William Keenan says scientists are reassessing the claim that the Turin Shroud is a medieval fake
In making a special visit to Turin to pray before the Holy Shroud last week, Pope Benedict was giving a clear message to the world: that he believes the Holy Shroud is the burial cloth of Christ.
Once again this 14-foot long linen cloth, which contains the back and front image of a man who has been scourged over all his body, crowned with thorns and crucified, is the focus of worldwide interest and controversy. And once again there will be claims that it is a fake.
What first comes to most people’s minds when the Shroud is mentioned is the much-publicised 1988 carbon-14 dating of the Shroud by laboratories in Oxford, Zurich and Arizona which all came up with similar results, dating it from between 1260 and 1390.
The scientists involved, especially the English, seemed to take a smug and superior delight in declaring the cloth only 600 to 700 years old. The scientists also authoritatively informed the world through their press conference that it couldn’t possibly be the burial cloth of Christ, but was a “medieval fake”. And so the world could be left in no doubt to as to the true date of the Shroud there was above their heads a blackboard on which was chalked 1260-1390, followed by an exclamation mark.
For 21 years this became the generally accepted view. But soon after the carbon dating results were announced reports began circulating that the Shroud had been invisibly mended in the area from which the carbon 14 samples had been taken. This was ignored.
It was not until 10 years later, in 1998, that Turin’s scientific adviser, Piero Savarino, spoke about “extraneous substances found on the samples and the presence of extraneous thread left over from invisible mending routinely carried on in the past on parts of the cloth in poor repair”. These, he said, might have accounted for an error in the carbon 14 dating. Two American Shroud researchers, Sue Benford and Joe Marino, were also working on the same idea. They discovered that the art of invisible repairing, known as French reweaving, was commonly used in the Middle Ages to repair tapestries. Could this be the case with the Shroud?
They obtained close-up photographs of the cloth and submitted them to three textile experts who did not know they were examining the Shroud. All three were independently of the opinion that the cloth seemed to have been rewoven. And this was the area from which the carbon dating samples had been taken. After further studies Benford and Marino were convinced that 16th-century cotton had been interwoven with the original first-century linen.
Their findings upset one of America’s leading scientists. Ray Rogers, a Fellow of the University of California, Los Alamos National Laboratory and a charter member of the Coalition for Excellence in Science Education, Rogers had been a member of the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP). This was a team of 24 American scientists who analysed the cloth for five days and nights, using equipment on loan from numerous space-age labs. They proved conclusively that the image could not possibly be the work of a medieval artist as some people had claimed. There was no paint or any other colouring substance to be found anywhere on the cloth. But more sensational was their findings that there were bloodstains containing human haemoglobin from actual wounds. And they identified them as blood group AB.
But after the 1988 carbon dating results Rogers said he gave up on the Shroud. He was convinced by the carbon dating results that it was a fake. And he argued forcefully, as was his way, that the Shroud was a clever forgery. How it was forged was a complete mystery to him and to science. But he felt he would love to know how it had been done.
Benford and Marino’s claim that cotton had been interwoven in the Shroud in the 16th century made him almost explode with anger. They were, he thought, part of “the lunatic fringe” attacking the validity of carbon dating. And they were not even scientists.
Rogers decided to destroy their theory. He had a cloth sample of the Shroud taken from the same section as carbon dating samples.
He rang his friend Barry Schwartz and told him: “I can prove these people wrong in five minutes.” And he went to his laboratory to set about doing so. He then had the shock of his life. He rang Schwartz to say: “Boy I can’t believe it. They are right. There is cotton.” “No one was more shocked that Rogers,” says Schwartz.
Rogers then obtained pieces of the carbon dating cloth samples that had been kept in reserve by the carbon dating labs. He found cotton spliced into the linen.
He also found that the cotton fibres were coated with dye, suggesting they were changed to match the linen during a repair.
His conclusion was that area of the Shroud from which the samples had been taken had been repaired by someone with great skill.
Rogers died of cancer in March 2005 but shortly before his death he made a video in which he said facts had come to light that indicated the Shroud could be genuine and he added: “I came very close to proving the Shroud was used to bury the historic Jesus.” After his death a team of nine scientists led by Robert Villarreal at Los Alamos National Laboratory checked his findings. Using some of the most advanced analytical equipment in the world, they confirmed that “the carbon 14 age-dating process failed to recognise one of the first rules of analytical chemistry that any sample taken for characterisation of an area or population must necessarily be representative of the whole.
“The part must be representative of the whole. Our analyses of the three thread samples taken from the C-14 sampling corner showed that this was not the case.” Most scientists now class the 1988 carbon dating as “the biggest radiocarbon dating mistake ever”. Throughout the Shroud’s history it has been constantly tried and tested in a variety of ways. One of the most amazing references to the Shroud can be found today in a manuscript in the church of St James, Rheims. It was put by Richard La Pie, senior priest of Besancon or St Etienne, in the year 1375 who had himself been an eye witness to what had happened. After a fire at the cathedral of St Etienne where the Shroud was at that time, it disappeared. Some years later it was found again. To make sure it was the same Shroud that had been venerated in the Cathedral of St Etienne it was laid on a dead man who immediately recovered.
The Shroud was then moved to Chambery. On Good Friday 1503 it was taken from Chambery to Bourge-en-Bresse so that it could be seen by the Archduke Philip of Austria who was passing that way. In order to prove that the image of the Shroud was truly the image of Christ the Shroud was submitted to an “ordeal”. It was first plunged into boiling oil over a fire and finally washed several times. It was believed that if the Shroud was genuine the image of Our Lord would not be effaced. Somewhat amazingly the image became clearer and more distinct.
Just under 30 years later the Shroud was subject to another ordeal. At Chambery on the night of December 3 1532 it was nearly destroyed in another fire. Four men broke the locks of the casks it was in and poured water on it. The Shroud, which was folded upon itself 12 times, was burned at the two end of the folds by hot molten silver from the casket. This resulted in 16 large burn holes and 12 smaller ones. But there was little damage to the image. The holes were repaired by the Poor Clare Nuns of Chambery.
The testing of the Shroud will no doubt continue through the ages to come. And the controversies will continue. There will always be many who believe it is a fake, but there will also be a growing number of people who, like Benedict XVI, are firmly convinced it is the burial cloth of Christ.