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Controversies and the Shroud of Turin

2000 words


The Shroud of Turin is a long cloth that bears the negative image of a man that was purportedly crucified. The study of the Shroud even has its own name—sindonology. The Shroud, ever since its discovery, has been the source of rampant controversy. Does the Shroud show a crucified man? Is this man Christ after the crucifixion? Is the Shroud real or is it a hoax? For centuries these questions have caused long and drawn-out debate. Fortunately, recent analyses seem to have finally ended this centuries-old question: “Does the Shroud of Turin show Christ after the crucifixion?” In this review, I will discuss the history of the Shroud, the pro- and the con-side of the Shroud and what, if any, bearing it has any on the truth of Christianity. The Shroud has been marred in controversy ever since its appearance in the historical record, and for good reason. If it can be proven that the Shroud was Christ’s burial linen and if it can be proven that, somehow, Christ’s image, say, became imprinted when his spirit left his body, this would lend credence to claims from Christians and Catholics—but reality seems to bear different facts of the matter from these claims.

Various theories of the Shroud have been put forth to explain the image that appears when a negative picture is taken of the Shroud. From people hypothesizing that the great Italian artist da Vinci drew it on the cloth (Picknett and Prince, 2012), to it actually being the blood-soaked burial cloth of Christ himself, to its being just a modern-day forgery, we now have the tools in the modern-day to carry out analyses to answer these questions and put them to rest for good.

The history of the Shroud dates back to around the 1350s, as the Vatican historian Barbara Frale notes in her book The Templars and the Shroud of Christ: A Priceless Relic in the Dawn of the Christian Era and the Men Who Swore to Protect It (Frale, 2015). Meachem (1983) discusses how the Shroud has generated controversy ever since it was put on display in 1357 in France. That the Shroud first appeared in written records in the 1350s does not, however, mean that the Shroud is not Christ’s burial linen.

Some, even back when the Shroud was discovered, argued that it was just a painting on linen cloth. As McCrone (1997: 180) writes “The arrangement of pigment particles on the “Shroud” is […] completely consistent with painting with a brush using a water-color paint.” So this would lend credence to the claim that the Shroud is nothing but a painting—most likely a medieval one.

The Shroud itself is around 14’3” long (Crispino, 1979) and, believers claim, it dates back to two millennia ago and bears the imprint of Jesus Christ. It is currently housed at the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, Italy. The Shroud shows what appears to be a tall man, though Crispino (1979) shows that there have been many height estimates of the man on the Shroud, estimates ranging between 5’3.5” to 6’1.5”. With such wide-ranging height estimates, it is therefore unlikely that we will get an agreed-upon height measurement of the man on the Shroud. But Crispino (1979) does note that estimates of Palestinian males 2000 years ago were between 5’1” to 5’3”, and so, if this were Christ’s burial cloth, then it stands to reason that the man would be closer to the lower bound noted by Crispino (1979).

The Shroud shows a man who seems to bear the marks of the crucifixion. If the Shroud was really the burial cloth of a man who was crucified, then there would be blood on the linen. There are blood spots on the Shroud, and there have been recent tests on the cloth to see if it really is human blood.

A method called blood pattern analysis (BPA) is a very useful—ingenious—way to ascertain whether or not the veracity of the claim that the Shroud really was Christ’s burial cloth is true. BPA “refers to the collection, categorization and interpretation of the shape and distribution of bloodstains connected with a crime” (Peschel et al, 2010). By using a model and draping a cloth over them and using the same wounds that Christ was said to have, we can glean—with good accuracy—if the claim that the Shroud was Christ’s burial cloth is true.

A recent study using BPA was undertaken, to ascertain whether or not the blood stains on the Shroud are realistic, and not just art (Borrini and Garleschelli, 2018). They used a living subject to see if the blood patterns on the cloth are realistic. Their analysis showed that “blood visible on the frontal side of the chest (the lance wound) shows that the Shroud represents the bleeding in a realistic manner for a standing position” whereas the stains on the back were “totally unrealistic.”

Zugibe (1989) also puts forth a scientific hypothesis: the claim that Christ was washed prior to his being rolled in the linen cloth that is the Shroud we know of today. So, if Christ were washed before being placed in the linen, then it would lend veracity to the claim that the Shroud truly is Christ’s burial linen. Citing the apocryphal text The Lost Gospel According to Peter, Zugibe (1989) provides scriptural evidence for the claim that Christ was washed before death, which lends credence to the hypothesis that the Shroud truly is Christ’s burial linen. Zugibe (1989) clearly shows that, even after a body has been washed, it can still bleed profusely, which may have caused the blood stains on the Shroud.

Indeed, even Wilson (1998: 235) writes that “ancient blood specialist Dr Thomas Loy confirm[s] that blood many thousands of years old can remain bright red in certain cases of traumatic death.” This coheres well with Zugibe’s (1989) argument that in certain cases, even after a body has been washed and wrapped in linen, that there can still be apparent blood stains on the linen (and we know from Biblical accounts that Jesus did die a traumatic death).

To really see if the Shroud truly is the burial cloth of Christ, analyses of the linen can be undertaken to ascertain an average range of time for when the linen was made. There have been analyses of the linen, and the dates that we get are between the 1250s to 1350s. However, those who believe that the Shroud is truly the burial cloth of Christ state that the fibers that were tested were taken from medieval repairs of the cloth, since one of the locations the cloth was housed in burned down due to a fire in 1532 (Adler, 1996), causing damage to the cloth. For example, Rogers (2005) argues that the threads of linen tested were from medieval repairs, and that the true date of the Shroud is between 1300 and 3000 years old.

Barcaccia et al (2015) undertook an analysis of some dust particles on the back of the Shroud by vacuuming them. They found that there were multiple, non-native plant species on the Shroud, along with multiple mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) haplogroups (H1-3, H13/H2a, L3C, H33, R0a, M56, and R7/R8). However, the fact that multiple mtDNA halpogroups were found on the Shroud is consistent with the fact that the Shroud took many journeys throughout its time, before ending up in Turin, Italy. It could also reflect the fact that numerous contemporary researchers’ DNA has contaminated the Shroud as well. In any case, Barcaccia et al (2015) show that there were numerous species of plants from all around the world along with many different kinds of mtDNA, and so, both believers and skeptics can use this study as evidence for their side. Barcaccia et al (2015) conclude that the Shroud may have been weaved in India, due to its original name Sindon, which is a fabric from India—which mtDNA analyses corroborate.

There is even evidence that the face on the Shroud is that of da Vinci himself. Artist Lillian Schwartz, using computer imaging, showed that the facial dimensions on the Shroud matched up to the facial dimensions of da Vinci (Jamieson, 2009). It is hypothesized that da Vinci used what is called a camera obscura to put his facial features onto the Shroud. Since we know that da Vinci made some ultra-realistic drawings of the human body since he had access to the morgue (Shaikh, 2015), then it is highly plausible that da Vinci himself was responsible for the image on the Shroud. Jamieson (2009) states that, in the documentary that explains how da Vinci created the Shroud: the most likely way for it to have been made was hanging the Shroud in a dark room with silver sulfate. So when the sun’s rays went through a lens on the wall, da Vinci’s face would have been burnt into it.

Further, there are some arguments that state that the man on the Shroud is not Christ, but is, in fact, the Jacque de Molay—the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar. If the claim turns out to be true, this could be why the Knights protected the Shroud so fervently. Although there is little historical evidence as to how Molay was tortured, we do know he was tortured. Though what is also interesting is that apparently Molay was put through the same exact process of crucifixion that Christ was said to have gone through. If this is the case, then that could explain the same marks in the hands and blood on the Shroud that would have been on the Shroud had Christ been the one crucified and wrapped in the linen that eventually became the Shroud. Though, those who were to kill Molay were “expressly forbidden to shed blood“, though we know he was tortured, it is not out of the realm of possibility that he did bleed after death. Molay was killed in 1317 C.E., and this lines up with the accounts from Frale (2015) and Meachem (1983) that the Shroud appeared around the 1350s. So the Knights protecting the Shroud as they did—even if it were not Christ—would have some backing.


The validity of the Shroud is quite obviously a hot-button topic for Catholics. No matter the outcome of any study on the matter, they can concoct an ad-hoc hypothesis to immunize their beliefs from falsification. No doubt, some of the critiques they bring up are valid (e.g., that they are taking fibers of linen from restored parts of the Shroud), though, after so many analyses one would have to reason that the hypothesis that the Shroud truly was Christ’s burial cloth is false. Furthermore, even if the Shroud is dated back to the 1st century, that would not be evidence that the Shroud was Christ’s burial shroud. The mtDNA analyses also seem to establish that the Shroud passed through many hands—as the hypothesis predicts. However, this also coheres with the explanation that it was made during medieval times, with numerous people touching the linen that eventually ended up becoming the Shroud. It is also, of course, not out of the realm of possibility that contemporary researchers have contaminated the Shroud with their own DNA, making objective genomic analyses of the Shroud hard to verify, while there would be no way to partition contaminated DNA from DNA that was originally on the Shroud.

In any case—irrespective of the claims of those who wish that this is Christ’s burial cloth and thus will concoct any ad-hoc hypothesis to immunize their beliefs from falsification—it seems to be the case that the Shroud was not Christ’s burial cloth. On the basis of mtDNA analyses, blood pattern analyses (which seem to point to the fact that it is an artistic representation of Christ’s burial), to the evidence that facial dimensions on the Shroud match up with da Vinci’s face, the apparent claims that the Shroud was the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, along with the fact that the original name of the Shroud was Indian in origin, all point to the fact that the Shroud was, in fact, not Christ’s burial linen, no matter how fervent believers are about the veracity of the claim.