BY JOSEPH BERGERON – APRIL 1, 2021
The Shroud of Turin is a relic extraordinaire. It’s a linen cloth containing the front and back images of a crucified man matching the biblical descriptions of Jesus.1 Controversy surrounds the Shroud of Turin. Many believe it to be the cloth used to wrap Jesus’s body after crucifixion. Others wonder whether it’s merely an elaborate hoax.
In this post, we’ll focus not on the Shroud of Turin’s origins but rather on a medical description of the man whose image it bears, including a forensic analysis and a comparison to known Roman crucifixion practices. Later, in part 2, we’ll examine the physical characteristics of the cloth, its age, and how the image may have formed.
The crucifixion process began with the condemned being placed in the custody of a specialized team consisting of a group of soldiers supervised by a centurion. Scourges were made of leather strips with lead balls sown into the ends. Multiple soldiers participated in scourging the victim.2 Jesus’s beatings were doubly severe since he was beaten at the home of the Jewish High Priest before being delivered to the Romans for scourging prior to crucifixion (Matthew 26:67). Jesus was sentenced to death as a political insurgent: “the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37). This title heightened the ire of his Roman executioners who would have perceived Jesus’s crime as defiance of Caesar (Mark 15:16–20).
Roman executioners forced the condemned victim to carry the short, horizontal section of the cross (the patibulum) to the execution site. After nailing the victim’s hands to the patibulum, they lifted it with the victim attached and placed it on top of the stationary vertical section (the stipes) secured by a mortise and tenon joint. They then nailed the victim’s feet to the stipes.3
In most cases, the corpse was left on the cross to be eaten by scavenging animals,4 but upon request it could be obtained for burial instead. Prior to the body being released, it was likely common for the executioners to administer a coup de grâce to assure the victim was dead.5 Accordingly, before Jesus’s body was taken down a spear was driven through his chest (John 19:34). Additionally, the Roman governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate required verification of Jesus’s death before the body could be released for burial (Mark 15:45).
It appears that the man in the Shroud of Turin was washed before being wrapped.6 This is consistent with known Jewish funerary customs in the Second Temple period. Burial was completed the same day as the death. The body was washed, anointed with oils or perfumes, and wrapped in a shroud. Spices were placed within the shroud, sprinkled over the bier, or left in the burial site.7 Jesus was buried according to the Jewish customs of his time (John 19:40). The Gospels state that his body was wrapped in linen cloth (Matthew 27:59; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:52).
Jesus was buried hurriedly after a cursory and incomplete preparation due to his death occurring late on Friday, the eve of the Jewish Sabbath during Passover week. Women returned to Jesus’s tomb on Sunday to complete the burial preparation with spices and perfumes they had compounded (Luke 23:52–24:1). According to biblical accounts, the women found burial cloths in the tomb, but Jesus’s body was gone (Luke 24:12; John 20:2–9).
Examination of the Man of the Shroud
The Shroud of Turin bares front and back images depicting a naked, bearded, long-haired man about 183 cm (~6 feet) tall. 8 The man likely weighed approximately 70 kg (~154 lbs). Tortuous streams of blood are noted in the matted hair, front and back.9 Hair appears by the sides of the face. The neck is not visible. There is swelling of the forehead, brows, right upper lip, and jaw. The nasal cartilage is separated.10 The right eyelid may be torn.11 Hands are placed below the umbilicus (navel). Thumbs are not visible. There are more than 100 scourge marks. The right shoulder is lower than the left with abrasions noted on both shoulders.12 There is a large oval chest wound between the right fifth and sixth ribs.13 Blood flow is visible from the chest wound, scalp, and both hands and feet.
The Shroud of Turin images depict multiple blows to the face consistent with descriptions in the biblical account (Matthew 26:67, 27:30). Blood streams from the scalp indicate puncture wounds consistent with a crown of thorns (Mark 15:17). Scourge marks match the size and shape of the lead pieces Romans sewed into the ends of their whips. The scourge marks are also bidirectional, appearing to come from both sides of the body, suggesting a team of executioners (John 19:1; Mark 15:15–16).14
The chest wound is consistent with spear penetration, which would collapse the lung and rupture the right chambers of the heart. Copious drainage from the chest wound suggests blood mixing with a pleural effusion (fluid collection around the lung, typically clear). The presence of a clear pleural effusion and subsequent cardiac rupture is also suggested in the biblical description (John 19:34). A smudge of dried blood or clot appears below the chest wound. Blood drains from the chest wound to the back, indicating the body was laid supine after being wrapped. Blood flow from the hands and feet are consistent with nail punctures ( John 20:24–27 ).
The neck and legs appear flexed. This is best explained by rigor mortis, which can occur rapidly when the victim is in a high metabolic state at the moment of death, often the case in violent death.15 Nails through the wrists would tether thumb abductor muscles, flexing the thumbs over the palms, which explains why the thumbs are not seen in the image. Rigor mortis at the shoulders was overcome in order to reposition the arms in front of the body.
The Greater Meaning
The Shroud of Turin portrays an accurate depiction of Roman crucifixion. Moreover, the image of the man matches the unique features of Jesus’s execution recounted in the biblical accounts. Questions of authenticity aside, the Shroud of Turin offers a visual representation of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ and points to the greater significance of God’s forgiveness.
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace. —Ephesians 1:7
The Shroud of Turin, Part 2: An Examination of the Cloth
The Shroud of Turin contains the faint image of a man identical to the biblical descriptions of the crucified Jesus. Interest in the Shroud of Turin intensified when a photograph in 1898 unexpectedly produced an enhanced, photonegative-like image of the man.1 In a previous post, “The Shroud of Turin, Part 1: An Examination of the Man,” we discussed a forensic medical examination of the man pictured on the cloth. In this post, we’ll examine the physical and chemical characteristics of the cloth and consider how the man’s image may have formed.
Examination of the Cloth
The Shroud of Turin measures 437 cm by 111 cm. The cloth is about 0.34 mm thick, with each thread containing 70–120 linen fibers.2 Microscopic examination reveals the man’s image is the result of yellow color found on the top two or three superficial fibers, each fiber ranging 10–15 micrometers in diameter, within the yarns of surface threads.3
Aside from blood stains and serum residue, bodily effluents were not found on the cloth.4The blood stains contain heme, the oxygen-transporting porphyrin found in blood. Yellow-colored fibers forming the image were not found beneath blood or serum, indicating the image formed after the blood adhered to the cloth.5 The image formation did not damage the blood stains, indicating the image was formed by a mild process.6
Variation in color density on the image corresponds to the number of colored fibers per unit area rather than true color gradation. This is called the “half-tone effect.”7 Conversely, dye, paint, thermal energy, or gaseous reactants would have produced a color gradient.
Researchers found that “reflectance spectra, chemical tests, laser-microprobe Raman spectra, pyrolysis mass spectrometry, and X-ray fluorescence all show that the image is not painted with any of the expected, historically-documented pigments.”8 No fluid meniscus or cemented fibers were observed, ruling out the possibility of fluid application having been used to produce the image.9 No paints, dyes, or stains were discovered despite exhaustive testing.
Any form of radiation energy—thermal, electromagnetic, or particle—would have penetrated the fiber and altered the cellulose structure in order to produce the image. Cellulose was unaffected by the image formation, however.10
A fire almost destroyed the Shroud of Turin in 1532, applying a violent chemical test to the cloth in the process. The fire subjected the cloth to a thermal test which revealed that no pyrolysis products of medieval paint compounds were present, ruling out the possibility that the image of the man had been painted. And, despite water being used to douse the flames, the image remained unaltered, indicating it was not water soluble.11
How Old Is It?
In 1988 the cloth was carbon dated to AD 1260 to 1390, but this dating is considered invalid by many Shroud of Turin researchers due to flawed sampling protocol. All three test samples came from a single swatch of cloth cut from near the edge of the cloth rather than by random sampling.12 This area near the edge has anomalous weave patterns compared to the larger body of the cloth. Cotton fibers are mixed with linen in the radiocarbon samples, while the main body of the cloth is entirely linen. Moreover, cotton fibers appeared encrusted with pigment that nearly matches the color of the cloth.13 Altogether, samples used for the radiocarbon tests differ significantly from the main body of the cloth and suggest the samples came from a corner of the cloth that had been repaired by weaving cotton into the linen.
It is noteworthy that weaving clothing from two different materials goes against Hebrew law (Leviticus 19:19). Similarly, archaeological evidence indicates mixed material textiles were not used for Jewish burial shrouds in Jesus’s time.14
Physical and chemical characteristics of the cloth offer clues to its age that are not dependent on the carbon dating controversy. Making cloth in the first century started with spinning linen fibers into yarns of thread. When a spindle was full, the hank of yarn would be bleached. Hanks of yarn were bleached separately, then woven into cloth stabilized with starch during weaving. The linen cloth was then washed with soapweed, Saponaria officinalis.15 Saponaria has hemolytic and preservative properties, explaining why the blood stains appear red rather than black.16
Linen threads within the Shroud of Turin are consistent with this ancient spinning and weaving method rather than medieval practices where bleaching was done after weaving the cloth was finished. Additionally, chemical tests on linen fiber growth nodes suggest the cloth is very old and predates the medieval period.17
One Possible Explanation
Evaporation drying after washing would leave a residue of polysaccharides (starch) on the surface of the cloth. Evolving amide gaseous compounds from the corpse could react with the polysaccharide residue by the Maillard reaction. Pigment byproducts from this reaction could bond to the starch residue and produce the image.
Chemical tests have confirmed the presence of starch on the cloth. The image color could be stripped off of linen fibers by adhesive tape, indicating that the color resides on a surface residue, not within the linen fiber. The color was removed with the reducing reagent, diimide, leaving unharmed colorless linen, indicating the image color was the result of complex double bonds.18 These findings are supportive of the Maillard reaction hypothesis. If the image was formed by the Maillard reaction, it would indicate the cloth was actually used as a burial shroud but removed from the body before liquid components of decay developed.19
Explanation and the Principle of Economy
Occam’s razor affirms that the hypothesis with the fewest special assumptions is most likely closest to the truth. Elaborate explanations involving radiation or thermal energy must be set aside when the image can be explained by a commonly observed low-temperature chemical reaction. The Maillard reaction offers a plausible explanation for how the image was formed.
The Shroud of Turin has physical and chemical characteristics consistent with an ancient burial cloth potentially dating to the time of Christ. It bears the image of a man unmistakably recognizable as the crucified Jesus. The image was not made by human hands. In spite of extensive scientific study, the Shroud of Turin has not been explained away as a fraud or hoax.