There is good news and bad news about the Shroud of Turin, but neither is what you might think.
The good news is that this ancient object of Christian devotion, which Pope John Paul II called a “special witness” to the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, will be available for viewing by pilgrims again this spring in Turin, Italy.
The bad news is that scientists continue to make “discoveries” about the shroud that are shared with the media before they are subjected to the rigor of science. Some of these discoveries attempt to debunk the shroud — but not all.
The Shroud of Turin is considered by many to be the cloth that Jesus was buried in, and therefore the cloth that wrapped him as he rose from the dead.
John and Rebecca Jackson of the Shroud Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., caution interested Catholics to beware innovative theories about the shroud that have not been peer reviewed and to focus instead on the fundamental question of the shroud’s authenticity.
An Italian scientist claims to have recreated the shroud, suggesting it’s a fake, while a French researcher, Thierry Castex, believes the shroud once wrapped the body of Christ — but claims to have discovered writing on the shroud.
University of Pavia, Italy, chemistry professor Luigi Garlaschelli, announced to the press that he and assistants “have shown it is possible to reproduce something which has the same characteristics as the shroud.” Reuters reported that he announced the findings before sharing them with other scientists or testing them through peer review.
Garlaschelli and his team, who Catholic News Agency reports were funded by an Italian association of atheists and agnostics, created their image by placing linen over a volunteer before rubbing it with a pigment called ochre with traces of acid.
While the experiment did create an impressive image, Jackson pointed out that there are serious deficiencies in the test. The Turin Shroud contains no pigment residue, even microscopic, like the reproduction is thought to; the reproduction has blood applied after the image, not before as on the Turin Shroud; and the reproduction image is flat, not three-dimensional like the Turin Shroud is.
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of The Skeptical Inquirer , which is devoting an issue of the magazine next spring to debunking the shroud. But he questioned the Italian experiment. “Just because the Shroud of Turin could have been faked doesn’t mean that it was faked,” he said.
“When it comes to holy relics, believers do themselves no favors by either being credulous about the authenticity of the pieces, or by defending them when the scientific evidence is obviously against them,” he told Our Sunday Visitor in an e-mail interview. “Similarly, blind debunking is almost as bad. Anyone can be skeptical of a claim. It takes no work or evidence at all to doubt something. Thus the goal must be open-minded inquiry, following the evidence with an open mind.”
“To be completely closed off to the possibility of a miracle is just as bad as being completely accepting of one,” he added. “Neither extreme is scientific.”
Castex says that this is not what is happening in his case. He says he worked with Barbara Frale, an Italian historian working in the Vatican Secret Archives, on his project. Frale published a book on the experiment last month.
Castex treated photographs of the shroud and found what appear to be ancient Aramaic letters.
“I sent my pictures with writings to two eminent specialists in Hebrew language, professor Simone Venturini, teacher of biblical Hebrew at Santa Croce University of Rome, and professor Emile Puech, director of the Ecole Biblique de Jerusalem,” said Castex. “They said the word ‘found’ is clear, but there are two other letters that mean ‘because’ or maybe ‘we have.’”
He said the wording evokes the Gospel of Luke: “We found this man misleading our people” (Lk 23:2). The International Center of Studies on the Shroud of Turin has agreed to publish his findings, Castex said.
John and Rebecca Jackson at the Turin Shroud Center in Colorado are among the world’s foremost experts on the shroud. In 1978, John Jackson led a team of more than 30 scientists to examine the shroud firsthand. With a doctorate in physics, he has held teaching positions at both the U.S. Air Force Academy and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
He has amassed research that points to the authenticity of the shroud. Mechthild Flury-Lemberg, a textile expert, found a “three-to-one, herringbone pattern” in the cloth’s weave, consistent with first-century fine cloth and identical to cloth in the tombs of Masada, the Jewish fortress that dates to the same time period as Christ. The weaving pattern also appears to be drawn on a picture of the shroud from 1192 — centuries before carbon dating experiments time-stamped the shroud.
His wife, Rebecca Jackson, has also lectured and presented extensively on the shroud. Born in New York to Orthodox Jewish parents, she contributes more than 35 years of research into Jewish migration and customs to the center’s work.
By applying careful tests, John Jackson has sought to disprove or leave standing the hypothesis that the shroud was not only the burial cloth of Christ, but also the tablecloth at the Last Supper.
He said he has disproven other theories about the shroud: Coin imprints some saw on the eyes of the image weren’t really there; the image of a rope turned out to be a water stain.
Jackson worried that the more the shroud is taken into tangents of research, the more difficult it will be to answer the most important question: The question of its authenticity.
“The question of authenticity is so important,” he said, “that we don’t want to bring in ideas or so-called research that can get in the way and then get viewed by antagonists of the shroud to debunk the whole process of trying to find good, authenticity arguments for the shroud.”
Like the skeptic Radford, believers like the Jacksons say the scientific community has to treat with caution claims made about the shroud — both for it and against it.
John Jackson pointed to specific problems with the Italian debunking experiment. He and Rebecca both pointed to a more fundamental problem.
“There was no peer review,” she said. “Instead, they have a publicity blitz. They get more publicity than if they brought this stuff to peer review. We bring everything to peer review first. The idea was released in the public media and that’s really no way to deal with a serious discussion of the research.”
“Good research takes time,” said John Jackson, “Literally years, depending on your funding sources and the nature of the research. I’m not saying we’re infallible. But if all you hear is the person promoting the idea, any idea sounds good. But you also have to hear the counter argument for it as well.”
“Once you put this in print, there’s no saying you’re sorry,” said Rebecca Jackson. “Now you’ve got a publisher who has put lots of money into books and you spend time justifying your mistake. That’s why we’re so careful in what we do.”
That’s a very difficult issue to address in a competent matter.
“If this is the burial cloth of Christ, then this is the resurrection cloth of Christ,” said John Jackson. “If that’s true, then what we are dealing with is something that was in contact with the resurrected Christ.”
“To us,” he said, “the shroud is important and we don’t want to just go off and present something to the public without what we would consider to be significant backup.”
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.
Turin Plans Showing (sidebar)
The Vatican announced that the Shroud of Turin will be displayed in the Turin Cathedral in 2010, from April 10 to May 13, offering the public the first opportunity to see the shroud since it underwent major cleaning and restoration in 2002. The work involved removing 30 fabric patches and a fabric backing, known as the Holland Cloth, sewn onto the shroud in 1534 after a fire.
The last time the Shroud was displayed was in 2000 for the jubilee year.
Pope Benedict XVI will pray privately in front of the Shroud during a May 2 visit that will include an outdoor Mass, a visit with a group of sick people and an evening gathering with young people.
A number of U.S. groups, including the Turin Shroud Center, are planning pilgrimages. Some of them include:
"Shroud of Turin: Material Evidence" (sidebar)
An hourlong BBC documentary, including interviews with John and Rebecca Jackson of the Turin Shroud Center, presents the latest developments. It can be downloaded for £5.99 (a little less than $10) at www.silentwitness2.com.