Which “experts” can you trust when it comes to matters of faith?
“Forensic Research (Once Again) suggests the Shroud of Turin is fake.”
This was the title of the on-line article NBC ran on July 17, 2018. Many other news outlets, including Reuters, Fox, and CNN, ran similar articles. The clear impression these articles give is that the latest forensic analysis of the Shroud has now created a consensus among the experts that it is a medieval forgery.
The only problem with this is that no such consensus exists.
The “experts” who study the Shroud are deeply divided on the question of whether it is the genuine burial cloth of Jesus or not.
I’ve only had one personal experience with the media. The volunteer fire department I’m a part of was given funding to purchase a new ladder truck. However, we firefighters disagreed with the chief about which truck would best serve the town’s needs. So I was chosen to speak in front of the Town Council to represent our position—lucky me! Afterwards, a very well-respected journalist from our local newspaper sought me out for an interview. He spent a decent amount of time with me trying to accurately understand and report on our position.
However, when the article came out, he couldn’t have gotten our position more wrong. He had it completely backwards! Over the years, I’ve often found many media reports on fires and other emergencies I’ve been involved in to be inaccurate. In fact, more often than not, they’ve been unreliable.
I first heard about the Shroud of Turin when I stumbled upon a book about it in the mid-1980’s, not too long after I had examined the (massive) evidence for the resurrection and became convinced that Jesus really was the Son of God. I quickly learned that the Shroud purports to be the actual burial cloth Jesus was wrapped in immediately following his crucifixion. It contains a mysterious image, supposedly of Jesus’ dead body, that many believe provides proof of his resurrection.
The book I picked up summarized the results of the 1978 Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) investigation. A team of accomplished scientists were given a unique opportunity to subject the Shroud to a number of tests. Many on the STURP team were skeptical it was anything more than a medieval forgery and completely confident they would quickly identify the substance(s) and process used in creating it.
But to their surprise, it defied explanation. They couldn’t determine how the image was made.
No known method, ancient or modern, could explain it.
The STURP team concluded that the Shroud was almost certainly a first-century object from the region around Jerusalem and that it contained real human blood. Although they couldn’t explain what produced the image on it, they speculated that it had to be caused by some kind of light—not heat—radiation. A number of the researchers came away convinced it was the burial Shroud of Jesus, with some who’d been agnostic or atheist even abandoning their skeptical worldview.
After reading this book, I was seriously contemplating whether the Shroud just might be physical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection.
But only a couple of years later, in 1988, carbon 14 dating seemed to show that the Shroud was no more than seven- or eight-hundred years old, most likely originating in the mid-1300’s. Case closed: it was, after all, just a medieval forgery. I was slightly disappointed when I heard these results—even if unnecessary, it would’ve been nice to have physical confirmation of the resurrection—but I moved on, not giving the Shroud a second thought.
As expected, Shroud research came to a screeching halt. It remained dormant for the next few years. But then something surprising happened. A number of scientists began calling the validity of the carbon dating into question. It turned out there were a number of significant errors and oversights during the sampling process, and normal, well- established protocols weren’t carefully followed.
The 1988 results are simply too flawed to be trusted.
Game on, again. It could be genuine. Like a rollercoaster, on and on it goes.
Personally, I do think the case for the Shroud is very strong. But I wouldn’t stake my life on it the way I have on the evidence for the resurrection. If it were proven to be a fake, it wouldn’t have any effect on my faith.
I can’t stress this enough: the Shroud is totally unnecessary—the evidence for the resurrection stands on its own and in no way requires the Shroud to support it.
IF it were somehow shown to be genuine, it would be the proverbial “icing on the cake”, providing tangiblecorroboration of evidence that already rises to the level of virtual certainty. But there are a lot of “if’s” here: If it’s a first-century relic; if it’s Jesus’ actual burial cloth; if the image was produced miraculously.
So what did the media miss about this latest study? Why do many experts question it? Why do many experts still believe the Shroud is genuine?
First, a number of experts question the methodology used. Tests were done on a mannequin and a live person, but not on a cadaver, as sound protocol would dictate. A cadaver would have the realistic characteristics of a body following death, which these experiments clearly couldn’t replicate. Neither a mannequin nor a live body is scientifically equivalent.
Moreover, no experiment, even on a real body, could replicate all the unique variables at play as a body is removed from a cross, placed in a cloth, and then transported. No experiment can precisely replicate the specific blood pressure and blood viscosity (how thick the blood is and therefore how easily it flows) near the time of death, especially as they are affected by trauma. No experiment can replicate the unwieldy movements of a recently deceased corpse as it is taken down from a cross and bound up in a cloth. No experiment can replicate the actual interactions between cloth and body as it was carried away, how it might have shifted or moved in transport and how the cloth rubbing against the flesh might have affected blood-flow. All these dynamic variables can have a significant impact on blood-flow.
Second, many experts challenge the validity of Bloodstain Pattern Analysis (BPA), the analytical tool used in this experiment. In fact, BPA has led to problems in criminal court cases, leading some experts to disavow it. The jury’s out (pardon the pun) whether it should be used at all. Until we are certain it is a valid forensic tool for contemporary use, it shouldn’t be used on ancient artifacts where the challenges are manifoldly greater.
Third, experts haven’t had a chance to fully vet the study. Even if the results are valid, it is way too early to draw any definitive conclusion from it. It needs to be subjected to peer review. This is how legitimate science works. There’s a rush to judgment here that is not untypical of the media and the experts they choose to publicize.
But there is a far more significant reason many experts think it is premature to make any conclusion about the Shroud: the substantial evidence for its authenticity not addressed by this study. The Shroud exhibits phenomena that place itsquarely in first-century Palestine,and the image itself still presents an insuperable puzzle. Here’s a brief overview:
- World-renowned botanist Max Frei identified a number of pollen grains from the Shroud that are unique to Palestine, a few of which, based on sedimentary layers near the sea of Galilee, are likely to be two-thousand years old.
- Ancient burial practices often included placing coins over the eyes of the deceased. Detailed analysis has revealed that the facial imprint on the Shroud has coins over the eyes that were minted by Pilate in Judea in 29 A.D.!
- The man on the Shroud bears all the earmarks of ancient crucifixion, including details that weren’t known in the Middle Ages but have come to light through twentieth-century investigations. Medieval crucifixes, as most today, depict Jesus with nails through the hands. However, as forensic studies have shown, a nail placed through the hand would never support the weight of a body: it would rip right through the flesh between fingers. Ancient crucifixion was through the wrist. No medieval forger—no one from the third century on, for that matter, when crucifixion ceased to be used—would know this. And yet, the wounds on the Shroud appear around the wrists, not the hands.
- The image itself remains utterly baffling. To date, there is no natural explanation for it. I once attended a brilliant lecture on the Shroud by a nun who was also a bio-chemist. For nearly an hour and a half she didn’t talk about the shroud at all. Instead, she dazzled us with all the image-formation processes known to human beings throughout history. In the last few minutes, she showed a picture of the Shroud and concluded that none of these known processes can explain the image.
Ever since Secondo Pia first took his famous picture in 1898 revealing that it is a perfect photographic negative, the image has been a scientific enigma. The fact that it is a perfect photographic negative means the image is evenly present throughout, even on areas where the cloth did not touch the body. (Like a blanket, it wouldn’t evenly come in contact with every area of the body.) Excluding the blood stains, the image is three dimensionally correct and anatomically perfect. In other words, it was formed afterthe blood congealed—some good amount of time afterthe body was laid in it.
Moreover, the image is superficial, only marking the very tips of the cloth’s fibers. And on the half of the cloth containing the image of the front of the body, the forward facing portion (not the image of the back), it is also a double image: it appears both on the top uppermost surface and, in a much fainter way, on the back surface, but remarkably, not on the fibers in between! Incidentally, the front and back surfaces correspond to one another with anatomic precision.
There is no known chemical process that can account for all this. The best guess is some kind of intense burst of vacuum ultraviolet radiation. It had to be light and not heat radiation; otherwise, it would have scorched the area between the front and back of the image and not just the surface areas.
One of the most stunning features of the Shroud is that you can make out the skeletal structure of the hands, almost like an x-ray. To some researchers, this suggests that the upper part of the Shroud collapsed throughto the lower, as if the body was transparent at the time the image was made—if it hadn’t, only the outside of the body and no internal structure would appear. This leads these researchers to speculate that the burst of radiation must have emanated evenly throughout the body because the body didn’t prevent the collapse of the cloth. In other words, it lost its solidity at the moment of the radiation burst. And this would explain how the uppermost surface of the fibrils were discolored without scorching them. It would also explain the double image.
There is nothing known that would be capable of producing this effect naturally. Even the most sophisticated machines developed to date cannot replicate the intensity required for such a phenomenon: the exceedingly high amount of power required in such an infinitesimally small amount of time can’t be matched by any ultraviolet light source presently available.
I have no desire to indict the media. I presume that most in the media are sincere and hard-working.
But this latest story on the Shroud is totally misleading.
And unfortunately, it’s not the only one.
You may have heard reports about some scholar discovering an ossuary containing the remains of Jesus; or of another scholar whose found a document proving Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene; or of another whose come across a lost gospel that challenges everything we thought we knew about Jesus. All of these reports, by the way, are wildly inaccurate, as future blogs will show.
The “experts” cited by the media tend to be on the fringe. They’re cited, not because they represent the expert consensus, but rather, because they’re the most sensationalistic.
You probably haven’t heard of the remarkable developments in Scripture scholarship over the last twenty years or so. That’s because the emerging expert consensus is affirmingthat, in essence, what the traditional Gospels tell us about Jesus is solidly historical.
The consensus of the experts usually doesn’t get reported.
So who can you trust? When it comes to where the experts stand on vital questions of faith, not the media or the “experts” they feature.
But on many of these questions there is an expert consensus, where you can find the best, most balanced scholarship and the solid reasons behind it.
And that’s exactly what I will be providing to you in these blogs.
E.J. Sweeney is a pastor, author and public speaker whose passion is to show skeptics like himself the overwhelming evidence for the Christian faith. A graduate of Trinity College, BA and Yale University, MDiv, summa cum laude, E.J.has taught theology and scripture in two high schools and has served as a pastor at two churches. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, where he is a volunteer firefighter. You can follow E.J. and his writings at www.RaisingJesus.com and on his Raising Jesus Facebook page.