The Rational Basis for Easter
The central belief of Christianity is this: Jesus died on the cross on Good Friday, was placed in a tomb, covered with a burial cloth and on Easter rose from death in a resurrected body. Believers celebrate that, taking it on faith.
Here’s good news for the faithful. The resurrection is now confirmed on the basis of scientific and scholarly research. Believers can now – as St. Peter suggested his Second Epistle (1:5) – add knowledge to their faith.
According to tradition, the burial cloth of Jesus is the Shroud of Turin. This piece of linen cloth measures about 4’ x 14’ and shows the image of a naked, bloody, bearded man. It resides in the Cathedral at Turin (or Turino), Italy (and can be viewed on line at its official website. Also see The Shroud of Turin website, which archives nearly all the scientific and scholarly reports about Shroud research.)
Some critics have said the Shroud is a medieval hoax. But the nature of the Shroud and its provenance, or documented history of ownership, have now been established well enough to say with great certainty that it did indeed cover Jesus in the tomb. Moreover, scientific research confirms that the image of the Man in the Shroud is likewise authentic. That makes the Shroud the most important religious relic in the world.
The Provenance of the Cloth. Until 2009 there was a gap of one and a half centuries during the Middle Ages when the Shroud’s location was unknown. In 2009 the Vatican announced that a newly discovered letter showed the Knights Templar held the Shroud from 1204 to 1351. That confirmed what many scholars had long thought was the case and filled in the gap, giving a documented history of the cloth from the time of the crucifixion until it was presented by a Templar-descended family in France to the Cathedral at Turin in the mid-1500s. On the basis of scholarly research, it can be said with great certainty that the Shroud is not a medieval hoax.
The Age of the Cloth. A 1988 carbon-14 dating test, performed on a sample of the Shroud to determine its age, yielded results of 1280 to 1430 A.D. The widely publicized report seemed to establish the Shroud as a medieval forgery. However, more recent research discovered that the test used a cutting from the Shroud which is now recognized as a 16th century “patch” or Invisible repair – invisible to the naked eye but seen clearly under high magnification. The repair used cotton thread, which is found nowhere else in the Shroud. Nuns performed the repair to a section of the cloth which had been damaged in a 15th century fire. The carbon-14 test was unwittingly performed upon a sample which included both new and original threads, thus yielding the apparently medieval age. New chemical tests on samples from the original linen move the age of the Shroud back in time to the first century A.D.
Furthermore, the weaving of the linen Shroud is now recognized as consistent with the weaving of first century Palestine but not 14th century Europe. Moreover, new research has identified pollen grains on the Shroud that could only have come from the vicinity of Jerusalem during March and April – Passover time – when such vegetation is in bloom.
For these and other research-based reasons, the Shroud cloth is now clearly established as an authentic first-century relic from the Near East.
The Image of the Man in the Shroud. As for the image of the Man in the Shroud, research likewise indicates it is no hoax. The blood stains are real (type AB) and contain human male DNA. The man was about 5’ 11" and weighed about 170 pounds. The Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), a group of scientists who began researching the Shroud in 1978, stated in its report: “…the actual image was created by a phenomenon (as yet unknown) or a momentous event that caused…a sepia or straw-yellow colored image similar to that of a scorch.”
Author Frank Tribbe notes in his recent book Portrait of Jesus? that the closest science can come to explaining how the image got there is by comparing the situation to a controlled burst of high-intensity radiation similar to the Hiroshima A-bomb explosion which “printed” images of incinerated people on building walls. Shroud researcher Prof. Alan Adler of Western Connecticut State College concluded that the Shroud image could have been created only by a form of energy which science cannot name. Another Shroud researcher, Dr. Ray Rogers, a physical chemist at Los Alamos Laboratory, said during the early stage of his research, “I am forced to conclude that the image was formed by a burst of radiant energy – light if you like.” In other words, in Rogers’ view at that time, the image is recorded on the cloth as if by a photoflash of brilliant light radiating from the body of the Man in the Shroud.
In a 2003 report, Rogers changed his position on the image-formation process to a more naturalistic explanation called the Maillard Effect. The effect derives from the decomposition of a corpse in contact with treated cloth, which can produce color on cloth. An experiment he conducted yielded results “in good agreement with the Shroud features.” But such a natural image-formation process, he noted, “would support the hypothesis that the Shroud of Turin had been a real shroud.” He also acknowledged that his experimental observations on the Maillard Effect “do not prove how the image was formed or the ‘authenticity’ of the Shroud.”
Two other pieces of evidence rule out the possibility of medieval hoax. First, the image on the shroud is a negative. Only when it was first photographed in the late 19th century was this discovered. A positive of the Man in the Shroud can be seen only when the negative is printed. Could a medieval forger have foreseen photography and somehow scorched the cloth so as to affect only the surface fibrils to create a negative image? It is highly improbable.
Second, just a few years ago scientists, using sophisticated technology, found that the two-dimensional image of the Man in the Shroud could be depicted in three-dimensionality through holography. The fibers of the linen cloth, they say, are encoded with information about the Man which no one knew about before. The information can be extracted to produce an image of the Man in lifelike 3-D fullness. The information which produces the image is distributed holographically in every fibril of the Shroud involved in creating the Man’s image. It is astounding to see a three-dimensional Man emerge from the two-dimensional image on the Shroud, as shown in the DVD entitled Fabric of Time.
But that is not what is most astounding. Rather, it is the fact that the Man is seen, in relation to the Shroud, as floating between the top and bottom sections. He is not resting on the stone slab of the tomb, and thus there is no distortion of the body’s image. The buttocks and back are free of distortion by gravity pulling the Man’s flesh into a somewhat flattened condition. The body appears to have been levitating at the moment the image was formed on the Shroud.
It defies all reason to assume a medieval forger had the knowledge and skill to produce these effects five to six centuries before technology made their discovery possible.
The Sudarium of Oviedo. Additional evidence of the Shroud’s authenticity comes from the recent research on the Sudarium of Oviedo, an ancient bloodstained linen cloth the size of a small towel which is claimed to have covered the head of Jesus after his crucifixion (see John 20:5-7).
Sudarium is Latin for “face cloth”. The cloth or kerchief has been known historically as the Sudarium Domini (face cloth of God) and has always been associated with Jesus. It has been kept as a holy relic in the cathedral at Oviedo, in northern Spain, since the 8th century and dated back to the 7th century by historical documents. It seems highly probable, from other historical records, that it goes back to first century Jerusalem. Pollen on it comes from Palestine, Egypt and Spain, supporting the oral tradition that the Sudarium was taken from Jerusalem through North Africa to Spain. One type of pollen found on it is identical to that found on the Shroud; it grows only east of the Mediterranean Sea as far north as Lebanon and as far south as Jerusalem.
The Sudarium is severely soiled and crumpled, with dark flecks which are symmetrically arranged but, unlike the markings on the Shroud of Turin, form no image. Nevertheless, the bloodstains correspond precisely with those of the Shroud. Since the Bible says the Sudarium was found in the tomb set aside from the Shroud, presumably it was removed from the face of the Man in the Shroud by those who brought him into the tomb – i.e., before the resurrection and its image-making process occurred.
Scientific studies validate the ancient claim that the cloth had covered the head of a long-haired, bearded man with bleeding scalp wounds who died in an upright position. Residue of what is most likely myrrh and aloe have been discovered in the Sudarium, in accord with the Jewish burial custom of Jesus’s time.
Altogether, research on the Shroud and the Sudarium verifies the resurrection of Jesus as a real event and places it on a scientific basis. Agnostics should examine it to test their doubts; atheists should examine it to test their denial; and Christians should examine it because it provides a rational basis for religious faith.