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.
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
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
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.
* Quoted from an otherwise very good Associated
Press story by Ariel David in November, 2009.