The Shroud of Turin: The Unbelievable “Forgery” Theory

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Ever since the 1988 radiocarbon tests of the Shroud of Turin, the laboratories’ conclusion that the fabric dates from between 1260 and 1390 “with 95% [statistical] certainty” has undergone considerable scientific scrutiny and challenge. In March 2019, a paper published in the scientific journal Archaeometry by a team of French scientists undermined the labs’ analyses. Though this report may not be the final nail in the coffin of the dating debacle, it ought to be clear by now that uncritical acceptance of the tests’ results is unwarranted. The “medieval forgery” theory, which was never scientifically or historically plausible, remains unproven.

A Thumbnail Sketch of the 1988 Debacle

If we follow the story of the 1988 dating project as told in Fr. Vittorio Guerrera’s The Shroud of Turin: A Case for Authenticity, ironically, the Vatican bears much of the responsibility for incompetently subverting the test. Among other errors, the scientist who cut the samples, working under the direction of two textile experts unfamiliar with the Shroud, took all of them from near a repair patch made in the 16th century rather than from different areas of the cloth. As the French scientists recently reported, the raw data from the tests “strongly suggests” that “homogeneity is lacking;” i.e., the samples were contaminated.

Quite apart from the cutting of the samples, there were other errors of test integrity. For one, the control samples sent with the Shroud samples didn’t match its weave, defeating the “double-blind” nature of the test. One scientist admitted you could tell which one was the Shroud sample using pictures from a National Geographic article. For another, a third set of unnecessary control samples for which the labs were unprepared was delivered separately, in envelopes rather than the stainless-steel tubes in which the others had been sent.

The scientists performing the test complained and protested the departures from the 1986 “Turin protocol” devised to guide the process. Even assuming their ignorance of the cutting fiasco, they had every reason to believe the integrity of the experiment had been compromised, undermining its credibility. Whatever doubts they had, however, didn’t show in either the press conference releasing their conclusions or in the Nature article in which their findings were published. Arguably, by that time, they’d vested too much money, time, and personal credibility in the success of the tests to admit failure.

Some Limits of Science

As far as scientific credibility goes, however, the press and the skeptic community have taken the 1988 tests at face value precisely because they were performed by scientists using a scientific procedure. Journalists generally don’t have the background to question scientific results. Even those of us who are more scientifically educated usually bow before the certified experts, as well we should. My first intimation that the Shroud results were under fire came in 1993—oddly enough, from my organic chemistry professor, who testified movingly to the integrity of a friend who had participated in the tests.

But science is first and foremost a method, not a machine, far less a perfect machine. Scientists themselves are humans, capable of mistakes, prone to cognitive biases, and subject to all the temptations the rest of us mere mortals face. It isn’t necessary that scientists or their methods be perfect for us to generally trust their results. But it is necessary that scientists perform their work with integrity, which includes acknowledging their biases and admitting their mistakes. This also includes accepting the limits of their tools; even a golden hammer can only do a hammer’s job.

Radiocarbon dating has its limits. While its utility and accuracy have been improved in the last 30 years, the processes used on the Shroud were known to occasionally produce results at variance with other known facts even before 1986. Experiments done after 1988 questioned whether the washing and calculating methods would have neutralized such contaminating factors as “youthening” due to smoke from a 1532 fire or the presence of a biopolymer that previous researchers had mistaken for Spandex particles. In simple terms, archaeometrists knew at the time that carbon-14 dating’s reliability had been oversold to the public.

The Anonymous Super-Genius

The “medieval forgery” theory asks us to believe a medieval super-genius was able not only to transfer a latent 3D image of a beaten and tortured man onto linen but also other interesting details that show up only in a modern laboratory environment using modern tools. His technique was so specific that, despite his being limited to High Middle Ages technology, every attempt to reproduce the method has failed or omitted at least one key characteristic. Furthermore, this monstrously clever person left no other clue to his existence except an allusion in the draft of a bishop’s letter.

That’s a lot to swallow. Perhaps an extraterrestrial mischief-maker was pranking us.

The “medieval forgery” theory requires a plausible explanation of its creation that fits all the key characteristics of the Shroud image. In particular, such an explanation would have to show how the forger dehydrated and conjugated the cellulose structure of only the topmost fibrils of each thread in the image areas of the Shroud, using only tools available in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. It would also have to avoid paints, dyes, and any medium that would bind the fibers. To date, none of the attempts to reverse-engineer the presumed forger’s technique have succeeded—the parameters are too specific.

“Well, I don’t need to know how it was forged to know that it was forged,” one might grouse. The failure to prove the Shroud a fake doesn’t by itself prove the Shroud an authentic first-class relic, of course. But when the evidence for fraud consists solely of a compromised radiocarbon test and a 14th-century bishop’s accusation (which tells us neither the forger’s name nor how it was done), simple mulish insistence is hardly persuasive. The preponderance of the evidence to date is against the “medieval forgery” theory.

What the Shroud Suggests

I’m not arguing that the Shroud is authentic, though I would be pleased if it is. The Shroud isn’t part of the general revelation; therefore, belief in its authenticity isn’t binding on Catholics (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 67). Rather, I’m saying that the “medieval forgery” theory is inherently untenable. The 1988 radiocarbon dating was a skeptical “Hail Mary” pass that the receiver fumbled at the goal line (partially due to defensive interference). But even had the “Turin protocol” been followed to the letter, it isn’t clear the tests would necessarily have led to an accurate result.

The thing is, even if the Shroud was Christ’s, it doesn’t prove anything—it merely suggests. To be sure, it’s extraordinary evidence of a unique event; but what the event was, from a physics standpoint, is unknown and perhaps unknowable. The coincidence that this unique event happened to the body of a historical figure about whom we Christians make astonishing claims is unusual but not especially revealing. It may depict the moment Jesus’ body was not only revived but transformed into something altogether new and supernatural, something more real than we can imagine. Then again, it may not.

But what the Shroud suggests, I suspect, is more disturbing to some people than anything it can prove.

Forget about atheists and agnostics—many self-identified Christians are uncomfortable with miracles. To the worldly, sophisticated disciple, they smack of ignorance, deception, and credulity. Many are much more comfortable thinking of the Resurrection as a metaphor and the Eucharist as a symbol; they would much rather that God stay on His side of the cosmos, an interested but uninvolved onlooker. Things like miracles of healing, stigmata, and incorruptible bodies may be inexplicable now; but eventually, they believe, Science will neutralize them as natural phenomena.

But Nature has no discernable reason for blindly producing things like the Eucharistic miracle of Lanciano or the Shroud of Turin. They seem to exist for no other reason than to point to the truth of certain Catholic and Orthodox beliefs—that Jesus really did rise from the dead, that he really is present in the Eucharist, and that (most wonderful of all) God isn’t content to be a spectator as we blunder on toward our destinies. A God that can interfere at will with the natural order of things is a God that can rightfully make demands of us.

It isn’t sufficient for such people, then, to neutralize them as natural phenomena. They must be debunked as frauds. Their continued existence pokes us right in our sophistication; they throw off our materialist groove. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, Christ must be crucified in every generation for the benefit of those who have no imagination.

Conclusion

British journalist Peter De Vries once wrote on another subject, “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who do not believe, no proof is possible.” It’s as if the Shroud of Turin exists precisely to support this observation: Even though the “medieval forgery” theory is the least credible of all explanations, those who need to believe it will continue to accept the 1988 radiocarbon dating no matter how many future analyses discredit it. But this acceptance isn’t because of all the facts but rather in ignorance of, or even despite, all the facts.

Ironically, it was science that discovered all the many hard-to-duplicate details of the Shroud, science that has rendered “medieval forgery” so much wishful thinking. Science may never confirm the identity of the Man in the Shroud, but neither will it ever succeed in debunking the Shroud. The more you learn about it, the more you realize that debunking it is a fool’s errand and that accepting it as authentic is a more rational response to the empirical data. All the 1988 radiocarbon dating has proven is that scientists are prone to confirmation bias too.

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8 thoughts on “The Shroud of Turin: The Unbelievable “Forgery” Theory”

  1. I am a keen supporter of the “unbelievable forgery” hypothesis, with many years of research to support my opinion. However, I am not so wedded to it that I think it ‘proven’, even in a legal sense. An informed decision one way or another is very much a matter of weighing the evidence, and although I, and perhaps the majority of those who have encountered the Shroud, think that it is medieval, I certainly do not deride those who have come, on balance, to the opposite conclusion.

    However, so much of the evidence mentioned above is either misquoted or misleading that it is inevitable that less well informed readers will find my view fairly preposterous. They may be led to think, as Anthony Lane thinks, that “those who need to believe [that the Shroud is medieval] will continue to accept the 1988 radiocarbon dating no matter how many future analyses discredit it.” This is wholly untrue, and unwarranted. Like any proper scientist, I have spent at least as much time attempting to discredit my view as I have in finding evidence to support it, or to discredit the ‘authenticist’ view.

    The radiocarbon dating ‘fiasco’ has been much obfuscated, not least, as Anthony points out, by the over-elaboration of the protocol surrounding it, and the confusion caused by the lack of communication between the various parties involved. However, there is little doubt that the twelve little pieces whose dates were ascertained as medieval were all cut from the Shroud. The fact that there was muddled protocol does not affect that statement one whit.

    Shroud researchers, rather than popular journalists, have been concentrating not on the protocol failure, which is a red herring, but on whether the little pieces were truly representative of the rest of the cloth. It is now widely recognised that any detectable surface contamination of the sample area has not had the effect of “youthening” the cloth, quite the reverse. The more the contamination, the older the radiocarbon date achieved. This aspect of the ‘radiocarbon falsification’ debate has largely been abandoned. Discussion among sindonologists now centres on two mutually incompatible hypotheses. One: whether the threads tested were original, or had been ‘spliced’ in, or ‘rewoven’ in the 16th or 17th century, to mend an area which had worn away with over handling. Two: whether the threads were original, but had had their radiocarbon enhanced by neutron radiation from the resurrecting Christ. The evidence for either of these is not wholly conclusive, which even their prime proponents will agree, such that whether either of them is correct, or neither, is a matter of keen debate.

    I have much enjoyed Larry Schauf’s ‘Trial of the Shroud’, which is available on line, but as Larry will no doubt admit, it is quite rare it a court of law for the Defence’s Closing Argument to be written by the Prosecuting Attorney! No wonder his listeners are persuaded by his presentation. I have no doubt whatever that in similar circumstances I could achieve exactly the opposite.

    Anthony’s characterisation of my evidence as consisting “solely of a compromised radiocarbon test and a 14th-century bishop’s accusation”, and my conclusions as “simple mulish insistence” is typical of those who do not really wish to engage with their opponents. Before any journalist, or lawyer, sets out to write a balanced account of the subject, they surely have some responsibility to find out what the two sides are, rather than inventing a “mule” and then deriding it.

    Finally, I really decided to write when I read the comment on Fr Spitzer’s 37-minute video. By sheer coincidence, it was only yesterday that I first watched it, and listed 22 simple, basic, factual errors – about one every minute and a half. It bothers me somewhat that so many of the most enthusiastic supporters of authenticity really have such little interest in the facts of the case.

    1. Hugh, thanks for your reply. My statement that “those who need to believe [that the Shroud is medieval] will continue to accept the 1988 radiocarbon dating no matter how many future analyses discredit it” wasn’t directed at you personally. Neither am I so wedded to its authenticity that my faith would be substantively damaged if it were conclusively proven a forgery. The statement is also true in the opposite direction: Those who need to believe it’s the authentic burial shroud of Christ will continue to believe it despite any and all evidence to the contrary. We’re talking a basic fact of the human mind—cognitive bias—that’s independent of the Shroud debate, one that underlies “flat-earthers”, advocates of geocentrism, and the many conspiracy theories surrounding the death of JFK. It’s also independent of religious beliefs and professional discipline. I still find the basic “medieval genius” premise implausible. But there are plenty of bizarre and inexplicable things in the world; if the “medieval genius”, as incredible as I think it is, turns out to be one more such item, well, it makes the world that much more interesting, right? Pax tecum.

    2. How kind of you to counter-comment, as it were. Of course I didn’t really think you were referring to me personally; after all, you probably haven’t even heard of me, but then I ask you to wonder to yourself for a moment, who were you referring to as insistent mules with minimal evidence? Do you, in fact, know any of us medievalists at all? Apart from me, there’s Joe Nickell, and apart from him, a handful of Italians such as Andrea Nicolotti and Gian Marco Rinaldi. If not them, who?

      Fairly recently, the Shroud Science Guild (an online email group) has been regularly informed of newly published articles on the Shroud, and I have decided that I should respond to as many as possible, as part of a detailed study on Shroud journalism in general, which will eventually emerge as a paper somewhere. So far, I have usually found that they suffer from one or more of several quite specific characteristics, one of which is the claim that obstinate medievalists with minimal evidence are generally unconvincing. I agree with that, in so far as if I had ever met any such people I would find them unconvincing too. But there aren’t any. There are, on the contrary, some eloquent debaters with detailed evidence, who are, generally, quite influencing, if not wholly convincing.

      In my last comment I did not address the concept of the “anonymous super-genius” who achieved results unknown to modern technology. This is another straw-man. Individually, all the characteristics of the Shroud image are relatively easy to achieve, and the technology involved is relatively simple. The question really is the extent to which the Shroud as we see it today is the object we are trying to replicate. It might have been painted, and the paint thoroughly washed off. A commenter in 1503 claimed that it had been boiled in oil. Or it might have been stained. Stains do not appear as lumps of pigment – they alter the chemistry of biological material. The extreme superficiality of the image is another rather misleading claim. If I scribble on a piece of cloth, with a pencil or ball point pen, the resulting mark is wholly superficial, and does not penetrate any fibres at all, nor ooze between them by capillary action. Brushing a piece of cloth with the back of a heated spoon can easily darken the topmost fibres of threads without penetrating further.

      My own working hypothesis is that the cloth was laid on a life-size carved figure with the characteristics of a double-sided bas relief – like some of the effigies produced for the “Quem Quaeritis” Easter liturgy which still exist – which was damp with something that might stain. In Hereford, for example, the effigy was regularly washed with water and wine; wine might do very well as a stain. Variation in image intensity was achieved by variation in pressure as the cloth was smoothed over the statue, not by some mysterious body/cloth distance correlation.. Naturally the more prominent places would receive greater pressure, and appear darker, and less prominent places would receive less pressure, and appear lighter. This is what gave rise to the accidental 3D effect, and concomitant pseudo-negative appearance.

      Now I very much doubt if you will be convinced by the above. You do not know my sources, and you may fall back on simple incredulity. But I do hope you may find that at least my argument is reasonable. Coupled to a comprehensive review of the alleged authenticist evidence, you may even find it difficult to refute. You might like to glance at
      The Medieval Shroud at academia.edu for a better idea of what we mules we really think!

  2. I’m retired after practicing law for 32 years and serving part of that time as a federal prosecutor. I’ve studied the Shroud of Turin for 23 years and currently serve as a Vice President of the Shroud of Turin Education and Research Association working with some of the top Shroud experts on the world. I have a presentation called “Trial of the Shroud” which I’ve presented accross the country. I’ve shown the evidence on both sides of the Shroud authentication issue and had my audience act as my “jury” to decide if the Shroud can be proven authentic “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Even though many skeptics come to these presentations, most of them become convinced and every “jury” has found the Shroud to be the authentic burial linen and pre-resurrection image of Jesus. Actually it’s a relatively easy issue to prove since the evidence which appeared in in 2005.

    I have now have a professionaly written feature-length movie entitled “Trial of the Shroud”. As soon as I find the final 30% of the production budget we’ll make the movie. It’s critically important for the world to know that this image of Jesus is real and, even more importantly, WHY He created it 2000 years ago! Please pray that we can start production of this movie soon! …..Larry Schauf

    1. So you, as a shroud believer, are able to convince those who also believe to believe through the vehicle of a polite shouting match where you present both sides (and thus will naturally support your own side). And I’m expected to take this as genuine? Yeah right.

      I could provide equally convincing “proof” for the invisible celestial teapot of Bertrand Russell and I’ll also guarantee you wouldn’t believe my assertion.

      And de Vries’ quote would have been more accurate if it said: For those who believe, no evidence is necessary. For those who do not believe, no evidence is presented. If there were evidence for the existence of the christian god or the truthfullness of the bible I and most doubters would concede, because we’re part of the reality based community. But as there is no evidence for, and lots of evidence suggesting that even the idea of god isn’t necessary we adopt and accept the null hypothesis.

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  4. OrdinaryCatholic

    As much as I want the Shroud of Turin to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus it will not matter one whit if it is ever proven that it is NOT the actual shroud of our Lord, for my faith is in Christ and not in a burial shroud.

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