A Photograph of Jesus


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:

  1. Documents follow the Shroud very far back in time. Mr. Wilson is able to pursue this track toward, and maybe into, the first century.

  2. In 1898, Secondo Pia discovered that the Shroud had never been properly seen. He photographed it, and found that many features of the image that had been puzzling were immediately recognizable on black-and-white negatives. The odds against someone in 1260-1390 somehow “painting” an image which would not disclose itself until the invention of photography are astronomical. Also, the image has three-dimensionality: a computer model has been made that amounts to a bust of the man depicted here.

  3. Experts on anatomy, examining Secondo Pia’s negatives and other evidence, have found that the image has details that no medieval artist is at all likely to have guessed. For example, no thumbs are visible on the folded hands. Experiments with cadavers have shown that if a body is suspended by nails driven through the palms, the flesh simply tears. However, nails driven through the aperture in the wrists will hold the body — but cause the thumbs to bend inward.

  4. The image was not painted. It seems to have involved a chemical change in the linen threads, somewhat resembling a faint scorch by a hot iron. No one has been able to explain this process.

  5. In 1972, Dr. Max Frei, an expert on pollen, took a dozen stick-tape samples from the linen. Pollen, as it happens, is virtually immortal. Frei’s samples indicated an itinerary for the cloth that goes from the Dead Sea area, through Turkey, to France. Some of the pollen came from vegetation that no longer grows around the Dead Sea, but which does appear in early sediment dated to the first century.

  6. Then there is the fact that we do not have other shrouds of people similarly executed. For this there are two probable reasons. First, a body decomposing over time would ruin such a piece of cloth. If this shroud is authentic, the body did not long remain in contact with it. And, second, crucifixion was a method of execution reserved for particularly heinous or despised criminals. People were not likely to cherish the shrouds of such criminals — but Jesus’ followers would have venerated this one.

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 body’s 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 isn’t 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 World’s Most Sacred Relic Is Real, by Ian Wilson (Free Press, 333 pp., $25)


Jeffrey Hart is a senior editor with National Review.

Copyright 1998 National Review

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