Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Shroud: Shrouded in Mystery

By an interesting coincidence, I read an article yesterday in Discovery News about a burial shroud found recently in a 1st cen. tomb in Jerusalem that is very dissimilar to the shroud of Turin. Then, today, I watched an episode of "Mysteries of the Bible" on the National Geographic Channel that was on the subject of the Shroud of Turin. Then in yet another coincidence, I started thinking about shows and articles about the shroud of Turin.

The discussion of the famous shroud is, not surprisingly, very polarized, with commentators frequently saying either it is a medieval fake or it is proof of the resurrection of Jesus. Rarely have I heard anyone discuss any possible interpretations between these two extremes.

I'll say up front that I lean more toward thinking it is a medieval fake (probably not a big surprise to anyone) but I would also point out other interpretations. For instance, one book I've read (I'm sorry I can remember neither the title nor the author) suggested that it is a burial shroud of a 14th cen. man tortured to death in an imitation of Jesus' crucifixion. The author even referenced an article about postmortem occurrences that account for the creation of the image on the cloth. This brings me to my main rant.

Even if one could prove that the Shroud of Turin is a 1st cen. shroud from Jerusalem, it does not prove that the image on the shroud is that of Jesus. Hardly anyone has suggested in their discussions that this image might be of someone else. Who is to say that this is not the shroud of Smelly Joe of Jerusalem whose extreme body odor caused permanent damage to all his clothing?

Proponents of the religious relic view point to the evidence of injuries consistent with the descriptions of the crucifixion in the bible (off the subject: does anyone else think it's funny that bible is pronounced "buy bull"?) but we have no way of knowing whether Jesus' treatment was unique or whether lots of people received similar treatment. The Roman soldiers might have been giving him torture package #7, especially since they seem to have had robes and thorny crowns conveniently at hand.

Likewise, the opponents of the relic view rarely consider that the shroud might not be an intentional counterfeit and they therefore may be overlooking some processes of decomposition or chemical action that may be serendipitously useful in a modern application. While this kind of scientific scrutiny would probably be the most beneficial use of the cloth, the odds of prying it out of the hands of the Catholic church long enough to do tests are pretty slim.

Meanwhile, for the faithful the less scrutiny the shroud receives, the better it is for them. Since Jesus' existence has never really been proven, positively identifying the man depicted on the cloth could be catastrophic, although like all inconvenient truths, most likely they would just deny it anyway. Still, the thought that maybe we should really be celebrating Smellyjoemas on Friday is pretty funny to me.

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