The controversy surrounding the so-called “Shroud of Turin” likely will never die. Interest in the controversy waxes and wanes. Exactly what is this mysterious object?
Some Roman Catholic authorities contend that it is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ (along with other sacred items, e.g., wood from the cross, a fragment of Joseph’s coat, a piece of Jesus’ crown of thorns, etc.). Supposedly, it contains the Lord’s supernatural image, from head to feet, and thus constitutes proof of the Savior’s death and resurrection.
Unfortunately, even some non-Catholics have jumped on the “Shroud” bandwagon, apparently desperate for tangible evidence to buttress their faith.
Pope Paul VI declared the Shroud to be “the most important relic in the history of Christianity” (U.S. Catholic, p.48).
Pope Sixtus IV declared that in the Shroud “men may look upon the true blood and the portrait of Jesus Christ Himself” (The Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 762).
The Shroud of Turin is a piece of cloth approximately fourteen feet long by three and a half feet wide. Historically, it first appears in the mid-fourteenth century (c. A.D. 1360). Shortly after it was first displayed, a French bishop branded it as a fraud (Ibid.).
Is it not strange that there is no historical record of this supposedly amazing burial cloth until thirteen hundred years after the death of Christ? Is it not significant that the early disciples, who retrieved the Lord’s body, never made the claim that they had this cloth with the very image of their Master?
Here are some of the facts that argue against the authenticity of this supposed relic.
Textual evidence: Jesus’ burial cloths, not a cloth
As mentioned above, the Shroud is one piece of cloth that allegedly contains the entire imprint of the body of Christ “from face to feet.” Though the New Testament synoptic writers mention the linen cloth (Greek sindon) in which the Lord’s body was bound (Matthew 27:59; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53), it is also significant that other “cloths” (othonion, diminutive, plural) were used to wrap the body as well (Luke 24:12; John 19:40; 20:5-7). And Christ’s head was separately covered with a small cloth (soudarion) according to John 20:7, which was somewhat comparable to a handkerchief (cf. Acts 19:12).
Here is an interesting question: If the large Shroud covered Jesus’ face, why would there be a need for a smaller cloth on top of that?
In a discussion of the term othonion (see above), noted Catholic scholar Ceslas Spicq stated that “we should picture the body of Jesus rolled up in a large linen cloth (Matt), bound up with bandages (like Lazarus), with a cloth or shroud on the head, the hands and the feet wrapped separately” (566).
The depictions in the Gospels do not conform to the “image” on the Shroud.
Jesus’ body: washed or bloody?
The New Testament indicates that Jesus’ body was prepared for burial according to “the custom of the Jews” (John 19:40). This would involve washing the corpse. One recalls how the body of Dorcus was washed in preparation for her burial (Acts 9:37).
F. F. Bruce observed that this was “in accordance with the Jewish custom of purification of the dead.” He cites the Mishnah, Shabbat 23.5 (199). Yet the Shroud of Turin is supposed to contain bloodstains from Christ’s body.
Moreover, according to one theory, the image on the Shroud was produced by a chemical reaction of the embalming spices, along with Jesus’ sweat; or else vapors, escaping the body in the initial stage of decomposition, generated the image.
If the Savior’s body was washed prior to burial, there was no residue of sweat. In addition, no traces of “spices” have been discovered in the various tests done on the cloth (The Shroud of Turin and the Mystery Surrounding Its Authenticity).
Finally, the Scriptures plainly declare that the Lord’s body would not experience “corruption,” i.e., decomposition (Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:27).
Radiocarbon Dating of the Shroud of Turin
According to an article in the prestigious British science journal, Nature, the cloth was subjected to radiocarbon dating tests some twenty years ago. Experts at Oxford University (Research Laboratory for Archaeology and History of Art) in England, and in the Departments of Geosciences and Physics at the University of Arizona, Tucson, tested the cloth for its age. Their jointly issued conclusion was:
“Very small samples from the Shroud of Turin have been dated by accelerator mass spectrometry in laboratories at Arizona, Oxford and Zurich. As controls, three samples whose ages had been determined independently were also dated. The results provide conclusive evidence that the linen of the Shroud of Turin is mediaeval” (Nature, 611-615).
This information would date the Shroud of Turin somewhere between A.D. 1260-1390—more than a thousand years after the time of the Lord. Even Roman Catholic scholars are divided over the authenticity of this piece of cloth.
While debates doubtless will continue over the dating of the cloth, and such matters as whether the stains on the material are paint or blood, or both, the fact is there appears to be no credible way to harmonize the biblical evidence regarding Jesus’ burial with the image on the Shroud of Turin.