The Shroud of Turin and the Science of Resurrection
For hundreds of years, a simple piece of white linen has awed crowds. At a glance, it’s not much to see: A 14-foot by three-foot rectangle of yellowed weave with a dark image on it. Burn holes. Water stains. Get too close and it’s nothing but pixels of varying shades of beige. But aided with photography or a computer, the image is a perfect photographic negative of a body.
That body is purported to be the body of Jesus Christ. And the imprint is said to have been caused by His resurrection.
Before you write it off as hogwash, as trickery, as Wayne Phillips once did, he wants you to know this fabric changed his life. And he has both the story and the science to prove it.
Phillips was, as he puts it, a know-it-all in his young adulthood. Though raised Catholic, when he arrived at the University of Notre Dame, he was focused on science, with ambitions to go to medical school. The Church seemed to exist in the absence of science, so he started falling away.
“I wasn’t negative, I was just a know-it-all and looked at the details. The Church has a lot of crazy things, like don’t eat meat on Fridays,” he notes dryly. “Those are just examples of absurd things to thinking people that are irrelevant! They don’t matter. What does matter is whether Jesus exists and whether there’s a heaven and there’s a God. It’s just details that man throws in as the Church developed.”
Still, he married a devout Catholic, graduated from medical school, became an allergist, started raising children in the Catholic faith — but he was going through the motions. He couldn’t shake the unease that there was no proof of Jesus, of the resurrection, of something more.
In 1978, Phillips saw a television program about the Shroud of Turin. The program mentioned that a scientific analysis was being done to see whether the Shroud could be the burial garment of Jesus, or whether it was a medieval, artistic forgery. As part of the assessment, pollen had been discovered on the Shroud. Aha! Thought Phillips. I can disprove this.
As Phillips, a longtime allergist, explains, “Pollen is unique. You can have oak trees in Tampa, Florida and they’re different than the oak trees in Atlanta, Georgia.” So, pollen can be a good way to trace where something has been, he explains, noting it’s often used in forensics for criminal cases.
In 1973, a Swiss criminologist named Max Frei used sticky tape to remove surface debris from the Shroud. On the Shroud was a good deal of pollen. Some was from plants in Lirey, France, the location of the first documented public appearance of the Shroud around 1355. Some pollens were unique to Constantinople, where the Shroud was rumored to have been during the years between Jesus’ death and its debut in France. And some, most notably, were undoubtedly from Jerusalem, specifically from plants that bloom during the months of March and April, the Easter season.
The pollen from one of the plants, Gundelia tournefortii, a spiky thistle, was particularly prevalent around the figure’s head, leading scientists to suggest it may have been the plant from which was made the crown of thorns (Matthew 27:29), which Phillips notes, looks like it may have been more of a helmet of thorns given the number of scalp puncture wounds evidenced on the cloth.
Phillips was flabbergasted. With the science in hand, he couldn’t dismiss this seemingly fantastic story. Neither could a group of almost 40 American scientists.
When the Shroud popped up in France in the 1300s, it was owned by Geoffroi de Charnay, a famous knight in Lirey. It was occasionally put on display for crowds, even as skepticism of its authenticity prevailed.
The bishop of Troyes, France, claimed an artist confessed to forging the Shroud, and Pope Clement VII declared it a “sleight of hand.” Still, in 1453, the Shroud was sold to the House of Savoy, which later became the ruling family of Italy. Shortly thereafter, the Shroud was nearly lost in a fire — burn marks and water stains are still visible on the Shroud — before eventually moving to Turin, Italy, where it is stored in the Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista, and only rarely exhibited. It is now owned by the Holy See.
In the late 1800s, once photography had been invented, Secondo Pia, a photographer, took the first picture of the Shroud. Legend has it that when he began to develop his film, he nearly dropped the glass plate negative in the dark room. The negative was clearly the image of a man. That image then sparked curiosity and investigation worldwide.
In 1976, Captains John Jackson and Eric Jumper, professors at the United States Air Force Academy, worked with William Mottern at Sandia National Laboratories to use a microdensitometer and a VP-8 Image Analyzer to confirm a French theory that the image on the Shroud was spatially encoded and could produce an anatomically correct 3D image of a face and body. Their rendering was an alarmingly realistic capture of a young man about five feet 10 inches tall, weighing around 175 pounds, of athletic build. They experimented with other photos, renderings and images to try to achieve similar results and were unable to do so. Instead, those renderings looked Picasso-like, with melted features.
Building on their experiment, and with permission from Pope Paul VI, in 1978 Jackson and Jumper rallied together a group of American scientists from Lockheed, Caltech, IBM, NASA, Los Alamos National Labs, and more, to create the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP). The group traveled to Turin to study the Shroud around the clock for five days. The group was made up of experts in UV spectroscopy, chemistry, X-ray radiography, microphotography, photography, thermography, forensics, medical analysis, and more, with the hope of performing a comprehensive scientific analysis of the Shroud. They all went to Turin certain the Shroud was a fake, maybe an artistic rendering. But the experiments wholly changed their minds.
STURP concluded there was no pigment, paint, or dye on the Shroud. There was no evidence of biochemicals. There was obvious contact with a body. The stains on the cloth were in fact human blood. They were unable to reproduce the phenomenon seen on the cloth. In summarizing their conclusions, the group wrote:
“We can conclude for now that the Shroud image is that of a real human form of a scourged, crucified man. It is not the product of an artist. The blood stains are composed of hemoglobin and also give a positive test for serum albumin. The image is an ongoing mystery and until further chemical studies are made, perhaps by this group of scientists, or perhaps by some scientists in the future, the problem remains unsolved.”
While inconclusive, the study still bore much fruit. Donald Lynn from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was one of the researchers on the 1978 Shroud group who used infrared and ultraviolet photographs to generate novel images of the figure on the Shroud. During the research he noted the broad impact of the work.
“Everyone who has come in contact with our Shroud pictures shares our excitement,” he said. “I’ve observed a level of religious consciousness, especially among lab employees, which I did not know existed.”
“Like many people around the world, we’d like answers to these compelling questions… Is this cloth really 2,000 years old? Is the image truly the imprint of a human corpse? If so, whose image is it? And, especially from the scientific viewpoint, how did that image get there?”
The importance of the Shroud’s authenticity is not only that it would be a holy item — perhaps one of the most holy, if it had genuinely touched Jesus Christ — but also that it would potentially be physical proof of the resurrection.
One of the takeaways from the 1978 STURP analysis was that there was no paint, no dye, no carbon remnant, no other element present on the fibers of cloth, so we could hypothesize that the image was created by some kind of blast of energy or radiation, Phillips explains. But unlike an atomic bomb, which would destroy everything in its wake, the energy had to have been so controlled, so precise, that it only impacted the top fibers of the weave.
“The closer the cloth was to the body, the more it was singed, the darker was the color,” he details. “A miracle happened. The body dematerialized in the Shroud. It gave off laser-like energy and a laser beam focus that caused pixelation in 5.2 billion locations to create an image on the front and back.”
Only in the last few years have scientists been able to recreate anything even resembling the marks on the Shroud — and to do so, they used an ultraviolet excimer laser, Phillips says, which was neither available during Jesus’ time nor the 1300s when the Shroud is rumored to have been fabricated.
Because a recreation can’t be achieved — and scientists and artists alike have tried with iron oxide, with radiation, with lasers — many believe this is the most concrete sign that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead.
“The resurrection is everything. With no resurrection, faith is nonsense. Jesus doesn’t exist as God — he’s just another, regular dead person. So the resurrection is everything,” Phillips says. “To have a resurrection, you have to have some being we don’t quite understand, loved us so much, he went through all that suffering, to help us gain heaven and to be able to be forgiven. That’s why I think the Shroud is everything. It proves to people who need that proof … to break down the walls that block them from grabbing that faith.”
Still, not all scientists are convinced of the Shroud’s authenticity. In 1988, a radiocarbon dating experiment at the University of Arizona on a fragment of the Shroud suggested it dated to 1350, suspiciously close to the date of its first appearance in France. The Shroud was labeled a fraud. Disappointment shook the faithful as they were forced to cast aside something they had so prized.
Years later, the carbon dating was declared inaccurate after it was discovered the fragment used for the original study may have been a piece that was repaired long after the fabric’s creation. So in recent years, there has been a resurgence in curiosity. Volunteers have hung from crosses in order for scientists to study their body positions. Other researchers have rolled mannequins around cloth to say whether the stains would have happened just so. As one theory crests, another falls. Science butts against science. Science and faith battle and then make peace, again and again. Still the question remains: Is it real?
For those like Phillips, the science lines up. He is so certain that for the last 11 years, Phillips has been offering talks about the Shroud and its scientific groundings. In that time, he’s spoken to more than 200 groups via dinner party, parish gathering, TV, radio, conferences, and Zoom, and he hopes to do even more. He is passionate that he must share what he has learned, especially with young adults who are “being attacked by the secular world and losing faith.” He also belongs to the Shroud Science Group, a collection of like-minded scientists studying the Shroud.
In his talks, he links Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and elements on the Shroud. He connects Jesus being flogged (John 19:1) with the blood, type AB, on the Shroud being “tortured blood,” which contains excess amounts of bilirubin and heme, substances that have kept the blood unusually red on the fabric to this day. He notes how the figure has signs of a ponytail, something only Jewish men would have worn. He draws attention to a stain on the right side of the figure’s body, corresponding to how Jesus’ side is pierced with a spear by a soldier, bringing a “sudden flow of blood and water” (John 19:34). There’s links to the number of scourge marks, and how the nails went through the wrists, not the hands, to better suspend the body.
But despite Phillips’s and others’ testament that this can only be authentic, to this day, no pope has ever explicitly declared the Shroud a relic, an object that was owned, used, or touched by a saint.
In Pope Francis’s 2015 visit to the Shroud, the last time it was publicly displayed, he said, “The Shroud attracts (us) toward the martyred face and body of Jesus… At the same time, it pushes (us) toward the face of every suffering and unjustly persecuted person. It pushes us in the same direction as the gift of Jesus’ love.”
The question then remains: Is that enough? Must we be certain that this is the actual cloth that enrobed Jesus? Or does the Shroud serve a great enough purpose, regardless of its authenticity, if it forces us to ponder and confront the profound pain and anguish that Jesus endured — the signs of lashing, the crown of thorns, nails in the wrists, and blood pooled from pierced lung? It’s one thing to read in the Gospels that Jesus died. It’s another to witness a byproduct of that precise agony.
The Shroud also encourages us that faith does not have to live in the absence of science. Science and faith can be, and will forever be, complexly intertwined. And we can have doubts and questions, all while fanning the flame of belief. Even with doubt, with skepticism, it’s hard not to be filled with wonder. What if this Shroud truly is the result of an inexplicable, miraculous resurrection? How would our lives change if we knew the resurrection was verifiable? How would we change? That’s worth sitting with.
In the absence of scientific certainty, the Shroud, like most elements of religion, still requires a leap of faith. But maybe, if enough facts point the way, the leap is a skip more than a plunge. Maybe we are more confident that the land to which we’re hopping is firm, not marshy. And if curiosity in the Shroud helps lead people to faith — even just a step closer — that’s notable.
As Phillips passionately notes, “You will never understand all the details of creation, but you need to understand a single piece of cloth you cannot refute. And hang on to that when you have your moments.”
“The Church isn’t perfect. The people that make up the Church are not perfect,” he concedes. “Don’t turn off on faith, don’t turn off on the Church because it isn’t perfect. Hang in there, because the man on the Shroud is perfect and loves you and here’s what he did for you. Look at the science of the crucifixion. Look at the suffering on cloth. This is real. You can’t deny it scientifically.”
Learn more about Dr. Phillips and his in-person or zoom presentations on the Shroud here.