The Authentication of the Turin Shroud: An Issue in Archaeological Epistemology Part 3

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Last Updated By Bill's Bible Basics :
February 16, 2017

In addition to reading and studying all of the information which is available in this section of the Bill's Bible Basics website regarding the Shroud of Turin, and the Sudarium of Oviedo, please also consider reading my article entitled "Faith and the Shroud of Turin" in order to gain a full perspective regarding this issue.

By William Meacham - Archaeologist

CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY - Vol. 24 - N'' 3 - (June 1983)

Published by the University of Chicago Press

Copyright 1983 by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research

Unknown Crucifixion Victim

Guilty of McNair's charge of otiosity, a number of commentators, including the STURP team, have suggested that the Shroud could be the gravecloth of a person who suffered injuries in the same manner as Christ. We shall examine here the possibility of such an occurrence without obvious intent to imitate the experiences of Christ. This hypothesis thus hinges on the degree to which features now interpreted as "clearly representing Jesus Christ" should be considered unique.

The major characteristics of the Shroud figure which seem to identify him as Christ are the lacerations of the head and the wound in the side; of lesser importance are the evidence of stationary flogging: and absence of crurifragium. Certainly, the methods of capital punishment did not always follow a rigid procedure; an example is the occasional lifting of prohibitions on the use of the flagrum or crucifixion to punish Roman citizens. Political prisoners in Palestine may well have received harsher penalties than common criminals in the form of more severe flogging and prolonged sufferings on the cross. On the other hand, the bodies of rebels and subversives were not normally released for burial, according to a 6th-century digest of Roman law (Ulpian, cited in Barbet 1963:51). In the Matthew account (28:62-64), the Sanhedrin were clearly unprepared when the request for Christ's body was granted.

The crowning with thorns is described in John's Gospel as a spontaneous and capricious invention of the guards in response to absurd claims of kingship associated with their prisoner. Ricci (1977:67) and others contend that this trait is a singular and identifying mark of Christ; among the recorded tortures of the condemned prior to crucifixion there is no such crowning or spiking of the scalp. It must be allowed, however, that similar injuries might have been sustained by other crucified men, perhaps palace intriguers or leaders of rebellion. An instance is recorded by Philo of a mock crowning in ca. A.D. 40 during a visit of the Jewish King Agrippa to Alexandria; a mock procession was staged with an idiot dressed in ragged royal purple and crowned with the base of a basket. Preexecution tortures might also have caused punctures of the scalp resulting, if credulity is strained, in a pattern similar to an Oriental crown (mitre or cap) of thorns. Therefore, while the parallel between the head wounds of the Shroud man and those of Christ is striking, it is not sufficient of itself to establish the identification.

The postmortem nature of the side wound also exactly parallels the biblical account, and again there is no historical mention of a practice of this or any method of coup de grace during crucifixion, other than the crurifragium in Palestine. Bulst (1957:121) interprets an ambiguous phrase in Quintilian (1st century) as suggesting that piercing the corpse may have preceded its release for burial. However, an exhaustive search by Vignon (1939) and Wuenschel (1953) turned up only one slightly dubious reference to such a practice: the martyrs Marcellus and Marcellinus were dispatched with a spear during their crucifixion ca. 290 because their constant praising of God annoyed the sentries. In this instance, as in that of Christ, the spearing appears as a spontaneous act by the guards. One might conclude that similar transfixions may have occurred occasionally, were it not for the universal attitude in the early church toward the issuance of blood and water from Christ's side. Christian apologists of the 2d and 3d centuries - a period of frequent crucifixions - believed the flow to be a miracle, Origen, who had witnessed crucifixion, could write: "I know well that neither blood nor water flows from a corpse, but in the case of Jesus it was miraculous." Certainly such a belief could not have prevailed if piercing the corpse sub alas had been other than a very rare happening indeed.

The omission of normal washing and anointing of the body may possibly be explained by the onset of the Sabbath, since ritual differential treatment of execution victims does not seem to have been practiced in 1st-century Palestine. The individual burial and quality of linen suggest that the Shroud man was not a criminal, slave, or rebel. Finally, the lack of decomposition staining of the cloth indicates that, barring highly unusual preserving conditions arresting the normal bodily decay, the Shroud was removed from the corpse after 24-72 hours. It would have been kept in spite of the deep-seated aversion of the Jews (and most peoples of antiquity) to anything which had been in contact with the dead, not to mention bearing the actual stain of a corpse. Eventually, the similarity of its imprint with the body of Christ would have been noticed.

Clearly, this scenario requires the most improbable combination of many fortuitous and highly improbable events. For each detail, an explanation of sorts can be concocted, but that all of them could have been strung together accidentally into a configuration corresponding exactly to the biblical account of Christ's crucifixion is, quite simply, inconceivable. The order present in the Shroud data reveals, just as surely as does the workmanship of an artifact, an intentionality in its composition. If it is not the actual Shroud of Christ, it must be the result of a deliberate attempt to duplicate the experiences of his death and burial.

Early Forgery

The first centuries of Christianity afforded ample possibility and motivation for the forgery of a relic such as the Shroud. A widespread cult of relics developed in the 4th century following the conversion of Constantine and was intensified by the discovery of the "True Cross" during an expedition to Jerusalem of Constantine's mother in 326 and the distribution of shavings of the wood throughout the empire. Similar "discoveries" soon followed, of the nails, lance, crown of thorns, clothing, and other material items from the life of Christ, the apostles, Old Testament figures, saints, and martyrs. As noted above, a Shroud of Christ was claimed by a convent on the Jordan in 570, and cloths believed to bear his facial imprint were current by ca. A.D. 500. Early ecclesiastical writers frequently denounced spurious relics created for reasons of rivalry, reverence, or profit, and relic forgery was especially rife in Egypt and Syria in the 4th century, It may be suggested, then, that forgers obtained the corpse of a crucifixion victim, marked it to resemble Christ, and attempted to imprint an image on cloth, achieving by accident a remarkable result.

The objections to this scenario are manifold and insurmountable. Of greatest importance is the medical interpretation of the head wounds as inflicted on a living body; spiking the scalp of a corpse or marking it with blood could not approach the pathological exactitude of the wounds and blood flows on the Shroud man. Straining credulity, one might escape this difficulty by postulating a collusion between forgers and executioners for preparation of a victim with suitable head wounds. The postmortem side wound presents equal if not greater difficulties: it was inflicted on an upright corpse, resulting in a copious flow of blood and clear fluid (matching the biblical account); a second flow issued when the body was horizontal, not simply laid out but being moved, as indicated by the collection of blood across the small of the back. There can be no doubt that early forgers could not have attained such precision and that it was unnecessary in any case for the simple production of a bloodstained cloth for a gullible public.

There are numerous other difficulties with this hypothesis: (1) The major demand for relics came after the state establishment of Christianity, by which time crucifixion had been abolished. (2) Stains, dyes, oils, or other materials likely to have been used by early forgers in an attempt to imprint the cloth are completely lacking on the Shroud. (3) The victim appears to have been Jewish, with the correct burial posture, chin band tied and eyes covered, yet the legs were not broken as was the practice in Palestine. (4) A successful imprint of Christ's likeness made in this era would have been trumpeted as another great relic "come to light." (5) An image of the nude and unwashed body of Christ would have been considered offensive, lessening or destroying its economic and ceremonial value. Based on the already shaky premise that forgers accidentally and spectacularly succeeded in their task, this hypothesis is hopelessly fraught with difficulties. It can be unequivocally rejected, and with it any possibility that the Shroud is the product of a forgery attempt. As Donald Lynn (quoted in Rinaldi 1979:14) of STURP concluded, "it would be miraculous if it were a forgery."

Imitation of Christ

Finally, the possibility may be considered that the Shroud man was literally a "little Christ" - that, out of fanaticism, extreme asceticism or desire for martyrdom, someone was able to inflict or have inflicted the exact wounds of Christ on his own person. There is ample evidence of asceticism and self-denial carried to extremes in the early monastic- anchorite movements of the late 3d and 4th centuries. Hermits isolated themselves in the deserts, in cave cells, on pillars, there to indulge in all manner of bizarre vilifications of the flesh: wearing of chains for years, self-flagellation, dietary privations, exposure to heat and cold, etc. The above-cited theological writer Origen in his youth committed self-castration; the first monk ascete, Paul of Egypt, was reportedly found dead in his cell: in a kneeling position of prayer.

The 4th-century anchorites of Egypt retained practices of mummification of the dead; the body was wrapped in bandages and the outer surface sometimes painted with a mask or Christian symbols. As this custom fell out of use, the dead were simply wrapped in a winding sheet and carried into the desert, to be buried after three days of wailing. The Shroud might thus be the burial sheet of an unknown but charismatic figure in the early anchorite communities of Egypt or Syria, crucified by followers in a manner exactly imitating that of Christ. The presence of natron on the Shroud takes on a special relevance here, and several other details may be fitted into this hypothesis: the wrist and foot nailing of Roman crucifixion would have been known; the victim might have been "Semitic," the crown of thorns conceived of as a cap, the cloth preserved in the desert conditions; and the areas were rife with relic-mongering.

The hypothesis requires, on the other hand, a virtually impossible double occurrence of freakish events: a self-styled crucifixion and a body imprint by unknown mechanism. There are other difficulties: the matching of the wounds with Roman implements, the Jewish burial customs (most unlikely to have been known), the linen itself (luxurious and urban), and of course the silence of the historical record on the entire proceedings. The coup de grace for this wildest of hypotheses is, appropriately, the lance wound in the side. It would have been well nigh impossible to draw forth intentionally from a corpse a flow of blood and fluid at a single thrust. The presence of pericardial or pleural fluid in sufficient quantity and the exact site, angle, and depth of piercing would have to be carefully determined before such a feat could be performed by a modern surgeon, as Barbet discovered in experiments on corpses.

A similar set of historical circumstances can be cited in attributing the Shroud to a crucified martyr eager to imitate the "Way of the Cross." That early Christians sometimes exhibited a fanatical desire for physical suffering and martyrdom is well documented; it is reflected in the remark of Antonius, 3d-century proconsul of Asia, when confronted with mass confessions and volunteers for martyrdom: "Miserable people, if you are so weary of life, is it not easy to find ropes or precipices?" Hagiographies overflow with accounts of martyrs' showing contempt for the exertions of their torturers, and a situation may be imagined in which the condemned entreated or goaded their guards into "glorifying" them with a crown of spikes and a spear wound in the side,

By the 3d century, linen brandea or "second-class relics" were being created by touching them to the body or blood of a martyr. At the beheading of Bishop Cyprian of Carthage in 258, a linen sheet was spread on the ground to collect his blood, and the body was then carried through the streets in the cloth. Is it possible that the Shroud is a similar relic in linen intended to absorb the blood and holiness of an exceptional martyr who bore all of the wounds of Christ? The answer again must be a definite negative. The scenario posits the concurrence of no fewer than four extremely rare and improbable phenomena - a martyr's crown of thorns, a postmortem side wound, blood and fluid issuing therefrom, and the imprint. If a spear thrust to the corpse on the cross had been a common practice, eventually a repetition of the blood and fluid flow from the wound would have occurred, but to attach this extremely unlikely event to the other wounds and features of the Shroud and to the accident of body imprint, all in total historical obscurity, is clearly to enter the world of fantasy.

It is unnecessary to extend this exploration of extremely farfetched and improbable hypotheses to the limits of the imagination, e.g., to concoct a massive conspiracy such as might be formulated to challenge any historical document or fact. Suffice it to note that even the most preposterous notions - e.g., mass crucifixions conducted during the persecutions to replicate in every detail Christ's sufferings (Gramaglia, in Sox 1981:69) - would founder on many of the Shroud's details and on the accidental image formation. Neither should any consideration be given to the ludicrous suggestions of the "paranormal," that the Shroud man was a stigmatist bearing in exact detail all the wounds of Christ, or that the Shroud is a satanic ploy to focus attention on the dead rather than the spiritual Christ.


The question of authenticity may be readily divided into two stages: (1) the Shroud as a genuine burial cloth recovered from a grave or removed from a corpse and (2) the Shroud as the gravecloth of Christ. The first stage may be established from direct examination of the object and comparison with relevant data from other disciplines. The second stage relies heavily but not entirely on the historical record and, ironically, at certain points on the silence in that record. In the foregoing discussion, we have reviewed the evidence related to each stage of the authentication process. The final judgement generally depends on whether one in inclined to stress the positive or the negative evidence.

As early as 1902, the basic cleavage of opinion an the Shroud was already apparent. For the anatomists, scrutiny of the image yielded positive evidence that it was the imprint of a corpse bearing wounds exactly corresponding to those described of Christ. For historians, the silence of history and the sudden appearance of the relic in suspicious circumstances constituted an equally convincing negative indication. It has been my contention in this paper that, while the lack of historical documentation and the claimed confession of the artist are difficulties, the evidence from the medical studies must be treated as empirical data of a higher order. The dead body always represents a cold, hard fact, regardless of a lack of witnesses or a freely offered confession of murder. With anatomists and forensic pathologists of the highest caliber in Europe and America (many of whom are also well versed in the history of art) of one mind for 80 years about the image as a body imprint, one is on firm ground in characterizing the Shroud as the real shroud of a real corpse. The direct testing of the last 20 years goes farther in demonstrating that the relic is a genuine gravecloth from antiquity rather than the result of a medieval forger's attempt to imprint the cloth with a smeared corpse. Fleming (1978:64) concurs, with the conclusion that "it is the medical evidence that we are certainly looking at a gruesome document of crucifixion which satisfies me that the Shroud is not medieval in origin."

Current opinion on the Shroud's authenticity ranges generally from "probable" to "proven" for Stage 1 and from "possible" to "probable" for Stage 2. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the object is a religious relic, these opinions seem to err an the side of the cautious, place undue emphasis on the negative evidence, and are often based on an assumption that the identity of the Shroud man is "unprovable." Rather, the second stage of authentication may well be more easily demonstrable than the first, as even the arch-skeptic Schafersman (1982a:41) admits. That is to say, if the Shroud image is truly a body imprint (as the evidence overwhelmingly indicates), and if the wounds seen in the imprint are real (on which point there is little room for doubt), then surely we must conclude that the imprint must be from the body of Christ.

Therefore, applying standards of proof no more stringent than those employed in other archaeological/historical identifications, one is led, I submit, to an almost inescapable conclusion about the Shroud of Turin: it is the very piece of linen described in the biblical accounts as being used to enfold the body of Christ. The pattern of data revealed by the Shroud is unquestionably unique, it concurs in every detail with the record of Christ's death and burial, and it is unfakeable. The combination of premortem, postmortem, and postentombment information cannot be matched with any other known or hypothetical series of events. In eliminating other explanations of the Shroud's origin, I have put greatest weight on the most firmly established evidence - the uniqueness of the body image phenomenon and the pathology of the wounds. The former has defied the most sophisticated technological investigation, while on the latter there has been unanimous agreement and such force of medical opinion that it cannot be questioned without dramatic new revelations. But every detail of the Shroud, from the pollen to the scourge marks, accords with or does not run counter to authenticity, which may be considered as "reasonably well established," at least in the same sense that many other facts of history or archaeology are established by the interpretation of documents and material evidence. Its authenticity should be accorded a degree of certainty comparable, for example, to the identification of ancient city sites such as Troy, Ur, etc., to the dating of the Lascaux cave paintings, or to the description of the death of Nero - all of which rely on a complex and seemingly unfakeable pattern of data. The Shroud's authenticity is a matter for expert rather than personal opinion and certainty not a matter of faith; it involves a "judgement of fact" than a "judgement or value" (after Mandelbaum 1938).

Delage, to his eternal credit as a scholar, perceived all this of the Shroud in 1902, working with the poorer 1898 photographs and in a milieu of militant agnosticism. The anatomical realism of the body imprint and the accuracy of the wounds led him to conclude, "The man of the Shroud is Christ. . . . if instead of Christ, there was a question of some person such as a Sargon, an Achilles or one of the Pharaohs, no one would have thought of making an objection" (quoted in Walsh 1963:66). I have here examined the remotest possibilities of forgery or imitation precisely because of the religious nature of the relic and the spurious character of many similar objects ascribed by tradition and popular veneration to holy men, religious leaders, or miraculous events. Most such relics would not allow of a positive identification in any case; nor would the Shroud were it merely a piece of ancient linen. But encoded in the image are data of such specificity that the relic can be fixed in time and place, used to generate hypotheses to be tested in the laboratory and in the field, and finally attributed to a single, historical person.

There is, however, a disturbing current (now reaching cliche status) in Shroud studies, expressed both by scientists and those with a religious interest, that the Shroud's identification with Christ is beyond the scope of science or proof and requires a leap of faith. Sox (1978.56), for example, contends that, even after exhaustive testing, "it can never be said that this is Jesus' burial cloth, . . . this conviction, as always, must come through the eyes of faith." Cameron (1978:59) believes that "we shall only be able to prove that the Turin Shroud might be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, not that it actually is." Weaver (1980:752) asks, "Is it the Shroud of Christ himself? That, say both scientists and theologians, will remain forever outside the bounds of proof."

This line of thought must be rejected as verging on obscurantist and lacking any solid basis in historical/archaeological assessment of the object and the relevant data. To my knowledge no writer on the Shroud has examined the various hypotheses presented above (unknown crucifixion victim, early forgery, imitation of Christ) or seriously attempted to probe the uniqueness of the Shroud data other than in unscientific probability calculations. To suggest that science (in the form of direct testing of the cloth) can attain only a certain point, beyond which lies subjective opinion or faith, is to ignore the essentially scientific character of historical knowledge. This attitude is reflected even in the much more reasonable conclusion of STURP member Bucklin (1981:189) that identification of the Shroud man "is not within the realm of science, but may be decided by careful historical inquiry." Unfortunately, STURP spokesman Janney (in the Associated Press report quoted earlier) confuses the matter with the claim that "the classical scientific method cannot prove who it was" beyond establishing that the Shroud figure was "a scourged, crucified man." In truth, it is merely obvious, not scientifically proven sensu stricto, that the body was male, But in the same scientific manner in which complex patterns of data are interpreted in the natural and social sciences, alternative explanations may be rejected with a reasonable degree of certainty, and a firm association of the Shroud man with the historical phenomenon of crucifixion and with the historical person of Christ may be established. The fact that these relationships are not subject to irrefutable laboratory confirmation does not place them "outside the bounds of proof," except on the philosophical level that no knowledge of the past derived from the study of history, social science, geology, paleontology, or astronomy can be proven beyond any possibility of doubt.

The genuineness of the Shroud must have a considerable impact on biblical exegesis, especially on the allegorical school which has emphasized the symbolic and spiritual rather than the historical content of the Gospels. As noted above, a genuine Shroud provides a striking confirmation of the recorded detail of the torture and execution of Christ. The crown of thorns was not a poetic embroidery of the basic story. The flow of blood and water from the side, seen by tradition as miraculous and by modern demythologizing as symbolic (of atonement through suffering and of purification by baptism), must now be seen as at least a real, natural physiological occurrence. The removal of the cloth from the body after a brief contact period is also indicated, demolishing what little remained of the theory that the empty tomb of Christ was an invention of the early church.

On the Shroud as evidence of Christ's resurrection, those with "eyes of faith" have seized upon the inability of scientists to arrive at a technologically credible mechanism of image formation and asserted that the Shroud might constitute empirical evidence for some moment of regeneration or "transmaterialization." Clearly, the data can be taken no farther than to indicate a separation of body and cloth before the onset of decomposition and the prevalence of rare conditions in the tomb which resulted in the image. These conditions may reasonably be assumed to derive in some as yet unknown manner from the 40-kg "mixture of myrrh and aloes" which, according to John (19:39), was placed with the body in the linen as a preservative and aromatic. An alternative but perhaps less likely theory is that the imprint resulted from a "Kirlian effect" or other unknown quality of Christ's body; the aura of light and the rare condition of haematidrosis (bloody sweat) recorded of Christ may be cited in this regard.

The Turin Shroud is without doubt one of the most mystifying and instructive archaeological objects in existence. Although its first thousand years are a total blank, intention and accident combined to preserve it, however unceremoniously, from discovery in the tomb to eventual transfer to Constantinople. Although the image-forming process is not known, the image itself is an important document of Christ's crucifixion and has appropriately been termed "the fifth gospel." And whereas the scholarly consensus a mere 60 years ago deemed the Shroud a medieval fraud, the present evidence allows a firm archaeological judgement for authenticity.

The Shroud has been probed by virtually every appropriate element of high technology; science, like Thomas, has verified for itself the reality of the wounds. The verdict on this awesome cloth must be that, remarkably, it is exactly what it appears to be. As a unique specimen of material evidence relating to one of mankind's great religious teachers and major historical events, this icon-relic, this strange 1st-century photograph of Christ, has tremendous anthropological significance and enduring fascination for a wide range of people of differing beliefs.



by James E. Alcock

Department of Psychology, York University, Glendon College, 2275 Bayview Ave., Toronto, Ont., Canada M4N 3M6. 22 xi 82

Meacham at the outset calls for an objective examination of evidence pertaining to the Shroud, arguing that it should be treated in the same manner that scientists would treat any other historical object. He subsequently argues against the value of carbon-14 dating, which to many might be the first step to take if one really wants scientific evidence about the Shroud's origin. His argument is rather strange, unless one were so cynical as to suspect that he is preparing the groundwork for a defense of the authenticity hypothesis ("it is Christ's burial-cloth") should such dating place the origins of the cloth at any point in time well after the presumed date of Christ's death. He correctly points out that if carbon-dating were to indicate that the cloth is about 2,000 years old or older, one could still argue that some medieval artist painted the image of the Shroud on an ancient piece of linen. However, while it would seem that if carbon-dating indicated that the cloth is much younger, this would be a compelling piece of evidence against the authenticity view, Meacham argues that variations of ambient temperature, boiling in oil and water, exposure to smoke and fire, and contact with other organic substances could lead to a conclusion of this nature even if the cloth really is 2,000 years old. This strikes me as sheer whimsy; carbon-dating may have its problems, but how do boiling or changes in ambient temperature come into it? And how do we know that the Shroud was boiled in oil, anyway? Surely one should press for permission to proceed with such testing without at this point speculating about the results.

What is most disturbing about Meacham's account is not so much his obvious belief in the authenticity of the Shroud as his apparent belief that he is presenting a careful scientific review of the evidence. Not only does he give what I think is a very one-sided view of that evidence, but he even goes so far as to dip into what many consider to be pseudo-science when he presents, albeit as "perhaps less likely," the theory that the imprint on the cloth resulted from a "Kirlian effect."

Science does not proceed by pronouncements of authenticity. It requires free and open inquiry and debate. If Meacham wants scientific validation of his belief in the authenticity of the Shroud, he should press for the examination of the Shroud, including carbon-14 dating, by a group of scientists who represent skeptics as well as those inclined towards the authenticity hypothesis.

Before making up their minds on the validity of Meacham's analysis, readers should avail themselves of quite a different interpretation of the evidence such as can be found in McCrone (1982), Mueller (1982), and Schafersman (l982a), among others.


by Robert Bucklin

3321 Bonnie Hill Drive, Los Angeles, Calif. 90068, U.S.A. 6 xii 82

From the point of view of a physician-pathologist, with more than 30 years' experience in the study of the Shroud of Turin, I find the report by Meacham extremely satisfying. His approach is thoughtful, scientific, and rational, and he has objectively combined known results of highly technical research findings with his comprehensive review of historical events and biblical references. The conclusions that he has drawn are wholly realistic. At this period in time it is not possible for anyone to make a final judgement on the authenticity of the Shroud. Certainly, science can do no more than analyze the available physical evidence of the image on the cloth, including the stains and other markings, and express an opinion, based on reasonable probability, as to their nature. By correlating these scientific findings with historical data, Meacham has extended the investigation one step farther.

Scientifically speaking, one's faith or religious beliefs should play no role in arriving at a conclusion concerning the true nature of the Shroud. On the other hand, it would be a gross injustice to deny to one who believes the biblical account of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that the physical findings on the Shroud of Turin, in correlation with pertinent historical facts discovered thus far, including those related in the Bible, make a strong argument that the Man of the Shroud and Jesus Christ could indeed be one and the same. Obviously, this judgement must, in the end, be a matter of personal conviction.

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