Shroud Skeptics Bump against Science

On Good Friday, I received this e-mail from a reader in France:

Your article about the shroud of Turin makes me almost hysteric, I was almost dying of laughter. Thank you for this high piece of burlesque.

Nowadays, everyone and his dog knows that the shroud was created in 1347, simply in applying the shroud about a statue prealably [sic] englued with human blood. Nobody is sufficiently credulous enough to believe the élucubrations about the Christ having been envelopped [sic] with this shroud.

Even the catholic Church denies the “authenticity” of this relic.

I don’t know which article of mine the Frenchman had in mind, as I’ve written several. And I had to look up élucubrations (“wild imaginings”). But clearly the correspondent had been reading about the shroud on Good Friday — and it unnerved him. If the shroud is authentic, then it is an image of a man who was brutalized in a singular way, distinctly different from any other known crucified victim, and medically identical to Gospel record of the torments suffered by Jesus of Nazareth.

The writer described himself as “almost hysteric,” perhaps more truthfully than he knew. Shroud skeptics insist that the Shroud of Turin has been discredited. But it hasn’t: If anything, science is more intrigued than ever by the 14-foot length of linen. The advent of new technologies since the first team of experts was assembled in 1978 makes more sophisticated investigations possible. My correspondent (and other skeptics) mistakenly assumes that a statue can “simply” be smeared with human blood and a cloth wrapped around it to reproduce the image on the shroud, presumably as the original “forger” did in the 14th century. And yet, to date, despite numerous attempts, no artist has been successful in this quest.

Experts in many disciplines have added to the growing body of knowledge about the Shroud of Turin: Physicians, historians, botanists, chemists, artists, anthropologists, physicists, textile consultants, and photographers. Their collective assessment is that, while we do not know how the image was made, we do know how it was not made. The confounding of science thus far forces a certain respect for the artifact, whatever one believes it to be: a holy relic, a pious work of art, a 14th-century hoax.

The 1988 carbon-14 tests date the shroud between 1290 and 1360. For skeptics, this “scientific fact” clinched the matter — until 2005. Ultraviolet investigations now show that samples used for the C-14 test were taken from an area of the cloth that fluoresces much differently from the main image-bearing portion of the linen. In short, the C-14 samples were from a section that had been patched in the Middle Ages. The fibers in the patched area were spliced to blend old and new threads such that the patch was not visible to the naked eye. Most intriguing is the 3-D property of the image when viewed with NASA’s VP-8 Image Analyzer. Seen with this technology, the mystery deepens.

My French correspondent was also mistaken in his claim that the Catholic Church has denied the authenticity of the shroud. What the Church has said is that it does not have the scientific expertise to pronounce the shroud authentic; and since it is not a matter of faith, the Church has no specific competence to do so regardless. Still, on the occasion of the 1988 exhibition of the Shroud of Turin, Pope John Paul II called it a “unique gift“:

In the light of Christ’s presence in our midst, I then stopped before the Shroud, the precious Linen that can help us better to understand the mystery of the love of God’s Son for us. Before the Shroud, the intense and agonizing image of an unspeakable torment, I wish to thank the Lord for this unique gift, which asks for the believer’s loving attention and complete willingness to follow the Lord.

On April 10, the Shroud of Turin was once again displayed for public viewing, and it will be seen by millions before the exhibition closes at the end of May. On May 2, Pope Benedict XVI will himself visit the shroud; one must assume that if the Vatican considered it to be a hoax, the pope would not permit its officially sanctioned display — much less attend it.

Over the past 30 years, many researchers have been drawn to the mysteries of the Shroud of Turin. Evident on that ancient cloth is a compelling body of evidence that scientists cannot dismiss and so must study. What does that evidence say about faith? About science? Can it be that the Shroud of Turin functions as a fifth Gospel — a Gospel saved for the age of science? 

Mary Jo Anderson


Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and public speaker. She has been a frequent guest on "Abundant Life," an EWTN television program, and her "Global Watch" radio program is heard on EWTN radio affiliates nationwide. She writes regularly for Crisis Magazine. More articles and commentary can be found at Properly Scared and at Women for Faith and Family. Mary Jo is a board member of Women for Faith and Family and has served on the Legatus Board of Directors. With co-author Robin Bernhoft, she wrote "Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions," published in 2005 by Catholic Answers. In 2003 Mary Jo was invited to the Czech Republic to address parliamentarians on the Impact of Radical Feminism on Emerging Democracies.

  • Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick

    Such a person as your French correspondent is not a “skeptic.”

    A skeptic would not believe or repeat the infantile “theories” that the Shroud was produced by painting, or with blood, or with heat. These “theories” are mere fig leaves–boob bait for modernists. Any one who knows anything about the actual physical, chemical, or optical characteristics of the Shroud knows that such “theories” are not merely exploded–they were never even suggested by the hard facts in the first place. They qualify as “theories” in the sense that the notion that clouds bumping together cause thunder is a “theory.”

    No. Your French correspondent and those like him are not skeptics. They are fanatics.

  • MJ Anderson

    Thank you Fr. Fitzpatrick,
    of course your observation is correct: these self described skeptics are fanatically avoiding the actual science that is readily available for any sincere study of the Shroud>

    Two new books may be of interest:

    First, The Shroud of Turin: Clever Hoax or Jesus

  • I am not Spartacus

    The 1988 carbon-14 tests date the shroud between 1290 and 1360.

    The test was a total fraud and the Perp was Dr. Michael Tite who substituted the Cope of St. Louis for samples cut from The Shroud.

  • Julianne Wiley

    A minor error: the phrase above, “whelp for whelp,” should read “welt for welt.”

    A whelp (n) is a puppy.

    To whelp (v) is to give birth to puppies.

  • MJ Anderson

    thanks–you are quite correct–it was not puppy love that Our Lord suffered.

  • DCH

    So why won’t the CC just donate a 1/4 of the shroud to a few highly qualified science and techical universities (MIT, Caltech, FBI crime labs, etc) who could then subject it to a complete battery of radiometric and chemical analyisis to determine its actual age (according to real laws of chemistry and physics). If it turns out to be from the 1st century and the image is not some explainable thing then they still 3/4 of the real deal – biggest news in 2,000 years. Or, conversely, if it turns out to be some 13th century relic then they have cleared up a mystery and can with the drama.

    Even better give it to the qualified analusts without telling them what it is and have them figure out when and how was made.

  • scientifica

    you’d favor destruction of 1/4 of the Shroud? And then it is proven 2000 years old and we have destroyed the world’s greatest relic?

    turn your idea around: Why doesn’t science just create a shroud of its own, such that its scientific properties are identical the properties of the Shroud of Turin/

  • Mike

    For those who believe, no evidence is necessary, for those who will not no evidence is sufficient.

    Even if the shroud were radio carbon dated to be 2000 years old some would say it was a forgery by the Apostles or some other contemporary of Jesus.

    Testing could prove fakery, but no test can prove authenticity. So far the fact that no test has proven fakery doesn’t seem to impress some people.

  • Mena

    What if the shroud is a miracle image, but one produced in the Middle Ages? (Assuming the scientific date testing to be accurate.)

    Our Lady of Guadalupe is a miraculous image, even though it’s from the 1500s. Perhaps the shroud is another such image of a more recent period.


  • Linda

    Whelps are also bumps on the skin freq. caused by allergies. So don’t feel bad.

  • Linda
  • DCH

    “What if the shroud is a miracle image, but one produced in the Middle Ages? (Assuming the scientific date testing to be accurate.)”

    That is a UN-testable hypothesis. The chemistry and physics of material analysis used to study relics is highly relaible. The modern world we live in is a product of the same science and technology Science will tell you the era that the fabric was produced and the exact chemical composition of the item. Those would constitute evidence in science. Miracle explantions are by definition untestable and unprovable with the scientific method.
    Science can easily date and provide a very detailed information that would tell us when and how that shroud was made.

  • tmiusa

    Scientist to this day still don’t know how the image got on the cloth. One intriguing characteristic is how the blood on the Shroud remained intact. How did the Shroud come away from the body without smearing or cracking the blood?

  • Michael

    Even more intriguing is the fact that Paul said it was a disgrace for men to have long hair. That would be a strange thing for one of the Apostles to say if Jesus had long hair.

    The Jesus image has long hair as was fashionable in the Middle Ages but obviously not so acceptable to the early Catholics/Christians who had known Jesus. Coincidentally a portion of it dated to that era ie middle ages. I acknowledge that explanations have been offered theorising that the tested portion may be unrepresentative. I also note that the Da Vinci Jesus image is no longer mainstream but instead is associated with hippies. Many liberal Catholics reinvent Jesus as some type of charismatic hippy as a result. Believing in the shroud doesn’t exactly help with that.

    The Church doesn’t require us to believe in the shroud so I don’t see why people making reasonable inferences about its authenticity are derided as modernists or fanatics with infantile theories.

    Contrarily, there is ample historical and other evidence for the resurrection. That is a phenomenal historical event. Jesus was quite clear about the Rock of Peter and the origins of the Catholic Church are indisputable. There is no need to believe in the shroud.

    My concern is that people who pin too much hope on things that may turn out to be fakes often loose faith. I have a friend who’s mother was absolutely convinced of the authenticity of a weeping statue of Mary and left the Church when it was revealed to be a hoax. If you must repose so much confidence in this thing at least don’t let Satan lead you into that trap.

  • tmiusa

    From “Catholic Answers”

    In 1 Corinthians 11:14 Paul tells us long hair is degrading to and unnatural for a man. All the pictures of Jesus show him with long hair, so they must be false images.

  • John

    Why destroy 1/4 of the Shroud when a better, non-destructive test may become available in the future; even if it takes a century or two. Remember, the Shroud has been in existance for centuries. Of course you may belong to the ages by then. Perhaps it’s best not to confuse a symbol with substance in matters of faith.