Shrouded in Mystery

For some, Feb. 16, 1989, has gone down as a day of infamy. It was on that day that scientists from America, Switzerland and England announced that the Shroud of Turin could not have been the cloth used to wrap the body of Jesus of Nazareth for burial.

Publishing their conclusions in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, the team said that, based on carbon-14 (C-14) analysis — and following a protocol agreed to by the Vatican — the cloth with the mysterious image of a crucified man only dates back as far as the 13th or 14th century. At the time it came out, the judgment was widely accepted within scientific and academic circles as the final word on the shroud's age.

Twelve years later, many scientists aren't so sure. Citing problems with the C-14 studies, plus new research into botanical, forensic and historical clues on the cloth, some say it remains altogether possible that the Shroud of Turin dates to first-century Palestine. And nearly all, regardless of their estimate of the shroud's age, remain perplexed over the photographic-negative image of the crucified man. However old the artifact may be, how did the image come to be created?

Botanic Bounty

Some of the most compelling new evidence supporting the possibility of the shroud's direct connection to Jesus comes from the field of botany. Avinoam Danin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Uri Baruch of Jerusalem's Antiquities Authority have matched pollen taken from the shroud with that of the crown chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium), the rock rose (Cistus creticus), the bean caper plant (Zygophyllum dumosum) and the blooms of the tumbleweed (Gundelia tournefortii).

These last two are especially important, as they coexist only in the Holy Land, both blooming in the spring. What's more, pollen found on the Shroud matches that found on another mysterious historical relic, the Sudarium of Oviedo.

The Sudarium of Oviedo is a small linen cloth, 21 inches high by 32 wide, which, according to tradition, was placed over the face of Jesus after he died on the cross. Unlike the shroud, the sudarium has a well-documented history that extends at least as far back as the 7th century, when, according to reliable records, a presbyter brought it from Jerusalem to Alexandria in 614 to protect it from a Persian invasion. It was examined by King Alphonso IV in 1075 on his visit to Oviedo, where it has been housed ever since.

The sudarium is stained with blood — type AB, the same blood type found on the shroud — and with body fluids associated with asphyxiation, which is the usual cause of death in crucifixion. At an area on the sudarium which would have been at the back of the head, there are blood stains consistent with small punctures. Intriguingly, the pattern of the stains on the sudarium matches those of the head area on the shroud.

In 1989, Dr. Alan Whanger, a professor emeritus at the Duke University Medical Center, found numerous similarities between the two artifacts based on photographs taken of the sudarium.

Meanwhile, Danin reported finding tumbleweed pollen on the sudarium. It came from the same species of pollen he had previously identified on the shroud.

In order to understand the importance of the 1989 study which claimed a medieval European origin for the Shroud of Turin, it is necessary to understand the principles behind C-14 analysis.

‘The shroud is an image of both God's love and man's sin.’

In earth's atmosphere, a small proportion of carbon is radioactive, created by the sun's rays striking nitrogen atoms and converting them into C-14. (The common, stable form of carbon is C-12.) Carbon is the basic building block of living things, a main constituent of carbohydrates and protein. Green plants absorb it from the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) and convert it into starch, sugar and tissue, thereby forming the base of the food chain for all living things.

All living tissue will have the same proportion of C-14 to C-12 that exists in the atmosphere.

The acquisition of C-14 by an organism stops at death, and the radioactive C-14 present gradually decays to become nitrogen. By knowing the rate of decay of C-14 (half the C-14 present every 5,730 years) and the proportion of C-14 to C-12 in a specimen, its age can be determined. Obviously the main assumption behind the method is that the proportion of C-14 in the atmosphere has been constant over time.

Given the established assumptions of the method, the conclusion of a medieval origin of the shroud appears reasonable based on C-14 dating alone. Yet, while the C-14 levels detected by the three laboratories are incontestable, conclusions based on the assumptions of the method are not as definite.

Scientific critics of the 1989 paper have questioned whether there could be biological contamination by either bacteria or fungi on the shroud, throwing off the C-14/C-12 balance. Dr. Leoncio A. Garza-Valdes and microbiology professor Stephen J. Mattingly, after examining several threads from the shroud, have suggested that the large amount of still-living bacteria and fungi they observed would have contaminated the C-14 composition of the samples.

Their thesis could have profound consequences for dating other artifacts as well, and is not easily dismissed. The argument against the Valdes-Mattingly proposal is that there would had to have been a noticeably large amount of contaminating material present on the sample in order to alter the date by over 1,000 years. Contrarily, given that the linen fibers are hollow (made up of flax), it might be possible for biological contaminants to remain undetected in spite of the extensive preparative cleansing done in the '89 study. Supporting this theory was the work of an archaeologist, William Meacham, who had warned of these potential problems three years before the C-14 analysis was published, citing anomalous results found in other C-14 studies.

Relic or Objet d'Art?

Last May, Pope John Paul II knelt before the Shroud of Turin, speaking of it as “the precious cloth that can help us better understand the mystery of the love of the Son of God.”

As to the authenticity of the shroud, however, the Holy Father reminded us that “as it is not a question of faith, the Church does not have the specific authority to make a pronouncement on such questions. … Scientists have the duty to continue research in order to arrive at adequate answers to the questions linked with this linen which, according to tradition, wrapped the body of our Redeemer when he was taken from the Cross.”

Whether as a relic of the crucifixion or as a medieval icon, the message the shroud holds for Christians does not change. In his homily given in the Turin Cathedral, the Holy Father asked:

“Contemplating the Shroud [of Turin], how can we not think of the millions of people who die of hunger, the horrors perpetrated during the many wars which have bloodied nations, the brutal exploitation of women and children, the millions of human beings who live in hardship and humiliation on the fringes of large cities, especially in developing countries? How can we not recall with bewilderment and pity all those who cannot enjoy basic civil rights, victims of torture and terrorism, slaves of criminal organizations?”

The problem of the C-14 dating still remains, the objections to the C-14 dating notwithstanding. It is a mistake to simply dismiss the C-14 results. Equally, is a profound mistake to dismiss the evidence from the other disciplines which demonstrate an older origin of the Shroud of Turin. One cannot ignore the contradiction between the C-14 evidence pointing to a medieval origin, and the similarity between the shroud's image and that found on the Sudarium of Oviedo.

The day may never come when science resolves the inconsistent findings on the Shroud of Turin. That should not stop Christians from using it to reflect on the Gospel event it points to.

“The shroud is an image of both God's love and man's sin,” said John Paul in his Turin homily. “In the incomparable suffering which it documents, the love of him who so loved the world as to give his only begotten Son becomes palpable.”

David Beresford, a biologist, writes from Lakefield, Ontario.