Friday, April 22, 2011

The Shroud of Turin

Sometimes it seems to me that everything is related to Polish-Jewish relations.

Of course to a mathematician everything revolves around equations, and to a politician, everything is political.

In April of 2000 my friend Don Freidkin (Polish-Jewish ancestry, now married to a Polish Catholic) was kind enough to give me a documentary about the Shroud of Turin. I was so fascinated I watched the documentary several times, back to back.

The many extraordinary features of the Shroud defy easy explanation. Swiss criminologist Max Frei identified pollen grains from Israel on the shroud.

German master textile restorer, Mechthild Flury-Lemberg, reports shroud features that date it to first century Israel.

Secondo Pia's 1898 photographs confounded the world – these photographs discovered a shroud feature that had previously been invisible. The shroud is a photographic negative. These images were so shocking, Pia was accused of fraud.

Artist Ray Downing claims that the shroud contains three dimensional information.

The man on the shroud shows what appear to be marks left by a Roman whip. (Discussion here. Photo here.)

One could go on, and on, and on. Science has been over the shroud with numerous technologies and instruments and yet no universally accepted explanation for it has emerged.

What I saw on that documentary that Don sent me, though, was that the humanities had been all but ignored. The hard sciences were offering their questions, and answers, but the humanities should be heard from, too.

I drew up a list of questions that a humanities scholar might ask about the shroud. I sent my questions to Barrie M. Schwortz, one of the talking heads on the documentary. I was astounded when Mr. Schwortz wrote back to me, and offered to place my post to him on his award-winning, essential website, I include my comments, in full, below. You can also see them on this page, almost halfway down.

I still have these questions. As far as I know, no shroud debunker has even tried to answer them.


Barrie M. Schwortz is the go-to expert on the shroud. He maintains an award-winning website that archives the full-text of countless, detailed, published, peer-reviewed scholarly articles. This library is a priceless gift to humanity. We all owe Barrie Schwortz our gratitude.

In August of 2009, I emailed Barrie and asked him a question. You identify yourself as an Orthodox Jew, but as someone who believes that the Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. How do those two features fit into your one life?

Barrie told me to phone him with this question, and I did. We talked for an hour and a half.

It was a private conversation, and I never received permission to repeat what we said to each other, so I won't repeat anything Barrie said here. I will say, though, that I discovered that Barrie is of Polish-Jewish descent. Needless to say, as soon as our phone call was over, I sent Barrie the chapter of "Bieganski" that appeared here.

Since today is Good Friday, I post, below, the questions that someone in the humanities, rather than the hard science questions that have been focused on so far, might ask about the Shroud of Turin.


Date: Thu, 27 Apr 2000 18:02:40 -0500 (EST)
From: danusha veronica goska

Dear Barrie Schwortz:

The shroud has been subjected to imaging analysis by NASA scientists, to carbon dating, and to analysis, performed by criminologists and botanists, of the pollen particles found on its surface. Forensic pathologists have analyzed the death depicted on the shroud. At least since Descartes, the West has come to regard religion and hard science as polar opposite disciplines. It is this very intersection of religion and hard science that intrigues, delights, and perhaps even threatens many, and attracts many to the Shroud story.

In truth, though, and perhaps counterintuitively, the hard sciences are limited in their ability to crack the mystery of the shroud. This sounds contrary – science has come to be understood as *the* source of definitive truth. In this case, though, hard science has failed to provide an answer that satisfies the demands of Ockham's razor.

William of Ockham (1285-1347/49), positied that, "Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate;" that is, "Plurality should not be posited without necessity." In other words, Ockham's razor demands that, of two competing theories, the simplest explanation is preferred.

The shroud compels exactly because there *is* no simple or easy explanation. None of science's tests, including carbon dating, has changed that. None have produced a simple explanation that meets the demands of Ockham's razor.

One might argue, based on carbon dating, that the shroud is a simple forgery, dating from the middle ages. That theory is not best tested exclusively by hard science. Rather, insights from the social sciences and the humanities are necessary in cracking this mystery.

I am not a hard scientist. I am a Ph.D. candidate in the Folklore Institute at Indiana University. Folklore, like its fellow social sciences, has demonstrated that human expressive culture follows rules, just as surely as carbon decay follows rules. One does not need to be a social scientist to understand this.

Suppose an archaeologist were to discover, in an Egyptian tomb, a work of art that followed the aesthetic prescriptions of Andy Warhol's 20th century American portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Certainly, hard science would argue that ancient Egyptians possessed all the technology necessary to produce such items of expressive culture. Ancient Egyptians had pigments; they had surfaces on which to draw. Hard scientists might see no mystery in a pharaonic Warhol Marilyn.

A non-scientist would have every reason to find such a blasé attitude bizarre. Of course the ancient Egyptians could produce Warhol-like art. The fact is, though, that they simply never did. Ancient Egyptians, like all artists everywhere, followed the artistic mandates of their time and place.

True, art does change, but it changes organically, slowly, and after leaving vast bodies of evidence of change in intermediary forms. For example, as different as it is, art from Greece's Golden Age can be seen to have grown from Egyptian art, in intermediary forms like Kouroi figures. The shroud is as much an object of wonder and worthy investigation, in spite of carbon dating, as would be an isolated pharaonic Warhol, or a rock song that had been composed during the period of Gregorian Chant, or a Hopi vase that someone somehow came to make during the high point of peasant embroidery in Czechoslovakia. Yes, in each case, technology was available to create these anomalous forms; however, as any layman might well point out, humans did *not* choose to use available technology in order to create anomalous forms.

There are two consistently unaddressed flaws in the arguments of those who contend that the shroud must be of medieval origin, created by contemporaneously available technology. The first flaw is that even if technology had been available to create an image with all the remarkable features of the shroud, there is no way to explain *why* an artist would have done so.

This question must be explored not via carbon dating, NASA imaging, or pollen tests, but, rather, by comparison with other relics from the medieval era. I have not seen research by experts in medieval relics that attempts to compare and contrast the shroud with comparable artifacts from the medieval era. Does the shroud look like other relics, or does it not? If, as I suspect is true, it does not look like other relics from that era, then it behooves anyone who argues for a medieval date to explain exactly why. Those who argue this position must tell us why the equivalent of a Warhol portrait has been found among Egyptian artwork where the laws of human expressive culture dictate that it plainly does not belong.

In the writings of church reformers like Erasmus and Martin Luther, one can read descriptions of medieval relics. In fact, many relics once popular in the medieval era can be visited even today. Reformers like Erasmus and Luther expressed open contempt at the gullibility of the Christian masses. Bones that were obviously animal in origin were treated as if the bones of some dead saint. Random chips of wood were marketed as pieces of the true cross; random swatches of fabric were saints' attire.

Why, in such a lucrative and undemanding marketplace, would any forger resort to anything as detailed and complex as the shroud? Why would a forger resort to an image that would so weirdly mimic photography, a technology that did not exist in the Middle Ages?

Well, one might argue, the forger created the highly detailed, anomalous shroud in order to thoroughly trick his audience. This argument does not withstand analysis. The relic market is profoundly undemanding. It was profoundly undemanding in the Middle Ages; it is barely more demanding today.

The Ka'bah of Islam, the millions of Shiva lingams found throughout the Hindu world, the venerated sites of Buddha's footfall or Buddha's tooth, the packages of "Mary's Milk" on sale to Christian pilgrims in Bethlehem, are all contemporary relics that attest to the willingness of believers to believe in items that might look, to others, like simple rocks or standard, store bought powdered milk.

The faith in relics is not limited to the large, world religions; New Age is similarly flush with relics of a provenance, that, to non-believers, may seem comical at best. For example, a speech well beloved by New Agers, titled "Chief Seattle's speech," has long been known to have been written by a white Christian man living in Texas. This knowledge has not stopped many New Agers from believing that the speech issued, miraculously, from Chief Seattle.

The shroud does more than not follow the simple rules of relic hawkers. The shroud not only does not follow the laws of the expressive culture of medieval relics, it defies them. For example, blood is shown flowing from the man's *wrist,* not his hands. It is standard in Christian iconography to depict Jesus' hands as having been pierced by nails. This was true not only of the medieval era, but also today. What reason would a forging artist have for defying the hegemonic iconography of the crucified Jesus? Anyone who wishes to prove a medieval origin for the shroud must answer that question, and others, for example:

Items of expressive culture are not found in isolation. They are not found without evidence of practice. If one excavates an ancient site and finds one pot, one finds other pots like it, and the remains of failed or broken pots in middens.

If the shroud is a forgery, where are its precedents? Where are the other forged shrouds like it? Where is there evidence of practice shrouds of this type? If the technology to create the shroud was available in medieval Europe, where are other products of this technology? Humankind is an exhaustively exploitative species. We make full use of any technology we discover, and leave ample evidence of that use. Given the lucrative nature of the forgery market, why didn't the forger create a similar Shroud of Mary, Shroud of St. Peter, Shroud of St. Paul, etc.? And why didn't followers do the same?

I'm not attempting here to prove the shroud to be genuine. I am insisting that hard science alone cannot tell us the full truth about the shroud, and that ignoring the obvious questions posed by the humanities and the social sciences leaves us as much in the dark about the shroud as ever.


  1. Just received a lovely email from Barrie Schwortz. He writes:

    "I just returned on Wednesday from 3 weeks in Europe, including Madrid and Salamanca, Spain and Rome, Italy and spent the last 10 days lecturing in Poland! I was in Warsaw, Lodz, Poznan, Jasna Gora and Krakow. I also visited the town my mother was born. It was fantastic and for the first time in my life, I connected directly with my Polish roots! It was truly a blessing. It was my first visit, but definitely not my last!

    I lectured mainly to students aged 13 to 19 and gave a few evening lectures to more academic audiences. The food was fantastic and I love the Polish people!"

  2. I can reproduce the Shroud Of Tourin using my Kodak All In One Scanner.

    1) I secure life size statue and scan about 24 times front and back. Then I use Microsoft Publisher to stitch them all together for subsequent printing.

    2) I decide to reverse negative the image just for the hell of it, then feed a fourteen foot long piece of 3 to 1 herringbone twill linen, hank bleached, into my custom ordered printer.

    3) I then obtain human blood and plasma for the appropriate wound marks.

    Then I burn the hell out of it in strategic places, add some midieval cotton patches.

    How hard is that? Leonardo could not have done this since it is well known he never had anything more then a Hewlett Pakard 1300 series printer.

  3. Incidentally,

    My forgery would be uncovered once it became known my black market, midieval fourteen foot long unblemished herringbone weave print stock had been hank bleached.

    Sort of like taking you Ferrari Daytona to Earl Schieb for a paint job. Look it up.

  4. Anonymous, I take you are kidding (about Leondardo's printer, for example) but your plan would not work for many reasons.

    Just a couple of points: check out Dr. Zugibe, inter alia, on the anatomical information in the shroud. It's not a statue. No one thinks it is.

    Also, your plan does not match the should in another respect. There is no image under the blood stains. The blood stains were there first. Then the image.

  5. Science may not be able to prove the Shroud is genuine but it could show whether it's a fake.

  6. "Science may not be able to prove the Shroud is genuine but it could show whether it's a fake."

    Point well taken, and the point is, Science hasn't proven it's a fake. What skeptics have is only the purported carbon dating test. That is problematical because the sample came from only one part of the Shroud that was not typical of the entire Shroud. There was a deliberate exclusion of the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) from the process by the Carbon lab testing companies. The results of the STURP scientific tests, had they not been excluded from the process, would have revealed the anomalous nature of the area tested.

    Once you take away the carbon dating, all the scientific tests point towards authenticity. Some might say the tests open the door to the Resurrection.

    John Klotz


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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