The Shroud of Turin is a burial shroud (a linen cloth woven in a 3-over-1 [3:1] herringbone pattern) measuring 14 feet 3 inches in length by 3 feet 7 inches in width. It apparently covered a man who suffered the wounds of crucifixion in a way very similar to that recorded for Jesus of Nazareth.
The cloth has a certifiable history from 1349, when it surfaced in Lirey, France, in the hands of a French nobleman — Geoffrey de Charny. It also has a somewhat sketchy traceable history from Jerusalem to Lirey — through Edessa, Turkey and Constantinople. This history is confirmed by the pollen grains found by Max Frei, the coincidences between the Shroud and the Sudarium (facecloth) of Oviedo, and the coincidences between the Shroud’s seven unique facial features and those attributed to the Mandylion — the Holy Image of Edessa.
The Shroud has undergone considerably more scientific testing than any other relic in human history. The 1978 Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) investigation and subsequent investigations were remarkably thorough, and with the exception of the questionable 1988 carbon dating, all the evidence points to it being the burial cloth of Jesus, including the following:
I. Four contemporary dating tests: The vanillin dating test of Dr. Raymond Rogers, the two spectroscopic analyses (of professor Giulio Fanti, et al.), and the compressibility and breaking strength tests (of Fanti, et al.) date the Shroud to a time commensurate with the life and crucifixion of Jesus.
II. Three kinds of extrinsic dating evidence: (A) Testing of pollen samples by Dr. Max Frei who collected dust samples from the Shroud during the 1978 STURP investigation and later classified 58 pollen grains by comparing them to pollen grains in the largest botanical museums around the world. His conclusion was that the majority (45) were from the region of Israel (specifically from sedimentary layers from 2,000 years ago near the area of the Sea of Galilee), with six grains from the eastern Middle East (two grains from Edessa, Turkey, and one growing exclusively in Istanbul/Constantinople). The remaining grains came from France and Italy. Importantly, 13 of the pollen grains are unique to Israel and are found at the bottom of both the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. (B) Roman coins on the eyes of the image on the Shroud, which give evidence that it’s highly probable that the image of the man on the Shroud of Turin has two Jewish lepta, minted in A.D. 29 by Pontius Pilate in Judea at the time of Jesus, on his eyelids. (C) One-hundred twenty coincidences of blood and fluid stains between the Shroud and the Sudarium of Oviedo give evidence of a date and location of the Shroud’s origin similar to that of Jesus.
III. The blood stains on the Shroud: The blood stains tell a story very similar to the highly unusual crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth — they were imprinted on the Shroud before the image was made (the opposite of what would need to be done by a forger). The Shroud has deposits of real human blood, according to the experts who studied the blood flecks gathered on the STURP tapes in 1978. They determined that the blood on the Shroud is real. Some researchers have found that male DNA and an AB blood type are also present on the cloth. Though genetic testing confirms these findings, there is no guarantee that they belong to the man on the Shroud.
IV. Formation of the image on the Shroud: The image was not formed by dyes, chemicals, vapors or scorching. The only known explanation for the formation of the image is an intense burst of vacuum ultraviolet radiation (equivalent to the output of 14,000 excimer lasers) emitted from every three-dimensional point of the body in the Shroud.
The combination of the above evidence is exceedingly difficult to explain in any way other than the burial cloth is that of Jesus of Nazareth. Moreover, the formation of the image by an intense outburst of vacuum ultraviolet radiation is suggestive of a resurrection event similar to that described in the Gospels. The above scientific evidence requires that a new carbon-dating test be done which observes the standard protocols for sampling. When these protocols are observed, it would be surprising if the result was not similar to the results of the four new dating methods mentioned above — approximately A.D. 50. If this result is obtained, it would indicate that the Shroud of Turin is very likely the burial shroud of Jesus Christ with evidence suggestive of His resurrection in light.
While we currently do not have a definitive explanation for how this unique and mysterious image was created from the body of a deceased man, the most plausible current hypothesis comes from a combination of two teams of researchers.
Dr. John Jackson’s team studied the Shroud and proposed the vacuum ultraviolet radiation hypothesis in 2008.
According to Jackson, an intense burst of vacuum ultraviolet radiation produced a discoloration on the uppermost surface of the Shroud’s fibrils (without scorching it), which gave rise to a perfect three-dimensional negative image of both the frontal and dorsal parts of the body wrapped in it.
Currently, we know of no natural explanation for the seemingly unique occurrence of such a burst of vacuum ultraviolet radiation from either a decomposing body or the geological/atmospheric conditions within a tomb. Though this is suggestive of a possible supernatural origin of the radiation — perhaps as a part of Jesus’ resurrection — we cannot prove this scientifically, because we cannot construct a scientific test for a supernatural cause — all we can do is eliminate every known natural cause of this seemingly unique radiation. The uniqueness and current inexplicability of this phenomenon gives us reason to believe that God has given us evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. This belief can be strengthened by further understanding of the light phenomenon that seems to be the source of the image as well as the continued elimination of natural causes for it. The most convincing seems to be the hypothesis of Jackson.
The research of the 1978 STURP investigation, as well as subsequent research of Jackson, Fanti, Paolo Di Lazzaro and their teams, shows the likelihood that sometime after the blood deposits had dried on the Shroud the decomposing body in the Shroud emitted a short intense burst of vacuum ultraviolet radiation that led to a dehydration and discoloration of the frontal and dorsal parts of the Shroud, giving rise to a perfect photographic negative image. Jackson’s research also suggests that the body inside the Shroud became mechanically transparent and emitted light evenly from every three-dimensional point within it. This allowed the frontal part of the Shroud to collapse — creating an image (of both the inside and outside of the hands) as well as a double image on the frontal part of the Shroud.
Currently, the known laws of physics cannot explain how a decomposing body can emit an intense burst of vacuum ultraviolet radiation. Furthermore, they cannot explain how such a body could become mechanically transparent and emit light from every three-dimensional point within it.
So, where does that leave us? If Jackson’s explanation continues to be the only one to explain away the enigmas, and if future articulations of the laws of physics cannot explain how a decomposing body could become mechanically transparent and evenly emit vacuum ultraviolet radiation from every three-dimensional point within it, then we are left at the brink of a trans-physical or metaphysical explanation. Under these conditions, it would be both reasonable and responsible to believe that a trans-physical cause interacted with the decomposing body to transform it into an intense burst of light.
Evidently, we cannot scientifically prove a trans-physical cause, because science is restricted to the domain of physical causation. However, if the above conditions hold, we can reasonably infer the possibility and perhaps the likelihood of such a trans-physical cause. This is sufficient for reasonable and responsible belief.
Does this trans-physical explanation of the Shroud’s image point to the resurrection of Jesus? Jesus’ resurrection was not a resuscitation of a material corpse but rather a transforming event which gave rise to what St. Paul called a “spiritual body” — a body transformed in glory, spirit and power. Could this transformation of a material body into a burst of intense light signify a beginning point of the transformation of Jesus’ body from a physical one to a spiritual-glorified one? Though there can be no scientific proof of this, it is a reasonable inference from the parallels between the explanation of the Shroud’s enigmatic image and the testimony of St. Paul and the Gospel writers. In this sense, we might say that the image on the Shroud presents a clue — even a relic — of Jesus’ resurrection.
Why would we think the body in the Shroud was that of Jesus? As explained above, it is exceedingly improbable that the Shroud is a medieval forgery. First, there are no paints, dyes or other pigments on the Shroud (except for the small flecks coming from the sanctification of icons and paintings which touched it).
Second, the anatomical precision of the blood stains — which are real human blood that congealed on the Shroud before the formation of the image — are in precise anatomical correlation to the image itself. How could a medieval forger have accomplished this?
Third, it is exceedingly difficult to explain how pollen grains indigenous to Palestine appeared in abundance on a shroud of probable Semitic origin (if it originated in medieval Europe) and how coins minted in A.D. 29 in Palestine appeared on the eyes of the man on the Shroud. How could a medieval forger have duplicated these first-century Palestinian characteristics of the Shroud?
Fourth, the five enigmas of the image on the Shroud almost certainly preclude a forgery. How could a medieval forger have used vacuum ultraviolet radiation to discolor the cloth on the uppermost surface of the fibrils? How could he have created a perfect photographic negative image? How could he have created a double image on the frontal part of the Shroud? And how could he have known how to duplicate the interior and exterior of the hands in perfect proportion to each other? Thus it does not seem reasonable or responsible to believe that the Shroud is a medieval forgery.
Three Last Points
Beyond this, there are three probative kinds of evidence pointing specifically to Jesus’place and time of origin and to His unique crucifixion and resurrection:
The material of the Shroud, the pollen grains on it and the coins on the man’s eyes all have their origin in first-century Palestine — the place where Jesus was purported to have died.
The blood stains come from a crucifixion event identical to the one described in the four Gospels — which was very unusual, if not unique, in many respects — such as being crowned with thorns, being flogged and being pierced with a Roman pilum (spear).
The five enigmas of the Shroud’s image point to a trans-physically caused burst of vacuum ultraviolet radiation from a mechanically transparent body. This is suggestive of the transformation of Jesus’ body from a physical one to a spiritual-glorified one (as reported by St. Paul and the four Gospels).
The spiritual-glorified transformation of Jesus’ body was unique to the Christian view of resurrection. It was not known in Judaism (which held to a resuscitation of the flesh) or pagan cults (which held to ethereal or ghostlike views of immortality). Thus the enigmas on the Shroud’s image point to the uniquely Christian view of resurrection implied by Jesus’ risen appearance.
The odds of this first-century Palestinian burial shroud — with the unique features of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection — being that of anyone else is exceedingly remote. Inasmuch as the image is not a forgery, and that it originated from a real person living at the time of Jesus, crucified in the unique way of Jesus, and producing a burst of intense vacuum ultraviolet radiation from his decomposing body, who else would it be? Given all this, we might reasonably infer that the Shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus, which contains not only a relic of His crucifixion but also His resurrection in glory. If so, it shows both the truth of the most significant event in human history as well as the accuracy of the Gospel accounts of it.
Father Robert J. Spitzer, Ph.D., is a Jesuit priest currently serving as president of the Magis Center in Garden Grove, California. A prolific author, he also appears weekly on EWTN’s “Father Spitzer’s Universe.”