The Enigma of the Shroud of Turin

Probably the most extraordinary object you will ever encounter

Where is the Shroud in the Bible? Where is it in the development of Christianity? Does it square with Christian theology?

It stands to reason that if the Shroud is authentic these questions are all important and require an answer. The fact is that the Shroud - as an image bearing cloth - would appear not to be in the Bible. However, the new book, The Sign, by Thomas de Wesselow, claims that the Shroud is very definitely there and is central to the climax of the whole story.

De Wesselow is a brave man. He is an extremely well qualified and experienced academic specialist in the history of art. It is this expertise that gave him the insight to realise - despite the C14 pronouncement to the contrary - that it could not possibly be a medieval forgery. In doing so he has put his reputation on the line in a way that few in his position would ever dare to do. Having convinced himself that the Shroud is authentic he has set about re-examining the Bible for a sight of it. To his evident excitement he found what he was looking for. I once went on a similar mission in search of the "
Historical Jesus".

In 1982, the new UK national TV network, Channel 4, commissioned ITV to make a three part - no-expense-spared series - entitled:
Jesus - The Evidence. (See banner above). On the strength of my first film on the Shroud, The Silent Witness I was asked to make it. The world's leading New Testament scholars all contributed to the research and several appeared in the film. The series was controversial and many, including myself, were shocked by what it revealed. Some territories banned it and I was even informed that Queen Elizabeth, as Defender of the Faith, got a message to my supreme boss, the Chairman of ITV, that she was "not amused".

The conclusions Christian scholars had reached about the historical Jesus and early Christianity had, until then, remained within the confines of their rarified and cloistered communities and for good reason. They were dynamite to the cherished beliefs of the faithful. Their publications, full of words like parousia, eschatological, hermeneutics and
hypostases, to select a few, seemed designed to keep them obscure. The clergy, who were well aware of their conclusions, on the whole thought it best not to worry their flocks about the implications. Many Christians to this day remain blissfully unaware that the solid foundations on which the Christian faith had been built had been substantially eroded. The rampant rise of rationalism that followed in the wake of the Enlightenment had subjected the Bible texts to the most critical analysis. Intellectually, it had to be done. Christianity is based on a historical person and real events. The "Quest for the Historical Jesus" became the avid occupation of several generations of scholars and theologians. The Germans, with their Luther-inspired determination to remove all perceived Catholic embellishments to the faith, led the way. The Vatican expressly forbade its own theologians to go down that road or, at least, not to publish. To overcome the historical problems they encountered the Christian scholars who had adduced the damning evidence proclaimed a new and more existential Christianity based not on the "Historical Jesus" but the "Christ of Faith".

Until now, this debate has not been germane to the Shroud as sindonologists have been preoccupied with the more pressing issue of authenticity. But that has all changed with the publication of Thomas de Wesselow's book. In a stroke he has catapaulted the Shroud right back into the heart of the gospels and the birth of the new religion. I welcome it as an opportunity to set the Shroud within that crucible. For, if it is authentic, as I have come to believe, it must have been at the heart of it. Hold on to your hats! If you regard Scripture as sacrosanct, this leg of the journey is a bumpy one but I think it will be worth taking. The Shroud takes us into the tomb and whatever happened there to create a world-changing new religion. De Wesselow's least considered chapter concerns the image itself. He has already stuck his neck out far enough by merely granting the Shroud academic respect, he could not possibly countenance something "unexplainable" as far as the image is concerned. He looked for the best possible rational explanation for the image he could find and, despite its limitations, plumped for it. That is perfectly understandable.

Please read De Wesselow's book. My next task is to dig into the
Jesus - The Evidence archive to see what might be relevant and place it here. Some of it could well make The Sign's complex arguments easier to evaluate. I also hope soon to get an opportunity to discuss things further with the author. Meanwhile, the Shroud conference in Valencia beckons this weekend. The nature of the image will be a central topic.

DR. 26.4.12

A Short Review

This book will either vanish quickly into obscurity or become a turning point in our understanding of the development of Christianity and, by extension, Western Civilization.  There’s not much middle ground here.   (A phrase Shroud aficionados are very familiar with).  With a reappraisal of one key element, it could well be the latter.
If you are a stranger to New Testament criticism and the name Rudolf Bultmann in not familiar to you the text will be a hard struggle. If you regard Scripture as sacrosanct then you might also find it offensive.   But stick with it.  So forceful is de Wesselow's conviction that the Shroud is central that he concludes by saying that if the Shroud in Turin did not exist we would have to invent it in order to explain the rise of Christianity.   He marshals his arguments with a thorough academic rigour.  Having had his own “Damascene revelation” about the Shroud he tries to convince us of its validity (the Shroud’s and his revelation’s) with an apostle’s zeal.  In a nutshell, there was no bodily resurrection but the images found on the Shroud eventually gave rise to this belief even though it was not what the disciples themselves and, later, Paul believed.
De Wesselow proudly proclaims his rationalist credentials as if that should give the work additional credibility.  His assumption is that the Shroud image must be the process of a unique freak accident of chemistry - a Maillard reaction which, while it is known to be a browning agent in cooking - has never been known to create a meaningful image of any kind. Yet, de Wesselow, assumes that the one and only time it does, it creates a 14ft homogenous 3D and highly resolved ventral and dorsal depiction of Jesus laid out in death.  And not only that, but an image which is a sublime work of art capturing, as it does, the brutality and agony of a Roman crucifixion at the same time as the transcendence to overcome it.  As a professional art historian he should realise that this is a miracle all of its own.

This one forgivable rationalist assumption can be excised easily from the book and nothing is lost from its main thrust. On the contrary, given that God works in mysterious ways, the thesis could be even more persuasive.

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