I had no idea if I could glean information about the Shroud of Turin before Easter when two unrelated friends recommended I contact a local medical doctor who was an expert on the subject.
The outcome of my quest filled me with an afternoon that asked, Was the Shroud of Turin some medieval fraud or the first-ever selfie? If it was the latter, it captured the supernatural moment of ascension as light burst forth from a body, caused it to vaporize and left behind an otherwise inexplicable image.
For those who have never heard of it, the Shroud of Turin is a 14′ long linen sheet believed to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. Its haunting impression of a human frame reveals a man whose body suffered multiple lashes to the back, a piercing blow to his torso, nail scars from crucifixion and thorns about his head.
I’ve never been a fan of relics but appreciate how others venerate them to bolster their faith. In Israel, I watched pilgrims capture soil from Jerusalem and holy water from the River Jordan. While in Italy, I learned how presumed bones, teeth and even fully preserved bodies of saints added an air of prominence to certain churches, most notably St. Mark’s in Venice and St. Peter’s in Rome.
Gathering foreign soil and contemplating preserved body parts never appealed to me. However, the opportunity to view scientific evidence suggesting a human body dematerialized into spirit piqued my curiosity.
I took a Sunday drive to Tampa, Florida where Dr. J. Wayne Phillips, allergist by profession and devotee of the shroud by faith, delivered a compelling presentation. The Franciscan Center and its sister convent house provided an interesting venue: I never knew the campus existed and was surprised to meet up with modern day nuns.
“We’re Franciscans,” Director Anne Dougherty, O.S.F. advised me with an open smile. Hardly traditional, this Catholic community traces its roots to St. Francis of Assisi. It employs an inclusive spirituality that hosts Interfaith Earth Day, Buddhist retreats and weekly masses for the gay and lesbian community.
With Sister Dougherty’s reference to quantum physics and Dr. Phillips’ scientific approach to the shroud, I became pleasantly intrigued to have followed both intuition and the promptings of friends.
Wayne Phillips tied his medical expertise as allergist and immunologist to 38 years of study into the Shroud of Turin. Displaying dozens of images and delivering countless facts, his presentation felt more like an episode of CSI or Star Trek (“Beam me up, Scotty!”) than carefully crafted religious pedagogy.
He explained that until recently, the Shroud of Turin was little more than a faith-based relic. But thanks to technology rivaling techniques featured on modern forensic TV shows, the Shroud of Turin is progressively proving to be a genuine article.
Historical evidence suggests the shroud migrated from Jerusalem to Edessa and Constantinople in modern day Turkey. The Knights Templar secreted it to France in 1355 and it was ultimately delivered to Turin, Italy where it gained its present name. Dr. Phillips shared the tale of the Image of Edessa, something “not made by human hands.” It was presented in AD 55 to King Abgar of present-day Turkey who saw the shroud’s image and became a believer.
Surprisingly, paintings of Jesus dating from that region and era display a distinctly different looking image from those dated earlier. More startling, when the shroud is superimposed over an Edessa painting dating to 550 AD, forensics discover 180 points of facial congruence. Since today’s courts provide positive identification with just 35 points, we wonder where the ancient artist received such visual acuity for his depiction.
In addition, samples from the cloth reveal three types of pollen found only in Jerusalem, 14 types unique to Israel and 58 types found in Turkey and France. They support the shroud’s historical lore and provide geographic evidence of its travels over time.
The findings of a 1978 consortium of 40 U.S. scientists who spent five days studying the cloth prove especially compelling. Predominantly agnostic, these scientists hailed from Los Alamos, NASA, the USAF Academy and the Jet Propulsion Lab. All concluded that the image was neither a painting nor a medieval fake. Instead, the shroud appears to present the emblazoned image of a man whose physical body produced a burst of energized light from within before disappearing into thin air.
Even a major 1988 set-back has since been corrected. A single sample chosen for carbon dating placed the shroud at 1260-1390 AD and brought its authenticity into question. Yet further inspection revealed the sample to be from a subtle patch job, cotton intricately rewoven into the original linen fabric. Additional tested samples from the linen cloth revealed its carbon dating to about 30 AD.
There was so much to consider about the shroud, but I found my thoughts running up against a few variances differing from religious lore. One involved the cap of thorns the figure wore rather than the circular crown recorded in scripture. A second variance revealed nail marks through the wrist rather than hand.
Far more curious, however, is scientific evidence of both X and Y chromosomes. They indicate the body may have originated from fully human ancestry rather than via supernatural conception. If proven, it might ruffle some religious feathers.
Still, if future science verifies that the man of the shroud arose supernaturally – from two human parents – it might become the best and most celebratory good news any of us ever heard.
Either way, the Shroud of Turin challenges our contemplation of the human and the Divine.
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