Science And The Shroud

The relic was declared a fake a decade ago, but millions are expected to venerate it, inspired by those who say there is truth to back their faith

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And Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. And he bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud, and laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. --Gospel of Mark, 15: 44-46

When its moment arrives again, this Saturday, the venerable--and venerated--relic will be slipped out of the silver casket that has protected it for centuries, through fire and water, doubt and blind belief. Gingerly, fastidiously, overseen by Giovanni Cardinal Saldarini and a German textile conservation expert, it will be unspooled from around its wooden cylinder. After a top cloth has been pulled away--red taffeta, sewn by Princess Clotilde of Savoy in 1868--the fragile, scarred length of ancient linen will be smoothed into place in a metal-and-glass display case built precisely to its dimensions. The case's air will be drawn out and replaced with argon, an inert gas. Then the case will be hung horizontally at the intersection of the Turin Cathedral's nave and transept, near the center of the cathedral's built-in cross. And thus six days after Easter, spectators will be allowed to view an image that has grown fainter with each unveiling: the portrait of a dead man.

A faded image of a body, splashes of blood. A scrap of cloth that may attest both Passion and Resurrection. The Roman Catholic hierarchy in this northwestern Italian city, renowned for its auto industry--and, well, for this--estimates that 3 million people will line up in the next eight weeks to view what has come to be known as the Shroud of Turin, on public display for the first time in 20 years. Seven hundred thousand have reserved their places. The Pope will arrive on May 24 to venerate the relic. Some of the pilgrims who precede and follow him will no doubt come out of idle curiosity. Some will come to view a historic conundrum. But the majority will make the pilgrimage to the Shroud of Turin in order to attain grace in the presence of clothing Jesus left behind when he arose on the third day.

But wait a moment. There's something wrong with this picture. Hasn't this all been settled--and in the negative? It certainly seemed so. In 1988, just as scientific testing and historical scholarship had convinced ever greater numbers of intelligent people that the shroud might indeed be Jesus' burial cloth, its keepers elected to allow one more test. They distributed small samples to three laboratories for radiocarbon dating. Several months later, the labs revealed their verdict: the linen of the cloth dated no earlier than the late Middle Ages. Skeptics rejoiced; romantics were subdued. One crestfallen enthusiast later wrote, "It seemed that anyone who had previously upheld any serious case for the shroud's credibility...had been dealt a fatal stab to the heart."

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