Holy Sheet

The ongoing debate between the scientific and the miraculous, as seen through a very thin piece of fabric: the Shroud of Turin.

I have spent an upsetting amount of time looking at a picture of Jesus’s scrotum.

His hands are modestly folded across his groin. A halo of clip-art arrows points to the alleged genitalia visible just below his fingertips. The grainy, black-and-white image is an enhanced photo negative of a section of the Shroud of Turin, and it comes from Fig. 2 in a paper in the Journal of Cultural Heritage titled “Turin Shroud hands’ region analysis reveals the scrotum and a part of the right thumb.” The paper—written by Liberato De Caro and Cinzia Giannini, both physicists at the Italian National Research Council’s Institute of Crystallography—was published on November 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, so it’s not surprising that the discovery got somewhat lost in the news cycle. This is also partially my fault. I am a science journalist, and if the alleged impression of Jesus’s scrotum has been revealed in the Turin shroud, I have the power to make you hear about it. Or to at least try.

The scrotum was not really the point of this paper, though. There were much higher stakes here: the study argued that the newly discovered right thumb appeared to be in a “non-relaxed position,” implying rigor mortis, implying that the man whose imprint was left on the Turin shroud was indeed the victim of a crucifixion, implying that the Turin shroud could be the authentic burial shroud of Jesus Christ—stained, miraculously, with his image.

If you’re confused by that chain of logic, welcome. I became a tourist in the world of Turin shroud scholarship after reading that paper a few years ago, and somehow I feel like I know less than I did when I arrived.

The Turin shroud might be the most famous Christian artifact in the world. Maybe you’ve never scrutinized its groin area, but you’ve likely seen an image of the shroud itself—or, more likely, a photo negative of it, featuring a faint but precise outline of the front and back of a scourged man who looks like Jesus. The linen has a herringbone weave, measures 4.37 meters by 1.13 meters, and has marks that look like bloodstains. It is owned by the Catholic Church and is kept in a chapel in the northern Italian city of Turin, some 400 miles north of Vatican City. Said to be the burial cloth that wrapped Jesus after he was crucified outside of Jerusalem around 33 CE, a chemical analysis of the shroud in the 1980s suggested it was created much later, between 1260 and 1390.


The first documented reference to the shroud is a letter written by a bishop to Antipope Clement VII in 1389, railing against a “cunningly painted” cloth being passed off as the burial shroud of Jesus. The bishop’s letter said the shroud first appeared in a chapel in Lirey, France, around 1355, but his plea for official intervention didn’t seem to work: the shroud, which was later moved to Turin, drew sometimes dangerously large crowds of pilgrims. In 1621, a clergyman was wounded by flying rosaries during a display in Turin’s Piazza Castello. At another showing in 1647, many people were apparently suffocated in the rush of visitors.

Most scientists and historians are happy to accept that the Turin shroud is a medieval European creation, either a skilled forgery or a now-faded devotional icon—just one of many Christian relics residing in European churches. (In Budapest, you can see the mummified fist of St. Stephen. In Padua, you can see St. Anthony’s incorrupt tongue. In Mantua, there are sacred vessels said to contain the blood of Christ. Several towns in Europe once claimed to have pieces of Jesus’s foreskin, though none of these relics have survived to the present.) Nonetheless, to this day, the Turin shroud attracts fervent devotees who believe this cloth to be genuine and to contain the true image of God.

As with most relics, the Catholic Church has no official stance on the shroud’s origin. Pope Francis was among the 2 million people who came to see the shroud when it last went on public display in Turin, in 2015, but he was careful to call the object an “icon.” During a visit to Turin in 1998, Pope John Paul II said he would leave it up to scientists to figure out whether the shroud was an authentic relic of Jesus Christ: “Since it is not a matter of faith, the Church has no specific competence to pronounce on these questions,” he said. “She entrusts to scientists the task of continuing to investigate, so that satisfactory answers may be found to the questions connected with this Sheet.”

Thanks to pronouncements like that, when and how the cloth was created have become matters of ceaseless scientific inquiry for those who believe it’s possible the shroud is an authentic relic of Jesus. There is, in fact, a cottage industry of researchers who have devoted their lives to understanding the shroud. There are many others who dabble. The so-called Shroudies (a name I’ve seen both lobbed with condescension and worn with pride) sometimes get lumped in with Bigfoot chasers and Flat Earthers. But the comparison isn’t so precise; Shroudies have hailed from the US military and NASA and international universities. Shroudies have published articles in peer-reviewed journals that suggest support for the idea that the shroud is an authentic, 2,000-year-old relic whose image could have come from the resurrecting body of Jesus Christ, much to the continued annoyance and incredulity of skeptics.

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Shroudies are a pan-religious group; you don’t even need to be Christian to believe in the shroud. Ahmadiyya Muslims—now headquartered in the United Kingdom after being persecuted and driven underground in Pakistan—believe the shroud is authentic, and that it helps affirm their belief that Jesus survived his crucifixion and is buried somewhere in Kashmir. Barrie Schwortz, a photographer and the proprietor of the shroud.com website, may be the most prominent living authenticist. He is Jewish. For the uninitiated, the points of contention, and the motives driving the research, can sometimes be difficult to figure out.

The only thing that’s easy for me to understand is why Christian authenticists would be invested in its origin.

“The resurrection, no matter how you look at it, that’s a radical idea,” says shroud researcher John Jackson. “It’s a super radical idea, but that’s what Christianity has been saying to the world for 2,000 years now. If the shroud had anything about it that could link to that belief, why wouldn’t we be interested in wanting to study that?”

Jackson, the cofounder of the Turin Shroud Center of Colorado, performed a crucifixion last year, his third since the 1980s. No nails were driven through volunteers or anything like that. But the mock crucifixion rig was realistic enough that medical professionals were on hand to ensure the safety of the men who hung there, as blood was manually poured over the places where the ghastly wounds would have been, had nails been involved. To make the experiment as accurate as possible, the volunteers were chosen for their resemblance to the man depicted on the Turin shroud, who Jackson has long believed could be Jesus Christ himself.

The possible bloodstains on the cloth have long been a focal point. Last summer a paper appeared in the Journal of Forensic Sciences—by forensic anthropologist Matteo Borrini and chemist Luigi Garlaschelli—claiming that the blood splatter patterns on the shroud were not consistent with crucifixion. That conclusion was met with derision among shroud believers, in part because Borrini and Garlaschelli are known skeptics who have a history of debunking supernatural phenomena. Jackson wouldn’t divulge many details about his most recent experiment; he doesn’t want to jeopardize future publication in a scientific journal. But at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Baltimore this past February, he presented the results of his test. Jackson would only tell me that his experiments pointed to the opposite of the conclusion of Borrini and Garlaschelli, and an abstract for his paper said the blood flow patterns he observed “appear to support the hypothesis of Shroud authenticity in some new and unexpected ways.”

Jackson, a Catholic and a retired US Air Force physicist, runs his nonprofit shroud research center in Colorado Springs with his wife Rebecca. Rebecca is an Orthodox Jew turned Protestant turned Catholic, a beautician turned Army cook turned MBA, and a real bulldog, according to her husband of nearly 30 years. She was watching a rerun of a British documentary on the Turin shroud in 1990, when she first laid eyes on the burial cloth, and on John, who was being interviewed. Rebecca, whose Army career brought her out to Fort Carson, Colorado, in the 1990s, called up John. She wanted to tell him that she thought the man in the Turin shroud looked Jewish, like her grandfather. Within a few years, Rebecca and John were married.

Jackson deserves some credit for the boom in scientific attention to the shroud. In 1978, he led the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP)—a team of more than 30 investigators, most of whom had technical and military backgrounds, and several of whom were Christian—on a visit to Turin to investigate the shroud. They took new images of the linen cloth and used sticky tape to lift samples of particles such as pollen and dust off the shroud. The group claimed it spent a cumulative 250,000 hours analyzing the data they collected and released a report in 1981. STURP concluded that there were no traces of paint on the cloth; that the shroud had come into direct contact with a body; and that the image of the man seen within it was not the product of an artist, but an unsolved mystery. “There are no chemical or physical methods known which can account for the totality of the image, nor can any combination of physical, chemical, biological, or medical circumstances explain the image adequately,” they wrote.

In other words, they threw open the door for a supernatural explanation.

The next high-profile investigation came a decade later. In 1983, the Vatican became the owner of the shroud, which had previously been in the hands of the exiled former Italian king, Umberto II, who inherited it from the royal Savoy lineage. Though Church officials have tightly controlled who gets to examine the shroud, in 1988 they allowed samples of the fragile cloth to undergo carbon-14 testing—the most accurate scientific method for determining the age of historical objects made from organic materials. Three prestigious independent labs in Tucson, Oxford, and Zurich determined that the linen dates to between 1260 and 1390 CE. Cardinal archbishop Anastasio Ballestrero, who oversaw the tests, said at the time he hoped the confirmation of the shroud’s medieval provenance would “cause a rethinking in terms of faith, especially among those most attached to the folklore of the Shroud.” But it didn’t: shroud believers, including several STURP members, questioned—and are still questioning—the test results.

Increasingly elaborate theories have cropped up within shroud scholarship since the late 1980s about why the radiocarbon tests could have produced a medieval date. Carbon-14, a radioactive carbon isotope found in all living materials, decays at a fixed rate over time; determining how much carbon-14 a cloth or bone or piece of wood contains will tell you its age. Some have theorized that “bioplastic coating,” or another type of contamination on the shroud, could have thrown the date way off. Others have argued that the statistical analyses were in error. Still others have argued that radiation bursts expelled from a body—in a way that bodies have never been known to release radiation bursts—could have massively enriched the carbon-14 content of the cloth, giving a medieval date when it might actually be 2,000 years old.

Then there’s the question of how the shroud was endowed with its image.

Most Shroudies reject any suggestion that the cloth has ever been painted. According to British historian and author Charles Freeman, this has been their “catastrophic error.”

“The resurrection, no matter how you look at it, that’s a radical idea ... If the shroud had anything about it that could link to that belief, why wouldn’t we be interested in wanting to study that?”

When I was still a newcomer in the shroud world, I sought perspective from Freeman, who had written a book on medieval relic cults. I got a response from him a few days after Christmas in 2016: “I expect that by now you will have realized why debating with the Shroudies is a dead end”—I hadn’t—“and why experts in relic cults, weaving, the art of the Passion, radio-carbon dating, etc., all the relevant issues, won’t have anything to do with them.”

Despite his outlook on debating Shroudies, Freeman is one of the few historians to have at least tried.

In a 2014 article in the British monthly magazine History Today, Freeman made the case that that the shroud is a medieval painted linen. The article includes artwork and descriptions of the shroud from the 16th to 18th centuries demonstrating that the image of the body on the cloth was much more vivid than it is today; he says that whether or not the STURP team actually found any pigments on the shroud, they’ve failed to imagine that the cloth might once have been painted, and that the pigments have degraded over time.

In my conversations with Freeman, he complains that the Shroudies have ignored the historical context of the cloth. The shroud publicly debuted in France around 1355, a time when Europe was recovering from the Black Death and sudden appearances of new relics were common. The iconography of the shroud is also consistent with a dramatic shift in depictions of Christ that occurred in the 14th century, when his blood and wounds started to be shown more prominently. And, perhaps most important, there’s the fact that the earliest records of the shroud claimed it was a painted fraud.

And yet, shroud scholars have attempted to replicate the cloth’s markings under the assumption that the linen could never have been painted. When their high-tech methods have failed, they’ve claimed the image of Jesus couldn’t have been made by a human. For example, several years ago, Italian physicist Paolo Di Lazzaro led experiments in which he tried to discolor a piece of linen with a laser; he had implied that a supernatural burst of ultraviolet light might have created the image on the Turin shroud.

“If the thing is a miracle, then why did God need a particular wavelength and duration of pulses of UV light in order to create an image?” Hugh Farey asks.

The question is rhetorical. Farey used to believe the shroud was authentic, and he would have told you so in the comments section of skeptic blogs and forums about 15 years ago. But then, around 2005, Farey had a conversion—“like St. Paul, only in the other direction.”

Farey, now 63, was a science teacher at a Catholic boarding school in Herefordshire, England. His anti-conversion on the shroud came about after skeptics on blogs challenged him to look at the studies upon which his beliefs were based instead of just looking at the accounts of authenticists, such as Ian Wilson, who has written books like The Blood and the Shroud: New Evidence That the World’s Most Sacred Relic Is Real. The more Farey looked into the studies, the more he saw that academics’ tentative suggestions had been considerably overemphasized by Shroudies. (For example, when one researcher noted that some stitching on the Shroud resembled some stitching on textiles found at Masada, an ancient site in Israel, she did not say that that style of stitching was only found at Masada.)

But instead of dropping out of the Shroudie world, Farey dug in, finding a place as a non-authenticist in a world of authenticists. He’s still actively involved in discussions and debates about the shroud, and even served as editor of the newsletter for the British Society for the Turin Shroud from 2013 to 2017.

“On the whole, people have been very generous,” says Farey, who is now retired. “There is somebody in Australia who thinks I’m going to hell, but apart from that, people are very fair.”

Farey says the shroud has only become more fascinating to him in the years following his acceptance of its medieval history. “It’s got far more depth and dignity to it than almost any painting that I can think of, even by Leonardo da Vinci, or statues by Michelangelo,” he says. “So it has a kind of mystery and magic of its own. It has an intrinsic value regardless of it not being authentic.”

The haunting and hidden nature of the image on the shroud today is perhaps why it’s taken more seriously than all the other examples of acheiropoieta (a Greek word meaning icons “made without hands”) that have inspired worship over the last several centuries. Freeman believes that history scholars’ unwillingness to work with the shroud and comment on the evidence has created a vacuum for shroud authenticists to spread what he calls propaganda. (He also blames the media for credulously stoking the “unsolved mystery” of the shroud.) He saw a small victory recently, in the retraction of a paper from the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS ONE that claimed the person wrapped in the shroud suffered “strong polytrauma.” (The authors of that paper dispute the retraction.) However dubious, the sheer number of claims in favor of authenticity over the last 50 years—in peer-reviewed journals, by physicists and chemists and statisticians with PhDs next to their names—has created a thick fog of mystery (or the appearance of one) around the shroud. As science journalist Philip Ball wrote in Nature in 2005: “The scientific study of the Turin shroud is like a microcosm of the scientific search for God: it does more to inflame any debate than settle it.”

I’ll never write anything to settle the debate. Even a modest debunking seems out of reach. (Freeman sent me a 69,000-word draft of an unpublished book on the shroud that does a valiant job.) I keep saying I don’t want to fall into the trap of litigating the authenticity of the Turin shroud in this story. And yet, I’ve lost hours in phone conversations and email threads and comments sections learning about Catholic blood cults, when Jesus became bearded in Christian iconography (reportedly by the year 300), the standard sizes of medieval linens, signatures of trauma in blood, typical pollen from the Holy Land, proper technique for mock crucifixions, and more. I feel like I can’t dismiss the Shroudies until I have an opinion on all of these aspects of shroud studies.

One night while writing this story, I shot up from the middle a of melatonin-addled half-sleep: I thought I was hallucinating a levitating, shroud-covered body in my room. It was a bedsheet draped over my drying rack. It’s easy to get sucked into the fog.

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