Shroud of Turin debate skipped key clue about Jesus Christ: ‘Must understand in context’

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This weekend marked Christianity’s most important events in the calendar. On Friday, April 15, religious worshippers remembered the death and crucifixion of Jesus Christ — in their interpretation the son of God — who died for the world’s sins. Then, on Sunday, April 17, they rejoiced at his resurrection.

Today, Easter Monday, is the second date in Eastertide, although the holiday is not observed by all countries.

Jesus’ execution and subsequent resurrection is perhaps one of the Bible’s single most important stories, and looks to cement the book’s message that he reigns as Lord of all.

Over the millennia, numerous tales of Jesus and his life have perplexed and stunned researchers, religious believers, holy leaders and academics.

One of these tales can be found in the Shroud of Turin, perhaps one of the more famous so-called Medieval mysteries, that has caught the attention of popular culture and academia.

For decades, figures across the religious and academic spectrums have battled it out over whether the Shroud is really an imprint of Jesus Christ.

It first appeared in 1354, and just over 30 years later, was branded a fake by the local bishop of Troyes.

This didn’t, however, stop many believing the linen was in fact the burial shroud in which Christ was wrapped following his crucifixion.

A more conclusive answer appeared to put the debate to an end in 1988 when scientists, through carbon dating, established the Shroud as having been created in the Middle Ages between 1260 and 1390.

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But the results were fiercely contested and many argued that material dating discrepancies skewered them.

The Catholic Church has avoided taking an official position on the authenticity of the Shroud, with the Pope merely stating that he “venerates” it; the Church itself has never gone beyond describing the linen as anything more than an “icon” of Christian devotion.

There is an issue with using science to try and prove or disprove such mysteries, Dr Seb Falk, a Medieval historian, told in November 2020, asserting that the true significance of such relics gets lost through the passage of time.

He wants people to place themselves in the period in which the Shroud was revered, and explained: “You’ve got to try and understand these things in a Medieval context.

“What did belief in these sorts of things do for people?


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“The first thing you have to understand is that something like the Shroud of Turin, it’s a little bit like a tool for thinking with.

“It’s a kind of way of understanding the world around you.

“People see the world through a certain lens and that lens in the case of Medieval Europe is the lens of God interacting with the world, God having an active role in the world.

“All of these miracles, all of these strange events that people encounter are seen through that lens of the active intervention of God in the world.”

Just as people in the Middle Ages would have travelled to visit the Shroud, today, around two million pilgrims flock to Northern Italy to see it in person each year.

Measuring 14.5 by 3.9 feet, it depicts the back and the front of a bearded man with long hair, his arms crossed on his chest, while the surrounding material appears to be covered in droplets of blood, presumably from the wounds from his wrists, feet, and side.

Another explanation for the relic was floated in a 2014 study which suggested it might have been used in Medieval church plays about the Resurrection of Jesus.

Others say it is a photograph, a painting, or the outcome of a natural chemical process.

But Dr Falk reiterated how the countless explanations may only look to satiate our desire to know and solve the mystery.

He said that relics like the Shroud have had the label “mystery” placed on them by modern humans, and added: “It’s people of the present who have a particular hang-up about the Shroud of Turin – this wasn’t something that was particularly outstandingly famous in the Middle Ages.

“It’s a modern question, and in the Middle Ages there were thousands of relics like this which were important parts of people’s beliefs.”

Despite this, historians, scientists, religious believers and the general public are likely to wage debate and discussion on the Shroud – a dialogue that might continue long after the truth has been found.

Seb Falk’s book ‘The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey of Discovery’ is published by Allen Lane

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