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Jesus' Shroud? Recent Findings Renew Authenticity Debate

The Shroud of Turin—believed by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus and one of the most venerated relics of the Christian church—was declared a fake in 1988 by three independent scientific institutions. Yet interest in the cloth has remained intense, and new science suggests the shroud deserves another look.

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Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin, an approximately 14 by 3 foot cloth, is bloodstained and imprinted with a faint image of a tortured man's face, hands, and body. Many Christians believe the shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus.

Photograph copyright Barrie M. Schwortz

Raymond Rogers is a retired physical chemist and former leader of the explosives research and development group at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. He proposes that the samples used to date the shroud in 1988 were flawed and the experiment should be repeated. His conclusion is based on a recent chemical analysis of the shroud and previous observations made during a 1978 examination.

Rogers was one of two dozen American scientists who participated in the 1978 Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP)—an intense five-day scientific investigation of the shroud in Turin, Italy.

In 1988 the Vatican allowed postage stamp-size pieces to be snipped from one corner of the shroud and distributed to three laboratories—at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Oxford University in England, and the Swiss Federal Institute in Zurich—for a sensitive form of carbon dating. The results, published in 1989 in the journal Nature, revealed that the fabric was produced between 1260 and 1390.

Dyed and Repaired

In December 2003 Rogers received a sample of the shroud from a physicist colleague who had collaborated on STURP. The sample was taken from the same strip of cloth distributed for carbon dating in 1988.

Using chemical and microscopic analysis, Rogers revealed that a madder dye and mordant and gum mixture had been wiped onto yarn used on that particular corner of the shroud—indicating that the cloth had been repaired. (The mordant gum would have been used to bind the dye to the fibers. Madder dye is derived from the root of the madder plant.)

What's more, these ruby colored madder dye-mordant mixtures did not reach France or England until the 16th century.

"The cotton fibers look like they have been wiped with fuzzy cherry Jell-O, and the linen fibers a little less so," Rogers said. "The area is certainly dyed to match the sepia color of the old [original] cloth. There is ample chemical and microscopic proof of that."

Rogers also found evidence of a "splice site," suggesting that this patch of the cloth had not only been dyed but also repaired and rewoven. He suspects that the dye and repair job was probably done in the Near East during the Middle Ages, coinciding with the carbon dating results.

"The 1988 date was undoubtedly accurate for the sample supplied. However, there is no question that the radiocarbon sampling area has a completely different chemical composition than the main part of the shroud," Rogers said. "The published date for the sample was not the time at which the cloth was produced."

This reinforces the earlier finding of STURP scientists who, using ultraviolet fluorescence, also revealed that the sampled corner was unlike any other region of the shroud and had been excessively handled over the years.

Rogers's analysis of the 2003 sample has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal for publication.

Forging Religious Artifacts

Douglas Donahue, a retired physicist from the University of Arizona, traveled to Turin in 1988 to collect the shroud samples for testing. He was co-director of the National Science Foundation-University of Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory—one of the three labs chosen to date the shroud.

"I'm satisfied with the way it was sampled. We had several textile experts present from a number of countries, and all unanimously agreed that the sample we received was representative of the whole cloth," Donahue said. "It wouldn't be unreasonable to sample other spots of the cloth, though you can understand that they wanted to preserve it and didn't want holes cut all over the place."

Even if carbon dating links the shroud to the first century, proving it belonged to Jesus will still be near impossible—the closest scientists are likely to get is validating the time and place where the cloth and its haunting image were made. The shroud, an approximately 14-foot-by-3-foot (4-meter-by-1-meter) cloth, is bloodstained and imprinted with a faint image of a tortured man's face, hands, and body.

According to the Gospels, Jesus was removed from the cross and placed in a tomb, where he was wrapped in cloth in accordance with Jewish custom. But few, if any, records exist from that time to detail that shroud's whereabouts.

The Shroud of Turin entered public awareness in 1349, when a French knight named Geoffrey de Charny is said to have acquired it in Constantinople (now Istanbul) and brought it to the attention of Pope Clement VI. The shroud was held in a church in Lirey, France, and was first shown publicly in 1355.

More Evidence Contradicts Carbon Dating

Since that first exhibition many have questioned the shroud's authenticity, since forging religious artifacts was big business during medieval times.

The 1988 carbon dating results satisfied many skeptics that the Shroud of Turin was a clever hoax, and the findings stymied further research.

But some scientists have persisted. In 1999 Avinoam Danin, a botanist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, stated at the 16th International Botanical Congress that he found pollen grains on the shroud from plants that could only be found in and around Jerusalem, placing its origins in the Middle East.

Further comparison of the shroud with another ancient cloth, the Sudarium of Oviedo (thought to be the burial face cloth of Jesus), revealed it was embedded with pollen grains from the same species of plant as found on the Shroud of Turin.

The Sudarium even carries the same AB blood type, with bloodstains in a similar pattern. Since the Sudarium has been stored in a cathedral in Spain since the eighth century, the evidence suggests that the Shroud of Turin is at least as old.

Regardless of whether the shroud belonged to Jesus Christ, it lures millions of visitors at each public display.

"Its allure is both scientific and spiritual," said Phillip Wiebe, a professor and chair of philosophy at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. "It's a very mysterious object. How was the image formed and who was on it?"

Wiebe is presenting a lecture, "The Shroud of Turin: Authenticity and Significance for Theology," at the "Man of the Shroud Exhibit" this week at the Good Shepherd Church in Surrey, British Columbia.

Archaeological Triumph

If the image on the Shroud of Turin is a fake, then much mystery remains about how it was created. Some suggest it was painted. But STURP, using methods standard for art analysis, found no evidence of paints or pigments.

"This may well be an artifact of Jesus," said Barrie Schwortz, a photographic, video, and imaging specialist based in Los Angeles, California. Schwortz served as the official documenting photographer for STURP.

When Schwortz embarked on the study, he said, he was highly skeptical. "I fully expected to see brush strokes—essentially a manufactured relic—and walk out," Schwortz said. "But I've followed the science over 30 years. And when you have eliminated other possibilities, the one remaining—no matter how unlikely—must be the truth."

What will carbon dating another sample prove?

"This artifact is very important. It deserves at least as much respect as Ghengis Khan's sword, the Gutenberg Bible, or something like the Rosetta stone," Rogers said. "For me, it is not going to prove the Resurrection or any theological point. But it might bring us a little closer to the truth. And determining the actual date will be a real archaeological triumph."

On TV: Da Vinci and The Mystery of the Shroud airs on the National Geographic Channel Saturday, April 10, at 10 p.m. ET/PT in the United States.

Got a high-speed connection? Watch National Geographic Channel video clips in streaming video.

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