Freethought Almanac

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August 25: Forging the Shroud of Turin (1978)

Shroud of Turin (1978)

A face in the Shroud?

It was on this date, August 25, 1978, that the famous Shroud of Turin, still venerated as the burial cloth of the crucified Jesus, went on public display for the first time in 45 years. Since 1578 the shroud, or sindon, has been housed at Turin, where it is only displayed publicly at long intervals. Its first mention in history dates from this time.

In the past, there was some competition from other shrouds impressed with the figure of Jesus – at Besançon, Cadouin, Champiègne, Xabregas, and other places – which also claimed to be the authentic linen sindon provided by Joseph of Arimathea, but the Turin shroud is the most famous. Pope Julius II accepted the Shroud at Turin as genuine in his Bull "Romanus Pontifex" (25 April 1506), as did his predecessor, Sixtus IV. But the Catholic Encyclopedia is parsimonious in its credulity:

...the claim is made that it is the actual "clean linen cloth" in which Joseph of Arimathea wrapped the body of Jesus Christ (Matthew 27:59). This relic, though blackened by age, bears the faint but distinct impress of a human form both back and front. The cloth is about 13 1/2 feet long and 4 1/4 feet wide [4.6 x 1.1 meters]. If the marks we perceive were caused by a human body, it is clear that the body (supine) was laid lengthwise along one half of the shroud while the other half .was doubled back over the head to cover the whole front of the body from the face to the feet.

The full monty

In 1988, a team of experts from three universities – Oxford University, the University of Arizona, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology – each independently tested and dated the cloth to around 1350. Yet numerous books and websites accuse these recognized experts of being fools or biased. They were neither, and their conclusions are solid. Joe Nickell, who collaborated with scientific and technical experts on his Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (2nd Ed., 1992) and Walter McCrone, a microchemist, in his Judgment Day for the Shroud of Turin (1999), both demonstrate that the shroud is a medieval fake. Nickell even duplicated the method he thinks was used to create it.

Shroud supporters say there is type AB blood on the shroud. Yet scientists have found none. And even if there were blood on the shroud, that would have no bearing on the age of the shroud or on its authenticity: blood could have contaminated the shroud at any time. Besides, dried real blood is black, but the stains on the shroud are red – we mustn't credit too many miracles! Shroud supporters say the cloth has some pollen on it of plants found only in the Dead Sea region of Israel. Yet scientists say the samples tested were lifted from the shroud with sticky tape and came to their examiner second-hand: they could have been introduced at any time. Shroud supporters say they detect impressions of flowers on the shroud that could only have come from Israel. Yet scientists say this is probably a simulacrum – they can't see the images, as they are hidden within mottled stains.

Cafeteria Thinking or Food for Thought?

Since this posting first appeared in 2003, it develops that there are a number of “true believers” in the field of “sindonology” or shroud study. One who criticized this writing directly is the “Shroud of Turin Blog,” entitled “Freethought or Cafeteria Thinking?” An excerpt was introduced thus: “Here is how Ronald Bruce Meyer celebrated yesterday on his Freethought Almanac with extraordinary cafeteria thinking. Maybe that is what Freethought means: pick out fact you like and ignore the rest.”

Cafeteria thinking? I’m guessing that means I select what I want and don’t buy the rest. That’s somewhat true: I tend to select the stuff that’s supported by evidence and use Occam’s Razor to disregard the rest. But if there is no chain of custody for the shroud before 1390, if there is a record of the artist confessing to Bishop Pierre d’Arcis (memorandum to Antipope Clement VII), if the image itself shows no distortion from wrapping, if the image itself is not only anatomically flawless but anatomically unlikely unless created by an artist, if the depiction on the cloth is of a 6' (180cm) male (1st century Middle Eastern males rarely exceeded 5'5"/168cm height), if the depiction on the cloth bears a remarkable resemblance to medieval depictions of Jesus created by artists of the 14th century, if no examples of the cloth’s herringbone weave are known from the 1st century CE, if John Calvin himself suspected a forgery (Treatise on Relics, 1543), if the “blood” is red like ochre paint and not black like real dried blood, if the C-14 dating shows an origin in the 14th century and the best the shroud believers can do is claim the scientists testing it are incompetent, if the best guesses for how the image got on the cloth are radiation bursts and other magic and miracles, then, yes, I use cafeteria thinking. What other thinking can I use?

But let’s say for the sake of argument that the cloth dates from the 1st century CE. What of it? It does not follow that the image on the cloth dates from the same time – it could have been imposed later. It does not follow that the image on the cloth is that of the biblical Jesus. It does not follow that the biblical Jesus rose from the dead or even that Jesus ever existed. One must not make too many assumptions based on a cloth of uncertain provenance, uncertain alteration and uncertain authenticity. Unless, of course, you simply wish to believe the Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth of Jesus. But if that’s not “cafeteria thinking” in itself, the evidence seems to point to wishful thinking.

Originally published August 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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