Is the Shroud of Turin Real?

It’s probably real. If we remove questions about God from the questions about the Shroud, the evidence becomes overwhelming. There is no need to appeal to miracles to explain the images. And claims that the Shroud is somehow evidence of a miracle, even specifically the Resurrection, is problematic.


The full Shroud of Turin  with an upside picture of Jesus from the back and an upright picture of  Jesus lying in burial reposeFull length picture of the Shroud of Turin. Is this a genuine picture of Jesus or a faked picture of Jesus?

Christian faith rests mostly on a collection of stories. How literally or metaphorically we believe and interpret these stories is a personal decision; some of us believe it is grace. Wide variation is found among many traditions and within traditions. To rely on an artifact to try to confirm what we believe is probably unwise.

Philosophically, miracle causation for the images or finding in the Shroud’s possible authenticity evidence of a miracle cannot be ruled out. We can only dare to cross the boundaries of science and objective history in this way with great care. We need not do so, however, for the question of the Shroud’s authenticity is a scientific and historical problem. So, too, are questions about the images. Sufficiently confirmed to our own satisfaction, we can then, and only then, consider that it might be evidence that something unusual happened in that tomb where the man named Jesus was buried.

The biggest problem in deciding if the Shroud is authentic is overcoming misconceptions; for instance the notion, repeated incessantly in the press, that “believers say Christ’s image was recorded on the linen’s fibers at the time of his resurrection.”*  That is simply wrong. Some do. But most serious researchers who think the Shroud is authentic do not think so, or at least don’t voice that opinion.

In 1988, the Shroud was carbon dated. It was determined, then, that the cloth was medieval. Hence it was declared a forgery. But, twenty years later, in 2008, Philip Ball, the former physical science editor for Nature, the acclaimed, peer-reviewed, international scientific journal that published the carbon dating results, wrote an interesting piece in Nature Online. He is writing as a scientist only:

It’s fair to say that, despite the seemingly definitive tests in 1988, the status of the Shroud of Turin is murkier than ever. Not least, the nature of the image and how it was fixed on the cloth remain deeply puzzling.

Ball explains why it is murky. He gives two example. One is scientific; the other historical. His reasons are correct. But is the Shroud’s status just murky? This website argues that the Shroud is probably real. This website is a series of scientific and historical questions with answers. There are also a number of questions about inevitable crazy stuff, mystery, the age old quest for God and the significance of journalism in shaping perceptions.

  • Science, so far, has completely failed to prove anything about authenticity, one way or the other. The carbon dating, as we now know, was a bust. The results are invalid. And, indeed, as Ball contends, science offers no real answers for how the images were formed. All attempts, including ones reported periodically in the press, have been complete failures. Science has succeeded in proving that the images were not painted and are not some form of medieval proto-photography. Mostly, science has posed more questions than it has answered.
  • History provides some of the most compelling evidence. The piece of cloth that is in Turin today was certainly in Constantinople between A.D. 944 and 1204. The evidence is overwhelming. Before that, it was in the city of Edessa, at least since A.D. 544. Dates and places before 544 are tentative, at best. Nonetheless, there is ample evidence to push the Shroud’s provenance back to near the time of Christ. History cannot prove that it is not a fake. Nor can it prove that it is not the burial shroud of someone else. But, if it is either of these things, it is more amazing than if it is real burial shroud of Christ.
  • Mystery is unavoidable. For instance the images are a mystery. And mystery can be seductive. If we are not careful, unanswered questions can lead to god-of-the-gaps thinking. All too easily some of us who are religious can be lulled into thinking that because something lacks an explanation it must be miraculous. Such thinking is bad science, bad theology and bad philosophy. Mystery can point us towards common sense. Mystery can challenge us to find answers. But it is never ever proof of anything.
  • Crazy Stuff is also unavoidable. It appears wildly on both sides of the authenticity debate. It appears in newspapers, books and on thousands of websites. Sadly, it fools many people. Inscriptions on the cloth, images of coins over closed eyes, claims that the images have been reproduced, conspiracy theories such as the one that argues that Leonardo da Vinci created the images with a room-sized camera are but a few examples.
  • A Quest for God is part of what the Shroud means for many people. Ball also wrote in Nature Online, in 2005, that . . .The scientific study of the Turin Shroud is like a microcosm of the scientific search for God. It does more to inflame any debate than settle it . . . .He is right. And it is more than just that. It is part of the quest for the historical Jesus. But should it be?
  • Journalism is how most people learn about the Shroud. Sadly, the demands of brevity and deadlines fuel all too many misconceptions about the Shroud. What if the Shroud is real? What if the images are the result of a natural phenomenon? Then what? How is it that the cloth survived the tomb? Can a journalist go down these paths? Probably not. But he can clear away misconceptions and at least report that the evidence is stiff murky.

Pictures of Jesus

Fake or real, the pictures on the Shroud of Turin are pictures of Jesus. If the Shroud is fake, then the artist intended us to believe that the pictures are pictures of Jesus. If the Shroud is real, and the pictures are the product of a natural phenomenon or a miracle, then they are almost certainly pictures of Jesus.

No one can fully explain how these pictures were formed. Look carefully and you will see two pictures of Jesus, a picture of his front side and a picture of his backside.


And unusually study of  the optical properities of the Shroud of Turin pictures of Jesus reveal  something quite unexpectedA 3D terrain map projection of the image color intensity. This is one of the most puzzling physical properties of the picture. Produced using a VP-8 Image Analyzer

If We Wish to Think it is a Fake Picture of Jesus?

If we want to believe that the Shroud is not genuine then we have to consider some basic questions. How did the faker of relics accomplish this?

How did a faker of relics alter the chemical properties of the carbohydrate coating to create the color and how did he do so with such artistic precision — on both sides of the cloth?

The history of art is the story of the evolution of styles, techniques, methods and technology. Every work of art and fakery is no exception. Every form of art and craft has precedents. When a new technique is discovered it is exploited. Over time the technique is refined and improved. Where are the precedents for pictures such as those that we find on the Shroud? Where are the other works in this new-found technology? Are we to imagine that some genius invented a new way to create pictures, that a single picture was made and the technology was lost to history?

How did  he create a suitable negative picture hundreds of years before the discovery of photographic negativity? How did he know that he had it right? How, without a camera and film, could he test his work? The negativity is extraordinarily precise and correct. Was he simply lucky?

The bigger question is why? What was his purpose? What was his motive? If we are to ask why he created an extraordinarily complex chemical picture, in negative, we must ask some other questions.

  • Why a negative image when a positive image would be more convincing — keep in mind that gradual tone negative images were unknown?
  • Why did he go against conventional expectations of his era? Why did he create a picture with wounds from nails that went through Jesus’ wrists? All art and all expectation throughout medieval Europe showed Jesus nailed to his cross through the palms of his hands.
  • Why is Jesus shown completely naked, unlike in all artistic depictions everywhere throughout the history of Christianity?

Despite many attempts to do so, no one has found or invented an artistic or crafty technique that can reproduce even a few of the characteristics of the images. But that does not mean, that in the future, someone will not find a method to create such images. But if someone does so, the tenacious question will remain: How likely is it that there would be such a one-of-a-kind work of art for which there are no known precedents; created by methods that were never again exploited?

Any method that might be devised must be scientifically credulous, fit into the history of art and conform to the cultural expectations in which the technology was supposedly employed. If not, it will be seen as newly invented art designed to mimic an otherwise unexplained natural process or a supernatural event. The skeptic has a dilemma. To believe that the Shroud is fakery he or she must rely on an underlying belief that transcends scientific fact.

Are They Natural Pictures of Jesus?

Lean over and look down into a perfectly still, smooth-surfaced pool of water and you will see a perfectly formed picture of yourself. But drop a pebble into the water, or wait for a breeze to ripple the surface, and the image becomes indistinct, fuzzy and unclear.

The image in the pool of water, when rippled, looks like an out-of-focus photograph. But that really isn’t the case. In a naturally reflected picture, your eyes are the lenses that provide focus. The reflection surface is wrinkled and causes reflected light to go off in different directions. It distorts the resolution of the image but it doesn’t defocus it. While the analogy is not a perfect one it suggests a potential problem for a natural image explanation.

The images on the Shroud are not only very well focused but highly resolved. It is almost certain that in the first century a piece of linen was naturally wrinkled, that it even had creases from folding. This is something that would certainly distort the resolution of the image.

(Incidentally, it is no less of a problem for those who advance theories about radiation or some mysterious force leaving a picture on the cloth as a body miraculously passes through the cloth).

A reflecting pool was certainly mankind’s first mirror.  Eventually man would learn to make other mirrors, first by polishing stone or metal and eventually by fixing metals such as mercury, tin or silver to pieces of glass. Of course, the glass had to be smooth and flat. If the glass was wavy or curved, any reflected picture would be highly distorted. We see this when we look into the special mirrors in carnival funhouses. Again there is an analogy that relates to the pictures on the Shroud of Turin. It is hard to imagine how any process could form an essentially undistorted image if the cloth was draped across a human form.

What assumption can we make about how Jesus’ body was positioned on the limestone shelf in the tomb? How flat was the shelf? Was it smooth or rough-hewn? We don’t know. Was the cloth smoothed out?

In placing Jesus’ body on the shelf was the cloth pulled about, rippled in places and even creased in places? We can’t know. How closely did the cloth follow the contour of Jesus’ body? Was it pulled like a bed sheet? Did loving hands smooth it across the body? Did it stick in places to still wet blood or to remaining water from some washing? Were there flowers resting on the cloth weighing it down or under the cloth propping it up?

Image analysts and forensic pathologists argue that the image on the cloth is of a man with his knees bent slightly and with his head tilted forward as though resting on a pillow that was under the cloth. Assumptions about the shape of the cloth and how closely it followed the contours of Jesus’ body are difficult if not impossible to make. If wrapped closely, wide and grotesque distortion would result. But even if draped loosely, the distortion caused by the surface terrain of the cloth should be evident.

It becomes extremely difficult to imagine an image that was not very much distorted by shapes and wrinkles no matter how the image was formed. This is perhaps the most intuitively strong argument for thinking the image is the work of an artist. It would be a powerful argument were it not for the chemistry of the image and some of the other rather odd qualities of the pictures.

There is another problem that we must consider. Scientists refer to it as saturation. In the parlance of photography we might say that the pictures of Jesus are surprisingly not underexposed or overexposed. This means if the pictures are the product of a chemical reaction, the reaction ran long enough but not too long. What stopped the reaction at just the right time, everywhere on the pictures?

There would need to be sufficient chemical reaction time and concentrations of reactants to cause highly discernable images. Similarly the reaction must end sufficiently early to avoid over saturation which would washout image detail. Computerized image analysis shows no saturation plateaus or washout anywhere in the image. In simple terms, the chemical process ended late enough to form a discernable image and early enough so it was not ruined.

Reactant exhaustion is one thing that would have ended the process. Another would have been separation of Jesus’ body from the cloth at just the right time. And we do know that if a natural process formed the images, the cloth at sometime had to have been separated from the body.

Another problem is diffusion. If we accept the hypothesis that chemical changes to the carbohydrate coating on the Shroud’s fibers was caused by amine vapors, we must recognize that vapors diffuse and scatter when they come off of a body. Heavy amines molecules do not diffuse as greatly as those of lighter gases. Nonetheless they go isotropically in different directions. So precise are some of the features on the Shroud’s images that one pundit likened vaporous formation to painting a perfect copy of the Mona Lisa with aerosol spray paint.

The pictures seem spectacularly like chiaroscuro (pronounce) images; pictures created by reflected light. When we look at the pictures on the Shroud, and particularly the face, we see seemingly three-dimensional pictures on a flat two-dimensional plane, much as we do when we look at a photograph or a conventional painting of a person — and just as we do when we look at a reflection in a smooth pond or a flat mirror. The cheeks, as they curve around from the front of the face, seem to recede into shade. The hollows of the eyes are evident from their darker tones. The tip of the nose is white and stands out. This is how reflected light works on the human face. Unless we are an artist or a photographer, we probably don’t think about the patterns of light in pictures. But our mind nonetheless puts it all together for us when we look at a person or a picture of a person. And the Shroud, to our way of perceiving pictures, to our anthropic bias, does look like a picture of reflected light.

How do we imagine that given so many chemical reaction variables — wrinkles, the shape of the cloth, diffusion, along with may factors not addressed in this essay such as ambient temperatures, humidity, body chemistry, a likely uneven distribution of evaporation-model coating, other trace impurities, etc. -– that nature will be so kind as to produce such near perfect chiaroscuro pictures of Jesus quite by accident: a picture of arguably the most important person in history?

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