Apr 3 2004
Fresh clue shows Turin Shroud may be genuine
By David Edwards
IT'S been called the longest-running hoax in history - an 800-year-old religious riddle that's taken in popes, scientists and believers from all faiths.
The Turin Shroud has been either worshipped as divine proof that Christ was resurrected from the grave or dismissed as a fraud created by medieval forgers.
But new evidence suggests the shroud might be genuine after all.
As Mel Gibson's film The Passion Of The Christ rekindles interest in Jesus, stitching on the shroud which could have been created only during the messiah's lifetime has been uncovered.
At the same time, tests from 1988 that dated the shroud to between 1260 and 1390 have been thrown into doubt.
Swedish textiles expert Dr Mechthild Flury-Lemberg, who discovered the seam at the back of the cloth during a restoration project, says: "There have been attempts to date the shroud from looking at the age of the material, but the style of sewing is the biggest clue.
"It belongs firmly to a style seen in the first century AD or before."
Her findings are being hailed as the most significant since 1988, when scientists controversially carbon-dated the 14ft-long cloth to medieval times, more than 1,000 years after Jesus died.
Yet experts now say the team unwittingly used cloth that had been added during a 16th-century restoration and it could have been contaminated from handling.
Mark Guscin, of the British Society for the Turin Shroud, says: "The discovery of the stitching along with doubt about the carbon-dating all add to the mountain of evidence suggesting this was probably the shroud Jesus was buried in.
"Scientists have been happy to dismiss it as a fake, but they have never been able to answer the central question of how the image of that man got on to the cloth."
Barrie Schwortz, who in 1978 took part in the first scientific examination of the shroud, says: "I was a cynic before I saw it, but I am now convinced this is the cloth that wrapped Jesus of Nazareth after he was crucified."
THE history of the cloth - which bears the ghostly image of a bearded man - is steeped in mystery.
The first documented reference was in 1357, when it was displayed in a church in Lirey, France. The cloth astonished Christians as it showed a man wearing a crown of thorns and bearing wounds on his front, back and right-hand side.
He also had a wrist wound, which confused some pilgrims who thought Jesus was nailed to the cross through his hands. Scientists have since discovered the wrists were used as the hands could not support the body's weight.
Before it arrived in France, it is thought the shroud was known as the Edessa burial sheet, given to King Abgar V by one of Jesus's disciples.
For the next 1,200 years it was kept hidden in the Iraqi city, brought out only for religious festivals. In 944 it is thought to have turned up in Constantinople, Turkey, before being stolen by the French knight Geoffrey de Charny during the Fourth Crusades.
It soon became Europe's most-revered religious artefact, although it was scorched in a fire in 1532. In 1578 it was moved to Turin in northern Italy and was frequently paraded through the streets to huge crowds.
Yet while the shroud attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims when it goes on display, it was not photographed until 1898. The photographer, Secondo Pia, was amazed at the incredible depth and detail revealed on the negative.
There were even rumours that the shroud had healing qualities after the British philanthropist Leonard Cheshire took a disabled girl to see it in 1955. After being given permission to touch it, 10-year-old Josephine Woollam made a full recovery.
But it wasn't until 1978 that scientists were allowed to examine the shroud for the first time.
The Shroud of Turin Research Project spent 120 hours examining the cloth in minute detail but was unable to explain how the image had got there. Barrie Schwortz, the project's photographer, says: "We did absolutely every test there was to try to find out how that image had got there.
"We used X-rays, ultra-violet light, spectral imaging and photographed every inch of it in the most minute detail, but we still couldn't come up with any answers.
"We weren't a bunch of amateurs. We had scientists who had worked on the first atomic bomb and the space programme, yet we still couldn't say how the image got there. The only things we could say was what it isn't: that it isn't a photograph and it wasn't a painting.
"It's clear that there has been a direct contact between the shroud and a body, which explains certain features such as the blood, but science just doesn't have an answer of how the image of that body got on to it."
A SECOND study was carried out in 1988, when scientists cut a sliver from the edge of the shroud and subjected it to carbon-dating.
Carbon has a fixed rate of decay, which means that it is possible to accurately measure when the plant materials that formed the basis of the cloth were harvested.
The announcement that the shroud was a fake was made on October 13, 1988, at the British Museum. Scientists compared those who still thought the shroud was authentic to flat-earthers.
It led to the humiliating spectacle of the then Cardinal of Turin, Anastasio Alberto Ballestrero, admitting the garment was a hoax.
The Catholic Church also accepted the scientists' findings - an embarrassing admission given that Pope John Paul II had kissed the shroud eight years earlier.
But experts now say the carbon-dating results are wrong. Ian Wilson, co-author of The Turin Shroud: Unshrouding The Mystery, says they were flawed from the moment the sample was taken.
He says: "What I found quite incredible was that when they had all the scientists there and ready to go, an argument started about where the sample would come from.
"This went on for some considerable time before a very bad decision was made that the cutting would come from a corner that we know was used for holding up the shroud and which would have been more contaminated than anywhere else."
Marc Guscin, author of Burial Cloths Of Christ, believes the most compelling evidence for the shroud's authenticity comes from a small, blood-soaked cloth kept in a cathedral in Oviedo, northern Spain.
The Sudarium is believed to have been used to cover Jesus's head after he died and, unlike the shroud, its history has been traced back to the first century. It contains blood from the rare AB group found on the shroud.
Mark says: "Laboratory tests have shown that these two cloths were used on the same body.
"The fact that the Sudarium has been revered for so long suggests it must have held special significance for people. Everything points towards this cloth being used on the body of Jesus of Nazareth."
Yet despite the latest discoveries, there are still many sceptics.
Professor Stephen Mattingly, from the University of Texas, says the image could have been created by bacteria which flourish on the skin after death. "This is not a miracle," he says. "It's a physical object, so there has to be a scientific explanation. With the right conditions, it could happen to anyone. We could all make our own Turin Shroud."
Another theory, put forward by South African professor Nicholas Allen, is that the image was an early form of photography.
However fierce the controversy, the shroud is still a crowd-puller. When it last went on display in 2000, more than three million people saw it. Many more visitors are expected when it next goes on show in 2025.
Mark believes the argument will rage on. He says: "The debate will go on and on because nobody can prove one way or another if this was the shroud that covered the body of Jesus. There simply isn't a scientific test of 'Christness'.
"But there are lots of pointers to suggest it was."