CNN’s “Finding Jesus”: Disingenuous Look at Turin “Shroud”

March 6, 2015

The ongoing, six-part series Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery— which began on Sunday, March 1—represents CNN’s run-up to Easter. By a coincidence of a financial nature, the series co-appears with a book of the same title by religion writers/filmmakers, David Gibson and Michael McKinley. The first episode of the TV series (but curiously the last chapter of the book) was about the “Shroud” of Turin. Easter after Easter, this alleged burial cloth of Jesus is trotted out like a ghost story at Halloween, typically with the same shoddy standards.

This TV presentation was no exception. It was replete with pseudohistory and pseudoscience to such an extent that—if one is not to question the producers’ motives— one must accuse them of gross incompetence. To show why, this review necessarily focuses as much on what is left out as it does on what makes the cut. The program is thus revealed as an hour-long example of confirmation bias—by which one begins with the desired answer and works backward to the evidence, picking and choosing. The usual formula to such crocumentaries is to spend, say, half to two-thirds of the time building up the claim at hand, then bring in some skepticism—or “skepticism”— and finally attack the contrary points, so as to end on a note of mystery. The implication is that science cannot explain the image on the “shroud,” so it appears to be something beyond science. This is a type of faulty logic called an argument from ignorance.

Here is some of what you will not learn about the shroud, from CNN’s Finding Jesus. Despite mention of the burial spices (John 19:39-40), none has been found on the shroud, and the under-and-over means of covering the supposed body with a single cloth is unknown in Jewish burial practice. Although there have been some 40 alleged shrouds of Jesus, the cloth now at Turin has no provenance before about 1355; a later French bishop reported to Pope Clement VII that the cloth was being used in a faith-healing scam and that it had been “cunningly painted” by an artist who confessed. A secret commission appointed in 1969 to study the shroud examined the “blood” stains, which are “picturelike” and suspiciously still red. Internationally known forensic serologists reported that the red substance failed all microscopical, chemical, biological, and instrumental tests. Instead, there were reddish granules that would not even dissolve in reagents that dissolve blood.

The TV program extensively mentioned the 1978 examination by the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) but gave no indication that these were mostly religious believers; their leaders served on the executive council of the Holy Shroud Guild which supported the “cause” of the supposed relic. Devoutly religious pro-shroud pathologists have argued for the image’s anatomical correctness despite the figure’s unnatural elongation (as in French gothic art!) and other flaws (such as the hair falling as for a standing figure rather than a reclining one). While STURP lacked experts in art and forensic chemistry, their tape-lifted surface samples were examined by famed microanalyst Walter C. McCrone. He discovered red ocher pigment making up the image—but not the background (so it was not contamination). He also identified the “blood” as tempera paint containing red ocher along with vermilion and traces of rose madder—pigments used by medieval artists to depict blood.

Of course the producers felt obliged to mention the radiocarbon testing—although the resulting date, obtained by three laboratories as 1260-1390 CE, was not equated corroboratively with the reported forger’s confession. Instead, they worked to challenge this powerful evidence. Maybe the shroud could be linked to the fourth-century Image of Edessa—a face-only portrait of Jesus—by imagining the shroud had been folded so that only the face showed; or maybe it could be linked to a supposed companion cloth, the so-called Sudarium of Oviedo (which, according to some reports, itself has been carbon-dated by two laboratories—not to the first century, but to the seventh or eighth).

The biased documentary ignored the replica shroud made by Italian chemist Luigi Garlaschelli that recreates the “negative” shroud image with its sparse red-ocher pigment confined to the tops of the threads, and an attendant yellow stain. (Using my Inquest on the Shroud of Turin [1998, 138-140] as something of a recipe book, he laid linen over a volunteer but substituted a bas-relief for the face to avoid critical wraparound distortions. He employed a version of my rubbing technique, using a pigment that, over time, mostly sloughed off but left a ghostly image due to its acidity degrading the cellulose. (See my The Science of Miracles, 2013, 119-138.)

As in the past, shroud proponents have fooled many (beginning with themselves) by claiming the shroud is a perfect “photographic” negative which no artist could have produced in the middle ages. In fact, the shroud image is not at all photographic, since the “positive” image (shown in reversals of the image) exhibits a figure with white hair and beard, the opposite of what would be expected for Jesus. The image on the cloth is therefore a quasi-negative— exactly like that produced by an artistic rubbing technique. Nevertheless, Finding Jesus chooses for its token skeptic a straw man in the form of Nicholas Allen. Allen takes the word photographic quite literally and proposes that the shroud was the world’s first photograph.

In this affront to Occam’s razor (the principle that the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is to be preferred), Allen proposes that the medieval forger actually invented photography. Specifically, he suggests the forger used a camera obscura (Latin “dark chamber”) or “pinhole camera”—one the size of a room, but newly outfitted with crystal lenses. The newly invented “film” would be a linen sheet treated with silver sulfate or silver nitrate. (Although no silver was ever found on the shroud, Allen rationalizes it could have been—for some reason—washed off with urine). The subject would have to have been an immobile figure (Allen used a plaster human body cast) hanging in the sun in such a way that light struck it equally during morning and afternoon. After several days, the forger would have an image he could then paint on with tempera paint to produce “blood” of the various “wound” sites—although even then the results would not be shroudlike. I suggest that— after the forger invented all this technology which went unused and unknown for the next nearly five centuries—he could have invented the telephone and talked with others about it. Then he could have invented the automobile and driven to the Riviera for a much-needed rest.

With his absurd “explanation” of the shroud’s image, Nicholas Allen has played into the hands of shroud propagandists. They use him to endorse the falsehood that the image is a photographic negative, then allow his farfetched notion to make skeptics look ridiculous in their desperation. The result is to make religion seem to trump science. Shroud activists are no doubt laughing all the way to the cathedral.