Just what is the Turin Shroud? Isn’t actually a medieval fake? Or is it – as some still maintain, Jesus’ burial cloth, another Christian relic along with the mysterious Holy Grail? Can’t we solve the enigma once and for all? Are we even looking at an image of Jesus? Here is were the story gets truly interesting: when an Italian photographer, Secondo Pia, was commissioned to take a picture of the Shroud in 1898 – for a book on religious art – public fascination was duly aroused. In fact, we were in the grip of a genuine mystery.
Imagine Pia’s surprise when the initial ‘negative’ photographic image did something extraordinary, giving a ‘natural’ three-dimensional effect otherwise invisible. This image, as if we were seeing a sculpture or a bas relief, had been hidden from human eyes ever since we first saw the Shroud. But when, exactly, was that? What do we really know about the origins of infamous Shroud of Turin?
Though the Turin Shroud’s history isn’t certain before the fourteenth century, it is reasonable to assume that Templar knights possessed it, given the reports from when crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204. Committed Christians, of course, want us to believe the Turin Shroud is Jesus’ actual burial cloth. Hence, ever since Seconda Pia’s time in the late nineteenth century, much pious energy has been expended on supporting the Shroud’s authenticity.
Some books, for example, were penned by Catholic author Ian Wilson, who said that the image on the Turin Shroud – created by a flash of atomic energy – was a result of the resurrection miracle. But there are problems here already: a massive burst of radiation like this would impair the fibres, whereas no such damage is evident. Presumably, Wilson doesn’t expect to convince non-Christians that a dubious object of unknown origin (the Shroud) proves an even more dubious event (the Resurrection). So how was the image on the Turin Shroud formed? Let us investigate further.
What about the notorious Shroud blood? Well, this is suspiciously ‘too red’, and anyone who has left blood on a handkerchief knows that the stain grows progressively darker. Plus, if Jesus was still alive – as some conspiracy theorists have it – the ‘blood marks’ from the scalp wouldn’t flow in rivulets, but mat the hair instead. (Blood would also smudge the cloth.) In any case, there is too little blood, as the skin around a forehead bleeds lavishly with only the smallest puncture.
It’s important to note here, too, that the ‘blood’ marks (if they really are blood) appear only on the surface of the fibres under microscopic examination, whereas real blood would soak them. Nevertheless, the original STURP (Shroud of Turin Research Project) team who removed fibres from the Shroud on sticky tape, claimed that real blood (from group AB) was present, along with bilirubin, a blood constituent formed from the breakdown of haemaglobin.
But just whose blood is it? Are we to conclude it must necessarily be that of Jesus? As noted, the issue of whether blood exists on the Turin Shroud at all is controversial. Forensic tests (by neutron activation analysis) failed to find any traces of it. Researcher Joe Nickell draws attention to the ‘suspiciously bright red blood stains which failed a battery of sophisticated tests by forensic serologists’.
Another sceptic was the micro-analyst Walter McCrone whose tests showed not blood but a red iron-oxide which he suggested was from artist’s collagen tempera. (A protein medium that binds pigments, commonly used in fourteenth or fifteenth century Europe.) He concluded it the work of an artist. But – again – the ‘substance’ used to form the image doesn’t penetrate the fibres of the linen and neither blood nor paint behaves like this.
There are other logical problems: for one, the man’s hair frames the face and hangs vertically. (Rather than falling away from the head, as it would with the horizontal body of a dead person laid to rest.) The Turin Shroud image is thus consistent with a figure in an upright pose, surely an anomaly, unless we’re to believe Jesus was buried standing up. Worse still, there are oddities in the image’s dimensions. Apologists have yet to explain why the man is two inches taller on the reverse of the cloth. This prompted one anthropologist to remark dismissively that, in real life, people are just the same height from the front as they are from the back.
Clearly, to establish any kind of authenticity one must call upon the help of science. A ‘carbon-14’ test was finally performed on the Turin Shroud in 1988 by Dr. Michael Tite who announced to the world that it dates from between A.D. 1260-1390. The laboratories were confident of being 95% sure that the Shroud’s origin lay between these dates, and even surer (99.9%) of a provenance ‘from about 1000 to 1500 A.D.’
At the time, the Independent UK broadsheet drily observed that the result was not likely to impinge much on believers, many of whom also revere ‘thousands of relics’ which are the produce of’ medieval tricksters’. Likewise, an Oxford Professor spoke cynically of the ‘multi-million-pound business’ in creating fakes which obtained during the fourteenth century.
According to the tests, then, the Shroud is medieval. Though the error margin from carbon-14 can extend up to six or seven hundred years, Tite’s findings put it nowhere near the first century A.D. – the time of Jesus. It is this one major obstacle that Shroud advocates must overcome. However, they complain that it would have amassed a layer of contaminants, like bacteria from periods of handling and public display and its exposure to a smoke-filled environment (in a fire at Chambery in 1532) could have soiled its fibres with carbon. This may mean that the 1988 tests have been compromised, giving the carbon-dating a bigger margin of error.
Let’s take this issue of contamination altering the result, like the Chambery fire. Walter McCrone denies this could have affected the test and calls the idea ‘ludicrous’, as carbon almost twice the weight of the shroud would have to be added. In any case, the three laboratories involved in the experiment (in the USA, England and Switzerland) used sophisticated and thorough cleaning techniques. If any one of these institutions cleaned their test samples poorly, a different date would have emerged. But all three got the same results. In fact, anyone who doubts the validity of the carbon-dating method must accept that, even if it gives a first century A.D. result, then this might be wrong, too. (Would devout Catholics have questioned the result had it shown a first century date for the Shroud?)
The veracity of the carbon-14 tests was invoked in a BBC documentary in Easter 2008 on the 20th anniversary of the original result. But the real reason was to test a new theory advanced by John Jackson of Colorado’s Turin Shroud Center, who said that contamination with CO1 (carbon monoxide) might affect the original dating. A tiny amount of carbon contamination from CO1 (a mere 2%) could in theory shift the established date to the first century A.D.
However, tests carried out by the Oxford radiocarbon Accelerator Unit showed that nothing had changed. Professor Christopher Ramsey revealed that ‘in normal conditions there is no contamination at the level needed to alter radiocarbon dates at all.’ Hence, there’s no ‘direct evidence that the original radiocarbon measurements were not accurate.’
The Turin Shroud – A Primitive Photograph?
So just how did the image of a man get on to the Turin Shroud? Remember, Walter McCrone thought it was the work of a skilled medieval artist. Apropos of this, art historian Dr Nicholas Allen has asked how an artist could even see what they were painting, for the image is so subtle it can only be discerned from a distance. And one must also explain why the artist created it ‘backwards’, as its features only appear fully in ‘negative’. Seeing it this way would have been impossible at the time. Even so, Dr Allen believes the image is a Middle Age counterfeit, but not a painting; rather, a primitive ‘photograph’, specifically, an example of early photochemistry. Let us investigate.
Allen suggests it was formed using the technique of the camera obscura (lit. ‘darkened chamber’) something not unknown to Europe in the late Middle Ages when experiments with lenses were becoming common. This is all covered in his 2017 book, Turin Shroud: Testament to a Lost Technology, and further critiqued in this downloadable academic paper on Allen’s work. The phenomenon of the camera obscura occurs when an object’s image is reflected and condensed in some way, then projected on to a screen of some kind, as within a cinema.
Suppose a statue in front of a light source is placed a few feet from the side of a house wall. If a small aperture is made in the wall and the correct lens inserted, light from outside is condensed into a beam and projected into the house’s interior. A correctly positioned screen within will then produce the (inverted) image of the lit object. (Art experts believe such a technique was used by Renaissance artists to gain accuracy with portraits – they simply painted over the projected image.)
If, then, the Turin Shroud image was created using camera obscura, a simple light source – the sun, say – would be required. Naturally, a dead body would be needed to produce the image, which must then be suspended from a gibbet of some kind. As outlandish as all of this sounds, Nicholas Allen has performed the experiment with a life-size body cast hung from a wooden frame. For the Shroud he used a linen sheet, but this must also be rendered photosensitive, and was thus soaked in a silver nitrate solution. Again, the technology was not unknown in the medieval world. The Persian alchemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan (d. c. A.D. 815) had written about the effect of adding silver to eau prime, or nitric acid, to produce silver nitrate.
For the fixative, Allen used ammonia, and then two convex crystal lenses (of optical quality quartz) were used as a condenser. These enabled ultra-violet solar rays to combine with chemicals in the fabric, as the image was projected on to a taut sheet of cloth. The body was then placed between the light source and the aperture about four and a half metres distant, giving a life-sized image inside the camera obscura. The closer the object to the lens, the smaller the resulting image on the cloth. (Only a fractional shift in this distance creates large differences.) After four days, a chemical ‘scorch’ appeared on the cloth where the uppermost fibres of the linen had become oxidised. This is precisely what has been discovered on the famous Turin Shroud.
In fact many anomalies on the Turin Shroud are explained by Allen’s experiment with the body on the gibbet. Remember how the Shroud man had to be upright, and how the face is consistent with the Shroud being flat when the image was formed? Allen’s sheet of stretched fabric solves these apparent oddities. The reason why the Shroud man has different dimensions on each side is also resolved by recourse to Allen’s method. The medieval forger, when re-positioning the body for the reverse image, failed to set it in the exact same spot. Hence, the result makes the Shroud man five centimetres longer on one side. More impressive were the results when Allen’s experiment was photographically reversed: the negative has the same ghostly, pastel-like features as our familiar Shroud.
Allen, in short, had made a faithful replica with materials available in the late Middle Ages, with technology that could be used by ‘someone in the know’. The ‘chemical scorch’ Allen produced is in fact pre-echoed when the STURP team were ‘forced to conclude’ that the Turin Shroud image came from ‘a burst of radiant energy, light if you will.’ If the Turin Shroud was made in the way Allen suggests, the ‘burst of radiant energy’ was nothing more miraculous than sunlight.
The claim by some Shroud advocates that a medieval forger couldn’t have possessed the technology to fake it is, therefore, nonsense. Allen says the whole matter of the Shroud’s age could be settled if the Catholic powers permitted a non-destructive test for microscopic amounts of silver. We wait with bated breath for this. Probably in vain.
This is an edited extract from my book, The Christ Enigma: Did Jesus Really Exist?