Thursday, April 15, 2010

In Search Of... The Shroud of Turin

You may have read that the Shroud of Turin was put on public display again in Italy on April 10th for the first time in 10 years. Tens of thousands of people are expected to visit it this time.  Was it really the cloth in which Jesus' body was wrapped after he was brought down off the cross, thereby becoming imprinted with his likeness?  That issue seemed to have been settled conclusively back in 1988, when separate carbon dating tests made at universities in Oxford, Zurich and Arizona each determined simultaneously that it actually dated from medieval times, specifically between 1260 and 1390.  

But as a new BBC article about this controversy explains, there are now people coming forward, 20 years later, to challenge the results of those seemingly conclusive tests. ("'Through no fault of the labs the 1988 sample was taken from the most inadvisable place - the top left hand corner,' he says.")  Doesn't everyone know that you never test the top left corner!  Fools! You can read the entire article HERE.

I really liked the TV show In Search of... as a kid in the 1970's. I have enjoyed re-watching some of the old episodes and lovingly critiquing, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, some of the explanations proffered for the mysteries the show examined. In Search Of... did an episode on the Shroud of Turin which first aired in November 1979, almost a decade before all this carbon dating was performed.  You can watch a 10 minute segment from this episode by clicking HERE.  Interestingly, this episode focusses on then-contemporary scientific analysis of the Shroud to determine whether that image of the bearded face on the linen could really have been made naturally (or supernaturally) by a corpse, or whether it was merely a fake that could have been made using medieval technology. But the results of these tests are presented in the show as inconclusive. 

"Unfortunately," notes the narrator, Leonard Nimoy, "the one test which would eliminate the possibility of forgery has not been allowed. Radio-carbon measurement could show how old the cloth of the Shroud really is. The only hitch: you have to burn a piece... But the permanent loss of such a large sample would be too great a sacrifice.  The scientists' request was denied... The Shroud, safely locked away, is once more out of reach. It is not expected to be seen again for at least another generation. Perhaps in the time of our grandchildren  we will discover if the Shroud is the burial cloth of Christ."  

I remember being really frustrated by this as a kid.  (They're stonewalling! My grandchildren!) Little did anyone know then that a mere 9 years later (and after some improved scientific technique), those tests were indeed allowed to be performed in 1988 and this question answered conclusively.

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