The Shroud of Turin is an ancient linen cloth that bears the clear image of a crucified man—a man millions of people believe to be the image of Jesus Christ. The artifact’s authenticity, however, has never been completely established, and the mystery of whether this ancient material actually wrapped the crucified body of the Christian savior remains precisely that–a mystery. Hundreds of thousands of tests and studies have been conducted and millions of dollars spent, but no one seems any closer to the truth.
The famous Shroud of Turin, which has mystified scientists and titillated zealots for centuries, is a rectangular flax cloth about 14 feet by 4 feet and woven in a herringbone pattern. It bears the faint brownish image of the front and back of a naked man with his hands folded over his groin. The countenance is bearded with shoulder-length hair parted in the center. The man’s physique is athletic and tall, measuring him anywhere from 5’7″ to 6’2″. It has been suggested the shroud provides a negative, transparent image of Christ’s actual body being transferred through the material during the moment of his departure to heaven.
The Bible is the authoritative text on the subject of Jesus’s crucifixion and makes several references to the shroud’s existence. Two specific Gospels in the Bible claim his body was wrapped in a linen cloth by Joseph, the Virgin Mary’s husband before he was placed in his tomb. Other biblical stories explain how the Apostle Peter found multiple pieces of burial cloth after Jesus’s tomb was opened. One thing is for sure, all of these ancient textual references agree there was, in fact, a linen sheet associated with the burial and eventual resurrection of Jesus.
The history of the shroud can be separated into two categories, that which occurred before 1390 and that which happened after. There isn’t much documentation before 1390 when the shroud changed hands often and was generally hidden from the larger world. Up until this point, there were only casual reports from various locations about having seen the image or hood of Jesus’s head, and the cloth was kept carefully protected by religious factions and the monarchy. It was only when a French Bishop finally claimed it was an outright forgery and began a firestorm of controversy that it was officially documented and pursued by others for inspection.
After 1390, however, the shroud became an object of great speculation and began to draw the attention of skeptics and religious figures alike. In the 16th century, the shroud was damaged in a chapel fire and was quickly moved from France to Turin, Italy where it could be better protected. At this point, the shroud moved around from various religious figures and kings, all the time enthralling its viewers with its intimate relationship to Jesus himself. It wasn’t until the year 1969 that experts were actually allowed to take the cloth out of its casket and study it with any level of sophistication. This was the first time it could be captured in color or hung vertically for scale. The next few decades of exposure would allow many new and mystifying discoveries to take place.
After the initial photographs, it took many years for the Catholic Church to allow a swatch to be removed from the shroud for radiocarbon dating, a method used to determine the age of an object containing organic material. Independent tests at Oxford in 1988 concluded with 95 percent confidence that the cloth dated to 1260-1390. Obviously, this date rules out its authenticity, as it would not have existed when Jesus died. However, believers in the shroud’s authenticity argued this studied fragment may have been a section that underwent medieval “repair” during past fires rather than the original image-bearing material. Whether this scrap of cloth was, in fact, a legitimate sample has never been resolved.
Reddish stains on the shroud suggest blood, but no one is certain about how they occurred. When studied, the stains proved to contain iron oxide and protein, two components in human plasma. Experts on the study of ancient hemoglobin concluded it was indeed flecks of blood on the shroud; however, whether they were male or associated with Jesus’s homeland could not be determined. Despite the disagreement, there was one thing all experts could agree on—the marks of blood flow were consistent with the injuries Jesus was known to have suffered on the day of his death.
Scourging was a Roman punishment for serious offenses, where the victim was stripped naked, forced to bend over, tied to a stake or column, and then flogged. According to the Bible, Jesus also suffered this torture, all of which is well-illustrated on the shroud. Because Jewish custom required a body to be thoroughly washed before burial, the points of injury on the cloth are clearly documented. When the excess blood was removed and clean material applied to the wounds, the exact locations of blood flow became definite. On the day he died, Jesus was whipped, nailed through his hands and feet, pierced in the head with thorns, and speared through his right side by a Roman soldier—all of which the Shroud has perfectly recorded.
Aside from just recording the wounds of the man in the shroud, there is also the question of anatomy. Considering no one knows precisely what Jesus looked like, this is a little tougher to prove. Some scientists say the position of the body perfectly depicts that of a crucifixion, while others state the overall measurements of the face and arms are impossible and suggest the work of a Gothic artist instead.
An observant expert in 1985 noticed something unusual in the photographs of the shroud taken in 1931. He discovered the outlines of flowering plants, which would suggest a date of March or April in Jerusalem where Jesus died. Later reports on the pollen found in the cloth state they were, in fact, appropriate to spring conditions in Israel, and of the 58 different pollens found, all of them were from either Jerusalem, the Middle East, Istanbul, or Turkey. Skeptics, however, argue that the flower images are too faint to be definitive and the pollen could easily have been planted on the material. Again, the evidence leads back to mystery.
Currently secured in a vault in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, the shroud has undergone many restorations to preserve it for future studies. Its special case is airtight and temperature controlled, protecting the precious material under laminated bulletproof glass. The case is also filled with oxygen and argon to prevent any further chemical changes, specifically with the hope that it will continue to intrigue and baffle humanity for another 2,000 years.
And the rest is history.