The Blood and the Shroud: New Evidence That the World's Most Sacred Relic Is Real
by Ian Wilson
Free Press ©1998. 333 pages (hardback)
Over two decades have passed since I first heard of the Shroud of Turin. I recall standing in a bookstore thumbing through a paperback on the mysterious artifact, looking at the eerie, compelling images that result whenever the Shroud is photographed in black and white. For some now-forgotten reason, I put the book back on the shelf that day. But my interest in topics connected with the Bible has remained with me over the years, and is probably stronger now than ever before. So it was perhaps inevitable that I would eventually read Ian Wilson's most recent Shroud of Turin publication, The Blood and the Shroud.
Still, I looked at this new book askance several times before buying it. First of all, as a Lutheran, I have inherited the traditional Protestant aversion to anything that even smacks of the veneration of images or relics. Perhaps that was a factor in my decision not to buy the first Shroud book--which, ironically enough, was most likely Wilson's own The Shroud of Turin (1978). Secondly, hadn't radiocarbon dating established that the Shroud originated during the Middle Ages? Finally, the subtitle, printed in red letters on the front cover ("New evidence that the world's most sacred relic is real") and the remark on the back flap (that Wilson's text "makes it possible for us to believe") did not exactly inspire confidence in the author's objectivity. I didn't necessarily want to believe, not uncritically in any event. I wanted fact, not a tract. Yet objectivity was precisely what the other blurbs promised, and so I finally did purchase The Blood and the Shroud. Given the topical link to the Crucifixion, I decided to make it my Lenten reading.
In general, Wilson's objectivity does not disappoint. Though admittedly both a Christian and a believer in the Shroud's authenticity, he does a good job of presenting opposing views and of admitting weaknesses in his own case. He identifies and scrupulously distances himself from the lunatic fringes of both the pro- and anti-authenticity camps. Wilson is a journalist and author, not a scientist or historian, so he draws heavily on the work of experts from a wide variety of fields in building his case. The Blood and the Shroud is thus packed with fascinating insights from chemistry, criminology, figure drawing, art history, forensic medicine, numismatics, anthropology, and even the history of textiles.
If there is any aspect of this book that betrays a lack of objectivity, it is the recurring theme of "metaphorical blood." The word blood in the title does not refer to the Shroud's bloodstains but to the artifact as a locus for conflict, controversy, and even violence. Wilson does not limit himself to a discussion of the evidence for the Shroud's possible authenticity; he also tells the (partially reconstructed) history of the relic itself, paying special attention to the history of Shroud research. It is certainly true that research on the Shroud has often become politicized or has run afoul of the professional pride of the researchers. It is true that differences of opinion have caused fierce clashes between and even within pro- and anti-authenticity groups, leading to denunciations and character assassination. It is also true that the Shroud itself has been damaged. It has been rescued from two fires, the second of which was deliberately set; it has been water-stained and patched; and it bears four sets of three mysterious round burn-holes known as the "poker-holes." Wilson characterizes this turmoil as a figurative spilling of blood, and seems to hint that there is something amazing--perhaps even supernatural?--about it. In his introduction, Wilson writes: "[V]ery few of those of modern times who have become drawn into the Shroud mystery have escaped some form of serious wounding, almost in the manner of Tutankhamun's infamous 'curse' " (p. 1). I want to state categorically that I do not suspect Wilson of fabricating or even distorting any of the events he recounts, nor of believing literally in Tutankhamun's curse. I do suspect, however, that his sincerely held view of the events he recounts is somewhat overdramatized. The Shroud represents potential scientific evidence of a religious miracle--it might almost be seen as an embodiment of the conflict between the scientific and religious world-views. That fact alone is sufficient to explain the controversy and conflict the object has generated.
Wilson has his work cut out for him in championing the Shroud as the authentic burial cloth of Jesus Christ. There are so many uncertainties: Is the image really that of a crucified man, or is it a sophisticated forgery? Even assuming that the image is that of a body, can we be sure when the "Man of the Shroud" lived and how he died? Does the image depict burial practices congruent with what we know of first-century Jewish law? If the Shroud actually dates to the time of Christ, why did three separate attempts at radiocarbon dating agree that the flax of which it is woven was harvested between the years 1260 and 1390? Is the so-called Shroud even a burial cloth at all?
The author divides his book--and his task--into four parts: Part 1 examines the body image in detail. Part 2 examines the Shroud itself. Part 3 reconstructs the history of the Shroud, working not forward from its presumed origin at the moment of Christ's resurrection, but backward from the well-known present. The reliability of the seemingly so damning carbon dating results is the topic of Part 4.
Initially, I found Part 1 slow going. For one thing, as an editor who must often enforce American English style, spelling, and punctuation conventions on writers schooled in British English, it took me a while to stop stumbling over Wilson's very British prose. But it was the subject matter itself that was the real stumbling block. In order to counter claims that the Shroud image cannot be that of a victim of crucifixion, Wilson must examine crucifixion itself in considerable detail. The picture of this barbarous form of execution that emerges is even more horrifying and cruel than I had imagined. It made for disturbing reading.
Disturbing, but convincing. Wilson overcomes a long list of objections in Part 1. A few examples:
Having made a strong case for the anatomical and historical accuracy of the Shroud image as that of a man crucified during the first century, Wilson progresses to Part 2, in which he subjects the Shroud itself (and its purported bloodstains) to the same exacting scrutiny. Once again, he answers objections to the Shroud's authenticity:
In Part 2, Wilson introduces pollen evidence collected and analyzed by Dr. Max Frei, a world-renowned Swiss criminologist. Frei's findings indicate that the Shroud spent time in several places in the Middle East, including Turkey. (Proving that the Shroud was once in Turkey would, as we will see, support a key part of Wilson's hypothesis.) Unfortunately, there is a serious problem with Frei's work: no other expert in pollen analysis can explain how he obtained such detailed results linking the Shroud to such specific regions. It is possible that Frei developed new, more accurate techniques, but no one can be sure. Frei is dead and study of his notes has been blocked by strife in the ranks of the Shroud research group that has them. It is a measure of Wilson's honesty and objectivity that he reports these difficulties so openly.
Skeptics have proposed several ways, some quite ingenious, in which the Shroud image might have been faked. Two of the more intriguing suggestions are that the image is a scorch mark made by draping a linen cloth over a heated metal statue or that it is a "photograph" made by some medieval genius such as Leonardo da Vinci. Others believe that the image is that of a Crusader crucified by the Turks in mockery of Christ's crucifixion--but this scenario fails to explain how the image was made. The most plausible suggestion and hence the chief threat to Wilson's thesis is that the Shroud is simply a medieval painting. Consequently, Wilson attacks the painting thesis throughout Parts 1 and 2. By demonstrating the historical and anatomical correctness of the image, he places a heavy burden of knowledge on any purported forger. Also, the Shroud is attested historically at least as early as 1355. No one has yet explained how something as realistic as the image of the Shroud Man could have been painted in an age characterized by such primitive representations of the human form. (The contrast between the realism of the Shroud image and the primitive nature of medieval art is illustrated vividly in photos of several surviving Shroud copies.) I feel that the author has done a very good job at undermining the "painted forgery" hypothesis.
In Part 3, Wilson reconstructs a history of the Shroud of Turin. Much of the author's evidence in this section is drawn from art history and is quite compelling. Portraits of Christ from places as far apart as Byzantium and England show idiosyncrasies that can be seen in the face of the Man of the Shroud. For example, some Byzantine images of Christ Pantocrator exhibit the swollen eye of the Shroud Man, or a distinctive mark between the brows called the "topless square." The earliest known depictions of Jesus (from catacomb walls) show him as a beardless youth, an image that was later supplanted by the bearded, long-haired image so familiar to us today. Wilson raises the intriguing possibility that the Shroud face, having become the authoritative "portrait" of Christ, may have caused this change. Other pieces of evidence are suggestive but less convincing: the appearance of three circles on the rays of Christ's nimbus in depictions from around the time that the mysterious "poker-hole" damage to the Shroud is presumed to have occurred, for example, or the herringbone pattern (like the Shroud's weave) on a drawing of Christ's sarcophagus from the Hungarian "Pray" Manuscript. Wilson also marshals evidence from medieval legend, showing how misread references in ancient manuscripts to the Shroud as a "container" for Christ's blood may have given rise to stories about the Holy Grail. (For another instance of the concept of a container, in this case linking the Grail with the Ark of the Covenant, see Graham Hancock's The Sign and the Seal. ) Wilson's most impressive achievement is the ingenious case he makes for the identity of the Shroud with the legendary Cloth of Edessa (modern-day Urfa, Turkey). I will not deprive the reader of the pleasure of following Wilson's explanation of how these two supposedly quite different items could in fact be the same artifact. His reconstructed history admittedly contains some gaps, but nonetheless makes a reasonably good case that the Shroud can be traced back to the first century.
Throughout Parts 1 and 2, Wilson accumulates a great deal of evidence for the Shroud's potential authenticity and against the likelihood that it was forged. In Part 3, he laboriously reconstructs a plausible history of the artifact leading all the way back to antiquity. But the entire time, a metaphorical Sword of Damocles hangs over all his efforts: the radiocarbon dating results showing that the Shroud cannot predate the Middle Ages. It is to this problem that Wilson turns in Part 4. The radiocarbon dating results, obtained in 1988 by three laboratories working separately, were announced with great confidence and were a serious blow to Wilson and to others who shared his belief in the Shroud's authenticity. However, there is now reason to doubt the dating. Wilson marshals both general evidence that radiocarbon dating involves a far greater margin of error than was believed in 1988--for example, the datings of an Egyptian mummy and some of its wrappings indicated an age difference of 1,000 years, a result Egyptologists consider highly unlikely--plus specific evidence that the Shroud's dating may have been skewed. The culprit is a recently discovered "bioplastic coating" of living microorganisms much younger than the fabric itself. Examination of the Shroud's fibers reveals evidence of this coating, and a similar substance--formerly mistaken for a varnish or polish--has been discovered on Mayan sculptures and on other ancient artifacts. Moreover, the area from which the radiocarbon dating samples were cut from the Shroud turns out to have been very poorly chosen--it was one of the edges by which bishops held the Shroud aloft when it was publicly exhibited. In other words, the samples came from the part of the Shroud that was probably most heavily contaminated with microorganisms from frequent handling. By once again assembling a vast amount of evidence, Wilson succeeds in casting serious doubt on the reliability of the Shroud's radiocarbon dating.
By the end of The Blood and the Shroud, Wilson has made a reasonably good case that the Shroud could date from the first century, that its image is historically and anatomically consistent with what we know about crucifixion, and that no convincing theory of forgery has yet been advanced--or has he? It is one of the most frustrating facts of Shroud research that practically every finding and interpretation advanced by one side can be challenged and reinterpreted by the other. And even if the Shroud really did wrap the body of a man crucified in first-century Palestine, does this mean that that man must have been Jesus Christ? No, of course not. Also, if the skeptics have failed to explain how the image could have been faked, Wilson also fails to explain how it could be, as he once termed it, "a literal 'snapshot' of the Resurrection." Although two physicists working separately have both theorized that a burst of neutrons could have imprinted the body image on a linen cloth while skewing the radiocarbon dating results, this still amounts to a miraculous explanation. Why would the Resurrection cause a bombardment of neutrons? How do we reproduce the Resurrection for scientific study? A miracle as an explanation for a physical object isn't really an explanation at all, but a leap of faith. Wilson recognizes that this explanation will be insufficient for "the honest agnostic."
At the beginning of this review I stated that I wanted fact, not a tract. Despite the recurring "methaphorical blood" theme, I feel Wilson has done a good job of presenting the facts in an objective fashion. He avoids preaching or proselytizing, making his one appeal to faith in his conclusion. When I finished The Blood and the Shroud, I found myself torn between twin impossibilites: How could the Shroud possibly be what it appears to be? But how could it possibly be anything else? Having examined all the available evidence, I have come to the conclusion that the best explanation for the Shroud is that it is indeed the authentic burial cloth of Jesus Christ. In taking this position, I am aware of the danger it represents--it could open the door to a fundamentally non-rational view of reality, a view that allows the invocation of the miraculous to explain any puzzling event. I am aware also of a spiritual danger, namely, encouraging the foundation of an idolatrous Shroud-cult. This would amount to the sort of fascination with a relic that Protestantism has always rightly rejected as a form of false worship. Moreover, what becomes of those who have placed their faith in a relic, should that relic's authenticity ever be disproved? Wilson himself bemoans the incomplete state of Shroud research. Who knows what might be learned if more investigation were authorized? Faith in a relic, even one as compelling as the Shroud, is a very poor substitute for faith in God. That being the case, I can think of no better way to conclude my review than to quote what Wilson relates about his friend Father Peter Rinaldi in the wake of the radiocarbon dating results:
[Rinaldi] wrote that what troubled him was not his own reactions to the news, but what effect it might have on others with '. . . an exaggerated notion . . . of the importance of the Shroud in the scheme of our Christian faith. When lecturing on the Shroud, I often reminded my listeners that for us Christians, it is the Lord that matters, not the Shroud. If the Shroud does have a meaning, it is because it speaks to us of his sufferings as no other image does. But at best the Shroud is only a sign of our faith and hope in Christ. He and he alone is our greatest and dearest possession.' (Pp. 240-41)
Edited May 1, 1999
Copyright ©1999 by Steven R. Solomon. All rights reserved.
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