In April 2022 new tests on the Shroud of Turin — believed by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ — dated it to the first century. This dating contradicted a 1980s carbon dating that suggested the Shroud was from the Middle Ages. Some people would have been surprised, but not anyone who had been following the build-up of evidence indicating the Shroud is authentic.

A total of four tests have now dated the Shroud to the first century. In addition, an immense body of other evidence suggests the cloth, which appears to carry an image of Jesus’s crucified body, is genuine.

Experiment

Debate about the Shroud has been going on for centuries, provoking heated exchanges, revealing a tortuous trail of evidence full of unexpected twists and turns, and prompting more unanswerable questions than any other artefact in history.

Only days before the new dating results were announced, one of the main players in the drama, British filmmaker David Rolfe, issued a million-dollar challenge to the British Museum to replicate the Shroud.

The Museum oversaw the carbon tests on the Shroud and Rolfe explained: “They said it was knocked up by a medieval conman, and I say: ‘Well, if he could do it, you must be able to do it as well. And if you can, there’s a one-million-dollar donation for your funds.’”

Rolfe’s challenge might have seemed like a stunt, but it was serious. He said if the museum accepted the challenge, he would place a million dollars in a legal holding account pending the outcome.

You would think if anyone could copy the Shroud, the British Museum could. It certainly has the resources: around a thousand employees, including research scientists, links to major universities — and I’m sure the museum would not refuse outside help.

So, was Rolfe’s bet risky?

Those familiar with the evidence would say no. Given all we now know about the Shroud of Turin, and the fact that no one has ever been able to copy it or even explain how it was made, Rolfe’s million dollars appears safe. The reason he and so many others are convinced the burial cloth is genuine is that there is a mountain of evidence supporting that conclusion.

One reason most people don’t share this view is that they seem to know as little about the Shroud as they do about carbon dating. They are not aware that, contrary to the popular idea that the Shroud is a fake, it has become, in the words of a number of researchers, “the single most studied artefact in human history”.

Solid science

The most recent verification of its authenticity came in April this year. A member of Italy’s National Research Council, Dr Liberato de Caro, used a new X-ray technique designed specifically for dating linen.

He used a method known as wide-angle X-ray scattering (WAXS), which he says is more reliable than carbon dating. He said this was because carbon dating can be dramatically wrong due to contamination of the thing being dated.

If you are one of those who know little about the Shroud, here are some basic details: It is a long strip of linen, covered in blood and carrying a faint image of the front and back of a dead man, apparently beaten and scourged, bleeding copiously from the scalp, and showing all the signs of Jesus’s crucifixion, including a lance wound to the heart. It first appeared publicly in western Europe in 1355 when it was put on display in France. The owners refused to say where they got it — understandable, given that it was probably stolen.

The Shroud’s sudden appearance set off the fiery debate that continues to this day. You may know that many books and articles have already been written. Over the years, I have read many of them, but none offered what I was looking for — an up-to-date introduction to the subject that was accessible to non-academics.

I couldn’t find one, so I decided to write it myself.

Overwhelming data

Descent from the Cross with the Shroud of Turin. Giulio Clovio (1498 to 1578) WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Soon, I felt like this was a mistake. They say the worst thing you can do to journalists is to provide them with too much information, and the information on the Shroud is very close to being too much. To get an idea of how much information is involved, search for “Shroud of Turin” on Google Scholar. You will get around 12,000 links.

Even a search on academia.edu turns up about 4,000 academic papers begging to be read. The oldest Shroud website, shroud.com, has among its extensive resources, one comforting list of a mere 400 “essential” scientific papers and articles. But even this is a lot if you are already struggling to get through books, videos and papers from academic conferences, podcasts and documentaries going back decades.

Most people, including myself (until recently), closed their minds to the Shroud when the 1988 carbon dating results were released. Those tests suggested the relatively high levels of carbon 14 on the cloth meant it came from around 1325 — give or take 65 years.

That sounds precise, but what most of us weren’t told was that carbon dating had been wrong many times, sometimes by as much as a thousand or more years, due to contamination of the article being dated. In the case of the Shroud, there is a long list of reasons it could be contaminated, including the fact that it has been handled by countless people, exposed to fire, water, repairs, and other materials capable of causing contamination.

Most interesting of all, as indicated by a growing body of evidence, its carbon levels could have been raised by the radiation that appears to be the most likely cause of the image it carries.

So, even though many people still assume the carbon date was the end of the story, it may be just the beginning. If, like me, you take the time to review the evidence, it wears you down. These days, if anyone asks me if I really think “that Shroud thing” could be Jesus’ burial cloth with his image on it, all I can say is: given the evidence, I can’t think what else it could be. I am open to being talked out of this view, but so far nobody has managed to do it.

Whatever your own view, following the trail of evidence is possibly the most fascinating and rewarding journey you will ever undertake. This is partly because the case for the Shroud does not hinge on a single fact — certainly not on the radiocarbon date. It involves many interlocking facts — a big picture painted by intriguing details. My experience is that the Shroud asks more unanswerable questions than anything on the planet.

Excerpted from Riddles of the Shroud with permission.

William West

William West is a Sydney journalist.