I was annoyed and surprised to learn from a publicist that this weekend the History Channel is airing a programme named “The Real Face of Jesus” that takes a credulous approach to the shroud of Turin. The shroud is a 14th century fake relic, as has been well documented by historical sources and radiocarbon analysis. Here’s a quick machine-assisted translation of a 2004 article I wrote on the subject.
The shroud of Turin, a linen cloth, 4.5 x 1.2 m, with the image of a wounded male body. The wounds are consistent with the New Testament’s portrayal of the last days and death of Jesus of Nazareth. The cloth depicts both the body’s front and back as if it had been folded over the body which then made an instant impression in light brown where it touched the fabric, almost like a photographic film. The body’s sides do not appear as they would if the cloth had been wrapped around a corpse. The fabric has been radiocarbon-dated to AD 1260-1390. This date coincides with the first written mention of the cloth from AD 1357. At the time it was displayed in a small church built for that purpose by Geoffrey de Charny at Lirey in northern France. Subsequently, the cloth has been kept in the Italian city of Turin.
Many have wanted to believe, or even do so still, that the cloth is the shroud of Jesus. The skilfully crafted cloth is in fact a piece of Medieval church art, or, put less favourably, a counterfeit relic. It is based on the same idea as the legend of St. Veronica’s veil, which tells of a woman who dabbed at Jesus’ face on his way to Calvary, whereupon his image appeared on the cloth. This story too inspired Medieval relic makers. Those who believe that the shroud of Turin is Jesus’ shroud assume that it is identical to a shroud that allegedly disappeared in the sack of Constantinople in 1204, and that the cloth was nearly 1200 years old even then. The shroud of Constantinople and other pictorial cloths mentioned during the Middle Ages should rather be seen as members of the same artefact type as the shroud of Turin, that is, as evidence that the shroud of Jesus was an established type among the era’s relic manufacturers. Already upon the shroud’s original display in Lirey the area’s bishop demanded that it be removed because it was in his opinion a forgery.
During the Middle Ages, relics of popular saints could attract huge numbers of pilgrims to a church and thus also generate huge revenues. The most prominent example is Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. The city became one of the Christian world’s main pilgrimages thanks to an unlikely story that Jesus’ scantily documented brother James had been buried there. Perhaps Geoffrey de Charny had similar hopes for his church and its relic. But Lirey remained a small village.
I’ve never watched the History Channel. But I’ve reviewed two pretty poor archaeology specials of theirs (here & here) that they sent me on DVD. And now this: endorsing mistaken beliefs on a long-settled issue. Tell me, Dear Reader – isn’t the History Channel kinda crap?
Update 4 April: Lots of hits and comments on this one! Looking at the reactions, it’s almost as if I had questioned some central tenet of Christianity. Actually, I reject all supernatural tenets of all religions — but there’s nothing about that issue in the above blog entry. It’s about the date of a certain piece of linen fabric. Despite what the History Channel might say (I’m in Sweden and I don’t subscribe to cable), there is no non-religious reason to question the radiocarbon analyses. The samples were not taken from secondary repair threads, and the idea of smoke contamination is a piece of special pleading that professional archaeologists and radiocarbon analysts do not accept. It was the subject of one of creationist Dimitri Kouznetsov’s fraudulent papers. And anyway: even if a person is a devout Christian, they needn’t believe that the shroud of Turin is more than 700 years old. Many large sects within that religion in fact stress the importance of faith without proof. To such a theology, hanging on to the shroud of Turin is a mark of weak faith.