In the centuries-old debate over the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday diverged from his predecessor and weighed in favor of those who believe that the burial robe once cloaked Jesus Christ.
Pope Benedict described the shroud, which allegedly bears blood stains and the facial imprint of a long-haired, bearded man, as an icon that once “wrapped the remains of a crucified man in full correspondence with what the Gospels tell us of Jesus.”
While Pope Benedict joins the ranks of those who believe the sepia-colored shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, skeptics dismiss it as an ingenious medieval forgery that radiocarbon testing has dated about 800 years old.
The Vatican, which owns the linen cloth, has in the past tiptoed around the issue, describing it as a potent symbol of Jesus Christ’s suffering but never asserting outright its authenticity. Pope John Paul II visited the Shroud when it last went on public display in 1998, but he said the Catholic Church had "no specific competence” to pronounce on its authenticity and urged further scientific analysis.
Benedict was much less equivocal on Sunday when he prayed in front of the cloth at St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Turin, Italy, saying afterwards in a “meditation” that it was "an icon written in blood; the blood of a man who was whipped, crowned with thorns, crucified, and injured on his right side."
The shroud went on public display April 10 for the first time in a decade. The public viewing ends later this month, by which time nearly 2 million pilgrims and curious tourists are expected to have filed past it. The 14-foot-long, 3.5-foot-wide cloth is kept in a bulletproof, climate-controlled case in the royal chapel of Turin's cathedral. It bears the imprint of an apparently crucified man. A church fire in 1997 nearly destroyed the shroud.
New research claims to show authenticity
In November, a researcher in the Vatican’s secret archives claimed that using computer enhancement she found the words “Jesus Nazarene” on the shroud. Historian Barbara Frale said computer analysis of photographs of the shroud revealed the words written extremely faint in Greek, Aramaic, and Latin.
Dr. Frale asserts in a new book, "The Shroud of Jesus the Nazarene," that it was written by low-ranking Roman officials or mortuary clerks on a scroll or piece of papyrus to identify the corpse. Such a document would have enabled the relatives of a dead person to retrieve a body from a communal morgue, she suggested. It would have been attached to the corpse with a flour-based glue and the ink could have seeped through into the cloth below, leaving a faint imprint.
The hidden text was, in effect, the “burial certificate” of Jesus, Frale told Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera in November.
Radiocarbon dating raises doubts
But her claims were contested by scholars who said that radiocarbon dating tests in 1988 showed the shroud to be a medieval forgery produced sometime in the 13th or 14th century.
"People work on grainy photos and think they see things," Antonio Lombatti, an Italian historian who has written books about the shroud, also told Corriere della Sera. "It's all the result of imagination and computer software." Dr. Lombatti rejected the idea that authorities would go to the trouble of tagging the body of a crucified man.
The carbon dating tests have been vigorously contested by some scholars, who say they were skewed because the test samples from the cloth could have come from later restoration efforts. The shroud was discovered in the French city of Troyes, southeast of Paris, in the mid-14th century.