The Shroud of Turin is an ancient strip of linen that bears the image of a crucified man, which millions of the faithful believe to be Jesus of Nazareth. It is, arguably, the most studied artifact in human history.
While millions of people have stood in long lines to briefly gain a glimpse of the Shroud at rare expositions over the last 200 years, a select number of experts have had direct access to the relic for scientific examination. Its true age remains a matter of debate and mystery even now.
John Jackson is one of those individuals. He talked about his life’s work in a one-day conference about the Shroud of Turin on Saturday at Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.
Armed with a doctorate in physics and experienced in working with the U.S. Air Force, Jackson led the Shroud of Turin Research Project, a team of different specialists that conducted tests and analyzed the Shroud over a five-day period in 1978. Founder of the Turin Shroud Center of Colorado, Jackson was invited to come to San Antonio, his first visit to the city, to discuss his continuing research.
Organizers with the Shroud of Turin expo, currently on extended showing at 416 Dolorosa St., sent the invite to Jackson with hopes that locals – believers, skeptics and everyone in between – could learn more about the decades-long research effort.
“It’s been a personal endeavor to bring the expo here and to bring Dr. Jackson here,” said Jose Juan Garrigo, CEO of Immersive Planet, the for-profit company behind the Shroud of Turin expo that’s currently in the second of a 70-U.S. city tour.
“Not just the Shroud itself, but many of the objects that come with it, we are very lucky to see them,” Garrigo added.
The actual 14-foot-long rectangular strip of linen is housed at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, its home since 1578. The Shroud was put on rare display for public viewing in April. The touring exhibit does have a tiny piece of the shroud, which was sealed by Pope Benedict XIV in the 18th century.
“If this is the burial cloth of Jesus, then it would be his resurrection cloth, too,” Jackson said. He explained that in a secular culture where the constant fear of one’s mortality is part of human nature, the shroud for believers is a more than a relic. It’s a transformative object as it touched a living being who, in the central event of Christianity, “reached eternal existence beyond the grave.”
Jackson said his role, even as a self-professed Catholic, is not to persuade people to believe whether the Shroud is authentic.
“I am in no way here to compel you to think the way that I do,” Jackson told the crowd, which numbered more than 60 people. “I call it, as many do, the Man of the Shroud because I respect your right to believe whatever you wish to believe.”
Jackson said that scientific practices existed even in Biblical days and after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. He explained the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ disciples finding Jesus’ tomb empty, only a burial cloth left behind.
“I will submit that is science because John says he saw the empty cloth with his own eyes,” Jackson said, describing the act as empirical proof. “Then John said he believed” that Jesus was resurrected.
“We’re connecting science and faith,” Jackson said.
Jackson outlined the history of his research into the Shroud, focusing on the examinations he helped perform in 1978, tests that really wound up gradually yielding results into the early 1980s.
According to Jackson, scientists, scholars and religious authorities try to account for several things seen in the Shroud, namely the image of what many believe to be the crucified Christ. The body image can be more easily seen in some enhanced photos and other representations of the shroud than in others. Secondo Pia, an Italian lawyer and amateur photographer, is known for taking the first photographs of the Shroud of Turin.
Jackson said in the better images – made possible by advancing technology – one can detect where a crown of thorns was placed, and marks left behind from the wound in his side, and wounds in his wrist and foot.
Jackson said the notion of a forger has been around for centuries, but there are questions that at the least make it difficult to fully accept whether any individual has had the time or capability of producing such a forgery. He said findings in the 1978 research he helped to lead, as well as a 3D relief of previous photos, help to establish the idea that forgery would be difficult.
Jackson and his team had also looked at the scorch marks produced by a fire that damaged a French chapel where the shroud was stored in 1532, as well as what some believe to be blood stains from Jesus’ wounds. Jackson’s team members said they found evidence that the “stains” had leaked through the cloth, indicating they once were liquid and that they were on the cloth before a “body image” could develop. This, Jackson said, could support the authenticity of the cloth.
Another finding from the 1978 analysis, Jackson said, was that the body image of Christ is “chemically that of degraded cellulose, which you’d get from scorched linen.”
Jackson also discussed the controversial carbon dating of the shroud that a collection of three separate teams performed in the late 1980s. Their conclusion was that the linen dates back to medieval times, a period between 1260 and 1390, a finding with a statistical certainty of 95 percent. Jackson added there were quasi-political “maneuverings” between the collection of carbon dating research teams back then that could have influenced the published result.
But last year, an Italian research team published a study, saying an earthquake in Jerusalem in 33 AD may have created the “body image” and could have skewed the carbon dating results. Jackson said carbon dating involves destroying the involved sample, so there is no subsequent way for other scientists to determine whether the sample was viable enough to produce comprehensive, clean results. Church leaders gave scientists a small piece of the Shroud for the carbon testing.
“Science always needs a critical review,” said Jackson, whose own work has had critiques. But other researchers’ findings have also been critiqued. “There’s always room for error.”
Many in the mainstream science community accept the Shroud as ancient, but believe it is less than 1,000 years old.
What’s next for Jackson? He and his wife, Rebecca, whom he met while researching the Shroud more than 30 years ago, plan to personally view the Shroud of Turin, among other relics and sites in Italy, this June. Members of the public are invited to take part in the visit. Recent papers from Jackson can be found at www.ShroudofTurin.com.
“I’m not saying you shouldn’t respect any result. I do,” he said ,even about the carbon dating from 1988, adding that no scientific research is above reproach.
*Featured/top image: A replica of the Shroud of Turin at Immersive Planet’s Shroud of Turin touring exposition in San Antonio in 2014. Courtesy photo.