Shroud of Turin: Carbon 14 dating used in 1988 faulty, some say; Museum of Bible to open exhibit

A woman shows souvenirs of the Holy Shroud at the official bookstore during the first day of its exhibition in Turin April 10, 2010.
A woman shows souvenirs of the Holy Shroud at the official bookstore during the first day of its exhibition in Turin April 10, 2010. | (Photo: Reuters/Giorgio Perottino)

New research is being called for on what many believe is the actual cloth in which Jesus was buried, the shroud of Turin, as the Museum of the Bible prepares for an exhibition on the subject.

The bloodstained linen, which was scrutinized in 1988 with radiocarbon testing, and was believed to have originated between the years 1260 and 1390 — and thus deemed a "medieval hoax" by skeptics — is now being reconsidered for another round of tests.

In what some are calling an "underreported" story, some researchers are calling for new tests to be performed in light of a recent discovery about previous research that was done on the aged cloth.

According to a Catholic Herald (UK) report in May, in 1981 the Shroud of Turin Research Project team urged belief that the linen was authentic, writing that no known chemical or physical methods could account for the totality of the image.

"The bloodstains are composed of hemoglobin and also give a positive test for serum albumin. The image is an ongoing mystery and until further chemical studies are made, perhaps by this group of scientists, or perhaps by some scientists in the future, the problem remains unsolved,” their 1981 report noted.

Yet in 1988, the Vatican permitted the cloth to be tested again and researchers published their findings in the scientific journal Nature, declaring it of medieval origin. But that data has been hidden until recently as other researchers obtained in 2017 the findings though a freedom of information request.

A re-examination of the 1988 data brought about additional questions about the precision of the study and calls for fresh radiocarbon tests emerged. Following two years of tests and analysis, French researcher Tristan Casabianca and his team published an article in Archaeometry in March. He explained in an interview earlier this month that for approximately 30 years no one had asked the laboratories for the raw data.

Casabianca managed to acquire access to hundreds of unpublished pages and conducted a statistical analysis showing that the carbon dating method employed in 1988 was not reliable and thus impossible to conclude the shroud was indeed from the Middle Ages.

The researchers "argue that the variability in results from the subsamples indicates that the test samples cannot be considered representative of the Shroud as a whole," the Catholic Herald reported.

Former head of the Institute of Isotope Research and Nuclear Physics at the University of Vienna Walter Kutschera indicated that recent technological development make it easier “to extract genuine carbon material from a variety of different materials.”

Presently, the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., is raising $2.5 million in funds for what they describe as a "groundbreaking, high-tech, innovative" exhibition, targeted for January 2021, on the mysteries of the Shroud.

The Catholic Church has not officially endorsed as legitimate nor rejected the shroud though it was approved by Pope Pius XII for devotion in association with the Holy Face of Jesus, a title designated for specific images some Catholics believe to be representations of Christ's face that came about miraculously.

The shroud measures 14.5 by-3.5 feet in size and is among the most studied artifacts in the world. Since 1578, it has been housed in the Chapel of the Holy Shroud, located in Turin in northern Italy, except during the World War II era when it was deliberately hidden away from Hitler in the Montevergine Abbey near Naples in southern Italy.

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