In truth, most scientists who have actually studied the shroud — an important distinction — come away at least perplexed. But the debate continues, each side using details to back their theories. Believers, for instance, point out that the whip marks have been matched to a Roman flagrum, the dog-boned lash used at the time of Christ. There is swelling at most of the wounds, except at the gash in the side, which backs the Gospel account that this wound came after his death.
Among doubters, the late Walter McCrone, who debunked the supposed “Vinland map” depicting Norse exploration of North America, found iron oxide in a sample of the Shroud he examined. Since that’s a frequent ingredient of medieval paint, he took the Shroud to be a forgery, though members of STURP said the amount was so microscopic as to be contamination.
The lack of a documented history back to the tomb has always been an obstacle to authenticity for the Shroud. However, a strong circumstantial case can be made for the Shroud’s existence from the time of Christ until 1204, when the cloth believed to have been the Shroud disappeared in the Crusader sacking of Constantinople. The highlights are: Early Christians surely would have saved burial garments left in the tomb as described in the Gospels. A Shroud, believed to be the one now in Turin was found hidden in a wall in one of early Christianity’s settlements around 550, according to accounts. With an image of Christ on it like the one on the Turin Shroud, it was exalted and taken to Constantinople, the seat of Christiandom then, in great fanfare, where it was exhibited frequently until the 1204 sacking.
That disappearance created a troublesome gap in the Shroud’s history of some 150 years until 1354, when it surfaced in France in the possession of a relative of one of the leaders of the Knights Templar, the secretive and controversial Crusader-monks who were purged and disbanded in 1314.
Today, though, the Vatican has announced that one of their top researchers in their own restricted archives has found a lost document indicating the Templars did, in fact, have the cloth — helping to close the gap. It’s the testimony of a young French Templar, Arnaut Sabbatier, who claims to have venerated a Shroud-like cloth in a secret 1287 initiation ceremony. “He was shown a long linen cloth on which was impressed the figure of a man, and was told to kiss the feet,” Barbara Frale, the researcher, wrote in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, in 2009. The cloth described is “extremely similar to the Shroud of Turin” and “appears to solve the puzzle of the Shroud’s missing years.” Frale is writing a book, soon to be published, on her find.
Last Easter, at the latest exhibition of the Shroud, which drew more than 2 million viewers to Turin’s St. John the Baptist Church, Pope Benedict himself, after meditating before the relic, deviated from the Vatican’s usual non-committal stance and deemed the Shroud authentic. It is, he told the Christian Science Monitor, “an icon written in blood; the blood of a man who was whipped, crowned with thorns, crucified, and injured on his right side.”
Christian faith, believers says, does not depend on relics, even one as monumental as the Shroud could be. I heartily agree. Faith, by definition, does not need proofs. But if it turns out that the Shroud is authentic, there are tremendous benefits to the faithful. Christians will have tangible evidence of the story of Christ as told in the New Testament, a picture of what Jesus looked like and the horrible suffering he endured, and, for lack of any other accepted explanation, a possible proof of his resurrection.
You do not need a Shroud to believe — but it can’t hurt.
Robert K. Wilcox is the author of “The Truth About the Shroud of Turin: Solving the Mystery” (Regnery Publishing), out now.