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All original content is 

John C. Snider  

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The Joe Nickell Files: The Shroud of Turin

by John C. Snider 2004

Originally published August 2000 - Revised January 2004


Image courtesy of CSICOP

Few historical or religious artifacts provoke more passion and controversy than the Shroud of Turin.  Since its emergence in the 14th century in Lirey, France, the alleged burial cloth of Jesus has simultaneously bolstered the faithful and intrigued skeptics.  The few scientific investigations (all performed in the 20th century) have failed to satisfy everyone as to the authenticity (or otherwise) of the Shroud.  The property of the Catholic Church, it now resides in a cathedral in Turin, Italy.  It is rarely put on public display - indeed, in August 2000 the Church will make the Shroud available for just a few weeks (only the fifth time in 100 years they have done so).  No doubt religious, agnostic and atheist alike will stand in line for the opportunity to view this fragile cloth, which bears the faint image of a man apparently crucified.  But is it the true burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth?  Will any amount of scientific study ever convince all of us that, while beautiful and intriguing, the Shroud is nothing more than a very clever forgery?  It seemed appropriate this month [August 2000] to pursue the truth about the Shroud with Joe Nickell, who has done considerable investigation into this artifact for over twenty years.  His book Inquest on the Shroud of Turin, recently updated, has stirred up almost as much controversy as the Shroud itself.

scifidimensions: Joe, it's good to talk to you again.

Joe Nickell: Same here.

sfd: Just recently the Catholic Church announced that they are going to put the Shroud on display again on August 12th - I believe only about the fifth time in 100 years that it's been put on public display.

JN: It is rarely displayed.  It is quite fragile and it should not be exposed to a lot of light.

sfd: Why don't you tell us what the Shroud of Turin is...a lot of people have heard the term before, but they're not quite sure what it is.

JN: Well, its name is the Shroud of Turin; but, of course it's not a shroud (it's never held a body).  It's believed by the Faithful to be the burial cloth of Jesus.  It's a fourteen-foot length of linen cloth; it bears the imprint of an apparently crucified man, as if the figure were to lie down on half the cloth, and the rest of it would be draped around the head and on over the front of the body.  Needless to say, I suppose, the Jews did not bury their dead in that manner, and the earliest records that discuss Jesus' burial, of course, are the Gospels.  The Gospel of John is the most detailed, and the Shroud of Turin is not compatible with the description that John's gospel gives.  That's one of the first problems with the Shroud of Turin.

sfd: We should point out, for the record that "Turin" is Turin, Italy.

JN: Right.  The history of the Shroud is that it has no known history from the time of Jesus' crucifixion, death and burial - until the middle of the 14th century, at which time it shows up in a chapel in Lirey, France in the possession of a soldier of fortune who cannot or will not say how he acquired the most holy relic in all of Christendom.

sfd: This is someone who had been in the Crusades?

JN: Yes - Geoffrey de Charny.  And the Shroud has no known history for thirteen centuries prior to that time - a big problem, again, for the Shroud.  Eventually, the granddaughter of Geoffrey de Charny makes off with the Shroud during a religious war on the pretext of safekeeping, then later refuses to give it back - she's excommunicated for this.  Pro-Shroud people like to portray her as pious despite her excommunication, and suggest that she gave the Shroud to the royal Savoy family who later became the Italian monarchy. If you want to say that she gave it to them, okay - but then, in return, of course, we should mention that they gave her the sum of two castles, so there may have been wheeling and dealing there.  In later centuries it was transferred to Turin, and eventually the exiled King of Italy, at his death, bequeathed it to the Vatican and it is now owned by the Vatican, but still reposes in Turin, in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

sfd: So it's still in Turin?

JN: Yes, it's known as the Shroud of Turin, but I have suggested that its more proper name should be the Cloth of Lirey (because it first showed up in Lirey).

sfd: This is not the only alleged relic associated with Christ.  There have been all sorts of relics, from a piece of wood from the Cross...

JN: There have been pieces of the True Cross; enough, one skeptic said, to build a ship; enough nails from the Crucifixion to nail the ship together.  There have been thorns - entire cathedrals built to house alleged thorns from the Crown of Thorns.  During the Middle Ages, particularly, relic-mongering was rampant; and, of course, there were no scientific means to test things, so all manner of things were sold as authentic.  Vials of Jesus' tears...vials of Jesus' mother's milk - it's just incredible.  There were two or three churches that had the corpse of Mary Magdalene.  There were various and sundry other relics, including some forty "genuine" Shrouds of Jesus.  Now, of course, with your quick mind, I know you're saying to yourself that at least 39 of those must have been spurious; and in fact, perhaps, all forty.  The Shroud of Turin is different in that, of the True Shrouds, it's the one with a picture of Jesus on it; but, alas, in the history of the world no other burial cloth left a portrait of its tenant; and so, that's not a feature of burial cloths.  So when we talk about the Shroud of Turin we're almost immediately talking miracle...or hoax.

sfd: When did the scientific investigation of the Shroud really begin?

JN: Well, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, there was a secret commission appointed by the Archbishop of Turin, and there were some tests done in secret.  Before that, I guess for the really modern phase, the scientific approach to the Shroud, maybe you could go back as far as 1898 when it was first photographed.  And Secondo Pia, when he developed his glass-plate negatives, noticed that on his negative plates there was a positive image - how can this be, darks and lights reversed?  That meant that the image on the cloth must be a negative, and so the question was asked, how could a Medieval forger (presumably in the middle of 14th century) produce a perfect photographic negative image on the cloth, with no concept of photography?  And the answer is that it's a bogus question - the Shroud is not a perfect photographic negative; it's only a quasi-negative.  The hair and beard in the so-called positive image are white, which is the opposite of what they should be in a positive image.  So it's a quasi-negative - it's sort of a complicated issue; but it's a quasi-negative and the effect is that if an imprinting technique in which the face and the hair, where they touched the cloth, were darkened.  As I say, no burial cloth leaves such picture-like images.

sfd: How realistic is the image with respect to human physiology?

JN: Well, not very...let me back up a little bit.  It's hard to get these things in order, but I'm realizing that I need to go back to the beginning and pick up on the Gospel of John.  The Gospel of John mentions that Jesus was buried in the manner of the Jews, which meant tying and binding.  John mentions multiple burial cloths; a separate cloth for the face.  This is a discrepancy with the Shroud of Turin.  And John's gospel mentions a huge amount - a hundred-pound weight of burial spices; and, of course, that is not found on the Shroud of Turin.  So the Shroud is really incompatible; and there is no history of the Shroud for 1,300 years.  The Shroud first showed up around 1355 to 1357 under suspicious circumstances and was being used as part of a faith-healing scam.  We know this from a later Bishop's report dated 1389 to Pope Clement.  The Bishop says that people were being hired to pretend they were sick, and when the Shroud was revealed to them, they would pretend they were cured.  So as he put it "they cunningly robbed the pockets of the unsuspecting," and eventually the matter was hushed up, and eventually the Shroud surfaced again.  The Bishop tried to put an end to it; people wouldn't listen to him.  He appeals to Pope Clement; Pope Clement hears the matter and adjudicates it; he determines the Shroud is just a representation and not the True Shroud. The fact of the matter is that the Bishop's predecessor had actually found the artist and he had confessed.  Now, they don't give his name, and of course the pro-Shroud people like to just dismiss this as hearsay, but the fact of its artistry is supported, as we will see, on many fronts.  Not only by the lack of history up to that time [the mid-13th century].

sfd: Back to the secret commission...what kind of experts or scientists were called in?

JN: They had a number of experts: technical experts, forensic serologists - a very good team - art experts.  They did take threads from blood-stained areas and had them tested, and they were analyzed by internationally known forensic serologists, and they failed every possible test - tests for blood group, or speciation, or microscopic identification of corpuscles - anything you could think of that could be used to test blood, they tried and failed.  But they found traces that they thought were red paint.  There were attempts to hush this up, of course; this report was pretty much suppressed, and a rebuttal to the report was issued and translated and made freely available to anyone who wanted it.  I never did get an original report, but I got a rebuttal report in English.

sfd: Were all the involved scientists Catholic?

JN: Many of these were good Catholics; they just did their jobs.  And the secret commission work was fairly skeptical, and was not good news for the Shroud.  And in 1978 another group (and this is what most people are aware of) is the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), a group of some 30 scientists from various disciplines who got permission to go to Turin and do more tests.  Unfortunately, almost all of these were religious believers, most of them were Roman Catholics; in fact, the leaders of the group served on the Executive Council for the Holy Shroud Guild.  So having this group investigate the Shroud was a little bit like having the Flat Earth Society investigate the curvature of the Earth.  

sfd: What is the Guild?

JN: The Holy Shroud Guild is a group devoted to the "cause" of the Holy Shroud.  Their mission, endlessly, is to promote the Shroud as genuine by pretty much any means they can think of.

sfd: How long have they been around?  Since before the original commission?

JN: Oh, long ago, yes.  They've been around, I'm sure, since the Thirties or so.

sfd: Okay, so this second commission was formed...

JN: It was not really a commission; it was not sanctioned or organized by the Turin people.  It was an outside group who just asked permission to test; but it was a new group that was not under the auspices of the Archbishop of Turin. It was simply that the Archbishop allowed this group of obviously very devoted believers to come and test the Shroud.  And we've heard much about how they were made up of scientists, but the truth is that most of them had no background in testing the questions of the Shroud.  Many of them were outside their particular areas of scientific expertise, or lacked the specific expertise that they really needed.  One man in particular, though, was Walter McCrone, and Dr. McCrone was a world famous microanalyst; and while he was not in Turin, they took tape samples from all over the Shroud, and stuck the tapes onto microscope slides with whatever debris was stuck onto the tape, and those were given to Dr. McCrone.  And he divided them into groups which either showed no appreciable contamination or, in fact, a pigment called red ochre (which he identified).  He also found the pigment vermilion.  These are pigments which were common in the Middle Ages.  And he found that the blood stains were, in fact, tempera paint, and he first thought that the entire body image was probably just a pigment powder rubbed on, but he later concluded that that also was a very, very dilute tempera paint.  The response of the Shroud of Turin Research Project was first of all to try to argue him out of his findings, and to refuse to sanction publication of his report, and to hold him to a secrecy agreement, and eventually, as he put it, to drum him out of the organization.    But he eventually published his results, and this is very consistent with the reported forger's confession, and the fact that the blood is still bright red.  You mentioned earlier about the anatomy - these are very complicated areas that one can discuss for hours, but let me just say that the Shroud image lacks "wraparound" distortions that would be expected if you took an impression of a real human body, there would be grotesque wraparound distortions.

sfd: The image would be wider...

JN: Yes.  The Shroud image is, in fact, unusually narrow; so long, so very long and narrow, that one pro-Shroud pathologist suggested that Jesus must have had Marfan's syndrome.  But, in fact, this is just the style, you see, of French Gothic art in the middle of the 14th century.  This is just what you would expect from the artist who confessed and is supported by the original carbon dating.  And, in fact, the blood-stains are not real blood; and, in fact, they are tempera paint; and, in fact, they are still bright red - which is what you would expect from tempera but not real blood.

sfd: We heard a lot about the identification of pollen and that sort of thing, which seems to be consistent with the time and place - the Middle East at the time of the Crucifixion.

JN: We've heard a lot more about the pollen since the Shroud was radio carbon dated (by the way, the carbon dating dated it right at the time of the forger's confession) - so here's yet another powerful blow against the authenticity.  And there were three different laboratories that all got the same results.  So the pro-Shroud people are getting very, very, very desperate to try to promote the Shroud as genuine.  They are in a real quandary on what to do, so they seized on this old report from Max Frei, who claimed to have found pollens particularly from Palestine dated from the time of Jesus...

sfd: And who is Max Frei?

JN: Max Frei was a Swiss criminologist - a sort of jack-of-all-trades criminologist - who made a fool of himself authenticating the notorious Hitler Diaries.  Well, when the Shroud of Turin Research Project took the tape samples, Max Frei was there by permission, taking a set of samples himself, and later claimed to have found these pollens.  The pollens were very suspicious, as pollen experts quickly pointed out - first of all, they were missing the most obvious pollen you would expect, which would be olive.  There's not any!  These were more esoteric pollens; they all looked brand-spanking new - they looked like lab specimens.  And on the STURP tapes, which were examined last, they found very, very few pollens.  So there was a discrepancy - they wondered how Frei had gotten such wonderful results on his tapes, and they were not on a duplicate set of tapes.  Eventually, after Frei's death, the tapes were scrutinized, and McCrone (even though he was persona non grata, they knew he was an expert) examined the Frei tapes, and to his consternation, he found that there were very few pollens on Frei's tapes as well.  And there were a few tapes that looked rather suspiciously like they had even been doctored.  Now, this is all still controversial, but the bottom line is that you cannot take the Shroud and place it in Palestine, even if Frei's results were above suspicion, for all kinds of reasons.  And, in fact, the tempera paint and other evidence - the carbon dating - supports this.

sfd: In recent years, since the "debunking" of the Shroud has turned up the heat on the pro-Shroud community, they've now begun to say, maybe it's not the burial cloth of Christ, but it's certainly such a masterpiece of work that it couldn't have been done by anyone other than a master artist.  And many have said that they believe, upon analysis, that the Shroud was the work of none other than Leonardo da Vinci.

JN: Yes, they also suggested that because of its supposed of its so-called photographic negative properties, and since Leonardo invented photography, that this was a photographic experiment - perhaps even a portrait of Leonardo as well!  There are a few things to say about that.  First of all, it's not a true photographic negative.  The hair and beard are white in the positive image.  Unless Jesus was an albino, there's a problem there.  Then there's the minor detail that Leonardo wasn't born until 1452, so that places him about a century after the Shroud was well established in Lirey, France.  Besides, the photographic process did not involve tempera paint.  So this is just one of many, many, many examples of nonsense.  One pro-Shroud person even suggested that before it was the Shroud of Jesus that it was the tablecloth at the Last Supper.   The ideas that people come up with, without really reading the literature, is just amazing - and it's amazing how much the media fosters these ideas, when they're just absurd.

sfd: I should mention at this point, that you're not just discussing hearsay - that you've actually spent quite a bit of time researching this, and wrote a book called Inquest on the Shroud of Turin...

JN: Yes, I did.  It's been out in several printings, and it's now out in a new edition in paperback. It was originally published in 1983 and the new edition came out in 1998 or thereabouts.  It has all the latest findings, and it's available from Prometheus Books.

sfd: So, where do you think things are going to go from here with the Shroud?  Is it just going to be one of these endless debates?

JN: Some of us thought it was clear that the Shroud was proven a forgery and all it needed was the carbon dating to sort it out.  It would be one more final confirming detail; and in fact I and others predicted the carbon dating would confirm the forger's confession; and in fact it did almost to the month and day.  And clearly the situation now is, in my opinion, that science won the battle and science proved the truth.  Science didn't want to prove that the Shroud was not real; science just wanted to prove the truth.  It seems to me that, the pro-Shroud people, having lost the scientific battle, are nevertheless inclined to win the propaganda battle.  They have many allies, and don't wish to make them angry, and they wish endlessly to keep hope alive, particularly around Easter time with newspaper stories about the Shroud of Turin.  And they have about as much credibility as O.J. Simpson's perpetual attempts to find the real killers by searching the golf courses of the world.

sfd: But it should be pointed out that even if the Shroud is thoroughly debunked, it should not affect people's faith and what they believe. 

JN: Yes, it's not really a religious issue.  My own review team consisted of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, agnostics - distinguished members like Dr. Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist - and we didn't engage in religious bickering because it wasn't a religious issue for us, we only dealt with the science.  Historical, artistic, and ideographic issues can be approached from many directions, but the forces of science and scholarship can settle such matters, and they have done so in the case of the Shroud of Turin.  This was not an issue to be decided by religious faith, but by science.


Holy Shroud Guild - Promotes study and devotion of the Shroud of Turin.

Shroud of Turin Website - Presented by an original STURP team member, Barrie Schwortz.

Shroud of Turin Research - Maintained by Dr. Walter McCrone.


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