Making sense of a mystery
Mar 31st 2013, 1:06 by B.C.
ON THE eve of his first Easter Sunday celebration as bishop of Rome, Pope Francis sprang another of his teasing little surprises. As the Shroud of Turin, which is probably the Christian world’s most hotly contested holy relic, was given a rare showing on television, he issued a statement that urged people, in rather passionate terms, to contemplate the object with awe; but he also stopped firmly short of asserting its authenticity.
In a carefully worded message, he asked and answered a rhetorical question: “How is it that the faithful, like you, pause before this icon of a man scourged and crucified? It is because the Man of the Shroud invites us to contemplate Jesus of Nazareth.” An icon, in Christian terminology, is very different from an idol. In theology as in computer-speak, an icon is a sort of window that can lead the user into a different reality. But people can miss the point of an icon, so the theory goes, if they focus too much on the object itself (its age, its construction, its history) and forget to gaze beyond it.
The pope was signalling his refusal to enter a debate that may revive soon about the provenance of the Shroud, a four-metre long piece of linen which bears the imprint of a slim bearded man who has been scourged and tortured, with blood flowing from his head. For most of the past five centuries it has been kept in Turin and reverenced as the burial cloth which enveloped the body of Jesus before his resurrection. But for many people, the history of the Shroud appeared to be settled in 1988 when laboratories in Zurich, Oxford and Tucson, Arizona did a simultaneous carbon-dating test on a strip of the linen which had been cut into three. All agreed that it was no older than the mid-13th century. In other words, it was a medieval fake.
But there have always been those who on one ground or other reject that finding. Giulio Fanti, a professor of mechanical and thermal measurement at the University of Padua, has said he will soon publish research based on infra-red light and spectroscopy, showing that the cloth could have been made in the era of Jesus, give or take a few centuries. Rodney Hoare, a physicist who chaired the British Society for the Turin Shroud, thought the 1988 experiment was flawed in several ways: more than one part of the Shroud should have been analysed, observers should have been present throughout the sample-taking and a broader range of dating methods used. (Full disclosure: I was once taught physics by Rodney Hoare and he thought my experiments were pretty bad too.)
Inevitably, all investigators of the mysterious cloth, even if they are well-qualified scientists, bring personal sensibilities to bear. After years of studying the Shroud, Hoare, who was a liberal Anglican, concluded that the man wrapped in it could not have died; within a short time of death, the liquids oozing from the traumatised body would have obscured the markings that are now visible. This thought prompted him to posit a revised version of the Resurrection story. Gleb Kaleda, a Soviet scientist who was also a secret Orthodox priest, argued that only one thing could have skewed the carbon-dating readings completely: a matter-changing flash comparable to a thermonuclear explosion. But there is of course no peer-reviewed literature on the thermonuclear implications of a miraculous resurrection.
Hence, perhaps, the cautious but far from anodyne words of the new pontiff, who draws some unexpected conclusions from the Shroud, almost implying that it does not make any difference whose visage appears on the cloth. “This disfigured face resembles all those faces of men and women marred by a life which does not respect their dignity, by war and violence which afflict the weakest… And yet, at the same time, the face in the Shroud conveys a great peace; this tortured body expresses a sovereign majesty.”
(Photo credit: Wikimedia commons)