A Logical Take

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Let Go of the Shroud Part II

The Shroud of Turin: Examining the evidence
This post is a response to Let Go of the Shroud Part I by David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D.

Many believe that the Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth of Christ. Last time we saw why the Shroud is obviously fake because it’s not biblical, indicative of a Jewish burial or a first century Palestinian man, is not consistent with basic physics, and couldn’t have been produced by radiation (as is suggested). But now let’s look at the evidence, for and against, the shroud and try to figure out how the shroud was faked.

The Evidence for Authenticity is not Compelling

"Shroudies" cite a large variety of evidence for authenticity. The image on the shroud is supposedly a “negative,” a 3D rendering of the shroud produces a 3D image a face and body (you supposedly cannot do this with paintings), and there is pollen on the shroud consistent with the pollen of first century Palestine. None of this evidence, however, is compelling.

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The image on the shroud is said to be a negative because the negatives of photographs of the shroud make it easier to distinguish an image. Given that the original image is a faint image on a white background, and all negatives reveal, brightly, hidden details of what they depict, it is no surprise that the reversed white image on a black background of a negative of the shroud is easier to make out. But this does not make it a “negative,” and it is not a “negative photograph” in any conventional sense.

The professed 3D image is produced by simply scanning the cloth and “elevating” each pixel according to its darkness. But since most works of art are not two-toned like the shroud (which is basically black and white), their elements don’t differ drastically in darkness, so it is not surprising that they don’t produce a 3D image using this method. Other methods would produce 3D images of artwork, but not the shroud. If darker spots on the shroud correspond to where the shroud would have been closest to the skin of a person it was wrapped around, the 3D image could indicate that it was wrapped around someone as the image on it was produced. But—like I mentioned last blog—an image produced in this way would be highly distorted (the ears and eyes would both face forward), yet the image on the shroud is not distorted in this way.

The claims that the shroud contains pollen from Palestine, not just Italy (where the known history of the shroud places it), are suspect to doubt as well. They were based off of one sample, not repeated or verified, and were made by Max Frei-Sulzer who is known to have lied to “prove” the authenticity of the now-known-to-be-forged “Hitler Diaries.”

The Evidence that it is a Fake is Compelling

It is well known that forging religious icons to drum up tourism dollars was common in the Middle Ages, and the 14th century is no exception. Carbon dating tests of the shroud were done, independently by multiple labs, repeated and confirmed—and they all placed the origin of the shroud to between 1260-1390CE, exactly when it would likely be if it was a forgery given its first mention in history. (We will deal with the objections to the dating in my next blog entry.) Tests for blood in the “wounds” of the shroud also came up negative.

Shroudies also claim it can’t be forgery from the 14th century because producing the shroud with 14th century technology is impossible. The main image on the shroud is not the result of applied pigment (thus the image was not painted on) and there is no image under the bloodstains (which would also seem to indicate that the blood was applied before the image). (Source) But modern replicas have shown that a shroud with these features could very easily have been produced using only 14th century technology.

Most recently, a group of Italian scientists produced a replica that was quite similar using only 14th century technology. Of course, shroudie nitpickers claim that it does not share every attribute, but upon looking at their arguments it clear that they are grasping at straws. In my opinion, the most damning replication belongs to N.D. Wilson, who produced a replica of the shroud by painting an image, not on the shroud, but on a sheet of glass. He placed the glass on a blank shroud, and then left it in the sun for 10 days, therefore allowing the sun to bleach everything not under the image painted on the glass. This produced a shroud with an image of a man that not only was a “negative” and contained a “3D image,” but also bore an image without pigment. (When I read this the first time, I had the same feeling I get when I realize how a perplexing magic trick is done. I felt so stupid for not figuring it out myself—it’s so obvious and simple!)

Although he replicated only the face, and his image didn’t have the blood, he could have easily accomplished both. He would have simply needed a bigger piece of glass and more paint to produce an image of both sides of the body. Then he could apply red paint (or even blood) on the side of the glass opposite the painting. By laying that side down, onto the shroud, he could produce blood stains on the shroud over the image that would then be produced by the sun’s bleaching effect. Thus, it would be exactly like the original. A testament to Wilson’s success is the fact that shroudies, while they have tried to debunk every other attempt to replicate the Shroud, have left Wilson completely alone. I could not find one person attempting to explain what was “wrong” with his shroud.

So now we not only know that the Shroud is a fake, but know how it likely was faked. Of course, none of this stops the “true believers.” They twist themselves into logical knots to answer these objections and explain away the evidence. But their efforts are actually the last nail in the coffin for the case against the Shroud. They reveal that belief in the Shroud is irrational. As we will see next time, such belief is a textbook case of irrational, illogical, and unscientific thinking.

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

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