A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did Jesus really exist? And what's with the Shroud of Turin?

November 22, 1985

NOTE: Cecil was not seeing into the future. This column has been updated since the original publication date.

Dear Cecil:

I know this is a sticky question, but I'll ask anyway: does any solid evidence exist to prove that a Jesus of Nazareth actually lived? And what about the Shroud of Turin — have scientists concluded anything about it?

Cecil replies:

Don't worry about getting me into hot water, Ben. About the only people this column has failed to offend already in its checkered history are left-handed Anabaptists — and just wait till they get a load of next week's blockbuster.

If what you're looking for is proof positive that Jesus Christ lived and breathed — e.g., library card, baby pictures, etc. — you're out of luck. The big guy left no written records, and no accounts of his life were written while he was still alive. The earliest Gospels date from maybe 70 AD, 40 years after his demise.

Still, barring an actual conspiracy, 40 years is too short a time for an entirely mythical Christ to have been fabricated out of (heh-heh) whole cloth. (See below.) Certainly the non-Christians who wrote about him in the years following his putative death did not doubt he had once lived. The Roman historian Tacitus, writing in his Annals around 110 AD, mentions one "Christ, whom the procurator Pontius Pilate had executed in the reign of Tiberius." The Jewish historian Josephus remarks on the stoning of "James, the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ." The Talmud, a collection of Jewish writings, also refers to Christ, although it says he was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier called Panther. Doubts about the historicity of Christ did not surface until the 18th century. In short, whether or not JC was truly the Son of God, he was probably the son of somebody.

As for the Shroud of Turin — well, despite more than 100,000 hours of work by scientists involved in the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), nobody can say for sure what it really is. However, we do have a pretty good idea what it isn't. But first a little background.

For those unfamiliar with it, the Shroud is one of the most famous Catholic artifacts, shall we say, in the world. It's a piece of ivory-colored linen about 14 feet long and 4 feet wide bearing the imprint of the front and back of a man's body. The image is straw-colored and very faint. The two sides of the figure are set head-to-head, suggesting that the man had been placed on the Shroud and that it was then folded over him. The figure has a beard, long hair, and imposing features, and looks much like traditional representations of Jesus.

There are bloodlike stains at the wrists, feet, and side, as though the figure had been crucified and stabbed. The back bears dozens of contusions characteristic of a type of Roman flail in common use during the time of Christ. Other apparent wounds at the shoulder and knees suggest that the man had been carrying a heavy object and had fallen one or more times. There are puncture wounds around the head, possibly inflicted by thorns. There is just one well-known religious figure who fits all these details, and it ain't Confucius.

The Shroud first turned up in 1357, when it was exhibited in a church that had been specially built for that purpose in Lirey, France, by one Geoffrey de Charny. In 1453 one of de Charny's descendants sold the Shroud to the Duke of Savoy, whose family later moved its headquarters, and the Shroud, to Turin. The cloth remained in the custody of the Savoys, who eventually became rulers of Italy, until 1983. The exiled King Umberto, the Shroud's last owner, died in that year, and it was subsequently turned over to the Vatican.

Some have conjectured that the Shroud is the Mandylion, another cloth bearing an imprint of Jesus that disappeared during the sack of Constantinople in 1204. From that point they trace it back to an early Christian town in Turkey and from thence to the Holy Sepulchre.

But there have always been skeptics. Only a short time after the Shroud was put on display in 1357 the local bishop ordered the exhibition stopped on the grounds that the thing was a forgery. The bishop's successor later claimed in a memo that his predecessor had found an artist who admitted to having painted the image. No independent corroboration of this has come to light, but it's not hard to imagine why people were skeptical — the number of "authentic" shrouds that have been displayed at one time or another totals about 40.

Having been exhibited periodically over the centuries, the Shroud was photographed for the first time in 1898. The negatives caused a sensation, and are largely responsible for the hold the Shroud has had on the public imagination ever since. While the image on the cloth is faint and difficult to make out, the image on the negatives is instantly recognizable as a man — basically because it looks like a positive print, with normal gradations of tone, i.e., the highlighted areas are white and the shadowed areas are dark. This implies that the image on the Shroud is a negative of sorts. If the image is the work of a forger, Shroud advocates say, it is hard to imagine why he would adopt such an odd technique.

Subsequent inquiries if anything deepened the conviction that the Shroud was, if not the real McCoy, at least not a fake. Researchers were initially puzzled that there were wounds at the wrist rather than the palm, since Jesus has traditionally been depicted as having been nailed to the cross through the latter. However, experiments in the 30s, some involving cadavers, demonstrated that a nail through the palm will not support the weight of a body, whereas a nail through the wrist will. In 1968 an archaeologist in Israel discovered the skeleton of a man who had been crucified through the wrists, lending credence to the notion that the Shroud is right and two thousand years' worth of paintings are wrong.

In 1976 a researcher at a U.S. government laboratory in New Mexico made an even more startling discovery. Using a computer, he found that the image had a peculiarly three-dimensional quality to it. When a photo of the Shroud was put through a computer analyzer that makes a sort of topographical relief map of an image, with brightness correlated to "height," a remarkable 3-D representation of a man's body resulted. Conventional paintings, and for that matter conventional photographs, don't work that way. Some take this as further proof that the image was not the work of an artist.

Which brings us to STURP. In 1978 a team of American scientists, most of them non-Catholics, was permitted to examine the Shroud round the clock for five days with sophisticated instruments. (One test they were not able to perform was a carbon-14 dating test, which might have resolved the issue right off the bat. Italian authorities feared, erroneously, that too much of the Shroud would have to be destroyed. However, there have been subsequent developments in this regard, which we shall discuss anon.) The STURP researchers concluded as follows:

(1) The image was the result of "dehydrative acid oxidation of the linen with the formation of a yellow carbonyl chromaphore." What this means in English is that the image is the result of an accelerated aging process: the underlying cloth dried out and yellowed. Some call it a scorch.

(2) The Shroud had some dried blood on it, certainly primate, probably human. This took some people by surprise; earlier forensic tests by Italian scientists had failed to find any indication of blood. The STURP conclusion was vigorously disputed by Walter McCrone, a distinguished microscopist, who thought the alleged blood was really iron oxide, a common pigment. More on this is a moment.

The blood did have some odd features about it. It was an unusual color, being a faint carmine rather than the brown one would expect. Moreover, it was difficult to see how it was conveyed from the body to the shroud. The drip pattern indicated that the blood initially flowed while the body was in a vertical position, with the arms stretched out from the sides, as though hanging from a cross. So far so good. The blood must then have been imprinted onto the sheet by direct physical contact. Yet the stains had not smeared as much as one would have expected, nor were there any traces of crusting. For that matter, no wound debris was discovered on the Shroud at all.

(3) The image was not painted by any known means. There were no brush strokes, and no sign of any known dye, pigment, or pigment carrier. Moreover, the image did not sink into the cloth at all, as it would have if borne by a liquid. (The blood, on the other hand, did soak through.)

This conclusion was flatly rejected by Walter McCrone, who told me he had no doubt the shroud was painted. He said water color painting on linen was a well known technique in the 14th century, when the Shroud first appeared.

(4) None of the explanations for the image proposed over the years was entirely satisfactory. Several early investigators, for instance, had suggested the image was caused by vapors rising off the body that resulted from a mixture of burial ointments and urea-laden sweat. Experiments showed that it was possible to produce such "vaporgraphs," but they were far more blurred and diffuse than the image on the Shroud.

Other scenarios were even more implausible, the STURP folks felt. Some true believers suggested that the image was made by "radiation scorch" — i.e., by a burst of energy at the moment of the Resurrection. The Shroud showed no significant amount of radioactivity, and researchers felt that speculating on the possibility of some sort of divine light was beyond the purview of science.

Skeptic Joe Nickell had suggested that the image was created by dusting a statue or body with rouge (finely ground ferric oxide) and then "pulling a print" with the linen cloth. This produces a detailed negative image, but the image consists of an applied substance, which the Shroud image does not. Nickell then suggested that if the ferric oxide "print" were moistened, it would cause the underlying cloth to discolor. The oxide might then be washed off, leaving a permanent image. STURP scientists conceded this was a possibility, but said there is no evidence to suggest that such a technique was ever used prior to the 19th century. (Nickell, on the other hand, claimed the technique dated back at least to the 12th century.)

S.F. Pellicori had proposed a "latent image theory," in which the Shroud was sensitized by contact with a corpse, with the image subsequently "developing" over a period of many years. Pellicori applied a mixture of myrrh, olive oil, and skin secretions to a piece of linen, which he then baked to produce rapid aging. This produced an image whose color and chemical properties are similar to those of the Shroud image. However, it did not have the Shroud image's three-dimensional shading. The STURP scientists acknowledged, however, that a way might be found to overcome this difficulty, and latent imaging remains a promising avenue of inquiry.

Many aspects of the Shroud remained unexplained. For one thing, it is unlike any other shroud of its era, most of which did not exceed eight feet in length. Moreover, it was not draped or wrapped around the body; there is no imprint of the figure's side. In fact, for the three-dimensional shading of the image to make sense, we have to assume that the Shroud was stretched out flat (more or less) above the body — a strange scenario, and one of the reasons some think the Shroud was purposely created, perhaps by some lost process of thermography.

For a while it appeared we'd have to leave it at that. Then in 1986 the Archbishop of Turin announced that the Pope had given his permission to perform carbon-14 tests on the shroud, which would answer the biggest remaining question: how old was the thing? A postage-stamp-size piece of the shroud was snipped off and samples sent to laboratories in three different countries. In 1988 the archbishop announced the results: the linen cloth had been made between 1260 and 1390 AD. Whatever it was, it was not the burial cloth of Jesus.

Not everybody bought this conclusion. Harvard University physicist Thomas Phillips, writing in the journal Nature, argued that if Christ had in fact been resurrected while wrapped in the shroud, a phenomenon known as "neutron flux" would have occurred, throwing off the results of the carbon-14 dating. But come on. If we start from the premise that a miracle occurred, you can arrive at any conclusion you want. Most people, and certainly most scientists, have accepted the idea that the shroud was made not long before it was first put on display in 1357. But how it was made we still have no clue.

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