When I was a child, my first exposure to the Shroud of Turin was on an episode of “In Search Of…”, a weekly television program that featured a number of various popular mysteries including Bigfoot, the Amelia Earhart disappearance and the Bermuda Triangle, among others. For this episode I sat enthralled as the show’s host, Leonard Nimoy, described how the shroud reportedly bore an image of the crucified Christ and that the image was thought to be caused by a huge transfer of energy at the moment of the Resurrection. I remember hurrying off to excitedly tell anyone who would listen all about the irrefutable facts I’d learned from the program. Of course, what I eventually came to realize, after several increasingly disappointing conversations, was that “In Search Of” presented “irrefutable facts” (or omitted the refutable ones) in support of every mystery they featured; it was, of course, their bread and butter. Sadly, such childhood epiphanies are often the lynch-pin for of a life of skepticism.
So it was with my hard-earned skepticism that I sat down to watch The History Channel’s presentation of “The Real Face of Jesus”- a documentary around a graphic artist’s attempts to use computer analysis of the shroud image to reconstruct a 3 dimensional model of what many believe to be the face of the risen Christ. I almost didn’t take the time to watch, having decided long ago that the 1988 carbon-14 dating of the shroud’s material had proved definitively that it was an elaborate 12th century hoax. By the end of this two-hour program, however, I was at least convinced enough by the science involved to no longer call myself a doubter.
One particularly curious phenomenon surrounding the shroud image is the absence of any particulates or saturation. The image is so superficial it is only present on the outermost fiber of the cloth and there is no seep or saturation into deeper layers as there would be if a paint, a pigment or a dye were used. What’s more, there are no particulates at the microscopic level that would be present using any one of these substances to create the image.
Regarding the carbon 14 dating, many members of the original STURP scientific research project have expressed concerns that the C-14 samples were taken from what was arguably the most contaminated portion of the cloth, and from what might not have been a part of the original cloth at all. The shroud is made of linen; the sample was cotton.
In late 2011, experts at Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Development concluded in a report, a portion of which is quoted below, that the purported burial cloth of Jesus Christ could not have been faked.
“The double image (front and back) of a scourged and crucified man, barely visible on the linen cloth of the Shroud of Turin has many physical and chemical characteristics that are so particular that the staining which is identical in all its facets, would be impossible to obtain today in a laboratory … This inability to repeat (and therefore falsify) the image on the Shroud makes it impossible to formulate a reliable hypothesis on how the impression was made”.
Many critics believe the light areas of the relic, particularly around the hair and beard, reflect a much older man and therefore cannot bear the likeness of the crucified Christ, who was by most estimations 33 or 34 years of age when he died. However, light analysis of the shroud has been quite conclusive that the image is an obvious negative, something that even today’s scientists have been unable to recreate using modern methods, and therefore nearly impossible to fabricate by an 11th or 12th century artist creating a hoax with no knowledge of modern photographic properties. The Italian scientists came to the conclusion that the marks could only have been made by “a short and intense burst of VUV directional radiation.”
Like many other ancient mysteries, science will probably never have the capacity to prove exactly what the shroud is, but many modern scientists will easily tell you what it is not- it isn’t, in any scientifically explainable sense, a work of art created as an elaborate hoax.
And, if it isn’t a hoax, the thought of what it might be sends shivers down my spine.