Debate Magazine

Shrouded History

By Cris

Did we really need another 8,400 words devoted to the Shroud of Turin? Those who wish to see in the shroud scientific evidence of “supernatural imprinting” have been indefatigable in their efforts, and spared no expense, to show it is miraculous – an empirically verified exception to known natural laws. Not surprisingly these efforts have failed, but when faith is at stake, contrary evidence will be endlessly countered. All this countering has led to buckets of ink being spilled, a process not dissimilar to the way in which pigments were applied to the shroud. The shroud, in other words, was painted: not just once, but several times. This is the conclusion reached by Charles Freeman in his 8,400 word essay over at History Today.

What makes this essay particularly interesting, indeed remarkable, is that it appears to be the first in-depth historical inquiry into the shroud. Previous inquiries, at least the reputable ones, have been scientific. This is how Freeman describes the situation:

There is enough uncertainty about the Shroud’s origins to convince some that it is the actual burial shroud of Christ. The mystery is deepened by the claim that no artefact has ever been the subject of so much research. However, when the scope of this research is considered, it is obvious that many areas of its history and the iconography of its images have not been fully explored. For example, the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), which examined the Shroud in 1978, when it was still owned by the Savoy family, did not have a single expert in the history of relic cults, techniques of ancient weaving or the iconography of medieval painting on its team. No one appears to have investigated the kinds of loom, ancient or medieval, on which a cloth of this size may have been woven. Nor has anyone closely examined the many early depictions and descriptions of the Shroud that illustrate features now lost. 

This seems odd. In an investigation of this or any similar kind, it would make sense to begin with historical sources and subsequently address any remaining questions, or evidentiary gaps, with scientific tests and data. The historical investigation, if solidly sourced, might even settle the issue (at least to the satisfaction of those who contingently accept historical sources as evidence). Even if it did not, the historical investigation would suggest what kinds of scientific tests should be done. In the case of the shroud, however, the methodological order has been reversed.

There are probably two reasons for this. The first is that religionists have long wished to find scientifically acceptable evidence of the supernatural or miracles. The complete absence of such evidence is not only cause for doubt among believers, but is also a source of sustained skepticism and occasional ridicule among non-believers. The second is that science has such enormous cultural prestige that it sometimes causes us to ignore, or at least subordinate, companion disciplines like history. This may account for the rush to test the shroud before historicizing it. Had the order been reversed, the painting hypothesis — suggested by history — could have been specifically tested.


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