has some scars and singeing from fire. There were fourteen large patches and 16 or so smaller patches that were sewn onto The Shroud to repair it in the 1530s, all of those patches were removed in 2002 by a restoration team who sewed The Shroud onto a new cloth backing.

  1. What is the history of The Shroud?

This question might have its own episode, because it is quite complex, and very, very disputed. Amongst the difficulties in determining the real history of The Shroud is the lack of photographic and artistic evidence, and the fact that there are more than one burial cloths that are claimed to be the burial cloth of Jesus. As you might know, the medieval period was quite focused on biblical relics, and many unscrupulous people profited greatly from displaying supposed pieces of the true cross, fingerbones of the apostles, grails used at The Last Supper, etc. Many who believe that The Shroud is genuine believe that the history of it can be traced all the way back to The Image of Edessa, which was supposedly given to King Abgar of Edessa by Thaddeus, one of the 70 disciples of Jesus mentioned in Luke 10 - possibly even the Judas Thaddeus that was one of the 12 apostles of Jesus. However, the connection to The Shroud and The Image of Edessa is fairly disputed and tenuous, and we won’t discuss it yet.

The Shroud of Turin can clearly trace its history to the 1300s. Geoffroi de Charny was a well known and well respected French knight, who was known as a great warrior and a man of honor. He wrote three books in chivalry, served King Jean II, was a founding member of The Order of The Star, and carried the Oriflamme into battle. The what, you say? The Oriflamme was the royal battle standard (or flag) of the French army, and it was a significant honor to be the knight who carried this banner into battle. De Charny was killed by five English knights in the 1356 Battle of Poitiers against the English, and his king was taken captive. Historian Jean Froissart describes De Charny’s fall in that battle:

There Sir Geoffroi de Charny fought gallantly near the king (and his fourteen-year-old son). The whole press and cry of battle were upon him because he was carrying the king’s sovereign banner [the Oriflamme]. He also had before him his own banner, red, with three white shields. So many English and Gascons came around him from all sides that they cracked open the king’s battle formation and smashed it; there were so many English and Gascons that at least five of these men at arms attacked one [French] gentleman. Sir Geoffroi de Charny was killed with the banner of France in his hand, as other French banners fell to earth.

So, real life Game of Thrones kind of material here. De Charny was obviously a pretty amazing person. There is some question about how he acquired The Shroud, which we will go into later, but one of the first undisputed images of The Shroud comes from a Pilgrimage of Lirey medal that dates to de Charny’s time and area. 

To give you a bit further of an idea into the character of Geoffroi de Charny, we can go to the record of the happenings before The Battle of Poitiers, to a meeting amongst the British and French leadership recorded by English Knight John Chandos (on the opposing side of de Charny):

The King, to prolong the matter and to put off the battle, assembled and brought together all the barons of both sides. Of speech there he (the King) made no stint. There came the Count of Tancarville, and, as the list says, the Archbishop of Sens (Guillaume de Melun) was there, he of Taurus, of great discretion, Charny, Bouciquaut, and Clermont; all these went there for the council of the King of France. On the other side there came gladly the Earl of Warwick, the hoary-headed (white or grey headed) Earl of Suffolk was there, and Bartholomew de Burghersh, most privy to the Prince, and Audeley and Chandos, who at that time were of great repute. There they held their parliament, and each one spoke his mind. But their counsel I cannot relate, yet I know well, in very truth, as I hear in my record, that they could not be agreed, wherefore each one of them began to depart. Then said Geoffroi de Charny: 'Lords,' quoth he, 'since so it is that this treaty pleases you no more, I make offer that we fight you, a hundred against a hundred, choosing each one from his own side; and know well, whichever hundred be discomfited, all the others, know for sure, shall quit this field and let the quarrel be. I think that it will be best so, and that God will be gracious to us if the battle be avoided in which so many valiant men will be slain.”

The Shroud stayed in the Di Charny family until 1453 when it was transferred to the House of Savoy, a royal family in northern Italy. In 1389, a Bishop Pierre D’arcis actually wrote about The Shroud, and said that it was a fake. I’ll quote from his letter,  and then give some reasons that his conclusion is controversial:

The case, Holy Father, stands thus. Some time since in this diocese of Troyes the Dean of a certain collegiate church, to wit, that of Lirey, falsely and deceitfully, being consumed with the passion of avarice, and not from any motive of devotion but only of gain, procured for his church a certain cloth cunningly painted, upon which by a clever sleight of hand was depicted the twofold image of one man, that is to say, the back and front, he falsely declaring and pretending that this was the actual shroud in which our Saviour Jesus Christ was enfolded in the tomb, and upon which the whole likeness of the Saviour had remained thus impressed together with the wounds which He bore. This story was put about not only in the kingdom of France, but, so to speak, throughout the world, so that from all parts people came together to view it. And further to attract the multitude so that money might cunningly be wrung from them, pretended miracles were worked, certain men being hired to represent themselves as healed at the moment of the exhibition of the shroud, which all believed to the shroud of our Lord. The Lord Henry of Poitiers, of pious memory, then Bishop of Troyes, becoming aware of this, and urged by many prudent persons to take action, as indeed was his duty in the exercise of his ordinary jurisdiction, set himself earnestly to work to fathom the truth of this matter. For many theologians and other wise persons declared that this could not be the real shroud of our Lord having the Saviour's likeness thus imprinted upon it, since the holy Gospel made no mention of any such imprint, while, if it had been true, it was quite unlikely that the holy Evangelists would have omitted to record it, or that the fact should have remained hidden until the present time. Eventually, after diligent inquiry and examination, he discovered the fraud and how the said cloth had been cunningly painted, the truth being attested by the artist who had painted it, to wit, that it was a work of human skill and not miraculously wrought or bestowed. Accordingly, after taking mature counsel with wise theologians and men of the law, seeing that he neither ought nor could allow the matter to pass, he began to institute formal proceedings against the said Dean and his accomplices in order to root out this false persuasion. They, seeing their wickedness discovered, hid away the said cloth so that the Ordinary could not find it, and they kept it hidden afterwards for thirty-four years or thereabouts down to the present year.

I would consider this memorandum to be one of the stronger evidences against the authenticity of The Shroud. It fails to be completely convincing, however, for three primary reasons:

  1. D’Arcis’ memo mentions that the Lirey Shroud was painted, and the painter confessed. The Turin Shroud shows no evidence or sign whatsoever of being painted, and it has been carefully and chemically analyzed for paint.
  2. There are several other documents of the same time period that dispute what is in this memorandum. For instance, D’Arcis claims that his predecessor had The Shroud removed because it was a fake, but other documents from the time assert that The Shroud was removed for protection because of war nearby. It is possible – though not proven – that D’Arcis memo was motivated by political issues, or perhaps by competing relic claims. D’Arcis was the Bishop of Troyes – was he disturbed/bothered by people flocking to nearby Lirey to see The Shroud? While his letter claims he is not writing for competitive purposes, it is easy to see why a Bishop of a nearby town – lacking a profound relic – might be opposed to The Shroud drawing crowds elsewhere. 

That said, I certainly appreciate his anti-profit and anti-swindling the faithful stance, and wish more churchmen of the time held to it. This alone gives the memo an air of authority and authenticity. 

3. The memo is unsigned, unsealed, and not found in any official Vatican records. This likely means it was unsent to the Antipope. Did D’Arcis reconsider the authenticity of The Shroud? What made him withhold the sending of the memo?

In 1418, Geoffroi De Charny’s granddaughter Margaret, married Humbert of Villersexel, the Count De La Roche, and a significant noble. One month later, the leaders of the Chapel at Lirey, where The Shroud was being kept, temporarily gave it to Count Humbert for safekeeping at his castle Montfort. Humbert dies in 1438, and Margaret hangs onto The Shroud, much to the annoyance of the canons at Lirey, and they sue her in church court to get it back. Margaret takes The Shroud with her on a tour of France, where it is seen by many frenchmen. Margaret dies in 1460, and in 1464, Duke Louis I of Savoy agrees to pay the church at Lirey a yearly stipend, seemingly in exchange for The Shroud. Thus ownership of The Shroud essentially passed into the hands of The Savoy family. 

While The Savoy family had possession of The Shroud, they primarily had it kept in  Sainte-Chapelle in Chambery, which was the capital city of the Savoy region. It also toured around France and the parts of modern day Italy, being showcased in Turin in 1473 and a few other times.

Unfortunately, in 1532, near-disaster strikes as Fire breaks out in the Sainte Chapelle, Chambéry. Almost everything in the chapel is damaged and destroyed, but The Shroud manages to survive. The case it is held in is seriously damaged by the fire, which causes a drop of molten silver to melt through The Shroud, and several obvious scorch marks are made. That said, the damage is not fatal to any important parts of the image, and the sisters of Poor Clare, tasked with caretaking of The Shroud, repair it in 1534, and sew it onto a new backing called The Holland cloth.

In 1578 the Shroud was taken to Turin with great fanfare by The Savoy family. Upon arrival, it is greeted by rifle salute, and displayed to a crowd of 40,000 later in the year. With only a few exceptions, The Shroud has remained in Turin to this day.

  1. What have scientific tests shown so far?

This is a most controversial question, because there have been dozens of scientific inquiries. I’ll briefly focus on two scientific inquiries here - STURP’s research in the late 70s and the radiocarbon dating from 1988.

The radiocarbon dating is the one everybody knows about, so let’s start there. In April, 1988, a very small portion of The Shroud was removed - approximately 3 inches long and a little over half an inch wide. That strip was cut in half, and The Vatican stored half it away for future testing. The remaining strip, approximately 1.5 inches long and a little over half an inch wide, was divided into 3 strips and send to three separate labs in Arizona, Oxford, England, and Switzerland. All three labs came back with results that were very similar, and the consensus was that The Shroud material dated from somewhere between the 1200s and the 1300s, which proved the relic to be a medieval hoax in most people’s minds. 

As with everything Shroud wise, there have been many criticisms of the original testing. Noted chemist Ray Rogers has written and published one of the more interesting challenges noting that the chemical vanillin was readily found in the samples of The Shroud used for radiocarbon dating, but completely absent from other parts of the main body of The Shroud.  Rogers claimed in the scientific journal Thermochimica Acta, "The fact that vanillin cannot be detected in the lignin on shroud fibers, Dead Sea scrolls linen, and other very old linens indicate that the shroud is quite old. A determination of the kinetics of vanillin loss suggest the shroud is between 1300 and 3000 years old. Even allowing for errors in the measurements and assumptions about storage conditions, the cloth is unlikely to be as young as 840 years"

I do not understand textile chemistry nearly well enough to dispute or confirm Rogers’ findings, but I am intrigued by then.
More recently, research Tristan Casabianca’s team found that the 1988 carbon dating was unreliable, as only pieces from the edges of the cloth were radiocarbon tested. Many scholars believe that The Shroud, particularly the edge parts, might have been compromised significantly by several of the fires that have impacted it, especially the 1532 fire. That fire, as well as centuries of display and handling could, in their view, radically alter results from radiocarbon dating. 

Casabianca obtained a lot of insight into the 1988 radiocarbon testing via a freedom of information inquiry, and upon examining the original data and process of testing, concluded, “The tested samples are obviously heterogeneous from many different dates. There is no guarantee that all these samples, taken from one end of the shroud, are representative of the whole fabric. It is, therefore, impossible to conclude that the Shroud of Turin dates from the Middle Ages.”

Shroud researcher Russ Breault, upon reviewing Casabianca’s newly uncovered information, stated,  “this tells us there is something anomalous with the single sample used to date The Shroud. This is something we have long suspected because the corner chosen was absolutely the most handled area of the cloth, exactly where it was held up by hand for hundreds of public exhibitions over the centuries. If you were looking for the worst possible sample location, you would choose from one of the two outside corners — right where the sample was cut in 1988.”

That said, it should be considered here that no scientist that specializes in radiocarbon testing has raised significant questions about the method of dating used in the 1988 testing.

Summary of Sturp’s 1978 findings: 

No pigments, paints, dyes or stains have been found on the fibrils. X-ray, fluorescence and microchemistry on the fibrils preclude the possibility of paint being used as a method for creating the image. Ultra Violet and infrared evaluation confirm these studies. Computer image enhancement and analysis by a device known as a VP-8 image analyzer show that the image has unique, three-dimensional information encoded in it. Microchemical evaluation has indicated no evidence of any spices, oils, or any biochemicals known to be produced by the body in life or in death. It is clear that there has been a direct contact of the Shroud with a body, which explains certain features such as scourge marks, as well as the blood. However, while this type of contact might explain some of the features of the torso, it is totally incapable of explaining the image of the face with the high resolution that has been amply demonstrated by photography.

The basic problem from a scientific point of view is that some explanations which might be tenable from a chemical point of view, are precluded by physics. Contrariwise, certain physical explanations which may be attractive are completely precluded by the chemistry. For an adequate explanation for the image of the Shroud, one must have an explanation which is scientifically sound, from a physical, chemical, biological and medical viewpoint. At the present, this type of solution does not appear to be obtainable by the best efforts of the members of the Shroud Team. Furthermore, experiments in physics and chemistry with old linen have failed to reproduce adequately the phenomenon presented by the Shroud of Turin. The scientific consensus is that the image was produced by something which resulted in oxidation, dehydration and conjugation of the polysaccharide structure of the microfibrils of the linen itself. Such changes can be duplicated in the laboratory by certain chemical and physical processes. A similar type of change in linen can be obtained by sulfuric acid or heat. However, there are no chemical or physical methods known which can account for the totality of the image, nor can any combination of physical, chemical, biological or medical circumstances explain the image adequately.

Thus, the answer to the question of how the image was produced or what produced the image remains, now, as it has in the past, a mystery. We can conclude for now that the Shroud image is that of a real human form of a scourged, crucified man. It is not the product of an artist. The blood stains are composed of hemoglobin and also give a positive test for serum albumin. The image is an ongoing mystery and until further chemical studies are made, perhaps by this group of scientists, or perhaps by some scientists in the future, the problem remains unsolved.

  1. Why care?

It doesn’t prove anything one way or the other about Jesus, so in my mind, it is not a crucial artifact, and certainly shouldn’t be used to prove or disprove somebody’s faith. If the Shroud is ultimately proved to be a hoax, how big of a deal is that? I would say - religiously speaking - it is not a big deal at all. None of the Christian faith rests on The Shroud of Turin being genuine. While it is true that the burial cloth of Jesus is indeed mentioned a few times in the Bible, it is not given particular attention, and no central or tertiary claims of Christianity rest on the Shroud.  What if - somehow, someway, The Shroud was proven to be the genuine burial cloth of Jesus? I think that would be a HUGE deal...but not a religiously huge deal. Here’s what I mean: If The Shroud could be authenticated, then what we would have is a cloth that was actually wrapped around the single most important and well-known person in all of history. Not only that, but we would have a near-photograph of Jesus, and we would know His size, and what He looked like. It would be incredible to know for sure whether or not The Shroud was genuine...but what would its genuineness prove? That Jesus existed? Sure, there are some people who doubt the existence of Jesus, but some people also doubt the moon-landing, and many other obvious facts of history but almost no serious scholar denies that Jesus existed. Would a genuine Shroud PROVE the resurrection of Jesus, which is the central claim of Christianity? Of course not! How could it? I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus rose from the dead, but The Shroud could neither prove nor disprove that. In my understanding, The Shroud is an amazing historical artifact - especially if it is proved genuine - but it is not an amazing focus of faith. 

To wit, in John 5, Jesus strongly challenged the people who were following him and said: 
39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.

A challenging verse that I think has application in this situation: The Shroud is not capable of saving people from their sins and should not be an object of religious veneration. All veneration and honor should go to Jesus. That said, The Shroud is still - if genuine - one of the most amazing pieces of history in the world. We should not worship it, but there is nothing wrong with being interested and fascinated by it.