The Shroud of Turin is a 14-foot-long linen cloth with the faint image of a man. Imagine the cloth going from feet to head along a man’s back, then folding over the head to continue back to the feet.
Many Christians think that it is the burial shroud of Jesus and that the supernatural energy of resurrecting his dead body burned an image into the cloth. It first appears in history in 1390 in France and was moved to Turin, Italy in 1578. Fire and water damage from 1532 are visible on the shroud.
Proponents argue that marks from Jesus’s last hours are on the figure—the nail wounds, the scourgings, and the cuts from the crown of throns—but is this the real burial shroud of Jesus?
The first problem is scriptural. This doesn’t match the story of the empty tomb from the Bible.
[Simon Peter] saw the strips of linen lying there [in the tomb], as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. (John 20:6–7)
Strips of linen (presumably for the body) and a separate head cloth is not a single shroud. And there is no evidence besides the shroud itself to imagine that first-century Jews buried their dead that way.
They took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. (John 19:40)
This wasn’t just a pinch of spice—it was 75 pounds worth (John 19:39). And yet we see no evidence of all this spice applied to the body in the shroud image.
Next, an artistic problem. If a linen cloth were laid over a prone person, it would drape over the face. That is, it would wrap around to some extent.
A typical man’s face is roughly six inches wide. But it’s more like eleven inches from one ear, across the face, to the other ear. Granted, the shroud wouldn’t be vacuum-sealed to hug the face completely. But we would expect to see some wraparound distortion to the image when the shroud was later laid flat. The image is actually thinner than an ordinary person, not wider, as it ought to be.
Could this have been a hoax or some other fake? Traffic in holy Christian relics was common during the medieval period—it’s been said that there were enough pieces of the cross to build a ship and enough nails from the crucifixion to hold it together. And this wasn’t the only shroud—history records forty of them. Obviously, at least 39 of these must be false.
In fact, our first well-documented discussion of the shroud in 1390 states that it is a forgery and that the artist was known.
(An aside: I’ve written before about the apologists’ Naysayer Argument, that the gospel story must be true because, if it weren’t, we’d have rebuttals from contemporaries. The Shroud debate nicely defeats this argument. Our oldest reliable source is a rebuttal of the supernatural claim of the shroud, and yet this obviously didn’t eliminate Christian belief.)
Many problems argue against the shroud being the real thing. Carbon dating says that the linen is from the 1300s, there is evidence of tempera paint creating the image, 2000-year-old blood should be black and not red, pollen on the shroud seems to be only from Europe and not also Israel, the weave of the fabric doesn’t appear to be authentic, and so on. Christian apologists have a different way to rationalize away each of these problems, but the most economical explanation, the one that neatly explains the evidence, is that it’s a fake.
There’s a surprisingly large amount of information on this topic. It is clearly important for a lot of people. The best that can be said of the shroud is that we can’t prove that it wasn’t the burial cloth of Jesus. But that’s no reason to believe that it was, at least for anyone who cares about evidence.
Photo credit: Wikimedia
- John C. Snider, “The Joe Nickell Files: The Shroud of Turin,” SciFiDimensions blog, 2004.
- “Joe Nickell – Paranormal Investigator,” Truth Driven Thinking podcast, 5/10/06.
- Joe Nickell, “Claims of Invalid ‘Shroud’ Radiocarbon Date Cut from Whole Cloth,” Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, 3/2/05.
- “Scientists say Turin Shroud is supernatural,” just one of many threads on the discussion board of the James Randi Education Foundation.
- “‘Shroud’ of Turin,” Skeptic’s Dictionary.
- Shroud of Turin for Journalists web site.
- Shroud of Turin web site.