The Shroud of Turin is rarely out of the headlines. Just when science seems to have explained away this remarkable relic, some new discovery comes along to again suggest its authenticity as the burial cloth of Jesus Christ.
Although the Church makes no pronouncement as to its authenticity, it does commend it as an article of devotion. Naturally, many Catholics wonder whether it just might be real.
Interest in the Shroud remains high: In 2010, over a million pilgrims flocked to see it during a rare exposition in Turin. Scientists and experts also remain intrigued by the object: its origins still remain a tantalising scientific mystery.
The debate rages despite the fact that carbon dating have suggested that the shroud was only 700 years old. Many eminent scientists now believe that the carbon dating sample chosen was flawed: It was taken from a corner of the cloth which had been repaired in recent centuries. Therefore, the sample is likely to have been contaminated and so it remains possible that the Shroud does in fact date to the first century.
A variety of other evidence suggests to some that it might be authentic: This Easter, the media is abuzz with the extraordinary claims made by Cambridge art historian, Thomas de Wesselow. In his book, ‘The Sign,’ de Wesselow he sets out his argument that the Shroud is authentic - but thorises that Jesus’ imprint on it was seen as a sign of the spiritual - not physical - resurrection of Christ.
Last Christmas, a team of Italian scientists announced that the microscopic detail of the mysterious image could be replicated by using high-intensity UV lasers - suggesting that the image was created by a very short, remarkably intense flash of light.
Dr Andrew Silverman is a British doctor who has studied the Shroud mystery in detail and is writing a book on the subject. He said: “the notion that it was done by a medieval forger is amazing. The knowledge of forensics and pathology required to fake it would be way beyond anything they had in those days.”
“All medieval depictions show nails through the hands. However archaeologists have found the remains of a first century crucifixion victim which demonstrates that the nails went through the wrists - as shown on the Shroud”.
“Also, in art the thorns are usually depicted as a crown - but it's unlikely a Roman solder would be so artistic - more likely they would have found a clump of thorns and stuck it on his head.” Again, this is as shown on the Shroud.
Famously, the shroud is a photo negative. It was only when an Italian photographer, Secondo Pia, took a picture of the Shroud in 1898 that this became known. He nearly dropped the negative plate in shock when he saw the extraordinary image.
In addition, the Shroud has embedded within it 3D-encoded information. Those portions of the linen closest to the body are more affected by the radiation, while those furthest away are less so. This would be consistent with the body itself emitting light, and not with an early form of photography being used to create the image.
Dr Silverman asks: “How would a medieval forger know he needed to make a photo negative and put distance coded information into the Shroud? Why would he go against the traditional depiction of the nails through the hands? Why did he depict him naked, when that would have been considered very strange? How did he get it so anatomically perfect?”
Dr Silverman also says, “forensic pathologists show that the blood stains are consistent with someone who was whipped.” The forensic evidence suggests that any forger would have had to have actually tortured and killed someone and - even if he did that - how did he make the image, when we can not replicate many of the properties of the image, even with 21st century technology?”
Serious scientific research into the Shroud began in 1978 with the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) sent a team of eminent scientists to investigate the artifact.
Dr Silverman notes that, “of all the members of the original STURP, the majority went there sceptically, thinking they would find brush strokes. Every single one of them is convinced it couldn’t have been forged. Only one lost interest after the carbon dating. All were convinced that it couldn’t have been made by an artist or by any artificial means.”
Dr Silverman says that Shroud researchers come from all backgrounds, from all faiths and none. For example, he himself is of Jewish background. Indeed, he has applied his own medical expertise to the problem. He cites the work of other key researchers, like that of Dr Gilbert Lavoie, who Silverman suggests has found convincing evidence that at the moment the image formed the body was upright and suspended above the ground.
“Again, I try to base this on scientific observation … Looking at the image at the back, there is a roundness of calves and buttock which you wouldn’t expect on a body lying flat. As a doctor, I’ve seen dead bodies before in rigor mortis and there is always flattening from the weight of the body. Also, the hair is hanging down, suggesting that the body was upright when the image was formed. Nor can the body have been in a standing position as, if you look at the feet, they are pointing downwards. What it looks like is that the body was upright and suspended in mid-air.”
What’s intriguing, says Dr Silverman, is that “during his lifetime he is said to have been seen to rise above the ground and walking on water” and given that the image appears to have been created by a burst of radiant energy, it’s remarkable that “it is also said that he seemed to shine during his lifetime - for example at what is known as the transfiguration.”
“It’s Interesting that the things that are only visible now using modern technology, seem to fit with things described as having happened during his lifetime.”
I also recently emailed Dr Di Lazzaro, the eminent Italian scientist who replicated the microscopic characteristics of the Shroud’s image using high-powered lasers. Dr Di Lazzaro wrote that, in addition to the unique microscopic characteristics of the image, the Shroud contains “many other forensic details unknowable in the Middle Ages. …. we cannot imagine a medieval forger who has a microscope and technology better than today’s technology. We have to believe in a miracle to think that the Shroud is a medieval hoax.”