If we can believe the conclusion of some of the world's greatest experts, it is indeed the most prized relic in history for the one billion Christians in the world. If they are wrong, the Shroud of Turin is perhaps the most extensive hoax since the infamous Piltdown man, the supposed missing link to man's evolutionary past.
Where lies the truth? Is this piece of cloth, fourteen feet long by three and a half feet wide, tangible proof of Christ's death, burial, and resurrection? Or is it a fabulous fraud? An impressive medieval forgery, or a godsend from heaven?
Background of the cloth. Four hundred years ago a large piece of linen cloth bearing the faint image of a man who appeared to have been whipped, battered, and crucified arrived in Turin, Italy, from the monastery of Saint Clare in France. And in Turin, with the single exception of a brief absence during World War II, it has remained ever since.
However, the fabric itself dates to some two hundred years earlier, when it first appeared in the possession of a no bleman, Geoffrey de Charny. De Charny placed it on display in a church he had previously built at Lirey, in the diocese of Troyes about eighty-five miles east of Paris. Unfortunately, De Charney never divulged where, how, or from whom he obtained the shroud, taking that secret with him to the grave when he died in 1356.
It is interesting that a Roman Catholic bishop was the first to denounce the artifact as a fraud! In a letter written to the pope soon after the shroud's appearance, Bishop Henry of Troyes claimed the church leaders at Lirey—in an at tempt to raise money—"procured for their church a certain cloth cunningly painted, upon which by clever sleight of hand was depicted the twofold image of one man, that is to say the back and front, they falsely declaring and pretending that this was the actual shroud in which our Saviour Jesus Christ was en folded in the tomb."
The creator of the object, he added, had been located and admitted it to be "a work of human skill and not miraculously wrought or bestowed" (Ian Wilson, The Turin Shroud, p. 230).
On January 6, 1390, following further testimony and study (antipope) Clement VII ruled that further display of the artifact be permitted only if accompanied by a public announcement given loudly and intelligibly that "it is not the true shroud of our Lord, but a painting or picture made of the semblance or representation of the shroud."
As a result of this ruling little more was heard of the shroud until 1443 when the clergy of Lirey attempted to retrieve it from Marguerite, widow of a count, into whose trust the shroud had been placed in T418 owing to a period of war and unrest. She successfully stalled them off for fifteen years, during which time she gave it to another chapel at Chambery, France, apparently in ex change for two towns.
In spite of several court battles and promises of reimbursement for lost revenue to the church of Lirey, the shroud remained folded in a silver casket at Chambery until December 4, 1532, when a fire destroyed the church and damaged the shroud. Though rescued, the shroud still bears triangular burn marks on twenty-four fold corners. It also shows water stains from the attempt to rescue the relic from the blaze.
A little less than fifty years later it traveled to Turin, Italy, where it has resided for some four hundred years to our day.
Undaunted by the lack of historical evidence connecting the shroud with Christ, its proponents urge that a detailed examination of the markings on the cloth itself exhibit unique features that attest to the cloth's miraculous origin. Most often mentioned are the fol lowing:
* Marks in one hand and possibly in the feet accompanied by what appears to be bloodstains.
* Bloodstains on the right chest area where a spear might have entered.
* Numerous dumbbell-shaped wound marks on the anterior and posterior portions of the body accompanied by bloodlike stains, which suggest a Roman flogging.
* Marks on the forehead and scalp areas where a crown of sharp thorns might have penetrated.
Evidence disproving the shroud. One almost-consistent feature of contemporary books and articles on the shroud is a failure to present the negative side of the issue—the evidence that refutes the experts' claims that this is the burial cloth of our crucified Saviour.
1. Disharmony with the Biblical record. In his own words John (who calls himself "The disciple whom Jesus loved") declares that he saw "the linen clothes, lying . . . and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself" (John 20:5, 7).
The Greek word John uses is othonia, a plural form of othonion, meaning "small linen cloths." In fact, in John 20:5-7 seven plural Greek forms of articles, nouns, and participles referring to Jesus' burial garments indicate that Christ was not clad with just a single cloth, top to bottom, as depicted on the Shroud of Turin. According to John, who was an eyewitness, He was wrapped in plural sheets or strips of linen cloth—not a singular, fourteen-foot-long piece.
We should point out, however, that Matthew, Mark, and Luke—who were not eyewitnesses of the empty tomb—use a singular form when mentioning the graveclothes. Hence it could well be that a larger sheet overwrapped the other items mentioned by John, thereby harmonizing all four accounts. However, such an outer covering would not con tact the body and could not bear the markings exhibited by the Shroud of Turin.
John also points out that the handkerchief which wrapped Christ's head (soudarion) was a separate cloth in addition to the body bandages, which he said he found lying by itself apart from the other grave wrappings (verse 7). Yet the cloth of Turin depicts a human face on the sheet along with the rest of the body.
The burial account (see John 19:40) also uses the plural form for the wrap pings placed about Christ's body. All four Gospel writers agree that the linen sheets, or swaths, were "wound" or "wrapped" around Christ's body, not half-draped over it as would have been the shroud (Matt. 27:59; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53; and John 19:40). This ac cords perfectly with known Jewish burial customs.
2. Not like other contemporary grave clothes. The Shroud of Turin does not harmonize with any other burial garment dating to Christ's day, Jewish, Egyptian, or other.
Likely the world's largest collection of first century A.D. burial garments is the one housed at the Louvre, in Paris. The seventy-five or so such garments have been described as knee-length tunics with sleeves to the elbow and a hole for the head. According to Robert Wilcox, author of the 1977 volume Shroud, not a single one of these garments bore the imprint of a body or face. The bodies seem to have simply melted through the cloth, leaving a hodgepodge of human disintegration.
3. Testimony of history. Earlier in this article we pointed out the absence of historical evidence for the shroud prior to 1356. Thus for some 1300 years fol lowing the burial of the Saviour nothing is known of the cloth that purports to be the one in which He was buried. When the shroud did appear in the fourteenth century (under unknown circumstances) the earliest official references to it (as we have seen) not only identified it as a fake but also demanded that statements to that effect be announced publicly every time it went on display. In the final analysis, skeptics and believers alike must admit history is the shroud's worst enemy.
4. Lack of any trace of bloodstains.
On November 24, 1973, tests demanded by skeptics and believers alike around the world finally began. Two small fragments and twelve threads were carefully removed from areas of significant markings, including the supposed bloodstains. The result? The experts could not locate any evidence that the "stains" on these threads came from or contained blood particles of any kind (Thomas Humber, The Sacred Shroud, p. 178).
Further examination of the excised threads did reveal something suspected by some, but never proved. The panel of experts discovered that the fabric markings lie only on the surface of the individual threads with virtually no penetration, such as might be expected by many of the formerly proposed methods of image transfer.
Because no stains had penetrated into the fibers of the material, the research group concluded that neither an organic nor a chemical transfer of image could have taken place on the shroud.
5. Existence of many similar shrouds. Many believers in the Shroud of Turin do not realize that numerous other body shrouds appeared in Europe about the same time as the Turin cloth. In fact, no fewer than forty-three similar "true shrouds" circulated in medieval Europe after the Crusades had flooded the West with "relics" from the east. Many of these shrouds, some quite similar to the Shroud of Turin, still are on display in Europe.
Conclusion. The weight of evidence from Scripture, history, and science indicates that the Shroud of Turin is not the actual covering for our Lord's body in death.
Can we believe that God, knowing the extremes mankind reaches in the misuse of material objects, would permit the preservation of the actual shroud which contained Christ's body? The God who hid the grave site of Moses, that great patriarch of old (Deut. 34:6), does not want us to look backward to a lifeless Saviour so much as He wants us to look forward to a soon-coming Redeemer.
The Lord doesn't want us to look at the what of His crucifixion; He wants us to look at the why: "Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed" (I Peter 2:24). The image of Himself that Christ wants left behind on earth is not on a cloth, but in the lives of millions who reflect Him in words, actions, and thoughts.