The Turin Shroud

The Turin Shroud was displayed from April 10 2010 at Turin in North Italy, near Genoa where Shakespeare bases his Romeo and Juliet (Verona). Two million people went to view the item. It was exhibited inside a bullet-proof and climate controlled see-through casing for public viewing. Each tourist and follower of the faith was given 3-5 minutes to view the relic. The ‘Shroud of Turin’ as it is called is an old linen cloth that bears the image of a crucified man that millions believe to be Jesus of Nazareth. For centuries this piece of cloth remained in the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Turin. But whether it is really the cloth that wrapped his crucified body or simply a medieval forgery perpetrated by a clever artist remained undecided. It is the single most studied artefact in human history. For years and years many reputed scientists made intense study of the Shroud. Still controversy rages.

The 14 ft long and (4.3 x 1 metre) cloth has an imprint of a bearded man believed to be that of Jesus. Most scientific studies suggest that the item dates between 1260 and 1390. This was discovered by the carbon dating technique.

Carbon testing is among hosts of scientific tests to determine the age of fossils. It is a comparatively recent invention going back only to the 1940s. The technique smartened up in the 1970s because of mass spectrometry that was adapted to carbon dating. 

All living creatures, plants or animals have approximately the same ratio of carbon-12 (non­radioactive) and a tiny amount of carbon-14 (radioactive) as we find in the atmosphere. All the carbon in the human beings and other living creatures get their supply of carbon from the atmosphere via a food chain. The plants make sugars with it and sunlight through photosynthesis. Plants are eaten by herbivores, by carnivores and so on. When we die no fresh carbon is coming in. Over the centuries, the carbon-14 in the corpse, or a piece of cloth, or a lump of wood steadily decays to nitrogen-14. The ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 in the specimen gradually drops further and further below the standard ratio that living creatures share with the atmosphere. Eventually it will be all carbon-12 or, more strictly, the carbon-14 content will become too small to measure. And the ratio of carbon12 to carbon-14 can be used to calculate the time that has elapsed since the death of the creature cut-off from the food chain.

The Turin shroud was last seen by the public in 1998 because of a request made by the Polish Pope John Paul II, who asked scientists to use scientific technology to determine how old the artefact was while respecting the “sensibility of faith” of the followers of the religion. In 1988 the Turin shroud was widely dismissed as hoax when scientific tests found it could not be more than 1,000 years old. Even the then cardinal of Turin conceded the relic was a hoax.

A professor of Christian history, Antonio Lambatti expressed his view that the item is “representation” (forgery) of the original burial cloth of Christ – “in my judgement it’s a fake”. To believers it is still the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, miraculously marked with its image.

The 1988 study was coordinated by the British Museum and involved scientists from Oxford University, Arizona and Zurich. The three institutions worked independently and each concluded the sheet dated to between 1260 and 1390. The conclusion therefore, it is a fake.

The shroud was first discovered in France in 1357 and nobody knows where it was before that date. In 2009 evidence was published that the shroud had been secretly guarded by the Knights Templar following the sacking of Byzantium, now Istanbul, in 1204, until it resurfaced in Lirey, France 150 years later.

During WWII, fearful that Hitler and the Nazi party might use it as a trophy to caste a religious hold upon those following the faith, the relic was moved by the church from Turin Cathedral to a monastery in Mointevergine in the Apennine Mountains. It was returned to the Turin Cathedral in 1946. This Christian artefact survived a fire at the Cathedral in the 17th century and blazed some 100 years before. It was thought to be repaired by nuns after it had been damaged by fire.

An eminent scientist, the late Dr Roger who was involved in the 1988 research said in 2005 that he compared the scrap tested in 1988 with other bits of the cloth and found that the sample was a patch of material woven to repair the shroud after it was damaged by fire. Chemical tests showed that the postage stamp-sized sample contained cotton and had been dyed to match the main shroud, which is made of linen.

There is no doubt that the Turin shroud creates a positive effect upon those of the Christian faith and it is inflicting no harm upon anybody. The image to me has a surprising resemblance to the image of Christ we know. But it continues to pit science against religion? Even Pope John Paul II wanted a scientific answer to the puzzle, perhaps believing that the shroud is authentic. The continuing arguments about the Shroud of Turin are drawn between those who seek from it some proof of the resurrection and those (scientists) who are rigidly sceptical. There is just enough confusion (about the sample for carbon dating) to preserve the freedom to believe in the Christian faith. Controversy still rages.

Recently, Joe Nickell in his Inquest On The Shroud Of Turin, wrote in collaboration with a panel of scientific and technical experts, that historical, iconographic, physical and chemical evidence points to its inauthenticity. The shroud is 14th century printing, not 2,000-year-old cloth with Jesus’s image.The latest update is Pope Benedict XII has appointed Archbishop Ceare Nosiglia Vicenza as the new custodian of the Holy Shroud of Turin on October 12, 2010.

The writer is based in the UK