Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Turns out the Shroud of Turin does date from the first century after all. That's because it is, as I have always thought, the burial shroud of Jesus of Nazareth. Unless, of course, you seriously believe that a medieval European forger just happened to have a 1300-year-old burial shroud (that originated in the Holy Land) laying around and decided to use it to conduct an absolutely unique and unrepeatable experiment in photo-realistic imaging on cloth.
Simple request for skeptics who say it's a fake made by and for scientifically ignorant medievals who stupidly believed in miracles: Make another one.
Some will object that we can't make another Pyramid under the conditions that existed in ancient Egypt either, but that this doesn't prove they were actually made miraculously. Yes, it's true we can't press hundreds of thousands of slaves into the toil of generations under the Egyptian sun and rebuild the Great Pyramid. There are laws against that sort of thing. Nor can we recruit a vast host of specialists in pyramid building such as evidence now suggests was the case with some of these projects. But we do, in fact, have a pretty good idea of how the pyramids were made and we have descriptions of how it was done that date back to Herodotus. We have even built a little pyramid using the technology of the times and made a NOVA special about it.
But despite the confident statements of materialist dogmatists that, surely, there is a naturalistic explanation for the Shroud, we still have no clue how the image was made, much less how to do it again.
Some people think that to note the evidence that this is, in fact, Jesus' burial cloth is to somehow place one's faith in the cloth itself. But the Creed does not say, "We believe in the Shroud of Turin." Rather, the Shroud is, I think, one particularly potent piece of private revelation. The Faith does not stand or fall with it. So should the day come that somebody manages to reproduce the image (on a 13 century old piece of cloth they happen to have lying around, and on the first try since there seems to be no evidence of an earlier attempt or a later one), then we will know... only that this image was potentially made by human hands.
At present, however, all the evidence we have accumulated keeps pointing--with a persistence galling to dogmatic materialists--to the image being what Christians have always taken it for: an "image not made by hands" that was somehow imprinted on the burial shroud of Jesus Christ. It is not "proof" of the Resurrection. Nor is it "scientific proof" of a miracle. Science leaves off where miracles begin and the most the sciences can do is what they are currently doing: say, "We can't explain how this image was created." But for those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ as Son of God and his Resurrection from the dead as their salvation, the Shroud is a particularly striking witness, as are the various other signs and wonders God has done down through the ages. It's not so much food for the soul (the Eucharist is that) as it is a sort of vitamin pill for the soul. If it turns out to be a fake, it turns out to be a fake. Other fakes have happened. But nothing in the core of the Faith changes.
Still, I have a high degree of confidence this will not turn out to be a fake, not because I believe it to be the burial cloth of Jesus by faith, but for much the same reason I have a high degree of confidence that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy: because it's the most sensible synthesis of the available physical evidence. I have nothing riding on the authenticity of the Shroud. I just think it's the best explanation of all the data.
In contrast, the dogmatic materialist has plenty riding on the need to falsify the Shroud. Why? G.K. Chesterton explains it all for you:
Any one who likes, therefore, may call my belief in God merely mystical; the phrase is not worth fighting about. But my belief that miracles have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all; I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America. Upon this point there is a simple logical fact that only requires to be stated and cleared up. Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant's word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant's word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both. Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost. If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant's story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism--the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence--it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred. All argument against these plain facts is always argument in a circle. If I say, "Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles," they answer, "But mediaevals were superstitious"; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles. If I say "a peasant saw a ghost," I am told, "But peasants are so credulous." If I ask, "Why credulous?" the only answer is--that they see ghosts. Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland.
Just as it is not a mystical belief to size up the evidence and forensics and conclude that Oswald shot Kennedy from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, so it is a sensible collation of the known evidence to conclude that the Shroud of Turin is the burial shroud of Jesus. It dates from the right time, woven in a way and with materials common in that time and place, with pollen indigenous to the Holy Land. The figure on it displays exactly the wounds of Jesus (including wrist rather than hand wounds). It has a long and traceable trail that shows how it could have gotten from Holy Land to Western Europe.
Meanwhile, the evidence that it is a forgery is a big fat goose egg. If it were not for the strangeness of the image itself and the unnerving fact that of all crucified criminals in antiquity, only this particular figure leaves behind an absolutely inexplicable and unreproducable image, it would be treated as a curiosity. But since materialism is a rival religion to Christianity, the dogmatic faith persists among the atheist faithful that there must be a material explanation. It is a faith brought to the data, not derived from it.