A Catholic Scientist Champions the Shroud of Turin
By Gerard Verschuuren, Sophia Institute Press, 2021, 240 pages
People who read the title of this book will probably divide into two camps: those who already believe the piece of cloth known as the Holy Shroud and preserved in Turin cathedral to be the actual winding sheet of the crucified Christ; and those who think the author has allowed his objective scientific judgement to be overborne by his subjective faith.
However, in this study Verschuuren remains faithful to his twin vocations, both as a Catholic and as a scientist, achieving an admirable balance in a highly controversial area. The chief value of what he has written, particularly for our modern age, is to demonstrate that there need be no conflict between the two.
He has dedicated the book “To all scientists who have defended the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin.” This includes the many agnostic scientists and technicians who have become involved in trying to unravel the mystery posed by the Shroud over recent decades, and who have concluded on purely scientific grounds that it is not a fake. To come to this conclusion does not, of course, imply they have taken the spiritual step of identifying the Man of the Shroud with Christ of the Gospels.
However, to speak of “the Man of the Shroud” is to accept that the image on the cloth is of a real man and is not a painted icon. What is the scientific evidence for this? Verschuuren’s study goes into some detail on the different investigations that have played their part in the ongoing Shroud research and their findings. Lay people not versed in the dense technical complexities described here (such as this reviewer) must take it on trust that science, though often inconclusive, debatable and provisional, can still reach certain demonstrable conclusions.
Thus, ever since the dramatic discovery – from the first photograph of the Shroud taken in 1898 by photographer Secundo Pia – that the image is a photographic negative, its secrets have slowly yielded to further investigation.
In 1973 two US physicists, John Jackson and Eric Jumper, who went on to found the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), made computer scans of the photos of the Shroud and thereby “transformed the photograph into a three-dimensional map of the body.” This was sufficient to show that the image was not a painting – for “how could a two-dimensional painting ever include three-dimensional information of a real body?”
In 1978, twenty STURP specialists from different scientific disciplines studied the Shroud for five days, concluding from their data that the image was that of a “scourged, crucified man.” Information not observable to the naked eye showed a mass of injuries, wounds in the wrists and feet and innumerable bloodstains. Anatomical analysis further revealed the image to be the figure of a man just under six foot, with a gash in his side, his face beaten and his legs unbroken.
Textile analysis of the material of the Shroud showed it was made of linen with a weave pattern and stitching similar to first century Middle Eastern Jewish burial practices. There has also been pollen analysis, a study of the origins of the helmet-like covering of thorns that caused trauma to the head, and analysis of the blood on the Shroud. No brush strokes or paint pigment have been found.
I have briefly summarised the essential information provided by Verschuuren, who describes the proven medical and other facts. At this stage readers will naturally ask, “but what about the carbon dating of the Shroud in 1988 done in laboratories in Oxford, Zurich and Arizona which dated the cloth to ‘AD1260-1390 with at least 95% confidence’”?
The triumphal headline news at the time seemed to vindicate those critics who were certain the Shroud was a medieval forgery, cleverly concocted at a time when fake relics were common (in The Canterbury Tales Chaucer takes a cynical view of the gullibility of the laity in this respect). The author faces this supposedly conclusive evidence head-on, explaining why carbon dating is not as ‘infallible’ as is sometimes thought, that the protocols laid down for conducting the 1988 tests were ignored and that the single sample of the cloth tested was taken from a repaired strip on the side, which would have been contaminated in various ways over the centuries and which was thus inappropriate for a forensic study.
After the carbon dating announcement, a bizarre theory briefly circulated, suggesting that a crucified human corpse had been used to produce the image. Verschuuren does not mention this grotesque idea, which could never have produced on absorbent linen such a clearly distinct, three-dimensional figure, along with its wealth of medical information, preferring to concentrate on what STURP and further researches have brought to light. The more that is being learnt, the more intriguing and enigmatic the figure becomes.
Yet how to respond to the objection that the first documented mention of the Shroud is from the French village of Lirey in 1357 – which suggests a medieval origin? I won’t go into the details of the likely provenance of the cloth that Verschuuren includes, except to chart a journey that takes in Edessa in Turkey, where the Image of Edessa was venerated for many centuries; Constantinople, Athens, France, and finally Turin, the capital of the royal house of Savoy.
It is worth noting that the historical Image of Edessa, documented in 593, bears a remarkable resemblance to the face of the man on the Shroud, leading to the suggestion by Shroud investigator Ian Wilson, who made the television film Silent Witness, that it was the actual Shroud, folded in four to show only the face and known as a “tetradiplon”.
Certainly, icons, frescos and paintings of the face of Christ, such as the tenth-century mosaic of Christ in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, bear a remarkable similarity to the features of the face on the Shroud as revealed by modern science.
Atheists tend to place too much reliance on science to answer all questions. Verschuuren, who sees no conflict between his scientific training and his religious beliefs, rejects such scientism, reminding us that they “both have their own authority and expertise. In the world of science, we can find only atoms, molecules, nucleotides, genes, cells, brains and the like, but no souls, no sins, no angels, no miracles, no redemption… On the other hand, religion has its own limitations too: it cannot find out whether radiocarbon dating is reliable or whether there is real human blood in the stains of the Shroud. Science and religion each have their own ‘territory’ and their own authority.”
Christians, familiar with the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion and knowing something of what 20th century scientific studies have revealed about the mysterious, haunting image, have no doubts; they continue to find the ineffable nobility of this majestic figure as it emerges into the light of secular scrutiny, bearing all the agonising and tragic reminders of the exquisitely prolonged torment that preceded death, a compelling and sufficient witness to its true identity.