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Shroud of Turin

Here is the research paper I had to do for my writing class last quarter at S Beezie. The class centered around conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and urban legends. Enjoy!

Max Brookman

May 30, 2010

The Shroud of Turin

Spanning more than fourteen feet in length and three feet wide, The Shroud of Turin stands as the most controversial piece of linen in all of human history.  Its remarkable condition and ill-defined history has led scholars and scientists alike to debate relentlessly over its authenticity.  More spectacular than the Shroud’s mysterious nature, advertised as the burial sheet of Jesus Christ, are the formidable sides of the debate that this artifact creates: religious zealots, science bashers, skeptic researchers, respected historians, scholars, priests, doctors, artists, and dozens of other professions that encompass thousands of people all seem to have weighed in on this subject.  From the resulting ideological and philosophical debate over the Shroud comes the confirmation biases and escalating levels of commitment revealed among researchers.  The Shroud of Turin and the subsequent research and findings on its credibility reveals not only the possibility of locating its true beginning but also the underlying human behaviors that lead people to so quickly jump to conclusions and work backward to convince others of what they already think to be true.

Fewer topics of conversation stir more passion than the topic of religion.  Realizing this, it is then no surprise that the Shroud of Turin, a religious artifact, remains a hot topic of debate among those identified as religious or scientific.  This cloth’s uniqueness stems from the New Testament’s story of Jesus Christ’s death.  According to the gospels of John, Luke, Matthew, and Mark, Jesus was crucified and stabbed by the Romans.  After his death, Jesus’ followers took his body and prepared it for burial.  Joseph, one of Jesus’ disciples, “had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth,” and placed in a cave to serve as a sepulcher (Matthew 27:59).  The gospels then relay that three days later, Jesus had been resurrected and, as a result, his body had physically disappeared from the cave.  The cloth that remained behind is then claimed to have been passed down from generation to generation, protected and venerated as the true burial sheet of Jesus Christ.

Chronologically, following the gospels that make up the New Testament (which are estimated to be written several decades after Jesus’ death), the next written record of the Shroud’s appearance is in the fourteenth century.  Around the middle of the 1300’s, there are numerous reports of a cloth being put on display by the Catholic Church advertised as the true holy shroud.  The Shroud was placed on view in the old wooden church named Our Lady of Lirey of Lirey, France (Nickell 2007).  Geoffroy de Charny, founder of the church and principle advocator of the shroud “presented the cloth to the dean of the proposed abbey at that time,” and spoke on the Lord’s behalf that the cloth was indeed a holy relic (Wilson 1979, 192).  Immediately following Geoffroy’s endorsement, Bishop Henri de Poitiers of Troyes was encouraged by “many theologians and other wise persons” to look into the true nature of Geoffroy’s claims (Wilson 1979, 194).  Bishop Henri never did launch an investigation, but his successor, Bishop Pierre d’Arcis reported a lengthy analysis to Pope Clement VII following his findings.  Pierre d’Arcis wrote in his memorandum that, “[a man] procured for his church a certain cloth cunningly painted, upon which by a clever sleight of hand was depicted the twofold image of one man… falsely declaring and pretending that this was the actual shroud in which our Savior Jesus Christ was enfolded in the tomb,” (d’Arcis 1389).

D’Arcis and Geoffroy both belonged to the Catholic Church, and yet here we see an instant bifurcation of opinions regarding the Shroud.  Why would men with shared ideologies have such opposite viewpoints on this matter?  In this instance a mutual following of Christ’s teachings was not enough to abate the feud, as it seems that other motives were abound.  Geoffroy is said in d’Arcis’ report to have had “certain men being hired to represent themselves as healed at the moment of the exhibition of the shroud.”  This misleading con does not necessarily call into question Geoffroy’s faith; it does, however, raise a red flag as to whether he thought the cloth was genuine.  Geoffroy’s motives can be attributed to his desire to make his beliefs have more public appeal.  He most likely viewed the cloth as a means to attract attention and bring in more converts to the Catholic Church.

D’Arcis and Geoffroy’s battle waged on, though it appeared as though d’Arcis’ overwhelming case against the Shroud would have the relic ejected from the church.  Nevertheless, Geoffroy de Charny and Geoffroy the second (his son) continued their campaign to keep the Shroud on public display with the Church’s endorsement.  It is also known that d’Arcis swore that he had attained a written confession from the artist himself who had claimed to have painted the cloth; however, no such documentation exists to prove this claim.  Ultimately, Geoffroy and his son employed a campaign of longevity and, after Bishop Pierre d’Arcis’ death, had the Shroud readmitted into the Church, protected under royal guard and holy law.  That the shroud was then, and still is, preserved by the Catholic Church is testament that Geoffroy de Charny had won the long-lasting battle among the two feuding theologians.

This well-documented historic debate demonstrates that disagreement has waged on over the Shroud since its first appearance.  It also shows that the Shroud’s authenticity is not just a superficial table topic that pits the religious against the non-religious.  Both d’Arcis and Geoffroy had the intention of serving their Church, albeit in different ways.  Bishop Pierre hoped to maintain the integrity of the name of Jesus Christ by preventing false icons from depreciating their savior’s teachings and symbolism.  Geoffroy de Charny saw the Shroud as an opportunity to strengthen the case for the validity of the New Testament and, by extension, strengthen the numbers of the Catholic Church.  This theological dichotomy is still rampant in today’s religious culture.  Those who proselytize can be generalized twofold: those who truly believe in their respective religious philosophy; and, those who hope to convert in hopes of validating their faith.  Though both d’Arcis and Geoffroy had the same endgame, d’Arcis can be viewed as the more moral character, as Geoffroy willfully and deliberately lied to the general public to promote his ideology.

Due to the Shroud’s fragile nature, it continued to be safe-guarded away from public view for hundreds of years henceforth.  Since Geoffroy’s endorsement in the fourteenth century, the Shroud has rarely been put on display.  In 1978, the Shroud was put on public display for a five week period.  This time, the Shroud drew a record-breaking 3,000,000 visitors and again provoked public interest (Drews 1984, 11).  This public mass appeal also drew the attention of the scientific community.  More than half a century after its first unveiling, the Shroud of Turin would receive the objective scientific analysis necessary to put the debate to rest.

While the Shroud was on display in 1978, The Shroud of Turin Research Project was assembled and designed to analyze the cloth to determine its origins.  The Research Project, nick-named STURP, collected 32 tape samples of the cloth to determine its components.  The team was lead by Dr. McCrone, a microanalyst; Dr. Jumper, a thermodynamicist; and Dr. Jackson, a physicist.  These men, working with dozens of others, meticulously examined the miniscule fibers that compose the Shroud in hopes of shedding new light on the mystery.  By applying an amido black agent, researchers at STURP found a direct correlation between areas of high concentration of ferric oxide and areas of dark discoloration.  In other words, brown areas of the Shroud that outline the image of the man on the Shroud contained more ferric oxide, a compound found in painting materials, than in areas without a brown image.  In STURP’s final report, Dr. McCrone writes, “Our work now supports the two Bishops [Pierre d’Arcis and Henri de Poitiers] and it seems reasonable that the image was painted on the cloth shortly before… 1357.  It is, however, possible… that it was done by an artist and if all iron earth pigments… were removed there would be no image on the Shroud,” (Hoare 1984, 39).

The extensive work done by STURP in the 1970’s simply has been summarized here for a matter of convenience.  The full report included many more tests analyzing all areas of the Shroud.  Nonetheless, all areas of analysis and all researchers in the project had reached the conclusion that the Shroud was painted.  In the decades following STURP’s report, other research laboratories from around the world continued to investigate not only the Shroud, but the authenticity of STURP’s report.

Dr. Newitt, working out of the Univeristy of Leeds Department of Forensic Medicine, proposed the thermographic image theory to contest STURP’s testimony that the Shroud was painted.  Newitt showed using Infrared imaging, that the natural high temperature of a human body can effectively transfer heat to a cloth and by extension cause degradation to the fibers of the cloth and cause discoloring over time (Newitt 1979, 179-181).  With the same imaging technique, Newitt also examined cadavers shortly after death to determine the distribution of heat after death.  The Infrared footage showed that appendages and areas far from the heart lose blood and, consequently, heat the quickest.  The thermographic image theory thereby concludes that if Jesus’ body had imprinted itself on the cloth via a transfer of heat, then there would not be such a prominent and defined image for the feet, hands, nose, beard, or hair.  Dr. Newitt’s final proposal is that if the cloth’s discoloration was caused by fluctuations of temperature, then it must have been made intentionally using a temperature-controlled environment.

Dr. Heller and Dr. Adler, both chemical analysts, employed microspectrophotometry to demonstrate that the ferric oxide that STURP claimed to have been painted on was in fact ubiquitous throughout the cloth.  Such a consistent distribution of ferric oxide throughout the Shroud led the research team to the conclusion that it was a direct result of the 1532 fire at Chambery that the Shroud lived through and was not painted on (Adler, Heller 1981, 81-103).  This neither enforces nor detracts from its authenticity; it does, however, point out STURP’s fallacious research conclusions.

There are numerous other research groups that do not necessarily aim to debunk the Shroud, but instead explain other ways besides painting in which the Shroud could have had its image imprinted.  The most important thing that must be observed from all of this is a careful examination of STURP’s methods.  STURP’s experiments were not necessarily tampered with; it seems more likely that it was just bad science.  Moreover, the research team’s final report made bold conclusions that could not easily be deduced from the results of the experiments.  STURP’s erroneous investigation simply violated the true scientific method.  These researchers exhibited classic confirmation bias; they all had concluded that the Shroud was fake before testing it. Their published work merely revealed evidence that supported their hypothesis and ignored evidence that may have contradicted it.

The work done by STURP immediately pops out as roundabout and incomplete.  While science is maintained to be a discipline of objectivity, researchers often sully the integrity of the field by interpolating their own prejudices.  The psychological phenomenon of confirmation bias, coined by Peter Wason, sheds some light onto Dr. McCrone’s STURP research.  Confirmation bias is, “A type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs,” (Carroll 2003, 81).   Though STURP boasted no funding from outside organizations, its makeup of purely scientists begged the idea that their research was intended to reach a specific conclusion, despite the evidence presented.  McCrone’s published results are by no means the full story; it is not required for researchers to publish inconclusive data.  In this way, STURP was able to experiment on the cloth with Pierre d’Arcis’ original claim as a guide: any conflicting evidence could be ignored and general conclusions could be induced from very particular results.  This blatant cognitive bias does not weaken the case against the Shroud; instead it simply detracts from the credibility of the researchers involved with STURP.

It is a very intrinsic human quality to quickly grasp at a belief then later find it necessary to find evidence to support that belief only when others threaten its credibility.  Once we accept man’s natural irrational psyche, we can become more forgiving of individual’s beliefs.  However, such forgiveness cannot be lent to the scientific community.  Science, by definition, is the study of an objective reality, free of the prejudices supported by man. When researchers find themselves inviting personal beliefs into their field of research, their work quickly becomes a potential host to pseudoscience.  Michael Shermer, an American science writer, studies problems in scientific thinking and notes that, “Theory Influences Observations […] What we observe is not nature itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning,” (Shermer 1997, 46).  This statement can lead us to the idea that nature is constructed by the power of observation.  More importantly, it states that people can find ways to observe reality so that it fits their theory.  Such methods, as seen by STURP, are erroneous but omnipresent.  Researchers who display this behavior cannot be called true scientists; their actions are merely an analogue of any layman who recalls twisted facts to back their claims.

It is an enigma as to why some researchers aim to twist their research so as to support their cause when in most cases they are inevitably revealed as conducting bad science.  Peer-reviewed science exists solely for the purpose of uncovering the truth and revealing those who fabricate lies.  There are rare instances, however, where a scientist’s false work outlives the scientist.  As is the case of the Piltdown Man, the most famous paleontological hoax, wherein Charles Dawson committed scientific fraud.  Dawson made his claim to fame and lived his entire life before peer-review revealed that his find of the “missing link” between monkey and man was fabricated for the purpose of publicity.  Carl Sagan writes that, “most scientists feel it’s not their job to expose pseudoscientific bamboozles– much less, passionately held self-deceptions,” (Sagan 1996, 228).  From this observation we see that misleading research is carried out in hopes that other researchers will not be quick to scrutinize their peers’ work.  Ultimately, individual motivation to either willfully or unintentionally deceive others in the scientific community is a result of a researcher’s desire for fame or a desire to persuade others to their line of thinking.

Pathological science seems so intertwined within the scientific community that it is no wonder that many pseudoscientific or blatantly fallacious theories abound for so long.  Cognitive biases such as escalating levels of commitment and confirmation bias contribute to the reason why science is not trusted by many.  The same individual prejudices that allow for improper research are also often times the best tool for a zealot of either side of an argument.  Arguments always sound more grounded with statistics, as numbers and figures from experimentation are generally accepted to be true.  As is the case of the Shroud, believers and skeptics were both quick to reach for the supposed omniscience of research, only to find out that the opposing side of the debate had reached a diametric conclusion with the same data.  Just as Michael Shermer argues in his article, it is the interpretation of data that allows people to make conclusions about reality.

The Shroud of Turin’s authenticity is still a heated topic among numerous niches of professionals.  The debate presented here among scientists is also argued among historians and scholars alike.  The paramount lesson learned is that mankind views reality as malleable; any fact is exorable with the proper argumentation.

Works Cited

Carroll, Robert Todd. The Skeptic’s Dictionary: a Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003. 81. Print.

D’Arcis, Pierre. “Memorandum Report.” Letter to Pope Clement VII. 1389. MS. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France.

Drews, Robert. In Search of the Shroud of Turin: New Light on Its History and Origins. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984. Print.

Hoare, Rodney. A Piece of Cloth: the Turin Shroud Investigated. Wellingborough, Northamptonshire: Aquarian, 1984. Print.

Matthew 27:59 (New International Version)

Newitt, C. “A Thermographic Study of Surface Cooling of Cadavers.” Journal of the Forensic Science Society 19.179 (1979): 179-81. Print.

Nickell, Joe. Relics of the Christ. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 2007. Print.

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House, 1996. 227-28. Print.

Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1997. 46-47. Print.

Wilson, Ian. The Shroud of Turin: the Burial Cloth of Jesus Christ? Garden City, N.Y.: Image, 1979. 85-90. Print.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , ,
  1. Melays
    2010-06-25 at 13:28:36

    You didn’t talk about the Radiocarbon dating they did in the 80’s that was published in Nature. Here’s the wiki:


  2. MaximumSpazz
    2010-06-29 at 11:39:28

    I realize that; my paper was more about the consequences of the debate rather than the shroud’s validity. I talked about it in the oral presentation I had to give.

  3. Johnteezey
    2010-09-30 at 14:14:21

    It’s the most controversial linen after my 1000 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets after I had some minor spotting…post-op. It was a miracle!!!

    Nice Max-iPadSpazz! I kept expecting the radiocarbon dating thing to come up too, surely because that’s usually the debunking means you hear about, however the STURP and the ferric oxide distribution was new to me. Dat’s pretty coo. Ferric oxide is common in older paints?…I feel like I remember hearing they used to use ashes in paint…?

    IMHO your discussion is solid in the forced collegiate: transition, topic, example, discussion format that I assume they had you use (a good, tried and true structure for people to hone their writing skills with as you are surely doing here). Also, once you get into your point the road you take is perfect, exposing the fallacious arguments of who we might otherwise think of as the “good guys” (Mr STURP!), without confusing the reader as to who is using faulty science, who believes things that are incorrect, and what side is “correct.” It’s not easy to present an abstract idea with a unanticipated view!

    I still don’t get how they initially came to the conclusion that there was more ferric oxide in the impression but later found it to be uniform. Did they just willfully misinterpret the data the first time around? Also you kind of lost me for a moment with d’Arcis and Geoffroy going back and forth, but I could tell it was well researched and I like how you still used those earlier events and discussed them in a way that fed into your theme.

    Oh yeah, nice use of the word exorable, I love when people use words that are more commonly seen with a prefix. I also like an ordinate amount of precum.

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