Sign Pointing to Jesus

Since it first appeared in Lirey, France, in 1353, the Roman Catholic Church has encouraged the veneration of the Shroud of Turin without saying it is the actual linen sheet Joseph of Arimathea brought to the tomb of Jesus, as reported in Mark 15: 42–47. In 1670, for example, a department of the Holy See granted an indulgence to those who travel to the Shroud and pray before it, however, the decree explicitly states the spiritual reward is not based on the Shroud's authenticity. In an address given in 1998, Pope John Paul II, after referring to the mysterious image of Jesus on the Shroud, said:

The Shroud is thus a truly unique sign that points to Jesus, the true Word of the Father, and invites us to pattern our lives on the life of the One who gave himself for us.

Jesus, of course, is the founder of Christianity and the cofounder of Islam. He was also a Jewish prophet, an important aspect of the historical Jesus because of the Messianic hopes of the Jewish people. In deciding whether or not the Shroud is authentic, the theological meaning of the word sign in the pope's remarks should be considered. Essentially a sign is a reason to believe in revelation:

There were many other signs that Jesus worked in the sight of the disciples, but are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you might have life through his name. (John 20:30–31 NJB)

Paul Vignon and the French Academy of Sciences

In a 1902 book titled The Shroud of Christ, the biologist Paul Vignon argued that the Shroud is authentic because the image depicts with anatomical accuracy a crucified man. Based on experiments performed in the laboratory of his mentor Yves Delage, Vignon also argued that the images are traces of Jesus' blood and stains from ammonia vapors produced by Jesus' body. Delage was an internationally acclaimed zoologist and a member of the powerful French Academy of Sciences.

Herbert Thurston, an English Jesuit, wrote an article of rebuttal titled, “The Holy Shroud as a Scientific Problem,” for the February 1903 issue of The Month: A Catholic Magazine. Thurston said that the image on the Shroud was too delicate to have been created by ammonia vapors and that the 14th century artist who created the alter frontal of Narbonne was capable of the artistry the Shroud required. Due to the ravages of time and the fire the Shroud was subjected to in the 16th century, Thurston suggested, the image on the Shroud transformed into its present mysterious condition.

Thurston also described a 10th century ceremony in which a crucifix was wrapped with an alter cloth and placed in a mock sepulcher on Good Friday. On Easter Sunday, the crucifix was removed and the alter cloth was displayed with the proclamation, “Behold here, comrades, these are the linen cloths which were left behind in the empty tomb.” Thurston pointed out that the drama of such a ceremony would be heightened if a painting simulated an imprint of Jesus’ body made by his sweat and blood. Referring to the anatomical correctness of the image, Thurston said an intelligent artist might have guessed details like the crucifixion nails having to go through a bony part of the hand to support the weight of a grown man.

Thurston also wrote the 1912 entry on the Shroud in the Catholic Encyclopedia, now called the New Catholic Encyclopedia. Referring to the historical research of Canon Ulysse Chevalier, the article says the Shroud is definitely not authentic. The Catholic Encyclopedia speaks with a certain amount of authority because many of its authors and editors are licensed by their local bishops to teach Catholic theology.

On April 21, 1902, Delage gave a half-hour lecture titled, “The Image of Christ Visible on the Holy Shroud of Turin,” to the Academy of Sciences. There were murmurs of disapproval from the beginning of the talk. When Delage said the man in the Shroud was Jesus, members of the audience shouted out “traitor” and shook their fists. For his safety, Delage had to make a quick exit from the auditorium.

The audience may have thought Delage was being insincere about ammonia vapors causing the image. It was a ruse, perhaps, to give specious scientific support to the authenticity of the Shroud. Because the Shroud was not destroyed by a decomposing body, its authenticity would support the historicity of the texts in the New Testament, such as Mark 16:1–8, reporting the empty tomb of Jesus. In my opinion, Vignon deceived himself and Delage, who was an agnostic, in order to advance a pseudoscientific apologia for Christianity.

Fundamental and Dogmatic Theology

If this was Vignon's motivation, his ideas about fundamental and dogmatic theology were not well-grounded. There are a number of different categories of texts or traditions in the New Testament and extracanonical sources about the Resurrection of Jesus, not just the empty-tomb verses. There are the short proclamations of faith, such as 1 Corinthians 15:3b 7, and lengthy narratives like Acts, chapter 2. Another type of text is the conversion of Paul in Acts, chapter 9, which describes a heavenly radiance. There are also the postresurrection texts such as Math 28:16–20. Trying to bolster just one kind of text suggests a theological emphasis on that kind of text and distorts the gospel.

Fundamental theology or apologetics begins with the existential truth that human beings are embodied spirits. The qualifier existential means that this is not a scientific truth, but the foundation of the method of inquiry called metaphysics. Assuming or hoping that our existence is intelligible leads logically to the existence of an infinite being who created finite beings. In Western religions the infinite being is called God. God possesses infinite power and knowledge by analogy with our own finite power and knowledge. This philosophy is called existential theism and the alternative points of view can be described as atheism, agnosticism, naturalism, materialism, and scientism.

If you ask an atheist or agnostic what their concept of God is you will get a wide variety of irrational responses. An example of an irrational concept of God is the one held by Marcus Borg who is a Fellow of the Westar Institute, which is famous for its Jesus Seminar:

I was experiencing a collision between the modern worldview and my childhood beliefs. The modern worldview, with its image of what is real as the world of matter and energy and its vision of the universe as a closed system of cause and effect, made belief in God—a nonmaterial reality—increasingly problematic. I had entered the stage of critical thinking, and there was no way back. (Borg, Marcus J., Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus & the Heart of Contemporary Faith, 1994, p. 7)

It is true that God is a “nonmaterial reality.” Human beings are also nonmaterial realities, as well as material realities because we possess bodies. Borg, who is a Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, apparently thinks that God is a ghost.

Naturalism is the idea that nature is all that exists, but naturalists in the flesh are not anymore knowledgeable about God than Borg and his likes. The vacant response of naturalists to the cosmological argument for God's existence justifies calling the argument a proof. Materialism is irrational, but the appeal of such a simple view of the universe is easy to see. Scientism is a superstition by definition.

Popular explanations of why God exists focus attention on the immateriality and indefinability of human knowledge and free will. These proofs for the common man also use the absence of any scientific explanation for the origin of life and the Big Bang to argue that God created the universe.

The logically rigorous philosophical proof explicates the existential fact that there are many finite beings in the universe, all different from one another. The explanation of why finite beings are different is that a finite being is a composition of two correlative principles: essence and existence. Furthermore, finite beings cannot be the cause of their own existence because they can't exist except as finite. God, on the other hand, is a pure act of existence and can be its own reason for existing. Existential theism helps us to understand the Jewish name for God:

Moses then said to God, ‘Look, if I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they say to me, “What is his name?” what am I to tell them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am he who is.’. And he said, ‘This is what you are to say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.“‘ (Exodus 3:13–14 NJB)

Fundamental theology continues by giving the reasons for believing God has communicated himself to mankind. Dogmatic theology is the study of the content of this communication or revelation. The Resurrection of Jesus is both an historical event and an object of faith. As an historical event it is the subject matter of fundamental theology and should be described as the Easter experience. As an object of faith it is the subject matter of eschatology and Christology.

Christians who believe and profess the ancient creeds are responding in faith to the historical Jesus by believing Jesus entered into a new and different life with God when he died and by believing the same good thing can happen to everybody. Christians believe in a bodily resurrection because the hope of everlasting life is a hope for a perfect fulfillment based on human experience without regard to any philosophical analysis of the distinction between one's self and one's body.

All three of the Abrahamic faiths profess that our freedom is before God, that our past is somehow gathered up when we die, and that our death is the defining moment of our lives. The disagreements between and among Christians, Jews, and Muslims is the subject matter of dogmatic theology, not fundamental theology, because all three religions believe revelation has occurred in fact.

Fundamental theology requires an understanding of how God, who exists outside of time and space, communicates with human beings. This question leads to the insight that faith is a supernatural gift from God as well as a free choice. Fundamental theology gives the grounds for believing and is a summons to believe, however, it is not a demand to believe. Fundamental theology does not justify saying those who decide not to believe in God's self-revelation are irrational. Fundamental theology does not prove the fact of revelation because the truthfulness of the content of revelation can not be seen in the light of reason, but can only be seen in the light of God's authority.

If Vignon was trying to proselytize his captive audience through Delage, he was not being guided by scripture:
Simply proclaim the Lord Christ holy in your hearts, and always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you have. But give it with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience, so that those who slander your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their accusations. (1 Pet. 3:15–16 NJB)
If I am not doing my Father’s work, there is no need to believe me; but if I am doing it, then even if you refuse to believe in me, at least believe in the work that I do; and then you will know for certain that the Father is in me and I am in the Father. (John 10:37–38 NJB)

Irrationality of Humanism

In addition to history and philosophy, another reason to believe is the poor explanation nonbelievers frequently give for their lack of faith. Nonbelievers discredit themselves and in so doing make the case for religion more credible. Most nonbelievers don't even consider faith a possibility and their decision not to believe has no relevance to making a fully informed decision. While not believing in itself is not a fault or personal shortcoming of any kind, there is guilt when the reasons for not believing are irrational or dishonest. The American Humanist Association, for example, states in its manifesto of 1973, “Promises of immortal salvation or fear of eternal damnation are both illusory and harmful.”

Saying that belief in salvation is illusory is tantamount to criticizing people who have decided to believe Muhammad, the Jewish rabbis, Jesus, disciples of Jesus, and the Hindu scriptures. It implies that accounts of these faiths are so unpersuasive that it is commendable to persist in the assumption that life ends in the grave. To say that mankind would be better off if no one feared God is to fantasize about a utopia.

John A. T. Robinson, a bishop in the Church of England, propagated his lack of faith and hope by quoting Paul Tillich's views on God and not mentioning Étienne Gilson's and Thomas Aquinas's explanation of why God is a supernatural being and a real being. Nor did he address the question of why people should be good and kind at the expense of their own interests if they do not experience what he calls hell and heaven. In the following quote, Robinson is saying our purpose in life is not to serve God in this world and love him in the next, but to “overcome estrangement and alienation” in this world:

It is this union-in-estrangement with the Ground of our being…that we mean by hell. But equally it is the union-in-love with the Ground of our being, such as we see in Jesus Christ, that is the meaning of heaven. And it is the offer of that life, in all its divine depth, to overcome the estrangement and alienation of existence as we know it that the New Testament speaks of as the ‘new creation’. This new reality is transcendent, it is ‘beyond’ us, in the sense that it is not ours to command. Yet we experience it, like the Prodigal, as we ‘come to ourselves’.(Robinson, John A. T., Honest to God, 1963, p. 80)

1978 Nondestructive Tests on the Shroud

In 1951, Francis Cardinal Spellman canonically erected an organization called the Holy Shroud Guild, located in Esophus, New York, to promote devotion to the Shroud. Adam J. Otterbein, an American Redemptorist, was its founder and first president. Otterbein wrote the 1967 entry on the Shroud for the New Catholic Encyclopedia and said that the Shroud may be authentic. In 1978, the Holy Shroud Guild helped the team of American scientists with the acronym STURP get permission to perform five days of nondestructive tests on the Shroud.

STURP argued that the body image is caused by the yellowing of the outer fibrils that make up the white yarn used to weave the Shroud, there being 100 to 200 fibrils in a cross-section of the Z-twisted yarn. The fibrils are made of cellulose and small sections of the fibrils were discolored by a chemical process called dehydration. The density of the yellow marks varies to create an image like that of a black and white photograph with the yellow marks playing the role of black silver particles. The blood marks are red-orange encrustations caught in the fibrils and between the yarn. The question of authenticity is related to the question of what caused the dehydration, the variation in density of the yellow fibrils, and the blood marks.

After publishing in peer-reviewed scientific journals, the STURP scientists reported the results of their work to the general public in October 1981 in New London, CT. At a 300-reporter press conference the following exchange took place:

One chap decided to by-pass Joan Janney, who was chairing the meeting, and demanded of the forty scientists seated on the stage, "All who believe this is the authentic Shroud of Christ, raise your hand." Forty pairs of eyes just stared at him. "O.K.", he said, "all those who don't believe it's authentic, raise your hands." Forty of us sat still; none moved. (Heller, John H., Report on the Shroud of Turin, 1983, p. 216).

The STURP scientists were just as enigmatic in private interviews with a reporter from a popular magazine which published a lengthy article about the Shroud. After describing STURP’s findings, the reporter wrote:

No member of the STURP team will state what all this adds up to. When the question is posed directly, most of them tend to divide their personas into “scientist” and “layman.” (Murphy, Cullen, “Shreds of Evidence”, Harper's Magazine, November 1981, p. 47)

This behavior is not candid and sincere and indicates the STURP members were confused about the question of authenticity. Another tortured soul is Geoffrey Ashe, a famous British cultural historian. After doing his own experiments with infrared rays and linen, he wrote:

The Christian Creed has always affirmed that our Lord underwent an unparalleled transformation in the tomb. His case is exceptional and perhaps here is the key. It is at least intelligible (and has been suggested several times) that the physical change of the body at the Resurrection may have released a brief and violent burst of some other radiation than heat, perhaps scientifically identifiable, perhaps not, which scorched the cloth. (Ashe, Geoffrey, "What Sort of Picture," Sindon, 1966)

Ashe is saying the image on the Shroud is miraculous, but he tries to say it in a way that is rational and scientific. He uses the words intelligible and exceptional and the phrase unparalleled transformation rather than the words supernatural and miraculous. He probably feels uncomfortable, as well he might, discovering and reporting a miracle that is not in the Bible.

What Is a Miracle?

A miracle is not a phenomenon that violates the laws of science. A miracle is an historical event or sign that indicates a prophet is truly God’s messenger. Thinking of a miracle as a violation of the laws of science isolates the sign from its historical context and strips it of its authenticating power. If you are explaining why you believe for your own sake or for the sake of others, giving a miracle this negative definition is an exercise in circular reasoning. Fundamental theology should be based on reason and history alone and not violate the drive we all have to be rational.

The reason the image on the Shroud is miraculous and is a sign of Jesus’ authority is that scientists have failed so far to give a reasonable explanation of how the image was formed. The first scientist to try and fail was Vignon. It is an ongoing failure of science and history and an ongoing mystery. Whereas the Resurrection and healings of Jesus were miraculous events occurring at particular points in time, the Shroud is a miraculous artifact that will endure until its mystery is solved by scientists and historians.

Marvin Mueller is a research physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Expanding on Thurston's explanation of why vapors could not have caused the image, Mueller explains why the Shroud should not be considered authentic:

There are only three classes of possibilities for the image formation: by human artifice, through natural processes transferring the image to the linen from a real crucified corpse, or by supernatural means. Of the third, not much can be said, because then all scientific discussion and all rational discourse must perforce cease.…But a lot can be said about natural processes. In terse summary, they can be ruled out definitely by the quality and beauty of the shroud image. (Mueller, Marvin, “The Shroud of Turin: A Critical Appraisal,” The Skeptical Inquirer, Spring 1982, p. 27)
Mueller's negative comment about “supernatural means” is perfectly reasonable. Kenneth Stevenson and Gary Habermas, two apologists for Christianity, criticized the STRUP team for adopting this scientific point of view. Stevenson and Habermas said STURP was wrong to consider only scientific causes of the image and to exclude “the possibility that the image had a supernatural origin” (Stevenson, Kenneth E. & Habermas, Gary R., Verdict on the Shroud: Evidence for the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, 1981, p. 80).

What brought about this criticism is evidence the Shroud is not authentic. Before describing STURP's findings about the blood marks or stains, Stevenson and Habermas make the following admission:

The edges of these stains are also precisely defined. If the Shroud actually covered a real corpse, one wonders how the cloth was removed without smearing and dislodging the edges of the clotted blood. (same reference, p. 78)

Robert Wild, an American Jesuit, used the smeared blood marks to argue the image was the work of a forger. After referring to Stevenson's and Habermas's invocation of a miraculous cause, he said:

My own religious faith certainly allows for the possibility of such miracles. But I am most hesitant to affirm such a miracle when a natural explanation suffices. In this case, it is far more likely that we have caught an artist or forger in a simple mistake. (Wild, Robert A., “The Shroud of Turin: Probably the Work of a 14th Century Artist or Forger,” Biblical Archaeological Review, April 1984, p. 40)

History of the Shroud

There is very little disagreement about the history of the Shroud. The following quote is from William Meacham, who is a pro-authenticity archaeologist and was involved in the planning of the 1988 carbon-14 test on the Shroud:

In sum, although the Shroud's history prior to 1353 is a matter of much rich conjecture and little firm evidence, there are numerous possible avenues by which the Shroud could have come down to us from the Jerusalem of A.D. 30. Genuine or forged, the absence of references to it in the 1st millennium is equally enigmatic. It must be admitted, however, that even if the Shroud's history could be extended back to the early Byzantine era, the case for its authenticity would not be significantly improved. (Meacham, William, “The Authentication of the Turin Shroud: An Issue in Archaeological Epistemology,” Current Anthropology, June 1983, p. 287)

The Byzantine era is mentioned as a cut-off point because the Image of Edessa, which may or may not be the Shroud, appeared historically in the 6th century. There are only legends and semilegends connecting the Image of Edessa to the crucifixion of Jesus.

Why Some Christians Think the Shroud Is Authentic

In the following quote, Meacham reveals the way he feels and thinks about the Shroud:

It is undeniable that the time has come, nay is long overdue, for a complete and proper C-14 dating of the cloth. If the Shroud is to be universally relegated to the status of a medieval oddity or forgery, at least let it be on the basis of solid and unassailable measurements of the C-14 content of the entire cloth, based on samples from several sites chosen specifically to address the issues and scenarios that have been raised. (Meacham, William, The Rape of the Turin Shroud: How Christianity‘s Most Precious Relic Was Wrongly Condemned, and Violated, 2005, p. 145)

Meacham rebutted Mueller's arguments against authenticity rather lamely:

The fact that the exact manner of image formation is not and may never be known does not pose a serious obstacle to establishing the Shroud's authenticity. The absence of a satisfactory explanation of the image formation does not, as Mueller (1982:27) argues rather curiously, rule out natural processes and leave only human artifice or the supernatural. Rather, the information obtained from medical studies and direct scientific testing establishes the framework for the issue: the Shroud was used to enshroud a corpse, and the image is the result of some form of interaction between body and cloth and does not derive from the use of paint, powder, acid, or other materials which could have been used to create an image on cloth. (p. 289 in the above referenced issue of Current Anthropology)

Mueller ruled out natural processes straightforwardly, not curiously. Regardless of Mueller’s reason for rejecting any natural mechanism, Meacham does not suggest a possible natural mechanism, unlike Vignon. Meacham is saying there is no known mechanism for image formation and there is no way to connect the Shroud of Turin historically to the tomb of Jesus. So, why does Meacham think the Shroud is authentic?

Meacham and others are giving short shrift to the Shroud's status as an authorizing miracle. Instead, they prefer thinking of the Shroud as an icon that is either an authentic relic or a “medieval oddity or forgery,” to quote Meacham. Like Vignon, they advance pseudoscientific arguments in favor of authenticity to justify their devotion to the Shroud. The idea that the Shroud is authentic is far-fetched and detracts from the Shroud’s status as “a truly unique sign pointing to Jesus,” to quote John Paul II.

The other possibility is that devotees of authenticity don’t agree with the idea that a miracle is an historical event. They are not interested in a sign that justifies summoning mankind to believe in Jesus. They want an in-your-face violation of the laws of science in order to demand belief in Jesus.

Invention of Photography

Wild wrote the entry on the Shroud in the second edition of the New Catholic Encyclopedia. Wild concludes as follows:

In short, while many unanswered questions still remain, not least that of how the images came to appear on the cloth in the first place, it is most unlikely that this object is the authentic burial shroud of Jesus. (Shroud of Turin in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 13, pp. 95–97, 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.)

In the 1990s, two writers of popular books on historical and religious mysteries and Nicholas Allen, a professor of art at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa, produced Shroud-like images using a pinhole camera (camera obscura) and photosensitive chemicals known in the Middle Ages. The pinhole camera was invented in the 11th century by a Muslim scientist, known in the West as Alhacen, and is described in the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. The writers, who admit Allen did a better job, make the following claim:

But the point is that before 1993 nobody had succeeded in creating an image bearing so many of the characteristics of the Shroud, including its puzzling anomalies. But now we have. (Picknett, Lynn & Prince, Clive, How da Vinci Fooled History: The Turin Shroud, 2006, p. 204)

In their method, a linen cloth was covered with a mixture of egg white and chromium salts. A pinhole camera produced a latent image of a plaster bust on the cloth because light causes the mixture to become insoluble. The image was developed by carefully washing away the soluble mixture. The image was fixed just like messages written in invisible ink are made visible: the cloth was heated. Boiling the cloth in water removed all traces of the mixture, and an image remained as a scorch on the surface of the cloth.

Picknett and Prince show that the Lirey artifact of 1353 may not be the Shroud, which was exhibited in 1494. This means science has an extra 150 years of history to explain or discover how the image on the Shroud was formed.