The Fraud of Turin

April 6, 2010

Like the obligatory ghost story that materializes at Halloween, the Shroud of Turin seems perpetually to be, well, resurrected for Easter. This usually occurs when shroud propagandists advance a new claim, or the popular media puts out a new publication or broadcast timed for Easter consumption. Often both occur. The result is that the possibility of the shroud’s authenticity is kept in play until next year when new claims will be put forth–never mind that the previous ones have been exposed as wishful thinking, pseudoscience, or even pious fraud.

For example, in 1981 a freelance criminologist named Max Frei claimed to have found traces of an ointment containing aloes, one of the aromatic spices mentioned regarding Jesus’ burial (John 19:39-40); this was just in time for Easter. Actually, not a speck of aloes was ever found on the shroud cloth. Neither were there pollens on the linen that placed the cloth in Palestine as Frei also claimed-except for a single specimen that appeared to have been doctored.

If there were not new claims, old ones would be repeated, as in the PBS documentary timed for Easter 2004 viewing. Supposedly, contamination in the form of a microbial "varnish" on the cloth might have skewed the theretofore devastating radiocarbon results. (The tests showed the shroud cloth dated to the 1260-1390 A.D. range, the time when, according to a Bishop’s report, a forger confessed he had "cunningly painted" the shroud.) However, skeptics had long ago pointed out that, for the shroud’s date to have been altered by thirteen centuries, there would have to be twice as much contamination, by weight, as the cloth itself!

Just prior to Easter 2010, the History Channel aired a two-hour documentary, The Real Face of Jesus . The March 30 show purported to prove that the medieval fake was genuine after all and that it bore the actual image of the crucified body of Jesus. Actually, their much-touted "3-D analysis" was a study in circular reasoning: When the "3-D information" from the "shroud" failed to look real, shroudologists determined to "correct" the situation by utilizing data from a cloth-draped human model, thus imposing real three-dimensional properties onto the figure.

Mystery mongering in the program ran rampant. Shroud devotees admitted that, after all their years of study, they had no idea how the image got on the cloth. This is not surprising, given that they have dismissed the possibility of artistry. The intellectually dishonest presentation even carried the unchallenged assertion that no artistic materials were found on the cloth. In fact, famed microanalyst Walter McCrone discovered that the body image (in contrast to off-image areas) had significant amounts of artist’s pigment. The show repeated the false assertion that the "blood" stains were "human" blood, when in fact they failed batteries of forensic serological tests for blood, and McCrone identified the suspiciously still-red substance as red ocher and vermilion tempera paint.

This was all part of the run-up to the latest exhibition of the Fraud of Turin–a six-week period from April 10 to May 23, 2010, estimated to attract two to four million pilgrims and draw accompanying revenues. While the viewing itself is free, visitors are expected to contribute significant sums to the city’s coffers-all because of a fake shroud that, according to scientific tests and historical records, was the work of a confessed medieval artist and was used as the basis for a faith-healing scam. This featured "pretend miracles" that, according to the investigating bishop, were intended "to attract the multitude so that money might cunningly be wrung from them." (For more on all of these issues, see my Inquest on the Shroud of Turin: Latest Scientific Findings , Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998. See also my earlier blog, "Shroud Debunked–Again.")