All four gospels mention the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. The Shroud of Turin is believed by many to be that burial cloth. It is etched with the image of a man that was scourged, crowned with thorns, crucified, and lanced in the side. If it is real, it provides archeological evidence of the most consequential event in human history—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Pope Francis plans to venerate the Shroud this summer, just as his predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict did. The Pope has called for it to be displayed in Turin from April 19 to June 24 and he will view it personally on June 21. My husband Mark and I, and 6 of our 10 kids will make the trip there this spring. Thus, it was with particular interest that I previewed Examining the Shroud of Turin, the first segment of CNN’s 6-part series titled Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery which will air this Sunday at 9 PM EST.
The documentary examines artifacts from the life of Jesus through worldwide experts in science, archeology, history and theology. The first episode asks: Is the Shroud of Turin the actual burial cloth of Jesus Christ or is it a fake?
If it is the burial cloth of Jesus, then it was Pontius Pilate who unwittingly began the journey of the Shroud as the most revered and controversial relic in history. It was he who gave Joseph of Arimathea permission to take down the body of Christ from the cross. Joseph donated his own burial cloth and tomb. He, together with Nicodemus–both prominent members of the Jewish ruling body, the Sanhedrin–took Jesus from the cross, wrapped him in linen and laid him in the tomb.
The historical records concerning the Shroud prior to the 14th century are not definite, opening its authenticity to question and leading some to call it a forgery. And so we must rely on scientific, historical, and archeological study to tell the story.
Candida Moss, Ph.D., a theology professor in New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame was one of the consultants and commentators for the documentary. She has degrees from both Oxford and Yale and specializes in the study of relics, martyrdom, and the early Christian Church. Moss noted that evidence for the Shroud as truly the burial cloth of Jesus is very strong, but the Catholic Church has never definitively declared it so.
“When you look at Ecclesiastical statements made by the popes, they have never said the Shroud is authentic, but only that it’s worthy of veneration,” she said. “That is one of the things that the Catholic Church does well—to hold back and do their due diligence.”
The documentary explains that many who have dismissed the Shroud as a fake, point to the carbon dating in 1988. The testing dated the Shroud as coming into existence between 1260 and 1390. Scientists present those results in the film but other experts challenge that conclusion citing possible bacterial contamination of the cloth as has happened with burial shrouds from Egyptian Pharaohs. Carbon dating found them to be centuries younger than their actual known dates.
Another very powerful piece of evidence is presented: the Cloth of Oviedo. It is believed to be the cloth that was placed over the head of Jesus mentioned in the Bible. “Simon Peter, following him, also came up, went into the tomb, saw the linen cloth lying on the ground, and also the cloth that had been over his head; this was not with the linen cloth but rolled up in a place by itself” (John 20:6-7).
The history of this head covering, called the Sudarium, is well documented. It was taken from Palestine in 614 AD to Alexandria, through northern Africa and arrived in Spain in 616 AD where it remains today.
Both burial cloths have the same AB blood type. When compared to one another, the bloodstains match perfectly, showing that it came from the same man. It is noteworthy that the carbon dating on the Sudarium does not agree with that of the Shroud; showing the former as being many centuries older.
Another point against it being a forgery is the discovery that the image of the Shroud is actually a negative. The first photograph of it was taken by Secondo Pia in 1898. While looking at the negative image on the reverse photographic plate, all of a sudden he saw the positive image — he was staring at the face of Jesus! So if it was a fraud, someone would have had to think of creating the image in the negative.
“In looking at the material, I felt there was a lot more on scientific evidence that it could not be a forgery,” Moss said. “For instance, pollens were found on the cloth that came from Palestine and the placement of the nails were in the wrist.” She explained that in medieval times the crucified Christ was portrayed with nail marks in his palms, but historical and scientific research has shown that people were crucified in the wrist—the only possible way it could have held up the body. “If someone was going to make a forgery during that time, it would not have made sense to show the nail marks in the wrist.”
The most compelling evidence, according to Moss, is that despite attempts, no one has been able to recreate it. “When NASA scientists cannot make it, then who can?” she asked.
After the documentary airs, people will have the opportunity write in their questions on the CNN website and scholars will respond online. It premiers Sunday, March 1 at 9 PM EST.