Mounting evidence for the Shroud of Turin’s authenticity

On Easter Sunday, one of the possible Gospel readings described how Peter and John found the empty tomb. It also described the first sight of Jesus’ burial shroud:

“So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed” (John 20:3-8).

The cloths must have been amazing if they caused John to believe in the Resurrection!

Many Catholics have held the Shroud of Turin to be the main linen burial cloth discovered by the disciples in the tomb. Then the Shroud was carbon dated in 1988 by three different labs. The test showed the linen to date from 1260–1390 AD, seeming to prove the Shroud a medieval fake! Since then, however, researchers have uncovered overwhelming evidence pointing to the Shroud’s authenticity.

Colorado is home to the Turin Shroud Research Center in Colorado Springs, which is leading the way in compiling the mounting evidence. The Center, under the direction of the physicist Dr. John Jackson, has been researching the Shroud for 50 years, including as part of the study in 1978, STURP, which had unique access to the Shroud. A recently updated book by Dr. Jackson, The Shroud of Turin: A Critical Summary of Observations, Data, and Hypotheses (CMJ Marian Publishers, 2017, or online with limited images) provides an overview of where research on the Shroud stands today.

Here is a brief summary of some major points pointing to the Shroud’s authenticity:

1. Its History

We now know enough about the shroud’s history to show it predates the 14th century.

Historical accounts follow a miraculous full body image of the Shroud from Antioch, to the region of Cilicia (in modern day Turkey) to Constantinople, where it was kept hidden by the Byzantine Emperors for centuries. It was publicly displayed in Constantinople shortly before the Crusaders arrived and it seems that one of the leading Crusaders brought it back to France, where it remained privately until its first public display in Lirey, France in the 1350s. After suffering from fire, it was entrusted to the royal family of Savoy, who brought it to its current location in Turin, Italy (see pages 7-43).

2. Its Material and What’s Attached to It

No medieval examples of the herringbone stitch used to make the Shroud’s linen have been uncovered, though there are ancient matches from the Near East. Even more intriguing is the dirt found on the Shroud (especially surrounded the nose, knees, and feet), which match dirt and stone found in other tombs in and near Jerusalem. Likewise, pollen from plants of the Jerusalem area blooming in March and April has been discovered, along with pollen matching the historical record of the Shroud in Turkey, France, and Italy.

3. How the Image Was Made

Dr. Jackson lists a number of theories, including one which he proposed, for how the Shroud’s image was imprinted. We do know, however, that it was not painted, as the image rests only the very top of the linen threads and no paint materials soaked into the threads. It was discovered in the late 1800s that the Shroud has the qualities of a photographic negative, which is why a negative of it produces a clearer image. The image also has three dimensional qualities. Some current theories point toward radiation or an electric field as responsible for producing the image. See Dr. Jackson’s “Radiation Fall-Through Hypothesis, and Antonacci’s revision, on page 83.

4. The Image Itself

The Shroud contains real blood (both pre- and postmortem), which has recently been shown to be from a torture victim. It is faithful to Jewish burial practices, as well as the Roman method of Crucifixion. As such, it does not match medieval imagery of the crucifixion, which portray nails in Jesus’ hands and feet, but rather in the wrist and ankles in accord with archeological evidence of Roman crucifixion.

5. It Matches Another Ancient Image of the Passion

The Shroud matches blood stains from the Sudarium of Oviedo, the head cloth used to cover Jesus after the crucifixion and in burial. There is documentation that it was brought to Spain after the Persian invasion of Syria in the seventh century. When the two cloths are compared, the blood stains match up identically.

So what about the carbon dating? Dr. Jackson offers a number of reasons why the test pointed to the Middle Ages. He notes that his research group, STURP, made recommendations to take samples from multiple locations and to clear them of contaminants. It was also suggested to avoid the area that was chosen for the carbon dating samples as it was already shown to have some inconsistencies with other locations, such as a greater presence of cotton. None of these suggestions were followed! An alternative dating method, fiber tensile-strength comparisons, conducted in 2015, pointed to 372AD, plus or minus 400 years (93).

The Shroud provides an incredible access point to learn more about our Lord’s Passion, burial, and Resurrection. It has an amazing history, made only more intriguing by new scientific methods. Dr. Jackson’s book provides a helpful, introductory summary. He and his wife (Rebecca) also speak on the Shroud across the world and the Turin Shroud Center of Colorado hosts an exhibit at St. Gabriel’s Church in Colorado Springs, including a full-size replica of the Shroud.

It is also gives us a unique glimpse at the likely appearance of Jesus. As such, it prompts our prayers: “Restore us, O God; let thy face shine, that we may be saved!” (Psalm 80:3).

COMING UP: Opening the tomb of Christ

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Opening the tomb of Christ

Researchers share their journey inside Christ’s tomb

The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ came alive for a group of researchers who opened the tomb where millions believe he was buried over 2,000 years ago.

As they looked upon the holy bed — which they later discovered hadn’t seen light in 1,673 years — they were captivated.

“I was overwhelmed by that sense of seeing something so sacred to Christians around the world,” said Dr. Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist-in-residence for National Geographic.

“And to think, ‘Wow, I’m one of [about] 50 people who are going to see this, and then they’ll close it up again.’’’

The tomb, which resides inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, was opened for just 60 hours on the evening of Oct. 26, 2016. National Geographic’s exclusive coverage can be seen here.

A renovation ‘long overdue’

According to historical accounts, Emperor Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, sent representatives to Jerusalem to locate Jesus’ tomb around 325 A.D. The site they were directed to and where they built a shrine currently lies within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

But the Holy Edicule — the shrine that encloses the tomb — has needed significant renovations for years.

“It was a project that was long overdue,” said Dr. Hiebert.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre had actually agreed to do the Edicule restoration in 1959, but it took cooperation from each patriarch from the three Christian communities responsible for the tomb (Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church and the Armenian Patriarchate) to finally make it happen in 2016.

An interdisciplinary team from the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) was tasked with the restoration, and Dr. Hiebert and a team from National Geographic documented the project.

The restoration was captured on film and publicized in “Secrets of Christ’s Tomb,” an explorer special that premiered on the National Geographic Channel Dec. 3, 2017.

“It really is a project about preserving and conserving one of the world’s greatest historic and sacred sites in the entire world,” said Dr. Hiebert. “And it was literally falling apart.”

Antonia Moropoulou, a professor at NTUA, served as the chief scientific supervisor of the Holy Edicule rehabilitation project.

“It was a great technical, scientific, cultural, political and religious challenge,” she said.

Professor Moropoulou and her team not only convinced the three patriarchs to agree to the renovation of the tomb itself, but they also completed the entire project in just nine months, she said.

Christ’s tomb ‘overwhelms the senses’

The research team hadn’t initially planned on opening the actual tomb until they realized they needed to complete work inside the site to prevent later damage. The patriarchs agreed it needed to be done.

On the evening of Oct. 26, the work began. The doors to the church were locked and team members went inside to lift a slab that covers the holy bed.

“When the riggers went in to actually open the stone covering, it was library silence,” said Dr. Hiebert. “It was incredible. It was almost like you could hear people breathing. It was almost like we were listening to [see] if we could hear the riggers move the marble slab.”

I don’t think in my life I will ever encounter something that had such a personal resonance. It’s changed me a lot.”

The patriarchs were the first to go inside.

“It was amazing to see their smiles when they came out,” said Dr. Hiebert.

When it was the National Geographic team’s turn, they were simply overwhelmed.

“As we said in the film, my knees were shaking,” said Dr. Hiebert. “It was an amazing moment.”

It’s one that had a resounding impact on the archaeologist’s life.

“I continue to be an archaeologist in residence at National Geographic and I continue to go on my digs,” said Dr. Hiebert. “But I don’t think in my life I will ever encounter something that had such a personal resonance.

“It’s changed me a lot,” he said.

Professor Moropoulou felt a sense of connection when the tomb was opened.

“The message of the Resurrection unites all of humanity,” she said. “People of all religions and all ethnicities all kneel at the tomb of Christ.”

Manolis Alexakis, Maria Apostolopoulou, Dr. Ekaterini Delegou, Dr. Kyriakos Lampropoulos and Elisavet Tsilimantou — members of Professor Moropoulou’s team — explained that although they had seen photos and video footage of the tomb, entering it “overwhelms the senses.”

“The architecture, the chanting, the scents take you back in time,” they said. “When entering the Holy Edicule, you bend to enter the holy tomb chamber and realize that everything is different than what you had imagined, yet familiar through the accounts given in the Gospels.”

The team added that visiting the holy site felt like “a visit through the timeline of history.”

Rich discoveries

While the tomb was opened, the NTUA team experienced technological problems that seemed to be inexplicable.

“On October 26, 2016, the instruments presented several discontinuities in their signals, something that we have not yet explained,” they said.

But Dr. Hiebert has seen technology malfunctions on a daily basis, so he wasn’t surprised by the glitches and noted that the rest of the project went smoothly.

“The conservators were able to put a moisture barrier in to protect the holy bed, the holy rock,” he said, “so that once it was covered again, it would basically be preserved for the next 2,000 years.”

Those on-site were more surprised by other findings, including the discovery that the original walls of the cave surrounding the tomb were still intact.

The tomb of Jesus Christ with the rotunda is seen in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on March 21, 2017 in Jerusalem, Israel. The tomb of Jesus Christ in the rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City was, on 26 February 2017, without its iron cage for the first time since it was placed around the stone tomb by the British in 1947 to keep the Edicule from falling apart. Greek archaeologists have been working since June 2016 to restore the tomb, believed to be the place where Jesus Christ was buried and then resurrected from after his crucification. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

Professor Moropoulou explained that her team had actually seen the non-visible internal layers of the structure through the ground penetrating radar prospection they used before they started their work.

“Of course, when the work started and the holy rock (the original walls of the cave) was actually brought to light, we felt overwhelmed that it had survived throughout almost 20 centuries, embedded within the Edicule,” she said.

The most significant discovery of all came after samples of the mortar between the original limestone surface of the tomb and the marble slab that covers it were taken for dating.

Until the mortar was tested, researchers believed the tomb complex dated to the Crusader period (approximately between 1096-1291) because of the earliest architectural evidence that had been found up until the restoration.

That would have made the tomb no older than 1,000 years old. It would have also meant that it wasn’t the site Emperor Constantine’s delegates had identified as Christ’s burial place.

The results instead dated the mortar to around 345 A.D.

For Dr. Hiebert, the discovery was “mind blowing. It was a total surprise.”

The reason it was shocking, he said, was because the church had been extremely vulnerable over the years, undergoing several invasions and natural disasters.

“Our amazement of being there on October 26, 2016 was even more amplified when we got that information back,” said Dr. Hiebert.

Faith and science ‘coexist perfectly’

For Dr. Hiebert, the experience proved that faith and science go hand-in-hand.

“I consider it as important of a faith-based project as it was a scientific project,” said Dr. Hiebert. “I think in today’s world where there’s this sort of tendency to think about a dichotomy between science and faith, this is a really excellent example of how science and faith coexist perfectly.

“There’s no choice,” he continued. “If you think about the great scientists of Western civilization — Galileo, Isaac Newton, even Albert Einstein — they were all scientists of great faith.

“That’s an important message that I want to tell kids and adults … is that faith and science coexist intractably and perfectly well.”

Make a virtual visit to Christ’s tomb

The National Geographic immersive exhibition “Tomb of Christ: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Experience” virtually transports visitors to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the world’s most sacred, ancient monuments. The exhibition will be open at the National Geographic Museum from Nov. 15, 2017 through fall of 2018. (Photo by Rebecca Hale | National Geographic)

National Geographic is hosting a 3-D exhibit at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. that allows visitors to virtually visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

“You actually walk into our museum that we have here in Washington, D.C. and you can experience basically what I experienced — walking the streets of Jerusalem, seeing the church for the first time, and then fast forwarding through time in an amazing 3D experience where you are brought right into the Holy Edicule,” said Dr. Hiebert.

“You don’t have to go all the way to Jerusalem to experience what I did,” he added. “You can come right here to Washington, D.C.

For more information, visit

Featured image courtesy of Simon Norfolk | National Geographic Magazine