Holy Shroud of Turin’s Authenticity Can No Longer Be Disputed, Expert Asserts

Jean-Christian Petitfils, who has studied the Holy Shroud for more than 40 years, discusses the findings detailed in his new book that is labeled as a ‘definitive investigation’ of the precious linen cloth.

Visitors examine the Shroud of Turin on display in 2012 at the Church of San Lorenzo, Turin.
Visitors examine the Shroud of Turin on display in 2012 at the Church of San Lorenzo, Turin. (photo: El Greco 1973 / Shutterstock)

The Shroud of Turin, which is believed to have wrapped Jesus’ body after his Crucifixion, is a seemingly inexhaustible source of discoveries and disputes between historians and scientists — and between men of faith themselves, some seeing it as a simple icon symbolizing the death and resurrection of Christ, while others remain convinced of its authenticity because of the numerous studies supporting this idea.

French historian Jean-Christian Petitfils is one of the latter.

The four decades he has devoted to the study of the Shroud have convinced him that the face unveiled to the world by the Italian photographer Secondo Pia in 1898 is indeed that of Jesus Christ in the tomb, as he explained in this interview with the Register.

His extensive investigation, which compiled and analyzed all the studies ever made on the precious relic — including the famous carbon-14 study that cast doubt on the authenticity of the Shroud — was recently published under the title Le Saint Suaire de Turin, l’enquête définitive! (The Shroud of Turin: The Definitive Investigation), rekindling intense debate on the subject at the time of the eve of this fall’s’ unveiling of the first recreation of the body of Christ based on the Shroud of Turin in Spain’s Salamanca Cathedral.

A historian specializing in the Ancien Régime (the political system of the Kingdom of France until the French Revolution), Petitfils is a Catholic who is also the author of highly acclaimed works on the life of Jesus.

Your book is presented as a “definitive investigation” on the Shroud of Turin. What makes you assert this? What does it bring that is new compared to other studies and investigations?

I do not claim that no more will be written about the Shroud after this book. My study is definitive in the sense that there is such a body of evidence that there is no going back on the discussion of authenticity. This is what is important. In the future, researchers will be called upon to discuss many other topics. For example, it is still unknown how the image was formed on the linen. For the time being, scientists are still groping. It remains an extraordinary mystery.

You are one of the great experts on the Holy Shroud today. What made you become interested in it?

I have been interested in the Shroud of Turin for 44 years, and it has fascinated me for the historical, archaeological and scientific mystery it represents. It is important to make it clear that this is not a question of faith. Even if the Shroud were a fake, the Christian faith would not be tainted by it. There have been many forgeries in history, and obviously, the belief in the truths of faith, of the death and resurrection of Jesus, has not been questioned.

It remains that the Shroud gives us information about the Passion of Christ. We know, for example, that he was flogged very violently, in the Roman way, and not in the Jewish way, with a flagrum, which had two small balls and a barbell between them, the trace of which can be seen under a microscope. We can see that he was indeed crowned with thorns, that he was speared on the right side. The type of Roman spear used has even been identified, as there were several of them.

The examination of the Shroud leads us inevitably to the mystery of the Resurrection, although this burial cloth is not in itself a proof of the Resurrection, which can only be experienced and understood through faith. But it does give us some very unsettling clues.

How did you acquire the certainty of the authenticity of the Shroud in your research, in spite of the various scientific challenges, such as the carbon-14 analysis, which established the origin of the shroud in the Middle Ages?

It is certain that I was really surprised by the results of the carbon-14 analysis, in 1988-89, insofar as they were in contradiction with very reliable previous works, such as those of professor Pierre Barbet of the Saint-Joseph Hospital, who established a relationship between the Passion of Jesus and all the available information about the shroud, or those of professor Paul Vignon in the 1930s, showing an absolute and perfect correspondence between the iconography of Christ, which appeared as early as the end of the fourth century, and the face of the man on the Shroud. A change of iconographic model occurred at this time, which corresponds to the arrival of this precious linen in the city of Edessa, in present-day Turkey. It therefore seems impossible that a forgery could have been made in the Middle Ages, in the years 1260-1390 — that is, the range provided by the radiocarbon laboratories.

In addition, since 1978, the work of STURP, the American research group created by John Jackson, which had the shroud at its disposal for two days, and carried out, with several tons of material, very thorough analyses, including microchemical tests of spectrography, infrared radiometry studies, optical microscopy, ultraviolet fluorescence, etc., demonstrating that the author was not a medieval forger.

I quickly wondered about the reliability of the carbon-14 study. Statistical studies showed immediately that there were absolutely insurmountable discrepancies between certain figures provided by the Oxford laboratory and those of Zurich in Switzerland and Tucson, Arizona.

In 2017, it emerged that the raw numbers, obtained thanks to young researcher Tristan Casabianca, showed an even greater dispersion in the results, so that statistically there is only a 1% chance that the samples come from the same tissue. Of course, it is not the carbon-14 method that is at fault, but the linen which is extremely polluted. Traces of fungus and calcium carbonate were found. Raymond Rogers, a very fine chemist who died in 2005, discovered that the sample area corresponded to a darned area: modern threads were inserted in the 16th century, in order to repair this area that had been worn away. Thus, the Carbon-14 experiment is null and void today.

Other work has been done since then, including by professor Giulio Fanti of the University of Bologna, who from another method of dating based on the twisting of linen, arrived at a fairly wide time range, but which revolved around the pivotal axis of the year 33, the date of the burial of Jesus.

Just recently, in April 2022, another Italian researcher, professor Liberato De Caro of the Institute of Crystallography of the Italian Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, using a particular X-ray method, came to the conclusion that this is indeed a linen from the first century. To this end, he compared a thread of this linen with another, taken from a cloth found at Masada, a citadel that the Romans stormed and destroyed in the year 73.

There are many other works that I discuss in detail in my book, but everything converges. I came to the conclusion quite early that the Shroud of Turin could not be a fake. It is the reason why I wanted to publish this book. It is no longer possible to say that it is a medieval cloth, nor that it could probably be the Jesus’ Shroud. No, its authenticity can no longer be disputed.

What do you say to those who question its authenticity because of the historical “holes” in which the shroud disappeared?

It was thought that there were two historical gaps. In reality, there is only one. It is true that, because of this, the historical method does not allow to consider that the shroud is authentic. Only science allows it.

There is a gap between April 5, 33 — which corresponds to Easter Day, when Simon Peter and John the Evangelist discovered the Shroud on the stone bench in the Holy Sepulchre, as if the body had disappeared from inside — and the year 387-388, the date of the probable arrival of the Shroud in the Mesopotamian city of Edessa. We do not know indeed what happened in between.

It was also thought that there was a historical gap at the time of the sack of Constantinople in 1204. But we now know that the Shroud escaped the sack, was transferred to France and kept in the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Then it was transferred to the House of Savoy and finally to the Holy See, in 1983.

You emphasize the prudence that the Church has shown in recent years on this subject, especially the last two popes who, unlike John Paul II, never explicitly refer to the Shroud as a relic. How do you interpret this approach?

It is true that Sixtus IV and Julius II were convinced of the authenticity of the Shroud. Julius II had a Mass written in its honor. John Paul II himself, after the carbon-14 experiment, reaffirmed that it was not an icon, but an authentic relic. However, his successors are more cautious, because the Holy Shroud has become a scientific object. It is therefore difficult for the Church to give an opinion, and it is not her role to do so. Its role is to announce the death and resurrection of Jesus, nothing more. I understand this position very well and I think that the Church will never go back on it.

One of the chapters of your book, entitled “The Proof by Three,” draws a contrast with false relics that have not withstood the test of science, such as the Shroud of Cadouin. But two other relics whose authenticity is not in doubt to this day serve, according to you, to support and reinforce the thesis of the authenticity of the Holy Shroud.

Among the false shrouds, we are familiar with the one from Compiègne, which disappeared in the 19th century, and indeed the Shroud of Cadouin, preserved in an abbey in the Périgord region in France, which gave rise in the Middle Ages to many pilgrimages, with indulgences granted by the papacy and subsidies by the French monarchy. However, it was discovered in 1934 that this shroud was in reality a Fatimid standard imported from the East, with inscriptions in kufic script to the glory of Emir Al-Mustali!

Among the real relics, there is first of all the Shroud of Oviedo, which is not a shroud but a cloth that was placed on the face of Jesus at the time of the descent from the cross, and which contains blood flows. There is no face printed on it, but the bloodstains match perfectly with the bloodstains of the man in the Holy Shroud. We also know that the blood type is the same. It is the blood group AB.

The same is true for the Tunic of Argenteuil, which Jesus seems to have worn on the way to the cross. There, too, some bloodstains overlap with those on the Holy Shroud. The three relics have had very different journeys and have traveled to very different places and times, but the same Near Eastern pollens have been found on all three. Their authenticity is thus attested.

You quote at length a very beautiful passage from a 1935 letter by writer Paul Claudel about the Holy Shroud, which describes it as a “second Resurrection.” For the man of faith that you are, what particular significance does it have that this image of Christ’s face was revealed to the world at the end of the 19th century, which also corresponds to the century of “the death of God”?

Indeed, there seems to have been a will of Providence to preserve this cloth as a testimony to the world. What is really amazing is the way it has escaped destruction several times and two fires, the last one in 1997, when the cathedral of Turin burned down. Mario Trematore, the firefighter on site, was moved by a particular grace and an inner voice that told him “Strike here, on this side, not here.” He was driven, driven by a feeling that was perhaps divine. He took a sledgehammer, broke the glass protection to save the relic, and admitted himself that if it had been a work of a great Italian Renaissance painter, he would not have taken so many risks.

The authenticity of this shroud is not a truth of faith as you have pointed out, but the long-term work that you have carried out over the last decades will necessarily have had an impact on your life of faith.

I was incredibly struck by the beauty and serenity of Christ’s face. It is touching, striking, it is something very strong. The words of Claudel always come to my mind: “more than an image, a presence...”

I am deeply marked by this Shroud but I am not the only one. It has also converted many Christians; it made them understand that the Resurrection was not simply a symbol, as many unfortunately think, but a historical reality. Christ is risen, body and soul.