Science and Faith:
A Comment on the Shroud of Turin

My students asked me about how I felt about such things as the Shroud of Turin and other "miracles." This gave me a great opportunity to stress that Science and Religion ask different questions and investigate them differently. The result of that line of thinking leads too to the fact that a scientist can also be religious without jeopardizing the rigor of her/his science!

The Shroud of Turin is a piece of fabric claimed to be the burial shroud of Jesus of Nazareth. But is it? Well, this question can certainly be only partially investigated by science. Indeed scientists are and have been investigating this object for authenticity. I am not particularly aware of the details of the results of this investigation (they are contained in a fairly recent book or two), but I can make my few points even without these details.

The fabric of the shroud would have to be about 2000 years old to be authentic, and carbon dating is one way that its age can be assessed scientifically. Unfortunately 2000 years is not a very long time ago for carbon-dating, and so the measurements will have a larger amount of "error" associated with them than would dates assigned for older objects. Thus, fabric that is merely 1800 years old (in other words, a fraud) by carbon dating could measure as 2000 years old (appearing old enough to be genuine) in a single test of a small amount of shroud material. So replicate tests are needed, and other types of analysis are needed to corroborate this.

The "blood" stains and so on forming the image on the shroud could be tested for the presence of typical blood components and verified or rejected as blood. Depending on what is left of the blood, it might even be possible to determine that it is human blood. The location and amount of blood or other body fluid remains on the shroud might tell us that a person wrapped in the shroud was wounded in a way consistent with the wounds on Jesus' body as recorded in the Bible. These kinds of scientific data can be gathered rigorously.

In fact, if enough DNA were left from some white blood cell remains on the shroud, PCR analysis of those fragments could generate a DNA "fingerprint" that could normally be used to identify the source of the blood. But what would be the comparison? Does anyone have an authentic piece of DNA from Jesus of Nazareth to prepare the "control" fingerprint and compare with the fingerprint of the shroud's DNA? No, so that's the end of the investigation from a science point of view. Even if every other piece of evidence checks out perfectly consistent with scientific expectations for Biblical claims, we will never know if the image was caused by the body of Jesus of Nazareth. Even if we had a severed body part (or even the whole body) inside the shroud, we could never determine that it was Jesus' from a science point of view.

The investigation into the shroud is interesting and there is indeed a very good chance that some kind of analysis could show it to be a fraud. Failing to demonstrate a fraud on the points of evidence, however, we can never show with the rigor of science that this shroud wrapped the body of Jesus of Nazareth. So we might show that the fabric is old enough, that the stains are consistent with whippings, a crown of thorns, crucifixion by nailing, and a final coup de grace of a spear thrust, that the blood is human blood, and so on. But whether this is the image of Jesus (or some other victim) cannot be answered by science.

So science fails us at this last point...because its findings must be founded on evidence. We lack the necessary authentic piece of Jesus to arrive at solid evidence about the owner of the blood on the shroud. Without science to support us, we can say nothing as scientists about whether this fabric wrapped the body of Jesus.

That leaves us with Religion. The answer to the question of who was wrapped in the shroud is thus a matter of faith. If a scientist attempts to answer this question for himself/herself, then science must be abandoned for religious faith. Was it Jesus? Was it not Jesus? Science must be silent on these questions. As these two questions are untestable by evidence, they are answerable only from the province of faith.

This page © Ross E. Koning 1994.

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