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The Shroud of Turin

First impressions. A detailed analysis

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First impressions of the shroud:

There are a many curious features of the shroud that appear to support the "painted 14th century" theory rather than the belief that the shroud was an actual burial cloth from first century CE Palestine. Note that this does not necessarily imply that the shroud is a forgery. It might have been created as a religious icon.

bulletThe shape of the shroud:
bulletJohn 19:40 refers to Jesus body being wrapped in two linen cloths -- one for the face and another for the body. This was the customary Jewish practice at the time. 14

bulletJohn 20:5-7 describes how Peter and the beloved disciple saw "othonia" -- Greek for multiple linen cloths -- lying in the tomb.

Yet, the shroud is one continuous piece of linen.

bullet Finger length: Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have found that the relative length of fingers predict a person's sexual orientation. Heterosexual men tend to have a short index finger (the one next to the thumb) compared to the ring finger (the one next to the little finger). Gay men have an even shorter index finger. Since the relative size of a person's fingers is determined before birth, these findings imply that a person's sexual orientation is at least partly decided before birth, not chosen at puberty as many social and religious conservatives believe.

The man in the image has the fingers of his left hand wrapped around the right wrist, so that the length of the fingers is not visible. But the fingers of the right hand are extended. The index finger is long relative to the ring finger - a configuration not seen in normal men. Even stranger, the index and middle fingers are of the same size.

The man's index finger is at least five inches long -- a very rare length today. It would have been even more unusual in the first century CE.


Portrayal of the top of the man's head: There are two images on the sheet, showing a man's back and front. That is because this burial shroud was apparently wrapped from the the man's feet, up the front of his body, over his head, and down his back to his feet. The front and back images of the head are separated by a gap of less than 1 cm (less than a half inch).

Some investigators have suggested that the image on the shroud was caused by some form of radiation emanating from the body, perhaps at about the time of death. This leads immediately to what might be called the "top of the head" problem.

If radiation from the head created the two two images on the shroud, then there are only two possibilities:

1) There was similar radiation from the top of the head. It would have left an image of the top of the victim's head on the shroud. However, there is no such image. Only a tiny gap is seen.

2) There was no radiation from the top of the head. This would result in a dark gap of perhaps 12 cm (almost 5 inches) between the top of the front of the head and the top of the back of the head. No such gap is visible.

Thus the radiation theory seems to fail because it does not match the image.

That still leaves the possibility that the Shroud is some form of image intentionally created -- either as a painting by an artist or by some form of photographic technique.

This leaves two possibilities:

1) The shroud was created as a forgery that was to be "sold" to the public as Jesus' shroud. This seems improbable because the "top of the head" problem would immediately point out that this is not a real 1st century shroud.

2) The shroud was created by a human as a type of icon to be venerated. This seems to be the most likely possibility.

bulletPortrayal of the man's arms and hands: There are two problems here:
bullet The body is shown in a relaxed state. Yet his hands reach and cover his genitals. In reality, a man's hands can only reach his genitals if his arms are stretched downwards. This would have happened if the body had been tightly wrapped with a long narrow strip of fabric. However, this shroud is a long, wide covering that was simply laid over and under the body -- not wrapped tightly around it.

bulletThe right forearm also appears to be several inches longer than the left. This makes sense if the image were painted by an artist in order to cover the genitals and preserve the modesty of the image.

bulletPortrayal of the man's face: Portrayals of Jesus gradually evolved over the centuries. Various details can be used to roughly date an image of Jesus. The picture on the shroud shows a forked beard, hair parted in the middle with loose strands of hair on the forehead. These details identify the image as having been created in medieval times. 15

bulletPortrayal of other parts of the body: The body's navel and genitals do not appear on the image. The body's buttocks, chest, toes "are defined poorly or not at all." 13 This is consistent with the image being a medieval work of art, but not with the body generating its own image.


The man's height: Various experts have estimated the man's image to be 5' 11˝" to 6' 2" tall. Jews who lived in the 1st century were much shorter than this.

Writer William Harwood comments: "According to a medieval writer, [the Jewish historian] Josephus described Jesus as an old-looking man, balding, stooped, with joined eyebrows and approximately 135 cm (4 ft. 6 in.) tall." 2 Harwood was apparently referring to the writings of the eighth century archbishop of Crete, Andreas Hierosolymitanus, who quoted a description of Jesus Christ which (he said) could be found in a version of Josephus extant at that time. This was based on the standard 46 cm. long regular cubit -- an ancient unit of distance. Using the 53 cm. special cubit, Jesus' height would have been about 156 cm (5 ft. 1 in.).

However, it is likely that the archbishop confused the description of Paul found in the "Acts of Paul and Thecla" by a resident of Iconium named Onesiphorus. He described Paul as, "a man of small stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked." 17 Although Josephus does refer to Jesus, his writings do not contain a physical description.

An analysis of skeletons from 1st century CE Palestine has shown that the 5 ft. 1 in. figure is typical. Harwood also makes the point that if Jesus were really 6 feet high, his height would have been so remarkable that he would certainly have been described as a giant in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament)  The image on the shroud is about a foot too tall for Jesus, using the best data available. Certainly, if Jesus was about six feet tall, there would have been no reason for the Temple leaders to have paid Judas to identify Jesus at his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.

bulletThe man's eyebrows: As mentioned above, Josephus apparently believed that Jesus' eyebrows were joined. The image of the man shows separate eyebrows.

bulletProportions of the man's face: A person's eyes are typically very close to the midpoint between the top of their head and the bottom of their chin (with the possible exception of Jay Leno). But close-up photographs of the image on the linen shows the eyes much closer to the top of the head than is normally seen in people.

bulletBlood stains: There are a number of irregularities exhibited by the red stains on the shroud that some believe are blood stains, and others believe are red-oxide paint. They preclude the possibility that the stains were caused by blood:

bulletBlood from a fresh wound is red in color and soon changes to a brownish color due to oxidation. But the stains on the shroud are red -- not what one would expect from blood deposited there in the first or even the 14th century CE.

bulletDuring the fire of 1532 CE, the shroud was exposed to significant temperatures: about 900 degrees Celsius at the top of the container in which it was stored, to 200 degrees at the bottom. Organic substances such as blood would have "decomposed, changed color or volatilized at different rates." 11 But the stains remained bright red and otherwise similar in appearance from top to bottom.

bulletThe stains are very clear and precise in outline. If they were caused by blood from a crucified person, they would have been smeared as a result of handling and wrapping the body. Robert Wild commented: "...we must also suppose...that the nails were pulled from Jesus' hands and feet and that his body was then taken down from the cross, carried some distance to the tomb, and laid upon the linen shroud, all without smearing or rubbing the bloodstains! This, it seems to me, stretches credulity to the breaking point."

bulletMany of the stains flow down the forehead, the arms, and other places on the body as if the body was oriented vertically at the time that the shroud was stained. But the body would have been horizontal at the time that it was wrapped and laid in a tomb.

bullet John 19:39-40 states that large quantities of spices were wrapped with the burial garments around Jesus' body. These materials would have badly smeared the stains if they had been caused by blood.

None of these factors are insurmountable arguments against the shroud being that of a crucified man of the first century CE. It can be argued that no energy rays were emitted from the top of the man's head. Perhaps an unusual fabric had been woven for Jesus' shroud. Josephus' description of Jesus may be inaccurate. The medieval writer might have been mistaken when he quoted Josephus. If one allows for the existence of miracles, then all bets are off. Blood would be able to flow uphill; the body could be extensively handled without smearing the blood.

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Detailed analysis of the linen:

Ever since the shroud was first photographed in 1898, it has generated considerable interest in the scientific community:

bullet Carbon -14 dating: In 1988, pieces of the linen cloth were sent for destructive Carbon-14 testing in three separate laboratories in three countries. The individuals who were measuring the age of the samples were aware of the source of the material, and were thus aware of the two most likely dates that the shroud was made: 1st and 14th centuries CE. Listed are the number of years before 1950 CE, followed by the 94% confidence limits in brackets: 
Laboratory Result 1 Result 2 Result 3 Result 4  Result 5
Arizona 591 (30) 690 (35) 606 (41) 701 (33)  -
Oxford 795 (65) 730 (45) 745 (55) -  -
Zurich 733 (61) 722 (56) 635 (57) 639 (45)  679 (51)

After further computation, the results date the fabric to between 1260 and 1390 CE. 3

This means that the flax from which the linen was made was growing in the ground sometime between those two dates when it was harvested. The date of the image itself is unknown; the test only estimates the age of the fabric.

If one assumes:
bulletthat the shroud was painted in the mid-14th century, and

bulletthere was a two year interval between the flax growing in the field and the completion of painting, and

bulletthe painting was finished shortly before its the earliest firmly known date of the shroud's existence, (1353 CE) 

then the flax was alive circa 1350 CE. That is very close to the average of the laboratory estimates. These results were a deep disappointment to the people who had faith that the cloth was the burial shroud of Jesus. 

Some believers have since developed reasons why they felt that the dating was in error:
bullet One theory is that the event that caused the image to be imprinted on the cloth might have been related to Jesus' resurrection. It it happened, it was a miracle that might have involved forms of energy which are currently unknown to humanity. Those energies might have changed the molecular structure of the carbon in the linen, thus introducing a 1300 year error into the Carbon-14 analysis. This could produce an estimated date approximately equal to the time when the existence of the shroud was first firmly documented.

bulletAnother theory is that there exists various forms of contamination on the linen samples that were presented to the testing laboratories. Although the samples were cleaned prior to testing, the task might not have been done thoroughly at all three labs. Alternatively, standard methods of cleaning might have been ineffective.

This argument does not hold water. In order to increase the apparent date of the samples from 30 CE to 1350 CE, the sample would have had to be about one third linen and two thirds contamination (by weight). That is, about 40 pounds (18 kg) of contaminant (mold, mildew, bacteria, etc) would have had to accumulate on the original 20 pound (9 kg) shroud to make a total current shroud weight of 60 pounds (27 kg). 9 One need only to look at the cloth to realize that this is not the case. However, this is a widely circulated belief.

bulletA third theory is that the extreme temperatures that the shroud experienced in the 1532 CE fire might have influenced the results. In addition, the shroud was subjected to centuries of intermittent exposure to candle smoke and incense. Sebastian Sparenga of the McCrone Research Institute states: "The suggestion that the 1532 Chambery fire changed the date of the cloth is ludicrous. Samples for C-dating are routinely and completely burned to CO2 as part of a well-tested purification procedure." 9

bulletFinally, some believers suggest that the samples which were carbon dated were not of the linen burial cloth itself. They came from a cloth patch that had been used to repair the shroud. Thus, the age measurement indicates the approximate date when the repair work was done, not the date at which the flax was harvested to make the shroud. To take a sample from a patch rather than from the shroud itself would require an extremely high degree of incompetence.

bulletThe man's fingers: One unexpected feature of the image is that the man's thumbs are not shown. One would expect all five fingers to be shown on both hands. However, during a crucifixion, nails are passed through the wrist. This forces the thumb out of position, so that it would not be seen in an image of the corpse. It is very unlikely that physicians and artists in the 14th century would have know this. If the shroud is really a forgery or icon, one would have expected the painter to have shown all five fingers on the man's hand.

bulletThe man's wrists: The gospels record that Jesus' hands were pierced by nails. But this is impossible; the palm pierced by a nail would not be capable of supporting the full weight of the man; the flesh and ligaments would simply tear. The Romans pierced the wrist with a nail, or tied the arm to the cross piece. Physicians and artists in the Middle Ages assumed that the gospels were right and that Jesus was nailed through his palm. (Luke 24:39, John 20:24, John 20:27) The crucifixion paintings of the era showed this. Some modern paintings do as well, out of ignorance or a sense of tradition. If the shroud is really a forgery or icon, the painter would be expected to have drawn a palm injury. The shroud actually shows a hole in the wrist.

bulletPollen: Pollen are very fine microspores that are used by plants for propagation. Max Frei reported that he discovered many species of pollen grains on the shroud. Some news sources reported that he positively identified pollen which came from plants that only grew in Palestine during the 1st century CE. In fact, he reported that he found pollen from desert halophytes - "salt plants" which grow only in very saline desert soils such as those in the Jordan valley. 4 Frei was described by Joe Nickell as a "freelance criminologist" 5 and by the media relations and publications department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as a "forensic scientific expert..." 6 Frei is probably best known for having pronounced the forged Hitler Diaries as genuine.

He used tape to lift samples of pollen from the linen. They were then extracted and embedded in glycerin jelly so that they could be examined from all directions in a microscope. He reported, before his death in 1983, that many of the pollen samples from the shroud were from species of plants that were unique to the Middle East and not found in Europe. Nickell implies that Frei's sampling procedure might have been faulty. He mentions that the tapes "had very few pollens -- although one bore a suspicious cluster on the 'lead' (or end), rather than on the portion that had been applied to the shroud.

bulletBlood on the man's forehead: Dr. M. M. Baden commented that the image on the shroud shows blood having trickled from the scalp, presumably due to the wounds created by the crown of thorns mentioned in the Gospels. He noted that blood from a scalp wound does not flow in rivulets, but rather mats the hair. 7

bulletThe face on the reverse side of the shroud: An image has been found on the reverse side of the shroud which is a near duplicate of the one on the front. Some suggest that this is evidence that the shroud is a forgery. It has been speculated that "any paint or liquid used by forgers to make a print on the cloth would have soaked through" to the reverse side. However, there are two problems with this theory: the images on the front and reverse sides of the shroud only appear on the surface layers of the linen; there is no image in the middle of the cloth. Also, the two images are not identical.

One possible explanation is that the shroud was created as a forgery or religious icon by an artist who first painted a practice image on one side of the linen, to perfect their technique. Then they painted a second image on the front of the linen for public viewing. Unfortunately, there is a key piece of missing information: are the two images directly on top of each other. If they are perfectly aligned, then the practice image theory is unlikely to be true. If they are offset, then the opposing theory that the front image was generated by special rays associated with the resurrection is likely to be false. More measurements on the shroud would be necessary to resolve the difficulty.

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Disagreement about the implications of the shroud's weave:

The linen in the Shroud of Turin is woven with a 3:1 herringbone pattern; other linen has a simpler 1:1 weave. We have not been able to resolve differences among experts about the significance of the weave:

bulletAccording to Joe Nickell, a Senior Research Fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry:

"... no examples of its complex herringbone weave are known from the time of Jesus when, in any case, burial cloths tended to be of plain weave."

He cites three references:

bulletJoe Nickell, "Inquest on the Shroud of Turin: Latest Scientific Findings," Prometheus Books., (1998), Page 35.

bulletIan Wilson, "The Blood and the Shroud," The Free Press, (1998)

bulletDavid F. Brown, Interview with H. David Sox, New Realities, 4:1 (1981), Page 31. 14
bulletA Wikipedia article states: According to master textile restorer Mechthild Flury-Lemberg of Hamburg, a seam in the cloth corresponds to a fabric found only at the fortress of Masada near the Dead Sea, which dated to the first century. ... Flury-Lemberg stated, 'The linen cloth of the Shroud of Turin does not display any weaving or sewing techniques which would speak against its origin as a high-quality product of the textile workers of the first century'." 16

bulletThat article continues: "The weaving pattern, 3:1 twill, is consistent with first-century Syrian design, according to the appraisal of Gilbert Raes of the Ghent Institute of Textile Technology in Belgium." 16

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  1. G.A. Wells, "The historical evidence for Jesus," Prometheus Books, (1988), Page 190. Read reviews or order this book
  2. William Harwood, "Mythology's Last Gods," Prometheus Books, (1992), Page 263, Footnote 5. Read reviews or order this book savely from the Amazon.com online bookstore 
  3. P. E. Damon, et al. "Radiocarbon Dating of the Shroud of Turin." Nature, 337:6208, 1989-FEB-16, Pages 611 to 615.
  4. G.A. Wells, op cit, Page 185
  5. Joe Nickell, "Blooming 'Shroud' Claims," Skeptical Inquirer magazine, 1999-NOV/DEC issue, Page 22-23.
  6. G. R. Lavoie, "Unlocking the Secrets of the Shroud," Thomas More, (1998). Read reviews or order this book
  7. M.M. Baden, Article, Medical World News, 1980-DEC-22.
  8. Charles Arthur, "Scientists find another face on reverse side of Turin shroud: Scientists debate meaning and origin of image on little-see back surface of shroud," The Independent. Online at: http://www.beliefnet.com/
  9. "The Shroud of Turin," McCrone Research Institute, at: http://www.mcri.org/
  10. "Amounts of modern biological contaminant required to raise the date of a 36 A.D. shroud," McCrone Research Institute, at: http://www.mcri.org/
  11. Robert Wild, "Art, Artivice or Artifact? Supposed burial shroud probably made in 14th century," in Molly Meinhardt, Ed., "Mysteries of the Bible: From the Garden of Eden to the Shroud of Turin," Biblical Archaeological Society, (2004), Page 180. Read reviews or order this book
  12. Ibid, Page 181 - 182.
  13. Ibid, Page 183.
  14. Joe Nickell, "Claims of Invalid “Shroud” Radiocarbon Date Cut from Whole Cloth," Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, at: http://www.csicop.org/
  15. N.D. Wilson, "Father Brown Fakes the Shroud: Start with a piece of glass and some white oil paint," Books & Culture, 2005-MAR/APR. See: http://www.christianitytoday.com/
  16. "Shroud of Truin" Wikipedia at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  17. "What is the height of Jesus Christ?," Mormon apologetic & discussion board, at: http://www.mormonapologetics.org/

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Copyright © 1999 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-NOV-18
Latest update: 2014-FEB-26
Author: B.A. Robinson

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