The Shroud of Turin

Title: The Shroud of Turin

Text: Matthew 27:59-60, Mark 15:46, Luke 23:53, 24:12, 22-27, John 19:38-40, 20:3-9,

Time: April 12, 2010

Beginning on April 10th until May 23rd, 2010 the famous Shroud of Turin will be on display in Italy. What is the Shroud of Turin? I’m sure you’ve already heard about this most popular of all Christian relics, but in case you aren’t up on it, here’s a brief description: “This fragile linen cloth, which measures 14.5 x 3.9 feet, bears the image of the front and back of a long haired, bearded man who appears to have suffered wounds that match the description in the Gospels of Jesus’ crucifixion. The image is reversed, like a photographic negative. The Shroud has been a source of debate among Christians, scientists and others for many years. Many believe the yellowing linen is Christ’s burial cloth when He was placed in the tomb and that his image was somehow imprinted on the cloth around the time of the Resurrection.” Now if you talk to different Christians you’ll get different responses to the Shroud. I think most Protestant Christians upon hearing of it for the first time are a little skeptical of it — for good reasons. After all, aren’t there all kinds of Christian relics in Europe and the Middle East that are supposedly authentic, yet upon closer examination turn out to be mostly fake? I heard one historian state that if all the wood of all the relics purported to be from the original cross of Christ were put together, you’d have tons of wood – obviously an impossible situation because Christ’s cross wasn’t that massive. So most Christians are naturally skeptical about such things. I know for myself, when I see television documentaries of the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem, showing the exact spot marked by a metallic star where people visit today, I’m skeptical. Who can say that’s the exact spot? I’m not even sure I’d want to visit that spot today because I’d be afraid that I’d be disappointed. I’d rather read the historical accounts in the Bible and visualize it in my mind’s eye rather than take the word of some Middle Eastern tour guide that a metallic star marks the spot. I tend to be skeptical of such things. But when it comes to the Shroud of Turin, I’ve read enough books about it, watched enough serious television documentaries, and thought about it enough to think and believe that it just might be the authentic burial cloth of Christ. Now if it were proved to be a fake, would that hurt my faith in Jesus Christ as Savior? No, because my faith rests in God and God’s Word, not in any cloth. But I find the Shroud very interesting, and the more I study about it the more credible it becomes. So let me take just a few minutes today and explain some things about the Shroud of Turin that show it just might be the authentic burial cloth of Christ. Let’s go to the New Testament and examine a few verses. If nothing else, the Shroud gives us an excuse to study the scriptures. I hope to show that there isn’t anything in the Bible that necessarily rules out the authenticity of the Shroud.

First, wasn’t Jesus wrapped like a mummy for burial and wouldn’t that rule out the Shroud? John 19:38-40, “Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with the Jewish burial customs.” Now on the basis of this passage many Christians feel that the Shroud of Turin can’t possibly by real because here we have a reference to two men wrapping Jesus with spices after his crucifixion. If Jesus were wrapped in the traditional Jewish burial wrap then no image on the cloth could be present because there wouldn’t be any end-to-end folded material but rather small, treated strips like what we see in the account of the rising of Lazarus in John 11:43-33, “. . . Jesus called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Take off the grave clothes and let him go.’” On this basis, no wonder Bible-believing Christians would doubt the authenticity of the Shroud; it doesn’t seem to correspond to the biblical accounts of Jewish burial, and particularly how Jesus was buried. But there’s a problem with ruling out the Shroud of Turin so quickly. Upon closer examination of the biblical texts, we find that Jesus’ body wasn’t completely wrapped in the customary Jewish burial style immediately after his body was taken down off the cross and placed in the tomb. If it had, why were the women coming early on Sunday morning to anoint the body with spices? “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body,” Mark 16:1. How does this account fit with John 19:39-40? “He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen.” It’s a little difficult to understand completely what took place; the Greek isn’t clear. But there is enough ambiguity in the language of the text to allow for the Shroud to wrap Jesus. We know that the Sabbath was fast approaching, so the men couldn’t complete a full traditional Jewish burial wrap. It’s logical to conclude that they only partially wrapped Jesus; this would explain why the women were coming on Sunday morning to finish the wrapping. The men may have simply placed the spices and other wrappings around Jesus loosely, but it doesn’t necessarily imply that he was wrapped up like Lazarus. So then the objection that the Shroud can’t possibly be authentic because the Bible describes Jesus wrapped up in mummy-like fashion doesn’t stand. He may have been wrapped in some way or partially wrapped, but the language just isn’t specific enough to rule out a shroud-like cloth leaving a mysterious imprint.

Second, if the Shroud was known from the beginning, why don’t the Gospels mention it, since it would be pretty impressive evidence of a miracle? John 20:3-9, “So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separated from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)” Now there are some Christians who claim there is a reference in the Gospels to the Shroud. They point to this verse as proof. At the end of the passage it says that John entered the tomb, saw and believed. What did he see and what did he believe? Some people think John saw the Shroud with the image of the crucified Christ; they think that’s what convinced him Jesus had risen by a supernatural miracle. They think that’s what the passage means when it says he believed – he believed in the resurrection because he saw the image on the Shroud. But it isn’t clear from the context what the description, “He saw and believed,” means. Remember, Mary Magdalene had just reported to the disciples that someone had taken the Lord’s body from the tomb – so she concluded based on the empty tomb. Maybe the words, “He saw and believed,’ meant he saw the tomb empty and believed Mary was right – that someone had taken the body. If this is so, there wouldn’t have to be any image on the linen that he saw; he saw the empty tomb and believed Mary’s report. But the context of the passage seems to imply that the words, “He saw and believed,” mean something more; they seem to imply that John saw the grave cloths and believed that Christ had risen. But he wouldn’t have needed to see any image on cloth to come to faith in the resurrection. He could have believed solely based on the empty tomb. But what complicates things even more is the end of the verse – “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” Didn’t it just say that John believed; we assume that he believed the resurrection. But here is a footnote in the text that says neither Peter nor John understood that Jesus had to rise from the dead. Does that mean, then, that John couldn’t have believed in resurrection yet at this point? If so, we are back to the question, “What exactly does it mean when it says John saw and believed?”

This is where it gets really interesting. If John had seen the image of Christ on the Shroud, if that convinced him that some kind of miracle had taken place in the tomb which removed the body of Jesus, then that might be what the passage means that he saw and believed. Under this scenario John was convinced of the supernatural removal of Jesus from the tomb, maybe into heaven, or somewhere else spiritually, like a spirit. Because of the supernatural image on the Shroud, John was convinced and believed that Jesus’ body had been removed by God. He may have even believed that Jesus had been raised to life again spiritually, like a spirit or ghost. The footnote could refer to the fact that neither Peter nor John at this point believed in the physical or bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead. But this is all highly speculative. There really isn’t any clear evidence from the New Testament to the existence of the Shroud – that is, the burial cloth of Christ bearing the image and likeness of the crucified Jesus. And it is pretty strange that if John had really seen what we know as the Shroud of Turin bearing the image of Christ, it’s pretty strange that there is no clear reference to it in the entire New Testament, especially in the Gospels, and especially in the Gospel According to John – the account of the disciple himself. If the Shroud is the authentic burial cloth of Jesus, then it must have been hidden away immediately for some reason. Or, it must have been overlooked by everyone as bearing the imprint of the crucified Christ – which is a real possibility, because after all, the image on the Shroud is barely visible to the naked eye, even up close. What we know today as the Shroud, bearing the image of the crucified man upon it, we know through photographs of it that are processed with reverse image. The Shroud is best seen as a photographic negative. The disciples and early Christians wouldn’t have seen the detailed image like we see today. To them it might have been only the burial cloth of Christ, something they would have saved for sentimental reasons, stored as a treasured item, but nothing that would provoke the awe and wonder that it does today. It is a very real possibility that the Shroud was kept purely as the grave cloth of Christ – and only as the grave cloth, with no knowledge that it contained Christ’s faint crucified image upon it. Imagine this holy cloth being preserved and kept year-after-year, decade-after-decade, maybe even century-after-century solely as the burial cloth of Christ, with no knowledge or clue that it bore the image of the crucified Jesus. Furthermore, imagine that some faithful Christian in routine maintenance of the holy burial cloth noticed ever so faintly an image that nobody had even seen or noticed before. For all we know, the image might have gotten more distinct through the passing of the years, only to make its noticeable appearance hundreds of years after it was created. What might have started out as only the holy burial cloth of Jesus – kept and preserved for that reason only — might have become even more valuable because of the image it bore once the image was discernable. This would explain why there is no mention of it in the New Testament; at that time the image wasn’t visible with the naked eye, only through the passage of time would the image become discernable. But again, all this is speculation, although it is a possibility.

Third, isn’t there danger in mixing biblical faith with unreliable medieval relics? Luke 24:22-27, “In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see. He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” If we have biblical faith why do we need anything else, especially something as questionable and as uncertain as the Shroud of Turin? The earliest date for which the Shroud can be traced back historically is in the 14th century. There is evidence for an earlier date, but it’s not conclusive or established. In addition, the Shroud was Carbon-dated to the 14th century, which to many people establishes the fact that it’s a medieval relic and not the authentic burial cloth of Christ. But again, there is a growing consensus among scholars that the testing done on the Shroud in 1988 is flawed – either because the test samples were tainted or the samples were taken from a corner that doesn’t represent the same linen where the image rests. It might have been repaired during the Middle Ages in the corner where the test samples were taken, which would throw off the dating of the Shroud. But with all the uncertainty surrounding the Shroud isn’t it better to leave it alone, to simply ignore it as anything worthy of consideration? And since our Christian faith rests in God and God’s Word, why even mess with the Shroud at all? The thing is, it’s so interesting, so intriguing, so mysterious that it’s all but impossible to ignore it. And I don’t think Christians should dismiss it or ignore it. Having read many books about it, watched documentaries on it, and talked a lot about it with other Christians, I’m convinced that it’s authentic. One of the positive things that comes from discussing the Shroud is that it gets both Christians and non-Christians thinking about biblical and spiritual topics. When you talk about the Shroud you are talking also about Jesus Christ, about the crucifixion and resurrection – these are the things which represent the heart of Christianity. Even if the Shroud ultimately proves to be a medieval relic – something that I find highly improbable simply because it would nearly take a miracle to create it, as well as fool everyone including scientists today – but even if it did prove to be fake, I think the fact that it gets people thinking and talking about Jesus, his crucifixion and his resurrection, this alone makes the Shroud worthwhile. These are topics that can stimulate us into deeper Bible study and spiritual reflection – which is exactly what this message has been all about!

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