A Photograph of JesusJEFFREY HART
The Shroud of Turin is generally thought to be a remarkable medieval artifact. But not so fast.
Ever since the 1988 radiocarbon dating, which placed the famous Shroud of Turin as having originated somewhere between 1260 and 1390, the matter has disappeared from our cultural radar screen. The Shroud is generally thought to be a remarkable medieval artifact.
But not so fast. Ian Wilson, author of a previous book on the Shroud, has produced here a magnificent state-of-the-question study, remarkable both for its scholarship and for its philosophical poise.
Mr. Wilson is scrupulously fair, although he does hope passionately that the Shroud is genuine. Nevertheless, he explores all the evidence and does full justice to his opponents. He writes, as well, an engaging narrative, indeed a fine detective story, which gives the reader the impression of thinking along with him as he explores the material.
Of course it seems absurd to think that this old piece of linen might actually bear an image of the dead Jesus in His tomb. And what about that 1988 dating, conducted by three reputable laboratories?In 1988 I doubted their conclusion, because of the weight of contradicting evidence. Mr. Wilson provides a wealth of detail that I cannot go into here, but the problems with the 1260-1390 radiocarbon dating can be summarized as follows:
All of the above was known in 1988 at the time of the radiocarbon dating. It was surely more reasonable to think the dating in error than to consider all the other evidence nugatory. Yet I believe that I was in the minority in suspecting the dating. But now Mr. Wilson gives us plenty of evidence to support my conclusion.
In various ways the linen cloth is corrupt. It has been much handled over the centuries, it has been in proximity to fires, and it has been sewn onto and wrapped in other pieces of cloth. Furthermore, if you section one of its threads with a microtome and examine the section microscopically, you see that each thread exists in what amounts to a tube of transparent bacterial matter. This bacterial build-up is still going on, and the transparent residue accounts for the shiny or new appearance of this ancient cloth.
The effect of such bacterial action has been investigated as regards Egyptian mummies. It can turn out that a radiocarbon test of a mummified bodys wrapping places the mummy much later that we know it to be.
Where does all this leave the Shroud question today? Mr. Wilson reasonably concludes that another radiocarbon attempt would probably give the same dates as in 1988. The Shroud incorporates its history, and we are not going to get a clean shot at dating it on the basis of radiocarbon. Mr. Wilson is very careful not to claim certitude.
I think I might go a bit further than he does. In assessing the probabilities, I find it much easier to consider the Shroud authentic than to hypothesize that it was somehow created in 1260-1390.
But if the Shroud is indeed authentic, then what produced the straw-colored image?
According to the Gospel narratives, something unusual indeed, unprecedented happened to that corpse in the tomb. We are told that later, when Jesus reappeared, the disciples did not recognize Him at first; on the morning of the Resurrection Mary Magdalene does not recognize Him until He speaks her name. In John 20:19 Jesus seems to be able to move through a closed door. Apparently some strange reconstitution or transformation occurred. If this is so, my guess is that this mysterious process created the scorching heat which produced the image on the cloth.
Of course you are wondering whether it might be possible to clone Jesus, using the blood from the cloth. Mr. Wilson says no, there isnt enough DNA in these samples. And even if we could clone Him, we would presumably get the mortal first-century man, without His divine dimension.
Be that as it may, Mr. Wilson has given us a most valuable book about history, about weighing the possibilities, and about the state of the Shroud question.
Hart, Jeffrey. A Photograph of Jesus? National Review (May 18, 1998): 51-52.
Reprinted with permission of the National Review. To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232.
The Blood and the Shroud: New Evidence That the Worlds Most Sacred Relic Is Real, by Ian Wilson (Free Press, 333 pp., $25)
Jeffrey Hart is a senior editor with National Review.
© 1998 National Review
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