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The Shroud of Turin: What I Believe

"Happy art thou who hast believed in Me, not having seen me, for it is written of me that those who shall see me shall not believe in Me, and that those who shall not see Me shall believe in Me."

According to The Teaching of Addai, those were the words Jesus spoke to Hannan, the messenger of King Abgar V of Edessa, upon receiving the king's letter asking Jesus to come to Edessa, an Aramean town in southern Turkey. While Jesus declined to travel to Edessa, he did, according to the account, promise that, after he ascended to his father in heaven, that he would send a messenger to the king. It is also commonly held that, after Jesus was crucified, a disciple named Thaddeus, who had been born in Edessa, was sent by Thomas, the apostle that sought proof of the resurrected Jesus, to preach the gospel in Edessa.

The controversy surrounding the Shroud of Turin bears much in common with the well-known story concerning the Apostle Thomas, who later became the patron saint of Edessa, and with the words attributed to Jesus in The Teaching of Addai. Many who have seen the shroud, which appears to bear the unmistakable image of the crucified Jesus, have dismissed the shroud as merely a clever, fourteenth century forgery. That conclusion even appeared to be supported by radiocarbon dating performed on a piece of cloth cut from the shroud. Yet many others have continued to assert that the shroud is exactly what it appears to be: the burial cloth of Jesus, and that the radiocarbon dating was made on a patch of stained, cotton cloth rewoven into the linen shroud in the 16th century as part of a repair.

And so the Shroud of Turin has proven to be somewhat of a litmus test of one's belief. Do you believe in the infallibility of the scientists who performed the radio carbon dating and the testimonies of alleged witnesses from the past? Or do you believe in the authenticity of the shroud and the miracle it presents?

I personally believe in the Shroud of Turin. I believe that the shroud was the burial cloth of Jesus and that an image of Jesus was miraculously recorded upon its surface. Here is a summary of the facts as I see them concerning its historical basis:

  • King Abgar V of Edessa ruled the Osroene Empire during the time of Jesus. A story was well known by the third century CE that alleged, as related in the Syraic text Doctrine of Addai, that Abgar V had written to Jesus and that Jesus had replied back to the king, promising to send the king a portrait of himself after he had ascended to his father in heaven. According to the story, a disciple named Thaddeus was eventually sent by the Apostle Thomas to Edessa and that Thaddeus brought with him the portrait of Jesus as promised.
  • It is said that after the death of Abgar V, the bishop of Edessa, fearing the pagan successor, hid the shroud within a wall of the palace behind a tile. It is also said that Jesus' face miraculously appeared on the tile, known as the Keramidion, and that the tile was brought from Edessa to Constantinople with the Holy Mandylion. It appears likely that the king or bishop may have had the image of the face painted on the tile so that it could serve as a marker.
  • The king of the Osroene kingdom from 177 to 212 CE was Lucius Aelius Megas Abgar IX (or Abgar VIII as some contend). Abgar IX, is believed to be the king of Britio who wrote Pope Eleuterus, asking to be made a Christian. It is believed that Geoffrey of Monmouth based his story of Lucius of Britain on Abgar IX's letter. Abgar IX's letter to the pope is also believed by some to be the basis of the Abgar V story.
  • Spice trade between Kerala, India and the Middle East was established as far back as the sixth century BCE. Later, in the first century BCE, it was discovered that the South West monsoon winds could carry a ship from Aden on the coast of the Red Sea to the South Western shores of India in only 40 days. Jewish traders are believed to have begun to emigrate to Kerala from ancient times, and there was a large group of Jews who were known to have arrived in Kerala following the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE. The Apostle Thomas, who was known as "doubting Thomas" for having required physical proof that Jesus had arisen and who some allege to have been a twin brother of Jesus, is believed to have traveled to Kerala in 52 CE in order to spread the gospel to the Jews of Kerala as well as the Tamil people. The Syrian Malabar Nasrani (where Nasrani is believed to be a variation of Nazarene) people claim to be descendants of the members of the first Christian churches established there by Thomas among the Aramaic-speaking Jewish diaspora. Interestingly, the Nasrani claim that members of a Nasrani trade delegation to Augustus Caesar were in fact the famous wise men from the East who came to worship the infant Jesus. In a second century Tamil epic, the Nasrani are referred to as the Essani (believed to be "Essenes"). Thomas was said to have eventually been martyred somewhere near Madras in 72 CE. His relics were then transferred to Edessa in 232 CE and then were eventually brought to Ortona, Italy in September of 1258 CE.
  • The shroud was forgotten and only rediscovered again in 525 CE after a flood. The Image of Edessa was found hidden in a wall above one of the city's gates.
  • Evagrius, the Bishop of Edessa from 536 CE to 600 CE, declared that the portrait of Jesus was not wrought by human hands.
  • The Byzantine Empire underwent two iconoclasms, one from 737 to 787 CE, and another from 814 CE to 842 CE. The first iconoclasm was preceded by the controversy created when, in 695 CE, Emperor Justinian II put an image of Jesus' face on his coins. While the coins angered Caliph Abd al-Malik, who proceeded to mint the first Muslim currency as a result, the coins also raised the question as to whether any man-made image of Jesus could reflect both the divine and human nature of the Messiah. The position of the iconodules (those who supported the veneration of images of Jesus) argued that the veneration of images of God incarnate was not in violation of the Old Testament prohibition against the veneration of images of the Holy Spirit and that the existence of archeiropoeta, such as the Image of Edessa, constituted evidence that God condoned such images. Interestingly both iconoclasms were initiated by emperors and both were terminated by empresses regent. (Note also that the iconoclasm in the Eastern empire would have spread to the Western empire under Charlemagne had it not been for the intercession of Pope Hadrian I.)
  • That, in 944 CE, general John Kourkouas maintained a siege around the city of Edessa until the residents of the city handed over the shroud. The shroud was then conveyed to Constantinople, where it arrived on August 15th during the Dormition of the Theotokos, a feast dedicated to the "falling asleep" of the Virgin Mary. (Note that the name Theotokos, while used in reference to the Virgin Mary, actually translates as "God bearer".) The shroud was then placed in the Theotokos Tau Pharou, a chapel within the Great Palace where important religious relics were kept.
  • The Pray Codex, dating from around 1195 and written in Hungarian, provides fairly compelling graphic evidence of the existence of the shroud at that time.
  • In 1204 CE, knights of the 4th crusade laid seige to the Christian city of Constantinople. It is believed the shroud, then known as the Holy Mandylion, was taken and eventually brought to Rome. Despite the apparent disappearance of what was considered the most precious Christian relic at the time, descriptions of the sacking of Constantinople suggest that the Crusaders in fact did not allow holy relics to be taken as spoils of war and that great effort was made to account for them.
  • Beginning in 1207 CE, a cloth bearing the image of Jesus and known as the Veronica, began to be paraded each year throughout Rome. The name Veronica is said to be derived from vera icon, meaning "true image". A legend also developed that a woman named Veronica had used her veil to wipe the sweat from Jesus' forehead as he carried his cross to Calvary and that the image of Jesus miraculously appeared on the cloth. After the sack of Rome in 1527, the Veronica, considered the most precious Christian relic, disappeared.
  • In 1532, a fire in the chapel in Lirey, France where the Turin shroud was being kept resulted in significant damage to the shroud.
  • A painting by Giulio Clovio in 1540 depicted the shroud, both as it appeared after the fire and as it was used to wrap the body of Jesus.
  • Bishop Pierre D'Arcis denounced the shroud as an obvious painted forgery in 1389. In 1978, a team of scientists (aka STURP) armed with the latest scientific equipment could find absolutely no evidence that the shroud was a painting. It is possible that D'Arcis had seen one of the numerous copies of the shroud (such as the Lierre shroud) rather than the shroud itself. It is also possible that he spoke out of extreme ignorance or intentionally lied about the shroud.
  • The highly-publicized conclusions drawn from the 1988 radiocarbon dating effort, namely that the shroud was a fourteenth century forgery, were unquestionably flawed. The radiocarbon dating performed in 1988 provided three possible ages for the shroud, each with a standard deviation of roughly 30 years. The mean age estimate of the age measurements was 689 years, and the spread between the ages as measured was 104 years. Based on that information, the researchers derived an estimated age of 662 years and a 95% confidence interval of 128 years. However, if the standard deviation of the two extreme observations was +/- 30 years as claimed, a 104-year difference between those two measurements would logically suggest that either (1) the samples were drawn from different sources or (2) there were significant, unexplained differences between the samples. In other words, for the two extreme measurements to be of relatively "normal" accuracy (i.e., nether was of "exceptional" quality), the actual age of the shroud would have had to have fallen in the extreme tail end of the probability distributions for one or both of those measurements. The conclusion that should have been made was that there was therefore good reason to reject the underlying hypothesis that the two samples were of comparable quality and came from the same source. However, instead of rejecting that hypothesis, the scientists accepted that hypothesis out of hand because the samples were, quite literally, cut from the same cloth. The scientists then invented a hypothetical envelope distribution and an associated date range that they asserted represented a 95% confidence interval. However the envelope distribution they invented, having ignored the fact that the two extreme measurements both constituted outliers with respect to each other was without sound statistical basis.1
  • A wide array of evidence proves fairly conclusively, in my opinion, that the 1988 radiocarbon samples were strips taken from a dyed cotton patch sewn into the edge of the shroud.
  • There is a wide array of physical evidence that suggests the authenticity of the shroud.

1To understand the statistical error being described, imagine that a forensic lab determined that a murder occurred around midnight plus or minus 20 minutes. Imagine also that the prime suspect was observed to have left the scene of the crime around 11 PM plus or minus 15 minutes and had not returned. It would be criminal for the forensic lab to conclude from those two observations that there was a 95% probability that the prime suspect murdered the victim at 11:30 PM plus or minus an hour (i.e., sometime between 10:30 PM and 12:30 PM). In fact, based on those observations, the correct conclusion that should be drawn is that either (1) the prime suspect was likely not at the scene of the crime when it occurred as had been alleged or (2) one or both observations were somehow flawed and unreliable. In the case of the shroud, the fact that the two extreme (and therefore contradictory) samples were cut from the same cloth does not justify ignoring the excessive 104-year spread in the measurements, which substantially exceeded the claimed 30-year standard deviation of each measurement. This is not to say that the shroud measurements were necessarily flawed; the other, more probable conclusion in my opinion is that there was some unknown (at least to those performing the analysis) yet significant difference between the two samples. Note also that modern radiocarbon dating methods allegedly provide accuracies of +/-40 years on samples as old as 10,000 years--indicating accuracy on a percentage basis vastly superior to the accuracy claimed to have been achieved by the 1988 tests.