The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Secret of the Resurrection, by Thomas de Wesselow, Viking, £20, 448 pages

Christianity is founded on the belief that Jesus Christ rose, actually, bodily, from the dead three days after his crucifixion and burial on the day we call Easter Sunday. No Resurrection, no Christianity. Hardened sceptics believe the Resurrection story is pure fiction; soft sceptics argue that the disciples were mistaken or duped. Perhaps he had been in a coma and was alive all along. Possibly the disciples, affected by a kind of collective, post-bereavement stress disorder, were deluded. Maybe the body was snatched and a look-alike substituted.

Into the centuries-old debate steps the Cambridge-based art historian Thomas de Wesselow. In his book The Sign he reviews the above sceptical speculations, and many more, to reject them in favour of a bold new conjecture. What if the disciples encountered on that first Easter Sunday not the risen Jesus, but merely his image upon the winding sheet, etched in blood from his suppurating wounds? Exhausted, unused to seeing pictorial portrayals of people, they saw in the ghostly picture a supernatural revivification of their dead master. As for the dead body: it was allowed to rot away as an object of no importance, and later placed in an ossuary lost to posterity.

The shroud image, according to de Wesselow, now became for the disciples the revered, living icon of the resurrected Christ, and it was on this blood-stained sheet that Christianity would be founded, with a lot of help from St Paul. There are some obvious narrative problems with de Wesselow’s theory, not least the fact that Jesus of the gospels had a fish breakfast with his disciples within days of his resurrection, and doubting Thomas stuck his finger into the hole in Jesus’s side. De Wesselow swiftly sweeps such objections under the relentless, single-minded stair-carpet of this 400-page book with its 80 pages of erudite, bordering on the pedantic, source notes.

Meanwhile he refuses to entertain the least doubt about the authenticity of the shroud revered by the disciples, which he asserts to be none other than the shroud now kept in Turin. One of the most controversial and mysterious objects in Christendom, the Turin Shroud is a 14ft piece of linen showing a full-size back and front image of a tortured man. Sceptics claim it was a fake relic created to extort money from the faithful. They cite a memorandum sent to Pope Clement VII in 1389 by the Bishop of Troyes, who refers to the shroud as a “discovered fraud”, created for moneymaking. The object did a mystery tour of the crypts of Europe before being stored for veneration in Turin’s cathedral.

The Shroud of Turin as it appears on a photographic negative
The Shroud of Turin as it appears on a photographic negative

But it was not until 1898, when the first negative photograph was taken of the “relic”, that the haunting image of a man appeared in all its realistic detail. The image on the shroud was, in effect, a natural negative, and the subsequent photographic negative created a positive. The shroud, for its devotees, now became a sort of fifth gospel: a miraculous sign for a sceptical age, discovered through modern technology. Among the many theories about its creation, some believe that when Jesus rose from the dead he emitted a radioactive flash which caused the impression. The devotees challenged the sceptics to explain how any artist could have devised such an inexplicable object.

Science and technology were routinely pressed into service to cast doubt, or credibility, on its authenticity. One of the more daunting investigations reported by de Wesselow was that of American microscopist WC McCrone in 1978. He tested sticky tape-lift samples from 32 spots on the shroud, concluding that the marks were made by paint pigment. His findings were challenged in 1982 by 30 scientists who conclusively revealed, having found traces of haemoglobin and serum albumin, that the image had been created by human blood and other bodily secretions. These stains, moreover, worked like a photographic negative, the impressions on the cloth being those that would have been lit, to the naked eye, rather than in shadow. Studying the features and bone structures, some experts claimed that the image was of a Sephardic Jewish type. Moreover, the man, whoever he was, had been subjected, according to physiologists, to the identical torture and death meted out to Jesus Christ according to the gospel accounts.

Finally, in 1988, scientists in Arizona, Zurich and Oxford were allowed to carbon date a small portion of material snipped from the shroud. They concluded unanimously that it originated from the mid-14th century. Shroud believers struck back: perhaps the water used to douse a fire that nearly destroyed the shroud in 1532 altered the date. Perhaps that speculative release of ionising radiation from Jesus’s body at his resurrection affected the carbon test. But de Wesselow argues more plausibly, perhaps, that the postage-stamp-sized specimen tested by the carbon daters was taken from a repaired section of later date than the original.

If the 1988 test was bungled, the true provenance will remain uncertain until a new test is allowed by the Vatican; which at present seems unlikely. And yet, if the shroud is medieval, then it is probably a barbarous relic of anti-Semitism, perpetrated out of hatred and for commerce. If that is true, how right was the Bishop of Troyes to plead with the pope to condemn it!

John Cornwell is director of the Science and Human Dimension Project, Jesus College, Cambridge

Get alerts on Non-Fiction when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article