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Biology 103
2000 Third Web Report
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Debating The Shroud of Turin

Susanna Jones


In 1357, a linen cloth surfaced in the village of Lirey, France on which the body of a wounded man was imprinted. This cloth came to be known as the Shroud of Turin, believed to have once wrapped the bloodstained corpse of Jesus of Nazareth (1). A positive photographic image of the cloth reveals a bearded man with wounds consistent with the Biblical account of Jesus' crucifixion (2). For hundreds of years, believers have made pilgrimages to the Shroud to witness firsthand the stunning image of the body of Christ.

In about 1355, a talented artist created a beautiful painting to display in a new church as a pilgrim-attracting relic. Iron oxides were painted onto a linen cloth to depict the body of Christ as he must have lain after he was taken down from the cross, wounded and bloody (3). For hundreds of years, believers have made pilgrimages to the Shroud to witness firsthand the stunning image of the body of Christ.

Whether or not the Shroud is the actual funeral cloth of Jesus, it has undoubtedly become an awe-inspiring relic; a piece of ancient fabric that people find beauty, hope, and faith in. Nevertheless, the question of its "authenticity" has plagued its followers and become the object of intense scrutiny for teams of scientists. Attempts have been made to date the Shroud and to determine the composition of the red stain that forms the shape of the body in order to "prove" or "disprove" its "authenticity."

The debate has put biologists, chemists, and archaeologists in a position to make judgments on the "true" nature of the cloth. Every couple of years, a scientist publishes a report confirming that the Shroud is from the first century AD and that it is in fact stained with human blood. Months later, another scientist discredits the report.

I will provide a synopsis of both the work that has been done by scientists who think the Shroud is "authentic" and those who think it is a "fake." Their years of research teach us that nothing can ever be "proven," one of the most important lessons of biology. The scientists tell two stories that hold as much credibility as the belief held by the "non-scientific" man who travels to the Shroud and sees an image of Jesus.

Evidence of the "authentic" Shroud

The Shroud of Turin is composed of cellulosic fibers, such as cotton and linen that form a cloth so resilient, it has survived for 2000 years. In 1973, Dr. Max Frei conducted an experiment in palynology and took sticky tape samples of the cloth. From his samples, he detected 57 kinds of pollen and several epidermal cells from plants. Of the fifty-seven, thirty-two of the pollen are native to the Middle East and are not windborne. Therefore, the pollen must have been placed on the shroud as a consequence of some sort of human activity that took place in the Middle East. For example, flowers could have been placed on top of the shroud, leaving behind their pollen. Botanist Dr. Avinoam, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, supported Frei's investigation, confirming that the shroud had indeed been exposed to the Jerusalem area and to the Lebanese highlands. These findings give evidence of the Shroud's presence in the Middle East. (4)

The red stain on the Shroud is apparently composed of both iron oxides (earth pigments) and biological matter (blood). If the blood is from Jesus' body then how can the iron oxides be explained? Dr. John Jackson offers one hypothesis: vibrations in the building that housed the Shroud caused microscopic particles to fall from paintings and frescos onto the Shroud. Another possibility is that artists who made copies of the Shroud splashed paint onto the cloth. (4)

Dr. Walter McCrone, who opposes the "authenticity" of the Shroud, states that these explanations are impossible because tests have shown that the iron oxides are placed consistently across the Shroud, therefore random splashes are unlikely explanations. Medical historians provide a pharmacopoeic hypothesis that explain why the iron deposits are found throughout the Shroud. In the Middle East during the first century AD, a formula containing iron was often applied to hemorrhaging wounds in order to arrest blood flow. Therefore, the intimate association between the blood and the iron oxides supports rather than disproves the authenticity of the Shroud. (4)

Experiments on the formation of the image on the Shroud also point to its authenticity. If the image were painted onto the cloth, there would be some evidence of a directional pattern created by the brush strokes. There is no such evidence on the Shroud. Also, from analysis of the negative image, scientists have been able to detect the presence of rigor mortis, contusion wounds, and facial wounds. (5) Painting such detail would be nearly impossible. Finally, the image is so subtle that it can only be discerned from a distance of about ten feet. Not only would painting an image like this be very difficult, but such an image would be inaccessible to its proposed viewing audience at the time when it was "manufactured." (5)

Evidence of the "fake" Shroud

In 1979, using polarized light microscopy, Dr. McCrone determined that the image on the Shroud is made up of billions of submicron pigment particles. He also conducted forensic tests for blood, which were consistently negative. In 1980 the Electron Optics Group at McCrone Associates used electron and x-ray diffraction and found iron oxide and mercuric sulfide in the "blood" areas of the Shroud. (3)

Three different international laboratories performed carbon-dating test on the Shroud (3). All concluded that the Shroud was manufactured between AD 1260 and 1390 (2). Proponents of the authentic Shroud claimed that a 1532 fire left carbon residue on the Shroud, thereby contaminating the C-14 results. Labs call this suggestion "ludicrous" because the tested samples go through a purification process that would clear away the residue from the fire (3). A team of scientists also claimed that bacteria and fungi have been coating the fibers of the Shroud for centuries, and that this too, could contaminate the C-14 results (1). While opponents agree that the fungi and bacteria could change the results slightly, they believe that more than a thousand year difference is highly improbable.


Evidence from both sides of the discussion is convincing. Analyzing the arguments made by researchers quickly dispels any myth that science can provide definitive answers. Discussion of the origin of the Shroud seems to pit science against religion; but more importantly, the discussion brings science and religion into unison. Both require a certain act of faith; both are searching for enlightenment. A biologist once said, "you get better not by getting closer to the truth but farther from ignorance." "Authenticity" is therefore irrelevant; it is the quest that is significant. Even if a scientist publishes a report that seems to at last conclude that the Shroud is the product of an artist's rendering, followers will still visit the Shroud seeking inspiration from the image that covers it. And certainly, if scientists conclude that in fact the Shroud once wrapped a wounded body in the first century, other scientists will continue the investigation, always searching for new information to get father from ignorance.

WWW Sources

1) Science and the Shroud, off the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonia homepage

2)Cloudy Shroud , off the US News and World Report section called Mysteries of History

3)The Shroud of Turin , off the McCrne Research Institute page

4)Science, Archaeology, and the Shroud of Turin

5) Verification of the Nature and Causes of the Photo-negative Images on the Shroud of Lirey-Chambery-Turin

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