The Shroud of Turin may be only 14½ feet long and 3½ feet wide, but its fame, history and mystery stretch much, much further.
For centuries, it has been revered as an icon, relic or reminder of Jesus of Nazareth’s brutal, bloody death on the cross.
Just as often, however, the scarred linen burial cloth has been dismissed as an outright Middle Ages con job.
History or hoax? Faith or fake? Either way, Utahns will get a chance to make their own judgments this weekend during a free, two-day Shroud of Turin conference at Calvary Chapel Salt Lake, 460 W. Century Drive (about 4300 South), in Murray.
Any certainty about the ancient sheet’s origins and meaning ultimately will be a matter of faith. After all, the debate involving scientists, historians, clerics, believers and nonbelievers on both sides of the authenticity spectrum still rages today and will for many tomorrows.
The conference — from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday and again Sunday at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. — will feature Russ Breault, president and founder of the Atlanta-based Shroud of Turin Education Project.
“After all of the research we’ve done on the shroud, it still remains a mystery,” Breault says. “And that is pretty remarkable in itself — that it remains inexplicable to this day.”
After nearly 40 years spent researching, writing and speaking about the shroud, Breault acknowledges a gap remains between what experts have theorized and what can be proven “in a definitive fashion” about the enigmatic covering.
Breault maintains that centuries of studies, despite countering opinions along the way, have established that the bloodstains and faint images on the shroud are “certainly from a man who died by crucifixion.
“Whether it is from the first century [which would be consistent with the time of Christ] or not,” he cautions, “I don’t know if we can be that precise.”
Skeptics point to carbon dating of shroud fragments done in 1988, when researchers concluded with 95 percent certainty that the samples were from A.D. 1260 to 1390. Those findings were consistent with the first official, specific mention of the shroud in 14th-century Catholic Church history.
That hardly proved to be the final word. Critics soon countered that the pieces tested were from medieval materials used to patch the shroud. Others suggested that a 1532 fire, which damaged the Royal Chapel of Chambéry Castle in France and scorched the shroud, threw off the results.
Those pro-shroud assertions also were disputed. Regardless, subsequent studies have kept alive the debate over the shroud’s bona fides.
More recently, a slew of studies — focusing on renewed carbon-dating analysis, chemical and biological makeup of the fabric’s stains, the cloth itself, mineral debris and what were determined to be human blood in the fibers — purportedly shored up the shroud’s reputation as being the burial cloth of a first-century crucified man.
Italy’s Padua University conducted spectroscopy studies between 2011 and 2013 that dated the sheet to between 280 B.C. and A.D. 220. Researchers also hypothesized that the image of the victim — sporting injuries consistent with biblical narratives about Christ’s crown of thorns, nailed hands and feet, lashed torso and stabbed side — may have been flashed into the shroud’s herringbone weave by a burst of ultraviolet radiation.
The origin of that radiation ranks as another shroud-related phenomenon that fuels controversy with no firm conclusions.
Breault insists the breach between fact and faith when it comes to the shroud is narrower than it has ever been. He also concedes that his own Christian faith, which predates his fascination with the shroud, tends to make him take the leap across the chasm.
“Was there a resurrection? For me, [concluding that] is a mixture of both science and faith,” Breault says. “There were no eyewitnesses to the resurrection itself, but scripture tells us Christ rose from the dead, [and] there are several accounts of him being seen days after the crucifixion.”
As for the idea of radiation causing the image, Breault maintains that discovery is consistent with the intense, blinding light noted in accounts of Christ’s Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–8) and St. Paul’s life-changing vision on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) — both of which describe Jesus appearing clothed in light.
Calvary Chapel Pastor Terry Long, a self-confessed “shroudee,” says it took him eight years of study to become convinced that Christian claims about the shroud are real.
“At first, I went after the thing to disprove it,” he says. “I got every book printed about it, everything I could find on the internet.”
Finally, it was Breault who swayed the pastor.
“I believe it is the burial cloth of Jesus,” Long says. “But we don’t worship the shroud. Whether it is or not, people who come to our conference will learn about crucifixion at the time of Jesus.”
The conference will include a full replica of the shroud, various displays illustrating research and three-dimensional images of the crucified man.
That the shroud puzzle may never be solved is an opinion shared by those arguably with the most compelling reason to believe: Roman Catholics, whose church owns the artifact.
Various popes have viewed the shroud in varied ways during the past 500 years, ranging from declarations that it is a genuine, holy relic or iconic and worthy of veneration. At the least, they have said, it deserves pious reflection.
In 2015, Pope Francis visited Turin’s cathedral to sit for several minutes by the shroud, bowing his head and then placing his hand on its glass-covered display case before walking away.
Later, he referred to the shroud as an “icon of love” depicting the “tormented face and body of Jesus” as well as “the face of every suffering and unjustly persecuted person.”
Scott Dodge, a deacon with St. Olaf Catholic Church in Bountiful and a writer and educator for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, emphasizes that the “Holy See has never officially proclaimed or denied the authenticity” of the shroud.
So, when it comes to the shroud — as with many disputes in which believers and skeptics tussle — perhaps a 13th-century saint, Thomas Aquinas, summed it up best:
“To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”