There are churches around the world claiming to have a piece of the true cross – enough that if put together would create a “Life of Brian”-esque field of crosses looking on the bright side of life. The same can’t be said of the Shroud of Turin – considered by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth, complete with an image that has defied scientific verification for centuries. While most beliefs in its authenticity are based on faith rather than fact, the Catholic Church has never officially passed judgment on it and most Christian denominations now look at it more with respect rather than unquestioning belief. Still, many would like to know the truth. A new study shows once again just how difficult this is to do.
“In 1988, three laboratories performed a radiocarbon analysis of the Turin Shroud. The results, which were centralized by the British Museum and published in Nature in 1989, provided ‘conclusive evidence’ of the medieval origin of the artefact. However, the raw data were never released by the institutions. In 2017, in response to a legal request, all raw data kept by the British Museum were made accessible. A statistical analysis of the Nature article and the raw data strongly suggests that homogeneity is lacking in the data and that the procedure should be reconsidered.”
The 1988 radiocarbon tests on the Shroud of Turin – conducted by researchers from the University of Arizona, Oxford University, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology under the auspices of the British Museum — dated the cloth to between 1260 and 1390 – thus concluding it is a forgery. While the results were published, the raw data was kept hidden under a ‘shroud’ of secrecy. Why?
“For almost 30 years, scholars asked in vain for the raw data from the three laboratories and the supervising institution, the British Museum. I graduated in law, so I had the idea to make a legal request based on the Freedom of Information Act. The British Museum was the only institution to fully and quickly answer my request.”
French independent researcher Tristan Casabianca, together with a team of Italian researchers and scientists, were the first outsiders to see the raw data, and spent two years going through the hundreds of pages of research. The answer to the question of why it was kept secret eventually became apparent … the data was flawed, making the conclusion invalid.
“The tested samples are obviously heterogeneous from many different dates. There is no guarantee that all these samples, taken from one end of the shroud, are representative of the whole fabric. It is, therefore, impossible to conclude that the Shroud of Turin dates from the Middle Ages.”
Explaining to the National Catholic Register the results of his study, published in the journal Archaeometry, the Catholic Church is so protective of the shroud that it only allowed the 1988 researchers to take samples from the very edge of the cloth – an area that many believe was repaired after the shroud was partly burned in a fire in 1532. To Casabianca and his team, not taking random samples from multiple locations was a violations of the scientific method and should have been clearly stated – thus requiring the researchers to not draw any conclusions. Instead, this breach in scientific protocol was glossed over and no one was brave (or dumb) enough to challenge the British Museum on the obviously highly controversial results.
Casabianca doesn’t fear the museum nor the Catholic Church nor those who believe science should not interfere with faith. He recommends new radiocarbon tests on threads from multiple locations.
“On a much deeper level, I would like to emphasize that those findings show why Christians should have no reason to be afraid of the scientific process. The quest for truth is at the heart of our faith and will never be a danger for our belief system. That’s why we should not be afraid of new tests on the Turin shroud.”
Good luck with that. As Russ Breault, the president of the Shroud of Turin Education Project Inc., points out:
“Politically the Church does not want to be viewed as anti-science. Hence, the shroud is often referred to as a ‘symbol of Christ’s suffering, worthy of veneration.’”
“[Any] decision could only come from the Pope.”