Let's Let Go of The Shroud (of Turin)

In my last blog post, I used Ted Schick’s SEARCH method to show why the resurrection hypothesis (the notion that Jesus rose from the dead) cannot be the best explanation for the evidence that Christian apologists often cite to try to prove that belief in the resurrection is scientific and rational. Part of SEARCH method I used was the evaluation of that evidence (e.g., the biblical witness and the apostle martyrdom stories). But there is a piece of evidence that I neglected to consider: the Shroud of Turin.

The Shroud of Turin is a long piece of cloth that bears a ghostly image of a man, with what appear to be blood stains around his wrists, side and forehead. It contains both the front and back image of the man, and many believe it to be the shroud that Jesus Christ was buried in, and that the image was somehow left in the shroud as he resurrected from the dead. As such, it is sometimes touted as evidence of the resurrection hypothesis. But since I neglected to include it as such in my last post, I will now use Schick’s SEARCH method to explain why I left it out—or, more specifically, why the Shroud does not provide good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead in the first century. What we will discover instead is that, simply put, the Shroud of Turin was a forgery created in the 13th century (when the story of the Shroud begins) to drum up tourism for the city of its creators.

Step 1: State the Hypothesis

As before, this step is simple. State the hypothesis clearly and concisely:

Hypothesis 1: The Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, and the image on it is like a “picture” of Jesus left on the cloth by the event of his resurrection.

The next step is to evaluate the evidence for this claim. Let us now do so. Unfortunately for those who are enthusiastic about the Shroud--and the rest of us, since such an authentic relic would settle the debeate between all the major religions--we shall see that none of it is compelling.

Step 2: Evaluate the Evidence

Shroud enthusiasts—“shroudies” as they like to be called—cite a large variety of evidence for this hypothesis. (1) The image on the Shroud is a “negative”, (2) a 3D rendering of the Shroud produces a 3D image of a face and body (you cannot do this with paintings), (3) the image looks like Jesus, (4) there is pollen on the Shroud consistent with the pollen of first century Palestine, (5) the main image on the Shroud is not the result of applied pigment (thus the image was not painted on), and (6) there is no image under the bloodstains (which seems to indicate that the blood was applied before the image, as it would be if the Shroud were authentic). But none of this evidence is convincing.

The image on the Shroud is said to be a negative because the negatives of photographs of the Shroud make it easier to distinguish an image. But given that the original image is a faint image on a white background, and negatives reveal brightly hidden details of what they depict, this is no surprise: the reversed white image on a black background of a negative of the Shroud is easier to make out. But this fact does not make it a “negative,” and it is not a “negative photograph” in any conventional sense of the term. This would be true of any faint image on a white background.

The professed 3D image that is produced by 3D “renderings” of the Shroud are simply the result of scanning the cloth and “elevating” each pixel according to its darkness. Scanning most pieces of art in this way will not render a 3D image, but since most pieces of art are not monotone like the Shroud, and thus their elements don’t differ drastically in darkness, this is not surprising. Other methods could produce 3D images of artwork, but not the Shroud. So the Shroud does not really contain 3D information; it’s simply possible to engineer algorithms that, when applied specifically to the Shroud, will produce a 3D image.

That said, if the darker spots on the Shroud corresponded to where the fabric would have been closest to the skin of a person it was wrapped around, because the body emanated energy as it resurrected, the 3D image could indicate that it was wrapped around someone as the image on it was produced. But an image produced in this way would be highly distorted; it would not look like a painting or photo, or as if the body were pushed through one of those pin art toys, as the Shroud does.

A cloth wrapped around someone’s head, for example, lays flat against their nose, eye sockets and ears. Thus, if someone’s face somehow “radiated” and recorded an image on a cloth, when flattened out that cloth would depict whole representations of each part—nose, eye socket, and ears—all pointing in the same direction. Similarly, it also would not depict the hair flowing down to the shoulders; when a man with long hair is lying down, his hair falls back towards the ground. Indeed, since energy radiates in all directions, if energy radiating from Christ’s body somehow left an image on his burial shroud, it would just be a blurry silhouette. Needless to say, none of these things are what the Shroud depicts.

In addition, although shroudies claim the image of the man in the Shroud looks like Jesus, we have no reason to think that it does and actually have good reason to think it doesn’t. We don’t know what Jesus looked like specifically; depictions of Jesus throughout the centuries are not consistent and most often simply mirrored the appearance of those for whom the depiction was intended. (For example, white people depict Jesus as white.) All we can glean about Jesus’ appearance is from what we know the average Palestinian looked like in the first century; and the height, long hair, and beard of the man on the Shroud were not typical of such men. The image on the Shroud is much more consistent with how people came to depict him, and with artwork in the 13th Century, than with what a first century Jewish man probably looked like.

The claims that the Shroud contains pollen from Palestine, not just Italy (where the known history of the Shroud places it), are suspect to doubt as well. They were based off of one sample, not repeated or verified, and were made by Max Frei-Sulzer--a con artist who is known to have lied to “prove” the authenticity of the “Hitler Diaries” (which are now known to have been forged). (See Skeptical Inquirer, September/October 2001, issue 19)

Explanations for the lack of pigment and lack of image behind the blood stains on the Shroud are not as easily produced. But as evidence of a supernatural resurrection event, appealing to a lack of an explanation commits what I have coined “the mystery therefore magic” fallacy. Or as Schick himself put it, in How To Think About Weird Things, “just because you can’t explain something doesn’t mean it’s supernatural.” (p. 24) With no apparent readily available explanations for these features of the Shroud, shroudies have concluded that the only explanation is a supernatural one: Jesus’ resurrection, by an unknown mysterious process, created the image, without pigment, after the Shroud was stained with his blood. But, instead of immediately jumping to the supernatural explanation, if they were thinking scientifically and critically, shroudies would continue to search for a natural one—which, as we shall see, is readily available (and a bit obvious when you think about it).

The evidence that shroudies put forth is also unscientific in other ways. Most research on the Shroud is not repeatable because those in charge of the Shroud limit access to it. Almost all the evidence “for” the authenticity of the Shroud I found was done behind closed doors and, although multiple scientists have done work on the Shroud, no one ever repeats or checks the work of any one scientist. In order to be reasonably believed, the results of a test must be repeated and replicated. (Of course, the reason access is limited to the Shroud is because it is viewed as sacred and the Church doesn’t want it to be defaced; but the fact that one has an excuse to not allow good research doesn’t entail that good research has been done.)

The rare tests that were repeated, confirmed, and independent—like the carbon dating of the shroud—indicate that the Shroud is not authentic but instead dates to somewhere between 1260 - 1390 C.E.. Of course, defenders of the Shroud rushed to explain away this evidence; but this move was also unscientific as it is a clear example of an “ad hoc excuse”—a vain unfalsifiable attempt to save a theory from contrary evidence. In addition, the explanations they give—the cloth tested was from a medieval restoration, the dates were inaccurate because of faulty methods or contamination—are not only untestable (since the tests were already run on the samples in question, there was no way to go back and check whether those particular samples were contaminated or whether the tests were done improperly) they are contradictory. Did they get the wrong result because they did a bad test on a clean sample, or because they did a good test on a contaminated sample? It can’t be both. The fact that both explanations are often espoused in the same breath makes it even more obvious that both are contrived attempts to save the original theory from the evidence that refutes it. Indeed, it would be quite a coincidence if all the samples, and all the tests, all separately just happened to have exactly the same flaws.

Step 3: Consider Alternative Hypotheses

The contrary hypothesis to consider is as straightforward as the first:

Hypothesis 2: The Shroud of Turin is a medieval forgery, created to increase tourism from religious pilgrims.

As evidence for this hypothesis, we could cite (a) the aforementioned carbon dating that indicated that the Shroud was created in the 13th century, and the fact that it is the only such evidence that was repeated and verified independently. In addition to that is the fact that (b) immoral actions to drum up tourism (forgeries, stealing, lying, etc.)—like the theft of St. Nickolas’ bones, and many others who claim they have them (See Forbes, p. 74-5)—were (and are) very common. Indeed, medieval forgeries in general are a dime a dozen.

Other evidence that the Shroud is a fake includes (c) the fact that the first creditable mention of it is in 1357 C.E., (d) the fact that Bishop Pierre d'Arcis and his predecessor Bishop Henri, of the 1300’s, told the Pope it was fake and even (e) had a confession by the forger. Then there is (f) the existence of an anatomically impossible flat footprint on the back of the Shroud, (g) the fact that the tests for blood in the “wounds” of the Shroud came up negative, and (h) the (aforementioned) fact that the long hair seen in the Shroud defies gravity (since it is parallel with the body, instead of falling to the back of the head as it would if the body were lying flat).

On top of all of that, there is (i) the fact that no Jewish burial traditions include surrounding a person in one cloth folded over at the feet. They instead wrapped them in strips of linen. This latter fact is driven home most obviously by the Bible itself, which states specifically that Jesus was “wound in clothes” (not folded in a shroud) and indicates that Jesus’ face was not wrapped but merely had a “napkin” placed over it. (John 20:6-7) All of this evidence is compelling, and there is no reasonable way to dismiss it.

N.D. Wilson's shroud (negative image on right)

Hypothesis 2 is even more plausible given modern examples of persons producing “shroud replications” using only medieval methods. A few years back, a group of Italian scientists produced a replica that was quite similar. But most damning are the efforts of N.D. Wilson, who produced a replica of the Shroud, that is identical to it in every relevant way, by painting an image on a sheet of glass, placing it over a blank shroud, and leaving it in the sun for 10 days. This caused the sun to bleach everything not under the image painted on the glass, and thus produced a shroud with an image of a man that not only was a “negative” and contained a “3D image,” but a shroud that bore an image without pigment.

Indeed, Wilson’s efforts not only provide an explanation for those properties of the Shroud, but also for how there could be no pigment underneath its “bloodstains.” Although N.D. Wilson did not do this himself, to produce this effect, one would simply need to apply blood (or a blood colored substance) to the side of the glass opposite the image before it is laid down. When so laid, the substance would stain the shroud first, before the image painted on the opposite side of the glass was “baked” into it. So Wilson’s effort not only provides evidence for the second hypothesis, but discredits the two “unexplained” pieces of evidence that remained for the first. A testament to Wilson’s success is the fact that shroudies, while they have tried to debunk every other attempt to replicate the Shroud, have left Wilson completely alone. I could not find one single person attempting to explain what was “wrong” with his shroud.

Step 4: Compare the Hypotheses to the Criteria of Adequacy

This step simply asks us to compare the two hypotheses to what Schick calls “the criteria of adequacy.” They are: testability, fruitfulness, scope, simplicity, and conservativism. (See my previous post for the full definition of these terms.) When we do, we will see that it is the second hypothesis that clearly comes out on top.

The first (resurrection) hypothesis is barely testable. One cannot, for example, directly verify that the image on the cloth actually looks like Jesus did. But the first hypothesis does at least predict that carbon dating of the Shroud would indicate that it is 2000 years old. In that way, it is testable. Since the tests did not show it was that old, however, the first hypothesis cannot be said to be fruitful. On the other hand, the second (medieval forgery) hypothesis is not only testable, but also fruitful, because the carbon dating of the shroud did show that it was created in the 1300s.

The second (forgery) hypothesis also has wider scope because it leaves very few things unexplained (although we don’t know the name of the person who did it, we do know why, how, when, and where it would have been forged) whereas the first (resurrection) hypothesis leaves many questions unanswered. How exactly was the image created? Some say Jesus emitted radiation as he resurrected, but what was the source of that radiation? Why would resurrection create it? (Radiation destroys flesh, it does not reanimate it—and also can’t leave an image in cloth.) And even if he did, why would that radiation leave a neat, clean image on the Shroud? Wouldn’t it have instead emanated from every part of his body in all directions (not just at straight angles directly in front and in back of him) and just burned the entire cloth? And why do we not find references to it prior to the 13th century? If the early Christians had such proof of Jesus resurrection, wouldn’t they have been showing it to everyone? A good explanation should increase our understanding, not decrease it, and invoking “unknown mysterious processes” as explanations just replaces the unexplained with the inexplicable.

The second (forgery) hypothesis, on the other hand, neatly explains why the image on the Shroud looks like the artistic depictions of Jesus from the 13th century (and not, as we have seen, how he actually would have looked), and why it looks like a painting (instead of being distorted or a blurry silhouette). It even explains why the hair in the image seems to defy gravity and how there could be anatomically impossible footprint on the Shroud. The forger simply made mistakes.

Comparing the simplicity of the two hypotheses is very straight forward. The second hypothesis is simpler since it invokes no supernatural processes and does not require the existence of any supernatural entities. The second hypothesis is also clearly more conservative since it aligns what we know about how Jesus would have looked, about Jewish burial rights, and what the Bible says about how Jesus was buried.

Wrap it up and Cut it Out

The hypothesis that the Shroud of Turin is a medieval forgery is clearly the best explanation for its existence; it is the simplest, most conservative, wide-scoping, and fruitful hypothesis. Consequently, the Shroud cannot be touted as evidence of the resurrection. This is why, I think, serious apologists have avoided doing so—and why I did not mention it in my last post. This is so obvious, in fact, that some might even wonder why I even bothered writing on it.

Well, although the Catholic Church has never officially endorsed the Shroud as authentic, recent popes have practically done so. Pius XII called it a “holy thing perhaps like nothing else” and John Paul II said it’s a “distinguished relic linked to the mystery of our redemption.” Pope Francis has been more cautious, calling it an “icon” instead of a “relic” in 2013, but he has since venerated it, and the Catholic Church even arranged for it to be viewable via social media during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. If it’s known to be a forgery, which it is, such actions are absurd.

So, despite the fact that it will upset some devotees, the Church should finally admit that the Shroud of Turin is a forgery. By appeasing people who simply won’t let it go, it is sacrificing its credibility—it's wedding itself to irrationality and pseudoscience. For example, by allowing one of its producers to parade the Shroud around at churches, the church tacitly endorsed “The Real Face of Jesus?”— a “documentary” about the Shroud of Turin that appeared on the same network as documentaries about Nazis having alien technology.

The Church needs to just cut its losses. Does anyone really need this silly thing to inspire their hearts? Just let it go. It’s not worth it.

David Kyle Johnson, April 2020

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • YouTube Social  Icon
  • LinkedIn Social Icon
  • Tumblr Social Icon

©2020 Global Center for Religious Research (GCRR)