The Shroud of Turin, Part 2

Title: The Shroud of Turin, Part 2

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

Time: April 13th, 2010

Until May 23rd, 2010 the famous Shroud of Turin will be on display in Italy, so I thought while it’s being displayed publicly I’d talk a little bit more about it and how we should view it as Christians. Like I said before, different Christians have different responses to the Shroud. Some are more skeptical; others are more open-minded about it. As you know, I’m someone who is more open to the Shroud being authentic because I’ve read many books on it, seen many documentaries, and have done enough thinking about it and talking about it to come to the conclusion that it either has to be the actual burial cloth of Christ – or it’s the biggest and best medieval forgeries ever made. There is no question that the man on the Shroud is supposed to be Jesus Christ; it bears all the marks of crucifixion just like the Gospels outline. So it’s either the real deal or highly sophisticated fake that has stumped even the best scientists and scholars in the world today. Of course, there’s the whole matter of the Carbon-14 dating that yielded the date of the cloth sometime around the 14th century. If this test is accurate, then the Shroud cannot be authentic. But there’s a growing skepticism about the accuracy of the Carbon-14 test because of the very poorly selected sample taken from the Shroud for dating. More and more researchers are concluding that the sample taken to date the Shroud is actually part of a carefully woven patch to repair an earlier damage. If this is so, then the Carbon-14 test was actually dating a sample that doesn’t represent the Shroud as a whole. It will probably need to be re-dated to clear up this controversy. In the meantime, further research continues. Now one of the main concerns Protestant Christians have when discussing the Shroud – or any purported authentic relic of Christianity – is whether or not it is biblical. We are commanded in the New Testament by the Apostle Paul to “Test all things, cling to that which is good,” 1 Thessalonians 5:21. We don’t just accept things, even things that confirm and support our faith, but rather, we test all things to see if they line up with the Bible. If they do, then there is the possibility they may be authentic; even then, they would have to pass further tests for genuine authenticity. But on a minimum they must pass the biblical test. So how does the Shroud stand up when put to the test of the Bible? That’s very important for us Protestants because after all one of the key Reformation mottos was sola scriptura or “Scripture alone.” The Bible alone is the supreme test for all truth claims. So what I’d like to do today is examine the claim that the Shroud is actually described in the Bible, particularly in a specific passage – John 20:3-9, and see if it’s true. One of the great things about discussing the Shroud of Turin is it actually gets us into the biblical accounts of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whether the Shroud turns out authentic or not, it’s always good to explore and reflect on these great themes because they exist at the center of Christian faith. So let’s examine the evidence from the Gospels for the Shroud.

First, There’s no question that the Gospels describe the burial cloth of Christ, but are they actually describing the Shroud of Turin? 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.)” All four Gospels mention the grave cloths of Jesus in connection with the tomb of the risen Christ, but perhaps this passage in John is the most interesting. Why? Because it seems to frequently make reference to the cloth evidence left behind in the tomb. For example, it says that John outran Peter to the tomb; he bent over and looked into the tomb at the linen lying there. Then it says Peter entered the tomb and he too saw the linen lying there. Then it says he also saw the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. Finally, it describes that the head cloth was folded up by itself apart from the other linen. So all in all, the passage spends a lot of time talking about the burial cloths found in the tomb. Now why so much description of the cloths in the tomb? Some people think this might be a clue that there was something special about those pieces of cloth. Maybe the image on the Shroud can explain why so much attention is given to grave cloths. However, it wouldn’t have to be anything unusual about the burial cloths, at least not unusual in the sense of Christ’s image; it could have been the strangeness of the way the cloths were laying. We must remember that the report from Mary Magdalene was that the body of Jesus had been taken, so then the expectations would have been to find either the grave cloths absent from the tomb – taken by the grave robbers – or thrown carelessly in the corner. But the way the grave cloths were laying, it was very strange, so the description spends time describing the details about them. If the gospel writers were describing the remains of the cloth wrapping Christ that bore the image and likeness of Christ, they certainly did so in cryptic form, hidden, secretive, giving us only clues to work with. But why would they do that? No. I find no reason to believe the references to the grave cloths in the Gospels, such as this passage in John, give us any evidence for the Shroud.

Second, some people claim the way John acted looking into the tomb indicates he saw the image on the burial cloth of Christ. 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 this is an interesting theory, although I can’t say I’m persuaded by it. The theory is that Peter and John ran toward the tomb to confirm what Mary had told them – that the body of Jesus was gone. According to John’s account, John arrived at the tomb first, looked in, but stopped and waited outside while staring into the tomb; he didn’t continue into the tomb. “He reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in.” It should be noted that the Greek word othonia is most accurately translated “linen cloth,” not “strips of linen.” Almost all Bibles translate it like the KJV, “linen clothes.” So we shouldn’t necessarily picture the grave scene as describing mummy-like windings of cloth; the Greek doesn’t make that clear. In fact, it probably wasn’t like that at all. But aside from that, why didn’t John continue into the tomb? He arrived there first, but stopped and didn’t enter. Why? Some people feel that he saw the image of Christ on the Shroud and stopped to stare at it. This theory is plausible, at least, on the surface, because experts say that the image on the Shroud is only really visible some distance from the cloth. Any closer than 6 feet and the image blends in with the background and renders the image impossible to see with the naked eye. So in order to actually see the image one must be back at least 6 feet from the Shroud. Could John have stopped a distance from the Shroud because as he approached it closer the visible image of Christ disappeared – assuming he could see an image on it at all? Does this explain John’s strange action at the entrance of the tomb, his stopping and not entering it? Some people think it does, but again, it isn’t necessary to postulate the Shroud’s image to explain John’s actions. He might have simply wanted to look in without going in. Maybe it would have blocked the light, him going in. Maybe he didn’t want to disturb anything. There are many reasons why he might have stopped at the tomb’s entrance. We don’t need the Shroud to explain his actions. Besides, we would have to assume that the tomb had enough light already to see the image on the Shroud. And we would have to also assume that the Shroud was laying in such a way the image could be seen by John at the tomb’s entrance. These are huge assumptions, not impossible, but substantial. Still, the theory is interesting even if it doesn’t ultimately hold up.

Third, still other people claim that what caused John to believe was the image on the Shroud. 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.)” Another theory is that John believed when he finally went in and saw the image on the burial cloth of Christ, not as he stopped at the entrance of the tomb and saw it from a distance. But this would contradict the fact that it’s harder to see the Shroud’s image at closer range. If John could see the image on the Shroud at the tomb’s entrance, he probably couldn’t see it if he entered the tomb and approached the cloth – Christ’s image would have faded into the background as people who have actually seen the Shroud up close testify. So this would contradict this theory. “Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.” The problem is, when John entered the tomb, he probably couldn’t have seen, that is, the image on the Shroud, and therefore wouldn’t have believed – if it was the image on the Shroud that made him believe. So then we see both theories have problems. First, because the image on the Shroud is so hard to see anyway with the naked eye, John would have had to be back at a distance to see it. But there would also have to be enough light in the tomb to see the image, as well as the cloth itself would have to be laying in such a position to be seen. Second, if he approached the cloth to inspect it he probably then wouldn’t be in a position to actually see the image on it, because the naked eye must be back at least 6 feet in order to see the faint image. So chances are John never did see any image on the cloth of Christ. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any image on the Shroud, it just means John, or for that matter, Peter, never saw the image on the cloth in the tomb that day. I find these theories interesting, but upon closer examination I don’t think they realistically hold up.

As I talked about before, if the image on the Shroud is authentic, if it really is the image of the crucified Christ, then of course it must have been present in the tomb on Easter morning, whether John or Peter, or Mary or any of the other followers of Jesus noticed it or not. If the grave cloth were simply folded in the tomb or laying on the stone slab it would have been easy to miss the image, especially at close distance. And, like I said before, at a distance the problem because of light – would there have been enough light in the tomb to see faint images on cloth? Probably not. So then, if the Shroud is authentic, it would have probably been passed by without anyone noticing it while in the tomb. We don’t know how long it remained in the tomb, but at some point someone, at some time, would have picked it up and removed it from the tomb and stored it away for safe keeping. It would have probably been venerated for being the burial cloth of Christ, especially after Christ’s ascension into heaven. It probably would have been greatly valued as the authentic burial cloth of Christ, but it still might not have been recognized as anything other than the burial linen that wrapped the crucified Christ. If the Shroud is authentic, then it must have carried the secret image of Christ for a long time before anyone saw it. Why? Because surely the New Testament would have said something about such an important thing as the burial cloth of Christ bearing the image of Christ crucified. Surely one of the Gospels would have mentioned it – if it had been known. And since the whole New Testament was written and completed by A.D. 100, if the Shroud is authentic, it must not have been known during whole the First Century. Or if someone did see the faint image of Christ on the Shroud, then they kept it a secret or kept the Shroud secretly hidden for some reason. My guess is that the actual image on the Shroud wasn’t detected for many, many years, possibly even hundreds of years afterwards. The actual Shroud might have been stored in such a way that the image simply was never detected. Eventually, however, at some time, at some place, somebody noticed the image and then the actual Shroud as we know it today was born. This would make sense based on its known history. We must remember that it was only at the end of the 19th century that we learned of its photographic negative details. Only in the last 100 years has the Shroud been observable in all its details – and there are probably other details of the Shroud we don’t know today, but that will be discovered as it is studied further. So to think it could have been preserved for many years, many decades, even centuries without people knowing its full value is completely believable. Do I think the Shroud is the authentic burial cloth of Christ? Until there is unimpeachable scientific evidence to absolutely disqualify it, I’ve got to believe it’s the real cloth of Christ. Nothing I read in the Bible would disqualify it.

But more important than any cloth, real or fake, that may have wrapped the crucified Jesus, the question before us all is – do we believe in Christ’s resurrection. In discussing the details of the grave cloths of Christ we must not be distracted from the real question facing each and every one of us – what do we think about Jesus Christ? Was he truly the Lord and Savior of mankind? Did he have the power to die on the cross in our place for our sins? Does he have the authority like he claimed to forgive our sins and save us to eternal life in heaven after this life is over? My question to each one of us is, what other explanation can be give other than that Jesus really did die and really did rise to life again on the third day? And what other explanation other than the resurrection can account for the fact that his disciples all claimed to see the risen Jesus, but not only the disciples but also others as well, as many as 500 others! And also, how could Christianity and the Christian church begin with Jewish followers in the heart of Judaism – Jerusalem – and survive and thrive unless these disciples were totally and utterly convinced that they had witnessed and encountered the risen Christ Jesus? All odds were against them, and yet they not only preached the resurrection gospel but they won converts enough to expand beyond Jerusalem and Israel into the lands of the gentiles also. Eventually Christianity so spread that it became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. How could all of this have happened if the gospel of resurrection weren’t true? As difficult as it might be to our modern, skeptical minds today, the New Testament describes the many supernatural miracles Jesus performed, culminating in his very own resurrection from the dead. Are you willing to not only listen to these gospel accounts but are you finally willing to believe them personally? All it takes is humbleness of heart on your part, enough to admit that you have failed God morally, ethically, and that you have broken his laws repeatedly in large and small ways. You must then come to God in humility seeking forgiveness on the basis of Christ’s death on the cross for your sins. Have you done so? Why not do so today? Finally, are you willing to trust in Jesus wholeheartedly to not only forgive your sins but also give you eternal life with God forever in the next life? The good news of the Gospel isn’t only good for this life but it’s mostly good for the next life, the after life to come. Are you willing to trust Jesus to save you from the just punishment you deserve because of your sins and save you to eternal life forever with God? Why not do so today? Why wait? There is no guarantee for tomorrow. Today is the day of salvation, why not embrace it now?

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