The Shroud of Turin: John Calvin versus the Catholic Church

Before introducing questions raised by John Calvin (the Protestant Reformer) concerning the Catholic relic known as the “Shroud of Turin,” letʼs examine the images below:

Shroud of Turin

The full shroud (the burn marks on the sides of the cloth were from a church fire in 1532).

Points to Ponder

  1. The face on the shroud seems abnormally long and skinny, especially considering that the shroud was draped over the face in a rounded-contoured sort of way, which means the face itself had to have been slightly skinnier than the already abnormally skinny impression of the face on the shroud. The face also seems out of place when compared with those of other middle aged Jews during the Roman period in Palestine as seen when you compare the final image above with the previous ones. Instead, the face on the shroud seems more in place in European medieval religious art.

    People who defend the shroud as authentic claim that Jesusʼ head may have been bound by a separate cloth, making the face appear skinnier. But its overall bony structure still appears like an abnormally long and thin face. Another suggestion by shroud defenders is that Jesus was emaciated. But apart from an alleged fast in the wilderness at the very beginning of Jesusʼ ministry, the Gospels do not suggest Jesus was emaciated growing up, nor that he was emaciated after that original fast in the wilderness. Instead the Gospel writers say that Jesus attended a wedding, was invited to dine by others, and he was accused of eating with sinners presumably on a fairly regular basis, Jesus himself said in a parable that it was not time to fast during his ministry, and there was plenty of food left over after one of his alleged miracles, and Mary and Martha prepared a meal for Jesus and his disciples, and Jesus had enough energy to turn over tables and beat people out of the temple with a cord, and Jesus and his disciples also enjoyed a last supper.

    Close-up of the face on the shroud

  2. Authors Joe Nickell, in 1983, and Gregory S. Paul in 2010, separately state that the proportions of the image are not realistic. Paul stated that the face and proportions of the shroud image are impossible, that the figure cannot represent that of an actual person and that the posture was inconsistent. They argued that the forehead on the shroud is too small; and that the arms are too long and of different lengths and that the distance from the eyebrows to the top of the head is non-representative. They concluded that the features can be explained if the shroud is a work of a Gothic artist. [Wikipedia 1/2/2011]

  3. If God really saw to it that a magical image of Jesus was preserved on a sheet of linen for 2,000 years, why is there controversy? Couldnʼt God have ensured the conclusive nature of tests?

    Instead we see shroud defenders complaining that the pieces of the shroud submitted for C-14 dating in 1988 were not pieces of the actual shroud, but much younger pieces taken from linen stitched to the shroudʼs boarder over 1000 years after the shroud itself was first woven. So after God had specially created and preserved this holy relic for 2,000 years, God couldnʼt also inspire someone to submit the right pieces for scientific dating measurements?

    Instead, the Church prays and surrenders some pieces of the shroud and God leaves the world with more controversy?

    In 1988 three different laboratories (in Arizona, Oxford and Zürich) were asked to perform SEVERAL tests on each of FOUR samples taken from different parts of the cloth of the shroud of Turin. This was an unprecedented number of samples, one set from the shroud and three control samples: the laboratories were not told which sample came from the shroud and which from the control objects. Sample 1 was from the shroud, sample 2 from linen from a Nubian tomb of the eleventh to twelfth centuries CE, sample 3 was linen from a mummy of the early second century CE and sample 4 was from threads removed from the cope of St Louis dʼAnjou dated to 1290-1310 CE. So it was a blind test, including control group samples to eliminate possible bias and demonstrate that the instruments were functioning properly for the dating of threads from diverse time periods. The result was that the three non-shroud samples showed their expected dates, and the shroud threads showed a uniform set of dates in all three laboratories, i.e., the linen from which the threads were taken was manufactured between 1262 and 1384 CE, medieval linen.

    At first some shroud defenders claimed some bacterial residue or ash from a fire had not been properly washed off the threads before processing them, but each lab did a thorough chemical cleansing of the threads before burning them up and measuring the C-14 in them and they achieved uniform dating results (medieval linen, between 1260 CE and 1390 CE with 95% confidence). Uniform results were also achieved for the other threads tested which demonstrated that the test was accurate because the dates were known for the other threads.

    Same face, but seen as a Photographic Negative

  4. Thatʼs why shroud defenders now prefer claiming that the pieces were from a portion of the shroud that was stitched to the main portion over a thousand years later than when the main portion was first woven.

    Of course one might think it would be relatively easy to spot differences in linen a thousand years apart in age. Even Jesus warned in a parable against trying to stitch new cloth to old, let alone cloth a thousand years newer to cloth a thousand years older.

    Shroud defenders ought to be petitioning the church vigorously and constantly for threads from what they consider to be original sections of the linen. Even less material is required for testing today due to the heightened precision of todayʼs instruments. (And more impressive statistical methods of analysis have also been devised. See a point raised further below.) And if the date is “first century” they can rub the results in the noses of shroud doubters! Shouldnʼt the Catholic church at least consider surrendering more threads in light of its recent bad press that has catalyzed doubts concerning its openness and divine guidance? Instead, note the churchʼs reaction, the Catholic church claims simultaneously that it is not a matter of faith that Christians believe the shroud to be authentic, such a belief is not necessary for anyoneʼs salvation, and they add that they are all in favor of leaving the question of its investigation up to science, but neither are they anxious to surrender any more fibers for dating or examination purposes. Oh, perhaps another generation or two they will start to consider turning over more threads, but not now. Such a reluctant attitude makes sense from their point of view, based on a cost benefit analysis, it will cost the Catholic church far more if threads continue being dated to the medieval period, than if they can keep the “mystery” alive. (Itʼs said that perhaps 2 million may visit the shroud this year.)

    3-D Plot of the face on the shroud of Turin.

  5. Some medieval popes assumed the image on the shroud was that of Jesus, while one recent pope even approved of the veneration of the image thatʼs on the shroud, but the Catholic church (its Magisterium) has never officially declared whether the shroud is genuine or a forgery, which is the attitude the church has toward any object whose belief is not necessary for salvation, but whose veneration ensures that the church continues to receive offerings and praise. Speaking of relics, Catholic churches from medieval times till today have claimed to possess vials of the blood of Jesus, vials of the Virgin Maryʼs milk, the Holy Diaper (bits of Jesusʼ diapers), the Holy Foreskin (from baby Jesusʼ circumcision), the Holy Grail (the cup used at the last supper), the Holy Sponge (used to feed Jesus vinegar during the crucifixion), the Holy Lance (used to pierce his side), the Holy Coat (in which Jesus marched to his death), the Holy Cloth (on which Jesus wiped his sweaty bloody face on the way to the cross), the Holy Loincloth (that Jesus wore and soiled when he died on the cross), fragments & splinters of the cross on which Jesus died, not to mention over 43 known claims of “shrouds of Jesus” in Europe.

    Two possible reconstructions of the face on the shroud by artist Jan Reijnierse.

    Speaking solely of the shroud of Turin, its past remains cloaked in controversy, politics, and profits. The shroud was only first introduced to the public in 1353 and was denounced as a forgery almost immediately. Documents even show that the artist confessed. In fact the majority opinion among learned Catholics at the beginning of the 1900s, and incorporated into the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1912 was that the shroud was a pious forgery. The Catholic Encyclopedia article ends with these words:

    “Lastly, the difficulty must be noticed that while the witnesses of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries speak of the image as being then so vivid that the blood seemed freshly shed, it is now darkened and hardly recognizable without minute attention. On the supposition that this is an authentic relic dating from the year A.D. 30, why should it have retained its brilliance through countless journeys and changes of climate for fifteen centuries, and then in four centuries more have become almost invisible? On the other hand if it be a fabrication of the fifteenth century this is exactly what we should expect.”

  6. What did one of the founders of Protestantism, John Calvin, think of the Catholic Churchʼs acceptance of offerings and praise for dubious relics, including the “Shroud of Turin?” Not much. Below are some of the questions Calvin dared to ask in his Treatise on Relics:

    “How is it possible that those sacred historians, who carefully related all the miracles that took place at Christʼs death, should have omitted to mention one so remarkable as the likeness of the body of our Lord remaining on its wrapping sheet? This fact undoubtedly deserved to be recorded. St. John, in his Gospel, relates even how St. Peter, having entered the sepulcher, saw the linen clothes lying on one side, and the napkin that was about his head on the other; but he does not say that there was a miraculous impression of our Lordʼs figure upon these clothes, and it is not to be imagined that he would have omitted to mention such a work of God if there had been any thing of this kind.” (1543, 238)

    An image NOT from the shroud, but a composite of what the average Jewish male looked like based on measurements taken from several skulls of middle aged Jewish men from Roman period Palestine.

    As to that image, Calvin notes that the appearance on a single cloth of such a “full-length likeness of a human body” gives its own evidence of falsehood. He observes:

    “Now, St. Johnʼs Gospel, chapter nineteen, says that Christ was buried according to the manner of the Jews; and what was their custom? This may be known by their present custom on such occasions, as well as from their books, which describe the ancient ceremony of interment, which was to wrap the body in a sheet, to the shoulders, and to cover the head with a separate cloth. This is precisely how the evangelist described it, saying, that St. Peter saw on one side the clothes with which the body had been wrapped, and on the other the napkin from about his head.”

    In brief, concludes Calvin, “either St. John is a liar,” or anyone who promotes such a shroud is “convicted of falsehood and deceit” (Calvin 1543, 239).

    Calvin also has this to say about the various Holy Shrouds:

    “Now, I ask whether those persons were not bereft of their senses who could take long pilgrimages, at much expense and fatigue, in order to see sheets, of the reality of which there were no reasons to believe, but many to doubt; for whoever admitted the reality of one of these sudaries [shrouds3] shown in so many places, must have considered the rest as wicked impostures set up to deceive the public by the pretense that they were each the real sheet in which Christʼs body had been wrapped. But it is not only that the exhibitors of this one and the same relic give each other mutually the lie, they are (what is far more important) positively contradicted by the Gospel.” (1543, 237)

    His reference to shrouds at “so many places” is not an overstatement, since there were once some forty-three of them in Europe alone, according to Thomas Humber in The Sacred Shroud (1978, 78). [Calvin quotations above were reproduced from this article that also discusses how we know that Calvin was addressing the shroud that is currently in Turin.]

  7. A recent paper, Carbon Dating of the Shroud of Turin: Partially Labeled Regressors and the Design of Experiments, May 4, 2010, suggests that the Carbon-dating of the shroud in 1988 was less conclusive statistically speaking, than claimed, but also suggests ways to make future tests even more conclusive, statistically speaking. I quote from the paper:

    “We establish the existence of a trend in the results [of the shroudʼs carbon dating] and indicate how better experimental design might have enabled stronger conclusions to have been drawn from this multi-center experiment… Until less intrusive methods of age assessment are developed, samples will presumably be confined to the edges of the TS [=Turin Shroud]. However, the preceding discussion does provide guidance on a suitable design. If n samples are to be taken, the perimeter of the material should be divided into n intervals of as equal size as possible. Locations are then selected at random within each interval, preferably subject to a restriction on the minimum distance between samples. The intervals might also be chosen to exclude corners of the material, if it is thought that contamination of these regions is more likely.”

    It appears itʼs time for shroud defenders to begin a vigorous campaign to get the Catholic church to allow more samples to be tested, and not just from the edges where the so-called “1,000 year younger” cloth [sic] is found.

Shroud Skeptics Resources

Catholic Skeptics

Protestant Skeptics

Other Skeptics

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