SIMSBURY – Can it be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the Shroud of Turin is the cloth that was wrapped around the body of Jesus when he was crucified 2,000 years ago? No.
But is there a plethora of evidence that strongly suggests that it is what believers claim it is? Yes.
That was the premise behind a two-hour presentation called "Shroud Encounter" on March 10 at St. Catherine of Siena Parish. The slide lecture was conducted by international shroud expert Russ Breault, founder of the Georgia-based Shroud of Turin Education Project Inc. He has lectured on the topic for 25 years.
Focusing on scientific, historic, liturgical, cultural and other evidence, he led an audience of 700 people through the story of the shroud. The 14-foot-long single piece of woven cloth resides behind bullet-proof glass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy.
It has only been on public display five times during the 20th century, Mr. Breault said. As one of his last official acts, Pope Benedict XVI instructed that it be displayed to worshippers via streaming video on Holy Saturday 2013.
The shroud has experienced a long, colorful and difficult life. It has been transported, cut up, stolen, burned in a fire and stained by the water used to extinguish the fire. Someone spilled burning incense on it. There is a more than a 100-year period during which its whereabouts are unknown.
It was kept in Edessa (located near the border of modern-day Turkey and Syria) for hundreds of years. The shroud was stolen by the French during the Crusades and was owned for more than 500 years by the Savoys, the royal family of Italy, until 1983, when it became property of the Vatican.
Art over the centuries reveals that the shroud was regularly displayed at official functions and it is known that small pieces were cut out and given away as gifts at royal weddings.
Mr. Breault pointed to ancient art depicting the shroud and an impression of a man with two creases under his chin. The image on the shroud has two such creases.
There is an image of a crucified man on the shroud, which has both a front and back imprint. The stains tested positive for 13 different blood components. Mr. Breault highlighted what he firmly believes are blood stains from when Jesus was scourged, made by more than 100 lashes.
"All of the bloodstain patterns show evidence of gravity," said Mr. Breault.
That’s important because it verifies that the man who was wrapped in this shroud was crucified.
Careful scrutiny of the cloth, particularly the dorsal (rear) image, also reveals what may well be wounds to the feet and sides. The frontal view appears to be a man with only four fingers on each hand, but he explained that when nails are driven into the hands, the thumbs curl inward.
He contends that the story of the shroud lines up with both biblical references and Jewish burial traditions. For years, doubters have tried to prove that it is a fraud created by an artist, but there is absolutely no scientific evidence of dye, ink, paint or other pigmentation.
Of all the miracles Jesus performed, "the greatest miracle of all, Jesus’ rising from the dead, had no eyewitnesses," said Mr. Breault.
He had already left the tomb when his disciples came to check on the rumor that his body had been stolen.
In 1981, a team of scientists was granted extraordinary access to the shroud, 122 hours over five days. They performed a wide variety of tests. Some were expecting to quickly discover that it was a forgery, but came to the conclusion that it could well be authentic.
Another team in 1988 performed carbon-dating tests. Their conclusion was that it is not old enough to have existed in the time of Jesus.
But Mr. Breault said that that team’s conclusions have been debunked as bad science. They didn’t follow proper protocol in their tests. They were authorized to remove pieces from three different parts of the shroud for carbon-dating, but they only took one, a corner that had been handled and mended over the years.
"The sample that was cut is highly questionable," he said.
A study of the pattern in which the shroud is woven shows a rare and complex textile for the time in history when Jesus walked the Earth. It is a complicated herringbone style of weaving, indicating that this garment was intended for someone special.
"This was probably one of the most expensive pieces of linen that you could buy at that time," Mr. Breault said.
But that makes sense when you consider that Joseph of Arimathea, who claimed the body of Jesus and buried it in his own tomb, was a man of great wealth, Mr. Breault said. He could afford such a garment.
Other scientific testing found dirt in the area of the feet and knees. This would also make sense when one thinks of how Jesus was required to carry his cross. The only sample of dirt known to match that on the shroud comes from Jerusalem.
Other tests were made of pollen embedded in the cloth. Some of it comes from a flower native to Israel, Syria and Jordan.
Twenty-seven percent of the total pollen found and tested comes from a plant that only grows within a 50-mile radius of Jerusalem. That plant produces thorns. This pollen was found around the image of the crucified man’s head.
"Whether it is authentic or not, this is remarkable," Mr. Breault said. "I think the shroud is probably authentic."
So it remains, and perhaps will always remain, one of the great unsolved mysteries of mankind.
Father Michael Whyte, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena, said he was thrilled with the program. It was originally scheduled for the beginning of Lent but a blizzard forced its postponement.
"We were talking about what we could do for Lent that would be spiritual and bring people into the church" for something other than a liturgical service, he said. "Faith and reason are not enemies, they are dance partners."