A Holy Week Interview With a Shroud Researcher, Now a Catholic Convert
Tristan Casabianca speaks to the Register as on Holy Saturday the shroud is livestreamed to the world.
Last year a French-Italian study on the Shroud of Turin cast doubt on what many had thought was the definitive dating of the cloth that had been believed by millions to be the burial cloth of Our Lord.
In 1988 radiocarbon tests on the Shroud of Turin dated the cloth to between 1260 and 1390. The implication was clear: The Shroud was a medieval forgery.
Three laboratories involving researchers from the University of Arizona, Oxford University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology contributed to the 1988 study that was carried out under the auspices of the British Museum. The results of the scientists’ radiocarbon analysis of the Turin shroud were published in the journal Nature in 1989. These provided what was said to be “conclusive evidence” of the medieval origin of the artifact.
For many years the institutions involved, despite multiple requests for them to do so, never released the raw data used in these tests. Finally, in response to a 2017 Freedom of Information request, all raw data kept by the British Museum was made accessible to researchers for the first time.
There followed a two-year study headed and funded by French independent researcher Tristan Casabianca, with a team of Italian researchers and scientists: Emanuela Marinelli, who has written extensively about the shroud; Giuseppe Pernagallo, data analyst and senior tutor at the University of Catania, Italy; and Benedetto Torrisi, associate professor of economic statistics at the University of Catania.
The findings of this new team of researchers/scientists are that the 1988 test results were unreliable.
As a result of the new team’s research, Casabianca called for fresh tests to be carried out on the shroud with more robust protocols than had been followed the 1988 tests.
With Holy Week underway, and in the midst of the current worldwide pandemic, the shroud is about to be exhibited in Turin Cathedral at 5pm Italian local time via livestream across the world on Holy Saturday, April 11.
Casabianca is a French independent researcher. He has degrees in modern history, public law and economic analysis of law. He is also a Catholic convert. Currently in coronavirus lockdown in Corsica, Casabianca spoke to the Register via email April 8 about his ongoing interest in the controversial artifact and his journey into the Catholic Church.
Tell us how you first came across the shroud?
I first heard of the Shroud of Turin when I was 16 or 17 years old. It was 1998 or 1999. I read a popular book trying to establish a relationship between the Knights Templar and this cloth historically recorded to be in France in the 14th century. The thesis was ridiculous. Nevertheless, I was still an atheist, raised in an atheist family, and convinced that the shroud was a fake created in the medieval period.
What was it that intrigued you most about the shroud?
As a teenager, I was first attracted by the atmosphere of mystery and by the controversy of the image formation-process. When I was 25, I became increasingly interested in the shroud: Could it be the burial cloth of Jesus and a proof of the Resurrection? The interrogations about the philosophical and theological implications [of this] came some years later.
Why did you get involved in trying to establish the truth about the carbon dating?
In 2017, I had already published two peer-reviewed articles on the Turin shroud, centered on historiography and philosophy. I presented this research to an international conference with the provocative question: “Do we really need new evidence and arguments about the Turin shroud?” My answer was, I hope, also quite provocative for shroud experts: “Maybe not.”
In reality, I wanted to stop studying the shroud. My aim was to focus on moral and dogmatic theology. But a couple of days before this conference, the British Museum replied favorably to my Freedom of Information request and sent me hundreds of pages of original documentation. Scholars had been wanting this content for decades. Thereafter, I had to work on this material. The major question was: Are these results (A.D. 1260-1390, with 95% certitude) accurate and representative of the whole cloth? The evidence suggests that they were not.
Why did you feel that that original test was so important?
The carbon dating of the Turin shroud was, unfortunately, thought by many to provide a simple answer to a many-sided enigma. The article published in the most prestigious scientific journal, Nature, was supposed to put an end to the controversy. The conclusions were even theorized by the secular media as the triumph of science over religion.
Strong arguments were needed to explain why this alleged triumph was, in fact, a failure of the scientific process, due to the breaches of protocol and the too-rapid acceptance of this low-quality paper. The article I co-authored with leading shroud expert Emanuela Marinelli and statisticians Giuseppe Pernagallo and Benedetto Torrisi explains why there is no conclusive evidence that the Turin shroud is medieval. The results of the carbon dating did not put the endpoint to the lengthy debate. They only added another chapter, a most revealing one of our modern prejudices and biases, to the controversy.
How do you feel when you stand in front of the shroud?
I have stood in front of the shroud only twice, during the special exhibition of 2015, for a couple of minutes each time at a dozen meters. Those exhibitions are very well organized. But I am afraid they are usually not an environment conducive to the development of one’s interior life. It is quite comparable to an overcrowded Sistine Chapel with guards regularly shouting, “Silenzio! No pictures!”
Moreover, in front of the shroud I have both the critical look of the expert and the humbler approach of the believer. Thus, how did I feel when I stood in front of the shroud with dozens of pilgrims? Or how did I feel when I knelt in presence of the shroud, almost alone, at the back of Turin Cathedral? Like someone being blessed for his spiritual journey, from atheism to the Catholic faith.
The same goes for my daily life. When I look at the shroud as an expert, I have no specific emotions: It is just an ancient artifact. Would you ask a surgeon to have emotions during an operation? But this is, of course, entirely different when I pray, when I try to have this daily personal relationship with Jesus.
You are a convert to the Catholic faith. When did you become Catholic?
Msgr. Olivier de Germay baptized me in 2016, at the age of 33, in the cathedral of Ajaccio, Corsica.
Why did you ask to be baptized?
I was in my early 30s and already tired of my inconsistency. I wanted to align my beliefs with my acts. In retrospect, the two years of catechumenate helped me to do it for the only good reason [to be baptized]: to become a saint in the afterlife. Of course, intellectual pride, fear and doubt were (and still are) my daily companions on this journey. But I was so attracted by beauty, truth and reason (logos) that I am afraid I had no other choice than to become Catholic. I decided to freely respond to God’s commands, and I try to have a consistent life of faith and prayer.
Was the shroud a part of that journey into the Church?
The Shroud of Turin played a significant part in my conversion. It came to me as a shock when I realized that there could be sound arguments in favor of the existence of God and for the resurrection of Jesus. The Shroud of Turin showed me that science and faith were not in contradiction but were reinforcing each other.
How does the shroud help your Catholic faith?
I would like to insist on a point: The Catholic faith will never be based on the so-called authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. Our faith is based on a true historical and transcendental event: the resurrection of Jesus.
In a sense, this heated and ongoing debate about the authenticity of the shroud should be a helpful reminder for all of us: The Christian faith will not be shaken if the shroud were proven to be a medieval forgery. Thus, the shroud is also helpful to our Catholic faith because it reminds us that Christians believe in truth, not in artifacts.
The consequences of this are that Christians have everything to win in the ongoing development of our knowledge of this linen cloth. Paradoxically, this is not the case for atheists. They would have to change their belief system if historians proved beyond reasonable doubt that the image formation-process is the consequence of an historical event: the Resurrection.
Does the shroud and the image upon it give you a greater sense of the Passion at this time of year?
In 2010, in a moving and profound meditation, Benedict XVI called the Shroud of Turin the “icon of Holy Saturday […] an icon written in blood; the blood of a man who was scourged, crowned with thorns, crucified and whose right side was pierced.” In this Holy Week, the man of the shroud, more than ever, reveals a powerful message for our time, also full of violence and surprising silence.
A French philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, called our current strange times “the Shabbat of the earth.” With this pandemic, our Western societies have to confront the mystery of evil — here, natural evil — and the sudden immobility of an individualist culture.
The Turin shroud has not only an image but a message for us: It is the “mirror of the Gospel” (St. John Paul II), telling us that death will not prevail.
Do you think we will ever definitively know whose image is upon the shroud?
The Turin shroud is probably one of the most studied artifacts, but the decades of controversy might indeed be discouraging for some. Scientists have wonderful tools at their disposal. A week of non-destructive analysis of the linen would be able to solve many of our questions and debates. As an example, in 2015, a scientific team identified a huge proportion of DNAs from the Indian subcontinent, just based on microscopic samples of the shroud collected decades earlier.
Now, as a thought experiment, let’s imagine that the Turin Shroud is the authentic burial cloth of Jesus. I think that historians, as historians, could prove beyond reasonable doubt that this is the image of Jesus. Much more than that, I have recently argued, against the current consensus, historians could prove that the image formation-process is the consequence of resurrection.
The Resurrection of Jesus will always be a mystery, but the image formation-process of the Turin shroud is just an ongoing enigma. Because our faith is based on the former, we should not be afraid of solving the latter.