The CNN Shroud of Turin
By Antonio Lombatti
Disappointing. This is, I believe, the most appropriate way to start my review of the recent CNN documentary on the Shroud of Turin. After 25 years of reading books, watching films and writing books and articles on this presumed relic of Christ, I am still surprised to listen to the very same popular quackery and pseudoscience passed off as rock solid scholarly researches. Therefore, the risk of this review is to repeat arguments I’ve been writing for too long now, and that I’ve also summed up here some years ago (Relics Still Potent: The Shroud of Turin and Remaking the Shroud--National Geographic). So, I’ll try to tackle what the CNN documentary says and, in some cases, omits.
To begin with, every single article, book, film or even a sentence on Jesus raises reactions. It’s a delicate topic, we all know it. It’s a historical controversy that has deep roots in our education, culture, faith or non-faith, and in the 2000 years of Christianity. Therefore, it’s quite obvious that every documentary on the Turin Shroud will disappoint some, make others angry, and fill the hearts with joy of some others.
However, the way CNN has cut interviews, structured short clips, advanced reconstructions of Jesus’ passion, crucifixion and resurrection, and how these were woven with some Turin Shroud images, simply strives to convey the message that the relic is the real deal. To be clearer: when the narrator talks about crucifixion, there is a short video with Jesus nailed to a cross and then the presumed marks of crucifixion on the Shroud are shown. Again, Joseph of Arimathea covers Jesus’ body with a linen cloth while we see the Turin Shroud. And this, of course, makes a deep impression on those who don’t have a precise opinion on the controversy, letting them believe it is the genuine burial shroud of Jesus.
The film begins by saying that “more than 1000 years after Jesus’ death, the cloth appeared in France”. Wouldn’t it be enough to understand that the relic is just one among the thousand forgeries of the Middle Ages? In that time, believers were not surprised to find 4 heads of John the Baptist (however, when the French monks of Amiens were told by pilgrims that they had already seen John’s head in another church, they replied they had the Baptist’s head as a child), six full bodies of Mary Magdalene and enough pieces of the True Cross to build a huge ship. The burial shrouds of Jesus number around 40. All of them were authentic, of course. The most famous shrouds were those of Aachen, Halberstadt, Hannover and Mainz (Germany), Arles, Besançon, Cadouin, Aix-en-Provence, Bayonne, Cahors, Paris, Reims, Annecy, Soissons, Carcassonne and Compiègne (France), Yohnannavank (Armenia), Constantinople, Enxobregas (Portugal), Saint John in Lateran (Rome), Einsiedeln (Switzerland).
However, most of them were destroyed during the French revolution. Others disappeared. The Turin Shroud survived only because it had been illegally sold by the excommunicated owner to the Savoy Family some centuries earlier.
Then, we see Ben Witherington III saying that we have no physical description of Jesus in the gospel. True. But after he’s finished speaking, the Shroud is shown. That’s unfair. Or better, it clearly tells us the objective of the documentary. We should have seen instead the earliest representations of Jesus, I mean those in the Roman catacombs. And they show us a very different face.
The documentary continues with a curious mix of gospel quotations. Verses are chosen to reinforce the idea that the Turin Shroud image is consistent with what was related by the evangelists. So, we see the Greek SINDON of the synoptics, but we’re shown later John’s SUDARIUM, despite the fact that John’s author wrote that Jesus was tied up in strips. Besides, we know from the over 1000 Second Temple tombs that Jews were usually buried in a plurality of cloths, with hands placed along the body and ankles blocked with ropes. The Gospel of John, in fact, is usually the most accurate as to Jewish places and practices. Last but not least, the documentary doesn’t even think to mention the only burial fragments of clothes ever found in Jerusalem, the Akeldama shroud.
Picture kindly provided by Shimon Gibson: “Reconstruction of the burial in the Akeldama shrouds found in Hinnom Valley, Jerusalem”, drawing by Fadi Amirah ©, courtesy of the Jerusalem Archaeological Unit, published by Joe Zias. 2002. “The Shroud Mystery”. Approfondimento Sindone 6: 57.
Jewish literary texts say that corpses were bound in burial cloths (Mish. Sem. 8,7) and these shroud threads were left unknotted, the garment being intended to last only until the body had decayed. But the Turin Shroud has a selvage.
Moreover, there’s another question I won’t deal with here: the reliability of the Passion narratives and of Jesus’ burial. Hundreds of books and articles have been written on the matter. You can find everything and its contrary: according to John Dominic Crossan, for example, there was no Joseph of Arimathea and there was no burial, while John A.T. Robinson is convinced that Jesus was placed in Joseph’s private family tomb. I’ll take for granted that ALL the gospel accounts are historically accurate. However, just bear in mind that there are many and huge ifs.
The documentary shows us Joseph of Arimathea placing Jesus’ hands on the genitals, just like the Turin Shroud. That’s another clue of the film’s orientation. The hands on the pelvic zone, on the contrary, were typical of medieval art.
The arms of the dead are usually put alongside the body. And the idea of Jesus being scourged naked by Roman soldiers is another theme of medieval art, inspired by the flagellants of those years.
Some minutes later, we’re told that after Joseph’s burial of Jesus, the shroud re-appeared in XIV century France. False. The first information we have on the burial cloths dates to the VI century, around Jerusalem. Before arriving in France in the Middle Ages, about 10 shrouds and sudaria with and without images had already been forged in the Holy Land.
Then, in the second part of the documentary Dr. John Jackson appears, a firm believer in the authenticity of the Shroud. John is an excellent physicist. But for the most part he talks about the gospels and Joseph of Arimathea. He and his group asked the Turin Diocese to perform some tests on the linen back in 1978. Not everyone among those officials and scientists agreed on the results. One of them, for example, who was convinced that the red marks on the linen weren’t blood but pigments, was expelled from the group. The documentary could have at least quoted his opinion and his name, Dr. Walter McCrone, when it was suggested that the red stains were found to be blood. He’s considered the “father of modern microscopy”. He was one of the leading world experts in medieval paintings and forgeries. It was he who was appointed chair overseeing many scientific panels (also by Christie’s and other renowned auctioneers) to say if a piece of art was ancient or a modern hoax. Besides, the narrator doesn’t say that real blood doesn’t flow ON the hair, as on the Turin Shroud. That’s an artistic rendering. As everyone can see it flows downwards; but wasn’t Jesus lying down when he was wrapped in the shroud?
One more relevant point: the documentary doesn’t say the frontal image is about 2 meters in height. That’s a bit too much for a Palestinian Jew who lived 2,000 years ago. As for the nail wounds, it’s not true that the Turin Shroud shows a wrist exit hole. It’s in the palm as in medieval art.
In the final segment, there’s another shroudologist, Mark Guscin, who speaks about the Oviedo Sudarium. The narrator states that the C14 test on this cloth “has not given a clear result”. This is simply absurd. The fabric has been carbon dated at least three times--as far as we know--and the results have always been crystal clear: a medieval forgery dating to the VIII century.
So, as for the Turin Shroud, C14 results agree with the historical sources we have on these two relics. And don’t forget that every single Jesus relic that has been carbon dated (Turin Shroud, Tunic of Argenteuil, Titulus, Oviedo Sudarium, Cadouin Shroud) has always given a medieval date. But shroudologists don’t resign themselves to these clear facts and straightforward evidence. They insist instead that Jesus emitted radiation and had superpowers, and consequently the C14 results are always wrong.
Another central question has been omitted in the CNN film: the type of linen of the Turin Shroud. The best expert in this field is Dr. Orit Shamir, curator of Organic Materials at the Israel Antiquities Authority. She has studied almost a thousand fabrics from the Roman Palestine. Many of them were found in tombs. In a recent congress she said:
The Turin shroud is made of linen Z-spun in a 3/1 herringbone twill pattern. All the linen textiles from the Land of Israel until the medieval period are S-spun, plain weave tabby. A few wool textiles from the Roman period are Z-spun in both warp and weft (37 out of 826 wool textiles).
The Turin shroud has 38.6 threads per cm at the warp and 25.7 threads per cm at the weft which is very high compared to linen textiles manufactured at the Land of Israel which usually have 10–15 threads per cm at the warp and 15–20 threads per cm at the weft.
The twill variations are: twill 2/2, twill 1/2 and diamond twill; one herringbone twill textile was found at Murabba’at, but it seems to be a modern-day textile. Most of the twills are Z-spun. Twill textiles can be manufactured with three heddles loom which were not in use in Israel. It means that the twills were imported. Herringbone twill textiles are known from Europe and Egypt.
The Turin Shroud was probably not manufactured in the Land of Israel neither in the Roman nor in the Medieval period. It may not have been imported in none of these periods because not one textile with the above weaving technique was found in the Land of Israel. (original paper: http://www.shs-conferences.org/articles/shsconf/pdf/2015/02/shsconf_atsi2014_00010.pdf)
In fact, the only surviving parallel with the Turin Shroud is a 3:1 herringbone twill weave linen kept in the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London, and it’s medieval.
In short, not a single (professional) physicist who performs C14 has ever doubted the medieval date of the Turin Shroud. Not a single (professional) Biblical Archaeologist, who has dug Second Temple tombs in Israel, is convinced that the Turin Shroud is a Jewish funerary cloth from the time of Jesus. Such scholars didn’t, unfortunately, find a place in the CNN documentary.
Last but not least, the authors didn’t even mention the French bishop who nabbed the artist who forged the Shroud around 1350. Priests, bishops and even the pope of that time thought it was a mere representation of Jesus’ shroud. They clearly wrote that opinion in their ecclesiastical documents. Even the owners of the Shroud defined it a representation.
Isn’t this relevant? I think this is the core of the controversy. Where the story began--in the French village of Lirey around 1355--it ended some years later because of a “careful investigation” of the local bishop. But the documentary authors of CNN forgot about that (or perhaps more likely, they never even knew it).