Miracle or Fraud? The Turin Shroud (Joe Nickell, 2013)

NOTE: The following article is the 18th chapter from The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible:

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The Shroud of Turin continues to be the subject of media presentations that treat it as being so mysterious as to imply a supernatural origin. One recent study (Binga 2001) found only ten credible skeptical books on the topic versus over four hundred promoting the cloth as the authentic, or potentially authentic, burial cloth of Jesus—including a revisionist tome, The Resurrection of the Shroud (Antonacci 2000). Yet since the cloth appeared in the middle of the fourteenth century it has been at the center of scandal, exposés, and controversy—a dubious legacy for what is purported to be the most holy relic in Christendom.


There have been numerous “true” shrouds of Jesus—along with vials of his mother’s breast milk, hay from the manger in which he was born, and countless relics of his crucifixion—but the Turin cloth uniquely bears the apparent imprints of a crucified man. Unfortunately the cloth is incompatible with New Testament accounts of Jesus’ burial.

John’s Gospel (19:38–42, 20:5–7) specifically states that the body was “wound” with “linen clothes” and a large quantity of burial spices (myrrh and aloes). Still another cloth (called “the napkin”) covered his face and head. In contrast, the Shroud of Turin represents a single, draped cloth (laid under and then over the “body”) without any trace of the burial spices.

Of the many earlier purported shrouds of Christ, which were typically about half the length of the Turin cloth, one was the subject of a reported seventh-century dispute on the island of Iona between Christians and Jews, both of whom claimed it. As adjudicator, an Arab ruler placed the alleged relic in a fire from which it levitated, unscathed, and fell at the feet of the Christians—or so says a pious tale. In medieval Europe alone there were “at least forty-three ‘True Shrouds’” (Humber 1978, 78).


The cloth now known as the Shroud of Turin first appeared about 1355 at a little church in Lirey, in north central France. Its owner, a soldier of fortune named Geoffroy de Charney, claimed it as the authentic shroud of Christ, although he never explained how he acquired such a fabulous possession. According to a later bishop’s report, written by Pierre D’Arcis to the Avignon pope, Clement VII, in 1389, the shroud was being used as part of a faith-healing scam:

The case, Holy Father, stands thus. Some time since in this diocese of Troyes the dean of a certain collegiate church, to wit, that of Lirey, falsely and deceitfully, being consumed with the passion of avarice, and not from any motive of devotion but only of gain, procured for his church a certain cloth cunningly painted, upon which by a clever sleight of hand was depicted the twofold image of one man, that is to say, the back and the front, he falsely declaring and pretending that this was the actual shroud in which our Savior Jesus Christ was enfolded in the tomb, and upon which the whole likeness of the Savior had remained thus impressed together with the wounds which He bore…. And further to attract the multitude so that money might cunningly be wrung from them, pretended miracles were worked, certain men being hired to represent themselves as healed at the moment of the exhibition of the shroud.

D’Arcis continued, speaking of a predecessor who conducted the investigation and uncovered the forger: “Eventually, after diligent inquiry and examination, he discovered the fraud and how the said cloth had been cunningly painted, the truth being attested by the artist who had painted it, to wit, that it was a work of human skill and not miraculously wrought or bestowed” (emphasis added).

Action had been taken and the cloth hidden away, but now, years later, it had resurfaced. D’Arcis (1389) spoke of “the grievous nature of the scandal, the contempt brought upon the Church and ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and the danger to souls.”

As a consequence Clement ordered that, while the cloth could continue being exhibited (it had been displayed on a high platform flanked by torches), during the exhibition it must be loudly announced that “it is not the True Shroud of Our Lord, but a painting or picture made in the semblance or representation of the Shroud” (Humber 1978, 100). Thus the scandal at Lirey ended—for a time.

 In October 2009 it was announced that scientists in Italy had made a cloth bearing an image very similar to the shroud.
In October 2009 it was announced that scientists in Italy had made a cloth bearing an image very similar to the shroud.


During the Hundred Years’ War, Margaret de Charney, granddaughter of the Shroud’s original owner, gained custody of the cloth, allegedly for safekeeping. But despite many subsequent entreaties she refused to return it, instead even taking it on tour in the areas of present-day France, Belgium, and Switzerland. When there were additional challenges to the Shroud’s authenticity, Margaret could only produce documents officially labeling it a “representation.”

In 1453, at Geneva, Margaret sold the cloth to Duke Louis I of Savoy. Some Shroud proponents like to say Margaret “gave” the cloth to Duke Louis, but it is only fair to point out that in return he “gave” Margaret the sum of two castles. In 1457, after years of broken promises to return the cloth to the canons of Lirey and later to compensate them for its loss, Margaret was excommunicated. She died in 1460.

The Savoys (who later comprised the Italian monarchy and owned the shroud until it was bequeathed to the Vatican in 1983) represented the shroud as genuine. They treated it as a “holy charm” having magical powers and enshrined it in an expanded church at their castle at Chambéry. There in 1532 a fire blazed through the chapel and before the cloth was rescued a blob of molten silver from the reliquary burned through its forty-eight folds. The alleged talisman was thus revealed as being unable even to protect itself. Eventually, in a shrewd political move—by a later Duke who wished a more suitable capital—the cloth was transferred to Turin (in present-day Italy) (see figure 18.1).

In 1898 the shroud was photographed for the first time, and the glass-plate negatives showed a more lifelike, quasi-positive image. Thus began the modern era of the shroud, with proponents asking how a mere medieval forger could have produced a perfect “photographic” negative before the development of photography. In fact the analogy with photographic images is misleading, since the “positive” image shows a figure with white hair and beard, the opposite of what would be expected for a Palestinian Jew in his thirties.

Nevertheless, some shroud advocates suggested the image was produced by simple contact with bloody sweat or burial ointments. But that is disproved by a lack of wraparound distortions. Also, not all imaged areas would have been touched by a simple draped cloth, so some sort of projection was envisioned. One notion was “vaporography,” body vapors supposedly interacting with spices on the cloth to yield a vapor “photo,” but all experimentation produced was a blur (Nickell 1998, 81–84). Others began to opine that the image was “scorched” by a miraculous burst of radiant energy at the time of Jesus’ resurrection. Yet no known radiation would produce such superficial images, and actual scorches on the cloth from the fire of 1532 exhibit strong reddish fluorescence, in contrast to the shroud images that do not fluoresce at all.

Figure 18.1


In 1969 the archbishop of Turin appointed a secret commission to examine the shroud. That fact was leaked, then denied, but (according to Wilcox 1977, 44) “at last the Turin authorities were forced to admit what they previously denied.” The man who had exposed the secrecy accused the clerics of acting “like thieves in the night.” More detailed studies—again clandestine—began in 1973.

The commission included internationally known forensic serologists who made heroic efforts to validate the “blood,” but all of the microscopial, chemical, biological, and instrumental tests were negative. This was not surprising, since the stains were suspiciously still red and artistically “picturelike.” Experts discovered reddish granules that would not even dissolve in reagents that dissolve blood, and one investigator found traces of what appeared to be paint. An art expert concluded that the image had been produced by an artistic printing technique.

The commission’s report was withheld until 1976 and then was largely suppressed, while a rebuttal report was freely made available. Thus began an approach that would be repeated over and over: distinguished experts would be asked to examine the cloth then would be attacked when they obtained other than desired results.



Further examinations were conducted in 1978 by the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP). STURP was a group of mostly religious believers whose leaders served on the executive council of the Holy Shroud Guild, a Catholic organization that advocated the “cause” of the supposed relic. STURP members, like others calling themselves “sindonologists” (i.e. shroudologists), gave the impression that they started with the desired answer.

STURP pathologist Robert Bucklin—another Holy Shroud Guild executive councilman—stated that he was willing to stake his reputation on the shroud’s authenticity. He and other proshroud pathologists argued for the image’s anatomical correctness, yet a footprint on the cloth is inconsistent with the position of the leg to which it is attached, the hair falls as for a standing rather than a recumbent figure, and the physique is so unnaturally elongated (similar to figures in Gothic art) that one proshroud pathologist concluded that Jesus must have suffered from Marfan syndrome (Nickell 1989)!

STURP lacked experts in art and forensic chemistry—with one exception: famed microanalyst Walter C. McCrone. Examining thirty-two tape-lifted samples from the shroud, McCrone identified the “blood” as tempera paint containing red ocher and vermilion along with traces of rose madder—pigments used by medieval artists to depict blood. He also discovered that on the image—but not the background—were significant amounts of the red ocher pigment. He first thought this was applied as a dry powder but later concluded it was a component of dilute paint applied in the medieval grisaille (monochromatic) technique (McCrone 1996; cf. Nickell 1998). For his efforts McCrone was held to a secrecy agreement, while statements were made to the press that there was no evidence of artistry. He was, he says, “drummed out” of STURP.

STURP representatives paid a surprise visit to McCrone’s lab to confiscate his samples. They then gave them to two late additions to STURP, John Heller and Alan Adler, neither of whom was a forensic serologist or a pigment expert. The pair soon proclaimed that they had “identified the presence of blood.” However, at the 1983 conference of the prestigious International Association for Identification, forensic analyst John F. Fischer explained how results similar to theirs could be obtained from tempera paint.

A later claim concerns reported evidence of human DNA in a shroud “blood” sample, although the archbishop of Turin and the Vatican refused to authenticate the samples or accept any research carried out on them. University of Texas researcher Leoncio Garza-Valdez, in his The DNA of God? (1999, 41), claims it was possible “to clone the sample and amplify it,” proving it was “ancient” blood “from a human being or high primate,” while Ian Wilson’s The Blood and the Shroud (1998, 91) asserted it was “human blood.”

Actually the scientist at the DNA lab, Victor Tryon, told Time magazine that he could not say how old the DNA was or that it came from blood. As he explained, “Everyone who has ever touched the shroud or cried over the shroud has left a potential DNA signal there.” Tryon resigned from the new shroud project due to what he disparaged as “zealotry in science” (Van Biema 1998, 61).



McCrone would later refute another bit of proshroud propaganda: the claim of Swiss criminologist Max Frei-Sulzer that he had found certain pollen grains on the cloth that “could only have originated from plants that grew exclusively in Palestine at the time of Christ.” Earlier Frei had also claimed to have discovered pollens on the cloth that were characteristic of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) and the area of ancient Edessa—seeming to confirm a “theory” of the shroud’s missing early history. Wilson (1979) conjectured that the shroud was the fourth-century Image of Edessa, a legendary “miraculous” imprint of Jesus’ face made as a gift to King Abgar. Wilson’s notion was that the shroud had been folded so that only the face showed and that it had thus been disguised for centuries. Actually, had the cloth been kept in a frame for such a long period there would have been an age-yellowed, rectangular area around the face. Nevertheless Frei’s alleged pollen evidence gave new support to Wilson’s ideas.

I say alleged evidence because Frei had credibility problems. Before his death in 1983 his reputation suffered when, representing himself as a handwriting expert, he pronounced the infamous “Hitler diaries” genuine; they were soon exposed as forgeries.

In the meantime an even more serious question had arisen about Frei’s pollen evidence. Whereas he reported finding numerous types of pollen from Palestine and other areas, STURP’s tape-lifted samples, taken at the same time, showed few pollen. Micropaleontologist Steven D. Schafersman was probably the first to publicly suggest that Frei might be guilty of deception. He explained how unlikely it was, given the evidence of the shroud’s exclusively European history, that thirty-three different Middle Eastern pollens could have reached the cloth, particularly only pollen from Palestine, Istanbul, and the Anatolian steppe. With such selectivity, Schafersman stated, “these would be miraculous winds indeed.” In an article in Skeptical Inquirer Schafersman (1982) called for an investigation of Frei’s work.

When Frei’s tape samples became available after his death, McCrone was asked to authenticate them. This he was readily able to do, he told me, “since it was easy to find red ocher on linen fibers much the same as I had seen them on my samples.” But there were few pollen other than on a single tape that bore “dozens” in one small area. This indicated that the tape had subsequently been “contaminated,” probably deliberately, McCrone concluded, by having been pulled back and the pollen surreptitiously introduced.

McCrone added (1993):

One further point with respect to Max which I haven’t mentioned anywhere, anytime to anybody is based on a statement made by his counterpart in Basel as head of the Police Crime Laboratory there that Max had been several times found guilty and was censured by the Police hierarchy in Switzerland for, shall we say, overenthusiastic interpretation of his evidence. His Basel counterpart had been on the investigating committee and expressed surprise in a letter to me that Max was able to continue in his position as Head of the Police Crime Lab in Zurich.

Monochrome fresco at the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, France.
Monochrome fresco at the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, France.


The pollen “evidence” became especially important to believers following the devastating results of radiocarbon dating tests in 1988. Three laboratories (at Oxford, Zurich, and the University of Arizona) used accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) to date samples of the linen. The results were in close agreement and were given added credibility by the use of control samples of known dates. The resulting age span was circa 1260–1390 CE—consistent with the time of the reported forger’s confession.

Shroud enthusiasts were devastated, but they soon rallied, beginning a campaign to discredit the radiocarbon findings. Someone put out a false story that the AMS tests were done on one of the patches from the 1532 fire, thus supposedly yielding a late date. A Russian scientist, Dmitrii Kuznetsov, claimed to have established experimentally that heat from a fire (like that of 1532) could alter the radiocarbon date. But others could not replicate his alleged results and it turned out that his physics calculations had been plagiarized—complete with an error (Wilson 1998, 219–23). (Kuznetsov was also exposed in Skeptical Inquirer for bogus research in a study criticizing evolution [Larhammar 1995].)

A more persistent challenge to the radiocarbon testing was hurled by Garza-Valdez (1993). He claimed to have obtained samples of the “miraculous cloth” that bore a microbial coating, contamination that could have altered the radiocarbon date. However, that notion was effectively disproved by physicist Thomas J. Pickett (1996). He performed a simple calculation that showed that for the shroud to have been altered by thirteen centuries (i.e., from Jesus’ first-century death to the radiocarbon date of 1325±65 years) there would have to be twice as much contamination, by weight, as the weight of the cloth itself!

The Shroud of Turn held by Catholic Bishops
The Shroud of Turn held by Catholic Bishops


Following the suspicious pollen evidence were claims that plant images had been identified on the cloth. These were allegedly discerned from “smudgy” appearing areas in shroud photos that were subsequently enhanced. The work was done by a retired geriatric psychiatrist, Alan Whanger, and his wife Mary, former missionaries who have taken up image analysis as a hobby. They were later assisted by an Israeli botanist who looked at their photos of “flower” images (many of them “wilted” and otherwise distorted) and exclaimed, “Those are the flowers of Jerusalem!” (Whanger and Whanger 1998, 79). Apparently no one has thought to see if some might match the flowers of France or Italy or even to try to prove that the images are indeed floral (given the relative scarcity of pollen grains on the cloth).

The visualized “flower and plant images” join other perceived shapes seen—Rorschach-like—in the shroud’s mottled image and off-image areas. These include “Roman coins” over the eyes, head and arm “phylacteries” (small Jewish prayer boxes), an “amulet,” and such crucifixion-associated items (see John 19) as “a large nail,” a “hammer,” “sponge on a reed,” “Roman thrusting spear,” “pliers,” “two scourges,” “two brush brooms,” “two small nails,” “large spoon or trowel in a box,” “a loose coil of rope,” a “cloak” with “belt,” a “tunic,” a pair of “sandals,” and other hilarious imaginings, including “Roman dice,” all discovered by the Whangers (1998) and their botanist friend.

They and others have also reported finding ancient Latin and Greek words, such as “Jesus” and “Nazareth.” Even Ian Wilson (1998, 242) felt compelled to state: “While there can be absolutely no doubting the sincerity of those who make these claims, the great danger of such arguments is that researchers may ‘see’ merely what their minds trick them into thinking is there.”

Black Madonna


We see that “shroud science”—like “creation science” and other pseudosciences in the service of dogma—begins with the desired answer and works backward to the evidence. Although they are bereft of any viable hypothesis for the image formation, sindonologists are quick to dismiss the profound, corroborative evidence for artistry. Instead, they suggest that the “mystery” of the shroud implies a miracle, but of course that is merely an example of the logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance.

Worse, some have engaged in pseudoscience and even, apparently, outright scientific fraud, while others have shamefully mistreated the honest scientists who reported unpopular findings. We should again recall the words of Canon Ulysse Chevalier, the Catholic scholar who brought to light the documentary evidence of the shroud’s medieval origin. As he lamented, “The history of the shroud constitutes a protracted violation of the two virtues so often commended by our holy books: justice and truth” (quoted in Nickell 1998, 21)

Dr John Jackson and the late Professor Giovanni Riggi, examine the Shroud in Turin, Italy, in 1978
Dr John Jackson and the late Professor Giovanni Riggi, examine the Shroud in Turin, Italy, in 1978

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