Shroud of Turin (Part 4)

Contamination to the shroud could alter the accuracy of the carbon dating. Exposure to years of candle soot in the cathedral and Turin pollution, the drenching with water during the fire, and the accumulation of minuscule fragments of deteriorating ceiling frescos would give the shroud a coating which could in turn skew the carbon-dating results. Moreover, a corner sample which over the years had been handled by many individuals would probably be contaminated. Such items enrich the carbon content and would make the shroud appear substantially younger than its true age when carbon-dated.

Dr. Leoncio Garza-Valdes of the University of Texas, working with microbiologist Dr. Stephen Mattingly of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, provided another argument against the carbon-dating results. They argued that the shroud could have a bioplastic varnish or coating caused by bacteria and fungi. Dr. Garza-Valdes discovered such coatings in research with Mayan artifacts, which he knew belonged to a certain age, but when carbon-dated were declared much younger and thereby fakes. This bioplastic coating is almost like plaque on teeth, and would have grown especially at the corner of the shroud where it was handled so much.

Receiving a small sample of threads, Garza-Valdes determined the presence of a bioplastic coating on the shroud which has “coccal-shapped bacteria and filiamentous mold-like organisms,” sometimes increasing the diameter of the fibers as much as 60%. Such a bioplastic coating could skew the carbon dating 1300 years. Also such a coating cannot be removed by the conventional cleaning methods of most carbon-dating labs. If Dr. Garza-Valdes is correct, the shroud easily would be placed at the time of our Lord.

Another defender of the shroud is Dr. Thomas J. Phillips of Harvard University High Energy Physics Laboratory, who published in Nature (February 16, 1989): “If the Shroud of Turin is in fact the burial-cloth of Christ…then according to the Bible it was present at a unique physical event: the resurrection of a dead body. Unfortunately, this event is not accessible to direct scientific scrutiny, but…the body…may have radiated neutrons, which would have irradiated the shroud and changed some of the nuclei to different isotopes by neutron capture. In particular some Carbon-14 would have been generated from Carbon-13. If we assume that the shroud is 1950 years old and that the neutrons were emitted thermally,… enough Carbon-13 [would have been converted] to Carbon-14 to give an apparent carbon-dated age of 670 years [i.e. fourteenth century].”

In all, the preponderance of evidence appears to support the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin as the burial cloth of our Lord. The one “sticky” issue for most people, which also blinds them to the rest of the evidence, is the 1988 carbon-dating evidence. While the shroud is still not an article of faith, the popes of our century, including his Holiness Pope John Paul II, see the shroud as a relic that does aid our appreciation for what our Lord suffered for our salvation. We are left then with that great adage: “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not, no explanation is possible.”

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

[Editor's Note: This is the last of a four-part series. Part One, Part Two, Part Three]

The first point of controversy surrounds the burial rites of the Jews. Normally, the Jews followed a funerary practice of taharah, whereby the corpse was scrupulously washed from head to foot, and then dressed in tachrichim, a set of burial garments including a head-covering, shirt, breeches, surplice and girdle. The person was then wrapped in a sovev, a long cloth which wrapped around the entire body.

At first glance, the naked, bloody man wrapped in the shroud contradicts these regulations and therefore would make it unlikely that he was Jesus, a Jew. However, further research has shown that when a person suffered a violent death, such as crucifixion, there would be no taharah, since all bodily parts, even blood, had to be preserved for the future resurrection of the body. Also in such a case, the person would only be buried with the clothes they were wearing with no tachrichim; since the man of the shroud was naked, which was normal for crucifixion, he was buried only in the sovev.

Second, what is to say that the shroud is not some clever medieval artist’s forgery? (The medieval period is pinpointed because of the carbon dating, as discussed later.) As stated previously, no pigments, paints, dyes, or stains have been found in the fibrils; the image is only on the top fibrils with no penetration to the lower ones, as would have been caused by paint or some other medium; and the image was resistant to bleaching and other standard chemical agents that would have reacted with paint or some other medium.

Moreover, Isabel Piczek, noted painter and art historian, concluded that no painter at the time could have produced the shroud, just from the aspect of skill and knowledge. First, no medieval artist knew the details of crucifixion since it had been outlawed since the year 400; for instance, only a few Baroque artists, painting much later, captured the detail of the nail wounds at the wrists, such as Van Dyck’s paintings of the crucifixion. Medieval artists also did not have a thorough knowledge of anatomy since the dissection of human bodies was virtually outlawed by the Church at that time. Also, for an artist to purposely paint the shroud with the front side being short, not covering the right foot, seems totally improbable. Interestingly too, that where the blood stains appear, there is no image underneath on the fibrils, suggesting that the image had been made last after the blood stains; obviously, an artist would have worked in reverse, painting the image and then applying the blood stains. Finally, no medieval artist had the skill to paint a negative image or the perfection of the image with such subtle coloration.

How then was the image made if it was not painted? (This subject was discussed by members of the STURP team, but they did not arrive at a conclusion.) The color of the shroud image is “yellow or straw yellow” as classified by the STURP team. The image is a surface image, affecting the topmost fibers only without any apparent penetration to any depth (again disproving the “painting” theory). The image seems almost like a big scorch mark, like the scorch marks left from an iron. Also, the fibers on the image appear older and degraded when compared with the fibers outside the image, as though something were taken away from them rather than added, like paint. Yet, the fibers of the image are different from scorched fibers: ultraviolet fluorescence photography revealed that the body image does not fluoresce red when irradiated with ultraviolet light, whereas the scorched areas caused by the fire of 1532 do. Some of the scientists, therefore, posited that a type of thermo-nuclear reaction occurred which caused the image on the shroud. Actually, when one thinks of Jesus rising body and soul from the dead in a radically transformed existence, such a scientific theory is enticing.

The most critical controversy surrounds the carbon-dating testing done in 1988. On April 21, 1988, Anastasio Cardinal Ballestrero of Turin supervised Italian microanalyst Dr. Giovanni Riggi cutting a one-half-inch by three-inch strip from the linen shroud away from the central image or scorched areas, but from a corner site. The sample was then divided into three samples and given to the carbon dating laboratories at Zurich, Oxford, and the University of Arizona at Tuscon, with each performing three radio-carbon measurements.

Simply, radio-carbon dating measures the amount of an isotope called Carbon-14 which is present in all organic substances, including flax plants from which linen is made. Carbon-14 decays over time in dead material at a fixed rate; therefore, the amount of residual Carbon-14 can reveal the measurement of something’s age.

In October, the results were announced at a press conference. On a blackboard was written “1260 – 1390,” the time span of years for when the shroud was produced according to the carbon dating results. Dr. Henry Gove, a nuclear physicist, said the odds were “about one in a thousand trillion” against the shroud having been woven in the time of Jesus, and called those who believe in the genuineness of the shroud “flat-earthers.”

However, several scientists objected to the “infallible” pronouncements made by the laboratories. For instance, Dr. Rosalie David of the Manchester Museum has performed autopsies on Egyptians mummies, and has used carbon dating to corroborate the age of them; however, sometimes carbon dating indicates a date a thousand years younger than the actual date of the mummy known through other archeological evidence. Such a discrepancy would be caused by some source of contamination.

Fr. William Saunders


Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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