CNN’s “Finding Jesus”: Disingenuous Look at Turin “Shroud”

March 6, 2015

The ongoing, six-part series Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery— which began on Sunday, March 1—represents CNN’s run-up to Easter. By a coincidence of a financial nature, the series co-appears with a book of the same title by religion writers/filmmakers, David Gibson and Michael McKinley. The first episode of the TV series (but curiously the last chapter of the book) was about the “Shroud” of Turin. Easter after Easter, this alleged burial cloth of Jesus is trotted out like a ghost story at Halloween, typically with the same shoddy standards.

This TV presentation was no exception. It was replete with pseudohistory and pseudoscience to such an extent that—if one is not to question the producers’ motives— one must accuse them of gross incompetence. To show why, this review necessarily focuses as much on what is left out as it does on what makes the cut. The program is thus revealed as an hour-long example of confirmation bias—by which one begins with the desired answer and works backward to the evidence, picking and choosing. The usual formula to such crocumentaries is to spend, say, half to two-thirds of the time building up the claim at hand, then bring in some skepticism—or “skepticism”— and finally attack the contrary points, so as to end on a note of mystery. The implication is that science cannot explain the image on the “shroud,” so it appears to be something beyond science. This is a type of faulty logic called an argument from ignorance.

Here is some of what you will not learn about the shroud, from CNN’s Finding Jesus. Despite mention of the burial spices (John 19:39-40), none has been found on the shroud, and the under-and-over means of covering the supposed body with a single cloth is unknown in Jewish burial practice. Although there have been some 40 alleged shrouds of Jesus, the cloth now at Turin has no provenance before about 1355; a later French bishop reported to Pope Clement VII that the cloth was being used in a faith-healing scam and that it had been “cunningly painted” by an artist who confessed. A secret commission appointed in 1969 to study the shroud examined the “blood” stains, which are “picturelike” and suspiciously still red. Internationally known forensic serologists reported that the red substance failed all microscopical, chemical, biological, and instrumental tests. Instead, there were reddish granules that would not even dissolve in reagents that dissolve blood.

The TV program extensively mentioned the 1978 examination by the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) but gave no indication that these were mostly religious believers; their leaders served on the executive council of the Holy Shroud Guild which supported the “cause” of the supposed relic. Devoutly religious pro-shroud pathologists have argued for the image’s anatomical correctness despite the figure’s unnatural elongation (as in French gothic art!) and other flaws (such as the hair falling as for a standing figure rather than a reclining one). While STURP lacked experts in art and forensic chemistry, their tape-lifted surface samples were examined by famed microanalyst Walter C. McCrone. He discovered red ocher pigment making up the image—but not the background (so it was not contamination). He also identified the “blood” as tempera paint containing red ocher along with vermilion and traces of rose madder—pigments used by medieval artists to depict blood.

Of course the producers felt obliged to mention the radiocarbon testing—although the resulting date, obtained by three laboratories as 1260-1390 CE, was not equated corroboratively with the reported forger’s confession. Instead, they worked to challenge this powerful evidence. Maybe the shroud could be linked to the fourth-century Image of Edessa—a face-only portrait of Jesus—by imagining the shroud had been folded so that only the face showed; or maybe it could be linked to a supposed companion cloth, the so-called Sudarium of Oviedo (which, according to some reports, itself has been carbon-dated by two laboratories—not to the first century, but to the seventh or eighth).

The biased documentary ignored the replica shroud made by Italian chemist Luigi Garlaschelli that recreates the “negative” shroud image with its sparse red-ocher pigment confined to the tops of the threads, and an attendant yellow stain. (Using my Inquest on the Shroud of Turin [1998, 138-140] as something of a recipe book, he laid linen over a volunteer but substituted a bas-relief for the face to avoid critical wraparound distortions. He employed a version of my rubbing technique, using a pigment that, over time, mostly sloughed off but left a ghostly image due to its acidity degrading the cellulose. (See my The Science of Miracles, 2013, 119-138.)

As in the past, shroud proponents have fooled many (beginning with themselves) by claiming the shroud is a perfect “photographic” negative which no artist could have produced in the middle ages. In fact, the shroud image is not at all photographic, since the “positive” image (shown in reversals of the image) exhibits a figure with white hair and beard, the opposite of what would be expected for Jesus. The image on the cloth is therefore a quasi-negative— exactly like that produced by an artistic rubbing technique. Nevertheless, Finding Jesus chooses for its token skeptic a straw man in the form of Nicholas Allen. Allen takes the word photographic quite literally and proposes that the shroud was the world’s first photograph.

In this affront to Occam’s razor (the principle that the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is to be preferred), Allen proposes that the medieval forger actually invented photography. Specifically, he suggests the forger used a camera obscura (Latin “dark chamber”) or “pinhole camera”—one the size of a room, but newly outfitted with crystal lenses. The newly invented “film” would be a linen sheet treated with silver sulfate or silver nitrate. (Although no silver was ever found on the shroud, Allen rationalizes it could have been—for some reason—washed off with urine). The subject would have to have been an immobile figure (Allen used a plaster human body cast) hanging in the sun in such a way that light struck it equally during morning and afternoon. After several days, the forger would have an image he could then paint on with tempera paint to produce “blood” of the various “wound” sites—although even then the results would not be shroudlike. I suggest that— after the forger invented all this technology which went unused and unknown for the next nearly five centuries—he could have invented the telephone and talked with others about it. Then he could have invented the automobile and driven to the Riviera for a much-needed rest.

With his absurd “explanation” of the shroud’s image, Nicholas Allen has played into the hands of shroud propagandists. They use him to endorse the falsehood that the image is a photographic negative, then allow his farfetched notion to make skeptics look ridiculous in their desperation. The result is to make religion seem to trump science. Shroud activists are no doubt laughing all the way to the cathedral.


#1 Logan Mulford (Guest) on Friday March 06, 2015 at 4:27pm

Among the many problems with the shroud claims is the fact that even if it dated to the first century and contained blood there is no evidence that it came from any particular person. It could have come from any of thousands of crucifixions carried out by the Romans. Add to this the fact that even if they could prove that it was used to wrap the body of a specific individual, that would do nothing to prove that the individual was resurrected or divine. If this same illogical use of evidence were applied to the archeological evidence from Troy, we would have proof of the existence and divinity of Zeus, Hera, Apollo, and the rest of the Hellenistic Gods.

#2 TRIALNERROR on Sunday March 08, 2015 at 3:52am

How on Earth could any body ever be taken in by it, seriously? It doesn’t even look realistic! That tiny narrow forehead, that hair hanging down all wrong, the hands crossed demurely over the private parts in a manner that makes your muscles ache to look at, it’s just so impossible to do lying down. TRY IT! It never looked to me like anything other than a painting.

#3 Emmett McMahon (Guest) on Monday March 09, 2015 at 2:49am

While I got a kick out of the header of your article, I don’t follow your thought line at all.  I believe that there is enough data to verify that the Shroud of Turin is the actual burial cloth of Jesus Christ. I was told by my Guardian Angel that the picture of the Shroud that I was looking at on my computer was a real image of the Living Jesus Christ. I had had a couple of encounters with my Guardian Angel before that happened some time back.  Once when I was a kid back about 1948 - 1950 when I was drowning in a lake in water over my head.  I passed out in the lake and my older brother swam out to me and pulled me up out of the water and got me back to the beach and pumped the water and snot out of me. Another time was when I was in the USMC and getting ready to re-enlist after my 4 years active. He had already told me twice in a about a weeks time not to do it. The last time he was loud and firm “DO NOT RE-ENLIST. This was in Feb. 1964.  How is your history.

#4 completeskeptic444 on Monday March 09, 2015 at 4:53pm

The Shroud of Turin is a 12th or 14th Century fake.  Why won’t the Catholic church acknowledge this?  That’s a stupid question, I guess, since I already know the answer.  The Church doesn’t want to give up something like the Shroud because they still want to perpetuate the lie that it is actually the burial shroud of Jesus…a person who likely wasn’t even a historical person.  The carbon dating results should have been the final nail in the Shroud’s coffin, but Church officials still try to make up excuses for why it could still be real so that the Church officials won’t look foolish for perpetuating the idea for centuries that the Shroud is authentic.  When the forger confessed and this confession was relayed to the pope by church officials hundreds of years ago, that should have ended the controversy.  Obviously Pope Clement preferred to bury (pun intended) the evidence that the Shroud is a fake and allow the faithful to continue to worship it as a holy relic.  This is not only dishonest, but also reprehensible. 

To Emmett McMahon, Your post has got to be a put on, right?

#5 Emmett McMahon (Guest) on Monday March 09, 2015 at 7:07pm

My post about my experiences is not a put on.  It is up to you to accept or reject it.  I accept the Shroud of Turin to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus Christ. There will be a day in the life of your soul when will say something as Oh, Now I understand.”  Either you accept Jesus Christ or you don’t.  I do accept Jesus as being the Son of God, who was crucified, died and was buried and was resurrected from the dead.  The shroud of Turin is the cloth that his body was enclosed in just before he was placed into the tomb.

#6 TRIALNERROR on Monday March 09, 2015 at 11:46pm

As far as belief goes, I don’t see why the Shroud is at all important. You could still accept Jesus and realise the Shroud is a fake.Actually, I’d probably have far more respect for a Christian who really doesn’t need silly artifacts and relics to bolster up his faith.But that is not the issue here. One day the non-believer may well come to “accept Jesus”. That is a very different thing from accepting the Shroud. Seriously, Emmett, really, look at it! IT DOESN’T LOOK REALISTIC! The proportions are all wrong wrong wrong! Why can’t you see that?

#7 Amy (Guest) on Tuesday March 10, 2015 at 4:35pm

They interviewed the director/writer this week on CNN - he’s Catholic.  Big surprise!  He also claims the science on the show is real science.  Perhaps to him it’s the realest science he’s ever encountered.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.