Controversy has swirled around this claimed burial cloth of Christ ever since its discovery. If the Shroud is genuine, its arguably the most significant relic in existence
What’s the Shroud of Turin, then?
It’s a piece of cloth that has a very faint outline of a man’s face and body imprinted on it. In more recent years, digital technology has given us a clearer view of this mystery man (see above image).
Some people believe this was the original cloth that was used to wrap Jesus after his crucifixion. If they're right, the above image is of Jesus Christ himself.
The shroud has been housed in various churches since at least the 14th century – perhaps longer. It is kept in the town of Turin, in northern Italy, hence its name.
But wrapping a body in a cloth wouldn't normally result in such a clear image of a person's body and face, would it?
No. Various explanations have been given - perhaps this is just a painting, or a very primitive form of photography.
But those who believe the Shroud is authentic have suggested the energy released from Christ's body at the moment of resurrection caused a supernatural imprint to be made.
Why do people believe it was the cloth Jesus was wrapped in?
A cloth is mentioned as significant in all four gospel accounts – the wrapping of the body by Joseph of Arimathea, and the disciples finding the cloths after the resurrection (Matthew 27:57-59; Luke 24:12). If you think about it, the first believers at the tomb would likely have kept the cloth they found. But it’s hard to prove whether this particular cloth is it.
There are records of the cloth we now know as the Turin Shroud since the middle ages – but its authenticity has been questioned throughout that time. Those who believe it is genuine argue that there have been records of Jesus’ burial cloth throughout church history. But they have to admit there’s just not much historical evidence that this particular shroud is the same as the one referred to in the earlier records.
In 1988, the British Museum used the relatively new method of radiocarbon dating to test the Turin Shroud, and declared it to be a forgery that was created in the middle ages.
So in many people’s minds, that was the end of it?
Yes, but there’s been more chatter about the Shroud in recent years.
A filmmaker called David Rolfe argues that the methods used by the British Museum to date the Shroud were flawed, which he details in his recent documentary Who can he be? He has offered the Museum $1 million if it is able to show how the Shroud could have been forged.
He’s been investigating the subject ever since the screening of his BAFTA award-winning documentary The Silent Witness in 1978.
Surely, if the British Museum has tested it scientifically and decided it is fake, that’s the end of the story?
The Museum used C14 or carbon-14 testing – but Rolfe argues they didn’t do it the right way.
For example, the museum took its sample from the edge of the cloth – yet that could have been added later, or part of a repair, as its not near the part where Jesus’ blood is said to be.
In February this year Rolfe said the Museum “abandoned all five scientific testing protocols necessary for the test to be conclusive.”
I’m think I’ve heard of this C14 thing before.
It’s a scientific method that tries to find out how old things are. As many old specimens such as fossils are dated by C14 to well over 6,000 years old, the method is criticised by Young Earth Creationists.
It’s true that the science of C14 dating and the interpretation is still debated, including in very reputable scientific research journals. However, in the Shroud debate, the reliability of C14 testing isn’t really the issue.
So what does "the science” say?
It depends who you believe.
For the detailed case for the Shroud’s authenticity (and a critique of the British Museum’s methods in 1988) you can look at Rolfe’s website whocanhebe.com – he cites scientific researchers who agree with him. You could try reading the scientific research papers on Google Scholar, or the very long Wiki page (which has lots of contested statements, but the current page is mainly sceptical).
Premier Christianity previously reported that some apologists are using the Shroud as evidence for the resurrection, and their arguments have helped convince some sceptics to embrace the Christian faith.
It’s a complicated subject. If you want to try to work it out, good luck!
I thought the Catholic church believes it is authentic? I’m sure I read about a Pope blessing it, or something.
Historically Popes have disagreed if it is genuine. However the Catholic church teaches that images of Jesus have appeared miraculously in a number of different contexts, and these images can be used in devotion.
So even though the Shroud is honoured and displayed at key events, the Catholic Church doesn’t have a position one way or the other on whether the Shroud was really the cloth that wrapped Jesus.
A full-size replica has been on display at various Catholic sites in London in February 2023.
So if the Shroud is ever proven to be from the time of Jesus, will that mean we can prove Jesus was resurrected?
No. Even if it was unanimously declared to be the original cloth that wrapped Jesus’s broken body – sceptics would still say it doesn’t prove he was resurrected from the dead.
In any case, any use of the scientific method assumes that miracles aren’t possible, as it only works if the event being tested can be measured, repeated and verified again and again.
More persuasive are the use of rational arguments that the miraculous resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the facts that we do have. New Testament scholar Professor Tom Wright wrote about this in his tome The Resurrection of the Son of God, but if you don’t have time to read that weighty document, he summarises his case here.