THE SHROUD OF TURIN:
A PARABLE FOR MODERN TIMES?
by Thaddeus J. Trenn
University of Toronto-Canada
Reprinted from the JOURNAL OF INTERDISCIPLINARY STUDIES - Vol. IX - No. 1/2 1997
Oskar Gruenwald, Ph.D., Editor and Publisher
All Rights Reserved
Reprinted by Permission
Portuguese Translation by Artur Weber
The Shroud of Turin, a linen cloth with but a faint image, continues to capture the interest of many people of diverse beliefs. Although the measured age of the cloth is relatively recent, other scientific findings indicate an earlier provenance. Any firm conclusions regarding the cloth’s history remain premature. No satisfactory explanation has been found as yet for how the image on the cloth was produced structurally or stylistically. Iconographic evidence suggests that the image was the source of facial peculiarities found in early works of religious art. The body image bears a striking yet preternatural correlation with Scriptural accounts of wounds. Curiously, the image on the cloth functions as a photographic negative, exhibiting a high degree of resolution, as if the original were produced in pixels. Despite serious efforts to discover some artistic origin and medium, scientific evidence points in the direction that it was not produced by hands. If it is true that the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, then the Turin Shroud may be a parable for the modern age.
The Shroud of Turin represents one of the world's perennial mysteries, to be respected as such. With hindsight, perhaps science and technology ought not to have become involved in a contentious test for its authenticity. Indeed, there shall always remain the possibility that the Turin Shroud actually is what it is purported to be--the burial cloth of Christ. The most puzzling question is, how could anyone be certain that all manner of possible anomalies were taken into consideration when examining such a cloth? The very possibility of its uniqueness and inherent irreproducibility would quite justifiably cause concern for any experienced scientist. Most would immediately recognize the hidden import of someone asking, "why the shroud was any different from any other important carbon dating" item tested on an everyday basis (Gove 1996: 235).
Harry Gove relates that this very question was posed, indeed, by Luigi Gonella, science advisor to the Archbishop of Turin, only a few months before the actual dating of the Shroud was attempted in 1988 (Gove 1996: 235). Such a question suggests that the Shroud of Turin was merely another piece of cloth. It is true that extra-scientific presuppositions can only be accepted or rejected, not proven. Yet no credible interpretation of scientific results based on such a plausible presupposition can dispel the possibility that this particular piece of cloth was simply unsuitable for such a test in virtue of its unique history. In brief, basic uncertainties lie at this deeper level of data interpretation concerning the Shroud. Victor Weisskopf, whom Gove calls "one of the elder statesmen in nuclear and particle physics--a giant in both fields and a man of great wisdom and compassion," expressed his own reservations to Gove, the "father" of accelerator mass spectroscopy, months before the dating was done using the AMS technology: "The highest desire that I would have with respect to the shroud is, first, that it be left alone, and secondly, if it has to be investigated scientifically, that you be involved in the operation" (cited in Gove 1996: 237). In the event, neither wish was fulfilled, human hubris prevailed, while the Shroud's mystery only deepens and intensifies.
Arguably the most amazing feature of the Turin Shroud is that the linen cloth bears any image at all. Burial shrouds normally do not. This uniqueness is compounded by other oddities concerning subject and style. The image is evidently of a crucified man, frontal and dorsal in length, as if the linen cloth had been draped axially along the body, with the head located at the middle. The style is unknown to scientific scrutiny, for the image is nothing like a painting, which would bear directionality of stroke, but rather more photographic, though in reverse. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect is the pixel-like character of the individual points comprising the overall image (Moran 1995:14). Such pixel pointillism does not easily conform with known scientific processes, which makes it difficult to know how to classify these microscopic observations. In the absence of known processes available to account for this sort of image formation, science must simply defer. Perhaps Gove said it best concerning the Shroud: "The mystery of how its image was produced remains just that--a mystery. Maybe that is as it should be" (1996: 309).
Gove himself believes that the Shroud of Turin is an icon, "arguably, the most important icon in Christendom at that" (1996: 309). An icon, according to Oskar Gruenwald, is quintessentially religious art: "The essence of the icon is its representation of the Holy and participation in the Divine" (1990: 164). The Greek word, eikon, means image. The significance of the icon as religious art is deeply enshrined in Eastern (Orthodox) Christian spirituality. Seeking to express the ineffable, that is, the transcendental aspect of the life of faith, the icon became necessarily a "symbolic art," whose goal was to "represent the spiritual reality of Christian faith" (Gruenwald 1990:165). An icon, then, has a transcendental aspect by which an observer-participant believer is "transferred into the divine world" (Galavaris 1981: 3, 7). Understood in this way, the icon is "simultaneously a work of art and a religious phenomenon" (Gruenwald 1990: 165).
Even the most casual glance at the Turin Shroud reveals a great depth of meaning in the image. In this sense, the Shroud of Turin is, indeed, a work of transcendence. Like an icon, the Shroud's essence is "theology expressed in the image" (Ouspensky & Lossky 1982: 45). But, if the Shroud of Turin is an icon or a work of art in this sense, it is certainly unique, for this icon is manifestly "made without hands." Even the traditional name for this purported icon is Acheiropoietos which simply means "made without hands" (Wilson 1991: 131). This was recognized as the most characteristic feature of the Shroud early on. It was named as such no later than 1000 AD (Wilson 1991:131). How poignant, then, that a 1996 review essay on archaeology in the London Times Literary Supplement should bear the title, "Not Made by Hands" (Ray 1996: 3-4).
The linen cloth known as the Shroud of Turin has been an object of contention particularly since its rediscovery at the turn of the twentieth century. Not that the cloth had been lost or mislaid. The novelty concerned the image which has always been on the cloth. The photographic negative of this seemingly vague scorchiness yielded, unexpectedly, a reverse image "positive," extraordinarily rich in detail--the full length image of a crucified man. Whatever the past history of the cloth may have been, this was the turning point for the modern age. Something startlingly new had emerged from this old linen cloth. The linen cloth, when extended, is 14' 3" long and 3' 7" wide, quite sufficient to cover both sides of a body from head to toe. Today, it is normally kept rolled up much as if yardage goods, and housed in Turin, Italy. In the early days, by many accounts, the cloth was folded, doubled in four, rather in the manner of a flag, with the image countenance uppermost. The Holy Face atop this cloth packet, which many believe to be the Shroud now at Turin, was venerated from the first century, and was probably instrumental in healing King Abgar V (13-50 AD). Over the centuries, other miraculous cures were attributed to the Holy Face on the Shroud as well (Wilson 1991:133).
Now, the photograph taken in 1898 by Secondo Pia was of the entire cloth, revealing an image with a high degree of resolution, permitting detailed analysis (Stevenson & Habermas 1982: 71). An examination of the image on the cloth exhibits the front and dorsal aspects of a crucified man, brutally lashed, and crowned with thorns (Currer-Briggs 1995:12; Wilson & Miller 1988: 6-11). The location of the wounds, including the unexpected position of nail holes in the wrists, and not in the palms, as well as the open gash at mid-body, conform with Biblical reports. John Ray concedes that, however it may have been created, the image is a "religious masterpiece" (1996: 4). Most puzzling is the fact that the image has a definite 3-D character (Heller 1983: 20, 207), intimating that the surface image contains information obtained at varying distances from the image source (Meacham 1983: 288). Perhaps not surprisingly, some critics are unable to "reproduce the 3-D pictures" (Picknett & Prince 1994: 141). The image does not involve contact with the source in the manner of, say, a brass rubbing. Also, the image resides only on the surface of the cloth, and does not involve the deeper cloth fibres.
Nearly three decades later, the Shroud was again exposed in 1931, and new photographs were taken by Guiseppe Enrie, "the leading photographer in Italy" (Stevenson & Habermas 1982: 73). Pierre Barbet, the surgeon general in Paris, conducted important medical studies from the resulting photographic enlargements. By 1967, Fr. Adam Otterbein, Director of the Holy Shroud Guild, reported that acceptance of the authenticity of the Shroud, while not universal, is "more common than it was in the past" (1967: 189). Otterbein urged a new exposition to permit scientific investigations as well as carbon-14 tests. Such tests were, in fact, conducted in 1988, purportedly yielding a medieval date for the cloth (Damon 1989: 611). Yet the result did not end the controversy.
A SHROUD FOR ALL SEASONS
At least two alternative histories of the Shroud need to be considered: the more traditional one and the alternative one manufactured to conform with the 1988 carbon dating results. This is not to suggest that the events and circumstances as presented by either are beyond contention. Tradition traces the original folded cloth to Edessa, modern Urfa, Turkey, where the Apostle Jude Thaddeus was actively preaching and healing (Wilson 1991: 127, 132-33). After Jesus' death and Resurrection, this Apostle was thought to have been entrusted with the burial Shroud, which he took on a special mission, upon request, to heal King Abgar V of Edessa. This "little-known and obscure monarch is a landmark: he was long believed to be the first Christian king. In fact the story of his conversion is a legend" (Roberts 1976: 295). Besides the iconography associated with the converted King Abgar, as well as the Abgar dynasty, any statue or graven image of the Apostle Jude Thaddeus depicts the packet bearing the healing visage of Christ, a venerable Eastern tradition traceable to his first century activity (Wilson 1991:115).
The cloth itself was purportedly rediscovered about 544 AD, having been sealed for protection in the city walls of Edessa (Wilson 1991:133). From about the sixth century, copies of this "true image" or Veronica, as it became known, began to appear in special places throughout Eurasia (Wilson 1991: 128-29). It has been reasonably demonstrated through religious art history that these copies tend to reproduce unique peculiarities of physiognomy and style. Thus, the phylactery box upon the brow of the forehead and the "impressionistic aura"-aspect at what ought to be facial edges are but two such features faithfully reproduced (Currer-Briggs 1995: 12; Wilson 1991: 98, 111, 167-68). Of greatest interest, though, is the fact that these unique details found in early works of religious art harmonize well with details found on the Shroud of Turin. In brief, the comparative iconography is overwhelming.
Ian Wilson and others have traced the whereabouts of the Edessa packet in considerable detail, providing strong links between the Mandylion, as it was called in the folded form, and the unfolded Shroud of Turin (1991: 137, 141). In 944 AD, the Mandylion was brought to Constantine VII (Wilson 1991:153). This Mandylion or "mantle" was long known to be more than merely the evident facial image atop the folded packet (Currer-Briggs 1995: 42). The mummy-wrap tradition, which used to depict Christ's burial, had begun to change already by 1025 AD in Constantinople, revised to correspond with a full-length draped cloth. Wilson records that, in the eighth century, Pope Stephen III stated that the Lord Jesus Christ had "spread out his entire body on a linen cloth that was white as snow. On this cloth, marvellous as it is to see . . . the glorious image of the Lord's face, and the length of his entire and most noble body, has been divinely transferred" (cited in Wilson 1991:152).
Since the Byzantine era, this same cloth had been folded in a special way, known as the "doubled in four," or tetradiplon. Tetradiplon is the Greek term for the linen towel upon which Jesus had imprinted His image, according to the sixth-century Acts of Thaddaeus (Currer-Briggs 1995: 42; Wilson 1991:133,141). This led Wilson to conclude that the "unrecorded pre-fourteenth- century history" of the Shroud may have been largely due to its having been known simply as this Holy Face of Edessa (1991:141). During the sack of Constantinople in 1204 AD, French Crusader knights may have brought this cloth home where it turned up in Lirey, France, about 1350 AD, as a spoil of war (Wilson 1991: 61, 130, 158). An alternative view is that the Lirey Shroud was a new one to replace the original, which had "vanished in the chaos of the sack of Constantinople in 1204" (Currer-Briggs 1995:114, 214). As early as 1357 AD, the Shroud was occasionally put on public display to accommodate pilgrims seeking healing. About a century later, partly out of concern for the Shroud's safety, the cloth was brought to the ruling House of Savoy, based in Turin, Italy. Ultimately, in 1694, it was housed in a Turin Chapel built especially for this purpose. Not surprisingly, some details might require revision, if the Leonardo conspiracy, alleged by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince (1994), were to become credible.
The intriguing connection between the Knights Templar and the Mandylion might also have involved their concern for the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail is often depicted as a cup, perhaps an earthen vessel or one of stone, either from the Lord's Last Supper or used to collect blood from Christ's crucified body by Joseph of Arimathea or Mary Magdalene. According to some romantic traditions, the Holy Grail was taken to the Roman outpost, Britain, where it became linked with King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, only to be lost in the mists of time (Phillips 1995: 2-10). Graham Phillips has traced this particular Grail to Shropshire Abbey in England where it might have been taken after its removal from the Holy Sepulchre in the fourth century (1995:155). However, following Noel Currer-Briggs, perhaps the true Grail is the linen cloth used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect Christ's blood after the Crucifixion (1995: 68-69, 86). At this juncture, the mystery deepens. Is this linen cloth the Shroud? Did it really travel west to Britain or France? Daniel Scavone proposes that the fabled Holy Grail may have traveled eastward instead to Britio Edessenorum--the Castle at Edessa--the home of King Abgar and his dynasty (1996:18-22). Is the same cloth, then, both the fabled Holy Grail as well as the Image of Edessa?
DATING THE SHROUD
In 1988, the carbon dating of the long linen cloth seemed to suggest a fourteenth-century origin for the cloth which bore the image. According to Paul Damon, reporting the findings by three teams in the prestigious scientific journal Nature: "The results provide conclusive evidence that the linen of the Shroud of Turin is medieval . . . . The age of the shroud is obtained as AD 1260-1390 with at least 95% confidence" (1989: 611). This dating provided a prima facie correlation with the well-publicized claim of forgery by Bishop Pierre d'Arcis associated with this same medieval period (Currer-Briggs 1995:17-22). Yet there were pieces missing from the puzzle.
It is well-known in archaeology that Egyptian mummies can exhibit a strange anomalous behavior when it comes to dating them, for the contents and wrappings are not always in conformity. In some cases, the discrepancy is in the range of a thousand years (Wilson 1991:175). One of the most remarkable recent findings is the presence of a bioplastic coating that tends to be attached to some cloth wrappings (Gove 1996: 308). Such growth is of biological origin and, therefore, may tend selectively to modify the carbon ratio of the original cloth wrapping. These findings are currently of interest in modern archaeology to help solve the mystery of the non- conformity in mummy dating (Wilson 1996: 12). Perhaps cloth wrappings, linen in particular, may join the list of materials which are not conducive to carbon dating. Calcified sea shells, for example, were known early on not to be appropriate for this dating method. The general problem concerns the degree to which a clear demarcation can be made between the original carbon content and subsequent additives, whether of physical, chemical, or biological origin. Bioplastic coating would seem to fall in the latter category.
For carbon dating in general, assuming the carbon reservoir to be in a state of equilibrium, carbon taken up by metabolic processes will remain in that same ratio until the time of death. At that point, the decay of carbon-14 makes the ratio it has with stable carbon-12 decrease slowly with time. A sine qua non for determining the cessation of carbon intake is that no secondary carbon be added, such as contaminants, to skew the ratio. Yet, with some materials, it is often difficult to distinguish carbon contaminations that become "fixed" to the specimen. Researchers examining the Shroud of Turin were keenly aware of "potential sources" of carbon contamination, and did their utmost to eliminate all effects during pre-treatment cleaning (Damon 1989: 612).
Carbon-14 is normally produced mainly in the upper atmosphere. Neutrons of moderate energy, released by cosmic radiation, are captured by nitrogen, the most abundant gas. Nitrogen-14 loses a proton in the exchange, effectively converting it to carbon-14. If the atmosphere did not attenuate the range of cosmic radiation, this process could easily occur at sea-level as well. Therefore, in the presence of a neutron flux, in situ transformation could augment the carbon ratio. The Oxford team actually anticipated this theoretical possibility for the case of the Turin Shroud, but felt that such a theoretical neutron flux event would yield only superficial effects "in a chemically quite different environment," or, in any case, would be removable by the pre-treatment cleaning process (Hedges 1989: 594).
Therefore, the testing techniques adopted involved a pre-cleaning stage that was assumed to be entirely adequate for identifying and, if present, removing any recent C-14, whether arising as a contaminant or as the result of some alleged secondary neutron flux event. Since this cleaning did not, in fact, uncover evidence of any recent C-14, the team assumed that any and all radiocarbon present in the tested samples was exclusively of original endowment. If any secondary radiocarbon were to have ever been present in or on the cloth, whether as contaminant from fire or other smoky environments, or as a result of some alleged neutron flux event occurring subsequent to the cloth's manufacture, the special cleaning techniques employed had supposedly eliminated this altogether. Yet there is good reason to doubt whether this was the case. The serious fire of 1532 alone might have driven carbon contamination deep into the "flax fibres' very lumen and molecular structure," contends the noted textile specialist John Tyrer, so that these would "become part of the chemistry of the flax fibres themselves and would be impossible to remove satisfactorily by surface actants and ultrasonic cleaning" (cited in Wilson 1991: 176-77).
Recent bioplastic halo findings tend to reinforce Tyrer's reservations (Gove 1996: 308). None of the three research teams really expected any excess radiocarbon to show up, and their techniques may not have identified any excess even if it had been present. Gove observes that "all of the labs used the same cleaning technique" (1996: 291). Actually, some sample fractions did not undergo any chemical cleaning, yet gave essentially the same results as those which did. Damon admits that: "The Zurich group first split each ultrasonically cleaned sample in half . . . . The first set of samples was further subdivided into three portions. One-third received no further treatment" (1989: 613). The basic data specified these "ultrasonic only" fragments in the Zurich measurements, designated as "u'" to be in conformity with all the chemically treated specimens. Remarkably, there was "no significant difference between the results obtained with the different cleaning procedures that each [laboratory] used" (Damon 1989: 613; emphasis added). This is problematic, for if complex chemical cleaning procedures consistently yield basically the same results as obtained by means of a simple physical process, it is questionable if either of these procedures is all that effective. At the least, the chemical procedure would seem superfluous, and so hardly a measure of discrimination. The conclusion follows that such a procedure may not be a realistic basis upon which to claim removal of any and all recent radiocarbon.
The poignancy of possible excess radiocarbon is connected with a long- held view that perhaps a burst of radiation from the body somehow projected the image onto the cloth (Stevenson & Habermas 1990: 132). This hypothesis was developed by Thomas Phillips (1989), Eberhard Lindner (1990), and others, who advocate a possible dual function for the process, both causing the image and enhancing the radiocarbon content of the cloth (Stevenson & Habermas 1990:137). According to Phillips, if the Turin Shroud had been "present at a unique physical event: the resurrection," which is "not accessible to direct scientific scrutiny," then why could it not also have radiated neutrons which could have transformed some C-13 into recent C-14, distributed non-uniformly over the Shroud surface (1989: 594)? Gove offers several reasons why "no scientist has taken Phillips' neutron irradiation idea seriously" (1996: 302). Gove avers that, presumably, the hypothetical extra radiocarbon "would be greater closer to the image where this postulated production of neutrons occurred," maximized axially along the length of the cloth (1996: 301). Following Phillips, Gove adds that such alleged adjustment to the carbon ratios would presumably give the Shroud "a much later radiocarbon age" (1996: 300-301).
However, Phillips' speculations do not conform with the world of science, even if "in the world of miracles anything can happen" (Gove 1996: 301). Critics point out that Phillips offers "no plausible mechanism" (Hedges 1989: 594), and "no plausible scientific explanation of how a biological system could produce neutrons" (Gove 1996: 300). Gove could only agree with Phillips' claim that "resurrections had never been studied scientifically" (1996: 300). Yet this leaves in abeyance the deeper question of how such an event and implicated objects could ever be studied scientifically. To invoke some supernatural explanation would effectively transgress the boundaries of natural science, Hedges rejoined, rendering it "pointless to make any scientific measurement on the shroud at all" (1989: 594). Correct as this assessment may be, the argument cuts both ways for the Shroud. As Weisskopf noted, perhaps it would have been better for science not to have become involved in this particular case. Upon reflection, Gove concurs that "although there are questions that science can answer, there are some it should not even try to answer" (1996: 279). Perhaps some questions are, indeed, beyond the scope of science to answer definitively.
Whatever mechanism one might offer for the hypothetical thermal neutron flux, it was Hedges' "amazing coincidence," Gove contends, that proved most devastating to Phillips' idea. Namely, that the "neutron dose should be so exactly appropriate to give the most likely date on historical grounds" (Hedges 1989: 594). Had there been such a dose, a "sample taken closer to the image would have produced an even more modern date--even a date into the future!" (Gove 1996: 302). Gove concludes that the "fact that the samples were taken at just the right spot on the shroud to produce its historic date" implies that such a "fine-tuned" dose of neutrons is unnecessary and most unlikely (1996: 300, 302).
Nevertheless, even if it is inherently unlikely that a late thermal neutron flux event actually occurred, enhancing the radiocarbon content, and thereby skewing the dating results to the young side, one may not conclude that the pre-cleaning methods excluded this as a real possibility. Science must draw its conclusions according to the alternatives with the greatest likelihood. But, scientists cannot refute on this basis the presence of excess radiocarbon. This is, and remains, an assumption. Science, by its very methodology, affirms what seems to be the more likely prospect when weighing probabilities. Hence, one would conclude that no excess radiocarbon was present. However, this still leaves open the question concerning the role of cleaning procedures. Recent findings suggest that some recent radiocarbon actually eludes the "acid-base-acid cleaning method employed on the shroud samples," since this procedure seems to leave "the bio-plastic coating intact" (Gove 1996: 308).
An alternative, less restrictive interpretation of the same data would simply state that there was a higher count of radiocarbon than would be consistent with a cloth over 2,000 years old. Such a more neutral conclusion would probably have been drawn had a future date actually been obtained, as some expected, had samples been taken from the image area instead. Indeed, this would have been a fair statement of the actual scientific data. Formulated in this manner, it would leave open the question as to why there was too much radiocarbon relative to the stable carbon on the linen cloth. Regrettably, for the Turin Shroud, this "door" for the interpretation of scientific data was simply slammed shut. The relatively high radiocarbon ratios were interpreted exclusively as evidence of younger origin. That another interpretation might be even conceivable was discounted. In the rush to judgment, the conclusion was drawn that the Turin Shroud was medieval. Yet even the narrow path of science did not dictate such a deduction from the limited data. The question could have been left open. Given the broader perspective incorporating other scientific and historical evidence, it probably would have been the wiser path to follow.
THE IMAGE REVISITED
Controversial as the dating of the cloth may be, the issues surrounding the image on the cloth are perhaps even more complex and intriguing. It is possible that these two problems may be intrinsically connected, after all. As mentioned, the image on the cloth is confined to the uttermost surface, yet deeper in the fibrils lies blood staining, quite undisturbed (Stevenson & Habermas 1990: 29, 205). Simple singeing cannot produce such an image, leaving its unusual 3- D aspect as yet unexplained. The fine photographic detail defies any known pointillistic skill as artistry. The image on the cloth is, in effect, a photographic negative, rich in resolution capacity.
It is this image which has been tracked by Wilson and others in terms of religious art history and iconography. The "Byzantine tradition dates such a cloth back to the fourth or fifth century, if not earlier," maintains the sindologist, Currer-Briggs, whatever the carbon dating determination of the Turin Shroud, previously considered to be one and the same cloth (1995: 142-43). Most of the early history of the Shroud was concerned with the facial image. One of the details which has been traced to pre-medieval times was the phylactery box. It appears on paintings as early as the sixth century (Wilson 1991:167-68). This rather unique iconographic feature is clearly present on the Shroud in both its negative and positive aspects.
Extensive research was conducted by medical experts over the years to analyze and verify the features exhibited by the image on the Shroud (Barbet 1953; Zugibe 1988). Many questions remain unanswered, but there is evidence of almost overwhelming detail regarding the signs of suffering undergone by the Man in the Shroud. Yet the physiognomy exhibits great regality and peace. In general, the fact that the actual image resides only on the surface of the cloth fibres is one difficulty which any proposed mechanism of image formation must overcome. There is no penetration, only cellulose oxidation-dehydration, which has been designated as "advanced [cloth] decomposition" (Stevenson & Habermas 1990: 205). This fact alone challenges any and all attempts to account for the image in terms of artistic pigments, however microscopically these may be applied.
Curiously, while the image itself is confined to the extreme surface of the linen cloth, the traces of blood stains which have been identified and clearly penetrate into the fibres, are not smeared or otherwise marred in any way. The fact that there is no evidence of "damage to the image fibrils" indicates that the body has been, as it were, removed prior to any decomposition (Stevenson & Habermas 1990:137). Yet, had the body been removed by human agency, tearing and other damage to the cloth fibres would inevitably have occurred. This scientific finding is considered strong evidence for an unprecedented event whereby the body simply disappeared (Stevenson & Habermas 1990:137).
Various attempts have been made over the years to account for how the image might have been produced. Early suggestions included vapors and body emanations (Vignon 1902). But, apart from the difficulty in accounting for the production of any image in this way, the remarkable detail itself makes these untenable options. Two standard alternatives have been offered, neither of which seems viable. One is the bas-relief theory, as if the Shroud were a brass rubbing (Nickell 1983). Among the more obvious dilemmas is the evident lack of distortion of the sort that would be expected if direct contact had been involved between body and cloth. The other suggestion is that the Shroud is an artistic painting of some kind (McCrone 1981: 35). A more recent account suggests that even the 3-D effect can be explained by modifying the carbon dust drawing technique, available for centuries, so that "a 13th or 14th century artist could have created the image on the Turin cloth," except for the details (Craig & Bresee 1994: 67). Why such explanations are less than credible is discussed in considerable detail by John Ray in "Not Made by Hands" (1996: 3).
The obvious question arises: Could the image have been a photograph? Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince claim to have "recreated the method used" by Leonardo da Vinci in 1492, when he secretly faked the "image on the Turin Shroud" in his own image, allegedly as part of a Papal plot (1994: 68, 171-78). If true, Leonardo's renowned inventiveness would require historical revision to include photography as well as a cloth-dating technique to intentionally select linen 150 years old (Gove 1996: 307). After all, it was the strong correlation found between the measured date and the historic date that had proved so devastating to Phillips' idea (Gove 1996: 301). So, then, how was the image produced, if not by human hands? The simple fact is that no one knows. But evidence seems to be accumulating for some type of discrete impact phenomenon, which may have involved light or particle-type radiation. Some even propose that the image formation may have been similar to the "flash photolysis" silhouette effect documented at Hiroshima, which has thus far "evaded scientific explanation" (Zugibe 1988: 175).
Several other aspects of the image on the Shroud also require attention. The image is nearly pointillistic in its formation. Recent research has identified the "pixel" aspect of the radiation impact. The image seems rather a constellation of individual image pixels, each exhibiting a step function character, and each produced individually in some manner. The high resolution photography that this image permits is but one manifestation of the extreme "pixel" character of the original. These image forming "pixels" are "optically terminated," that is, sharply defined at their ends (Moran 1995: 13). Further, the pixels seem to be "the result of particle radiation," whereby the radiation is not diffuse but specific and targeted (Moran 1995:14). It appears as if each atom or molecule were responsible for its own pixel. Hence, it is difficult to account for these technical observations according to standard scientific knowledge.
Finally, the image forming process, whatever it was, seems to have occurred nearly instantaneously. John Jackson observed certain "distortion" features of the body image, which suggest that the body was "collapsing" vertically even as it disappeared. Jackson conjectures that "as the Shroud collapsed through the underlying body, radiation emitted from all points within that body discolored the cloth so as to produce the observed image" (1992: 339). Such distortion would apparently require an extremely rapid process, as if the image were recording the vertical collapse of the body even in the act of disappearance. It is difficult to avoid associating such an "act of disappearance" with some type of dematerialization process, presumably of the weak variety. Theoretically, nucleon decoupling would effectively require overcoming the strong nuclear force. The ensuing pion decay would naturally release heavy electrons (muons) that could yield discrete impact events. There are problems, of course, with this scenario. It is easy to dismiss any such "nuclear flash theory" out of hand, since it violates common sense and the laws of physics as known today (Picknett & Prince 1994: 46, 140).
Yet, Jackson, for one, is quite explicit that physics might "have to be modified in order to accommodate" his "unconventional hypothesis," while hoping that the latter will not be rejected merely on the subjective grounds that it is unconventional (1992: 344). In Jackson's view:It might be that a simple piece of cloth, known as the Shroud of Turin, represents a valid case for rethinking certain concepts of modern science. To this end, I would encourage my colleagues in science to realize that the image on the Shroud of Turin is far from being defined by one radiocarbon test, but could be one of history's greatest scientific puzzles (1992: 344).
A PARABLE FOR MODERN TIMES?
No single piece of evidence seems capable thus far of proving or confirming scientifically beyond question the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. The role of faith and belief inherent in the assessment and interpretation of evidence in general is all the more crucial and perplexing in this exceptional instance. At present, many bits of evidence seem to point in the same direction, in contrast to the radiocarbon dating results. Indeed, radiocarbon results which suggest that the cloth is young cannot rule out, except by assumption, the possibility--though improbable, and perhaps even an unlikely one--that secondary radiocarbon (recent C-14) is co-present in the cloth. At the very least, this should render the Turin Shroud an improper subject for such a dating technique. In retrospect, it is puzzling why the issue of suitability was not explored more fully before science began to wrestle with the Shroud.
Apart from the question of any non-uniformity in radiocarbon distribution, the mere presence of recent C-14 in the cloth might well account for the "strange" dating results obtained. An "autoradiograph" emulsion could be used to check the uniformity of the radiocarbon distribution. However, no photographic plate method would be useful for radiocarbon dating itself, as proposed by Walter McCrone in 1973 (Gove 1996:18). Most scientists would probably accept the results at face value, consider the question "settled," and see no need to recognize a possible "late" thermal neutron flux event that could allegedly have enhanced the radiocarbon content of the specimen (Gove 1996: 303). For these scientists, the dating is not anomalous. Yet, it may well turn out in the long run that, properly assessed, the 1988 dating result may actually assist in understanding the real significance of the Shroud of Turin. This is so, since "even now, frail and discredited as it may seem," concludes Wilson, the Shroud may actually be "part of a cosmic drama not yet played out" (1991: 189). Perhaps it is also time to recall the Biblical promise that: "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world" (John 1: 9).
One beneficial consequence of the new symbiotic relationship, as science wrestles with the Shroud, albeit an unintended one, would be a deeper appreciation of this icon or relic as well as of the reality which science may disclose. While the Shroud of Turin may suggest various facets of a deeper, hidden reality, not directly accessible nor provable in any traditional sense by science, of equal interest is how compelling it is for both proponents and critics to establish or refute its authenticity. Paradoxically, all attempts to explain the Shroud away are as defective, ultimately, as the attempts to authenticate it. Yet the Shroud persists in providing a message.
It is in this quintessential, deeper, spiritual sense that the Shroud of Turin may be viewed as a parable for modern times. The Shroud seems heuristically to be pointing beyond human limitations to know. Throughout His earthly life, Jesus spoke in parables, which in Aramaic may be translated as "riddles." How appropriate, then, that He should have left such a magnificent conundrum for posterity. If Jesus Christ was crucified and buried in that linen cloth, and subsequently resurrected while enshrouded within this quasi-undeveloped film, then these events must perforce be taken into consideration when scrutinizing the Shroud of Turin. To construe the Shroud as being merely another piece of cloth may deflect, but not reduce, the mystery.
Despite various critiques alleging all manner of counterfeit and sham, the Shroud of Turin remains an enigmatic bequest, accessible ultimately only by an act of faith in Jesus Christ. To expect that one could either prove or disprove the Resurrection event by mere human ingenuity and reason would be idolatrous. Yet something about this event may ultimately deepen our appreciation of the Turin Shroud. To interpose science as an adjudicator of faith would be but a reflection of human pride. But, perhaps an even greater error would be to interpose the Shroud itself. Perceived idolatry, the bane of the Knights Templar, sealed their fate. Faith in Christ should not depend upon any sort of idol, sacred or profane. Believing in the Shroud for its own sake could turn it into just another golden calf. Only by keeping one's spiritual priorities straight can one avoid this subtle danger. Indeed, this may be considered the single most important dilemma for the Shroud (Stevenson & Habermas 1990: 147). Whatever function it might have, the Shroud must not become the object of one's faith or a condition for faith.
In the Christian tradition, deep faith is ever open to the wideness of God's mercy. With humility, it accepts the faithfulness of His sustaining hand exhibited in the law-like behavior of the universe. While structured, God's Creation yet yawns with an unspeakable range of novelty oft capable of transforming that same reality within which man remains inwrought, before our very eyes. And, this, unrestricted by the poverty of our range of expectations. The Shroud of Turin might be confronting man with a glimpse of a portentous, deeper reality--a veiled hint of glory revealed through faith in ways one may appreciate, if not totally understand or comprehend. Christ clearly would manifest Himself only to those who believe. That was the implication of His somewhat cryptic response to his disciple, Jude Thaddeus, who asked: "Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?" (John 14: 22). Jesus answered him, "those who love me will keep my word" (John 14: 23). Neither blind faith nor perfunctory belief can substitute for heart-felt faith, laced with love.
Such utter faith traces the steps of one Blaise Pascal who wagered that the less-traveled road of patent openness was the wiser path to follow. One willing to share with Dante's humble pilgrim in his quiet meditation upon that blessed countenance dares ask: "My Lord Jesus Christ, very God, was this then your true semblance" (Divine Comedy ca 1300: Paradiso 31)? While pondering, yet expecting no reply other than the welcome warmth of His gentle gaze. For, in the twilight zone twixt faith and reason, this Silent Witness, this Divine Artist, beckons ultimately to the heart, finally become open to receive His poignant message of unconditional love.
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Thaddeus J. Trenn teaches in the science and religion program, Victoria College, University of Toronto, 73 Queen's Park Crescent, Toronto, ON M5S 1K7, Canada.
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