Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Shroudmongery

Another bonkers theory about the Turin Shroud. This one comes from Thomas de Wesselow, a Cambridge-based art historian, and is laid out in a new book entitled The Sign. The Telegraph published an extract the other day in which the author describes his feelings upon finally seeing the Shroud "face to face".

His theory, sorry hypothesis, sorry wild speculation, is that the Shroud does indeed date from the time of Christ and the image on it is indeed that of Jesus. But it wasn't (necessarily) created in a burst of divine resurrection-energy as pious believers have long insisted. Rather, the first disciples saw it and concluded that the image must have been miraculously produced and that therefore Jesus must have risen from the dead. The disciples didn't see the Risen Christ; they saw a soiled cloth. Thomas didn't put his hand in Jesus' pierced but resurrected flesh; he just took a closer look at the Shroud.

Blessed are they who have not seen the Shroud, and yet believe.

De Wesselow happily does away with the "need" for a physical resurrection. As Peter Stanford establishes in the course of his Telegraph interview, the disciples would have been aware of "the decomposing body of Jesus... well-and-truly dead" in the tomb, but were more impressed with the apparently miraculous image on the burial Shroud.

According to Stanford, de Wesselow's research "was largely done at his desk or in libraries, save for one episode he recounts in the book when the connection between the Shroud and Resurrection came to him in a kind of eureka moment in the garden of his Cambridge house."

It figures. However neat de Wesselow's idea might seem (at least, to him) there's no evidence for it. None whatever. No historical evidence, no material evidence, no scientific or archaeological or paleographical evidence, not even any Biblical evidence.

I suppose that you could make something out of John 20, 6-8:


Then Simon Peter came, following him, and entered into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying, and the cloth that had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but rolled up in a place by itself. So then the other disciple who came first to the tomb also entered in, and he saw and believed.


That might, at a pinch, be interpreted as meaning "he saw [the image on the cloth] and believed." But only -- and this is the key point -- if you already "knew" that the cloth that the disciples saw had a mysterious image imprinted in it. If you had seen the Shroud, in other words. De Wesselow's suggestion is a good example of backwards reasoning, starting with an elaborate scenario and then seeking to retro-fit the evidence. It could be true, just as there could be a teapot orbiting Mars.

A neat idea, perhaps, but scarcely parsimonious. For it to be true, you must somehow account for the Shroud's survival over almost a millennium-and-a-half, preserved somehow but only attracting an occasional ambiguous reference (most claimed pre-Lirey "sightings" of the cloth probably refer to other relics, now lost, or to the so-called Mandylion of Edessa). If the latest theory were true, surely someone would have given the Shroud an explict mention: one of the gospel writers, or Paul, or an early Church father, someone, anyone.

Like all believers in the antiquity of the Turin Shroud, de Wesselow has to get round the huge problem of the radiocarbon dating. In 1988, as you probably know, three separate laboratories tested samples from the relic, and all offered a date for the cloth's manufacture somewhere in the 13th or 14th century. Given that the known history of the Shroud began in the middle of the 14th century, that might strike a disinterested observer as pretty strong evidence that it was, as many had long suspected, a medieval forgery.

I say long suspected. The Shroud was first exhibited by an impecunious knight in Lirey in nothern France in around 1355. It was withdrawn not long afterwards, mainly because the local bishop (Henri de Poitiers) carried out his own investigation and concluded that it was almost certainly a fake. We know this because a later bishop, Pierre d'Arcis, writing towards the end of the 14th century, described how Henri "after diligent inquiry and examination, discovered how the said cloth had been cunningly painted, the truth being attested by the artist who had painted it, to wit, that it was a work of human skill and not miraculously wrought or bestowed."

To sum up: there is good 14th century evidence that the Turin Shroud was known (or at least very strongly suspected) at the time to be a fake, and there is excellent scientific evidence that the Turin Shroud was a late medieval fake. Conclusion: it's a fake.

There really shouldn't be anything to add. But I will note in passing that were we discussing any other ancient artefact, no-one would even think to challenge the conclusions of the 1988 dating. The fact that sceptics (science sceptics, that is) are able to raise questions about the reliability of the procedure says more about their ingenuity, their desperation to believe, than it does about the tests themselves. If radiocarbon dating is reliable for anything (and it is) then there is no reason to challenge it in this particular case. It would, after all, be approaching miraculous if the normal rules of carbon 14 decomposition turned out to be unreliable just this once.

The real mystery of the Turin Shroud, of course, is why this undoubted fake continues to exert its peculiar fascination over believers, researchers, crackpots, publishers and documentary-makers. But that is a question of psychology, not of chronology and certainly not of theology.