It has all the ingredients of a classic Dan Brown novel: a scholar from the Vatican’s secret archives, centuries of mystery and intrigue, and a faint inscription on an ancient Christian shroud. Yesterday, in a Times online story, Barbara Frale, a staff historian at the Vatican archives, announced that she had deciphered the imprint of Greek, Hebrew and Latin writing on the famous Shroud of Turin. According to Frale, the lettering is part of a death certificate glued to the shroud covering Jesus Christ immediately after the crucifixion.
Frale, who is about to publish a new book on the shroud, says that such certificates were often issued in the old Roman colony of Palestine, particularly in criminal cases. The body of an executed criminal could only be returned to the grieving family after the individual was buried for a year in a common grave. Christians, of course, believe that Joseph of Arimathea took possession of Christ’s body shortly after death, carrying it to a tomb he had prepared for himself. But Frale says that a death certificate could still have been attached to his shroud.
Frale has clearly studied the inscription, and she presents new evidence. But I find the archaeological evidence far more compelling. In 1988, the Catholic Church gave the University of Arizona and two other institutions the task of dating the Shroud of Turin. These institutions ran Accelerator Mass Spectrometry tests with meticulous care on snippets from the shroud, revealing that the fabric was much younger than previously believed. The tests showed that it dated between A.D. 1250 and 1390.
Critics of the dating tests charge that the researchers mistakenly took snippets from medieval repairs to the shroud. But new fiber studies conducted on the University of Arizona sample reveal that its overall weave structure is identical to that of the rest of the textile.
We certainly haven’t heard the end of the controversy over the famous shroud yet. But right now, I think the odds are stacked strongly in favor of a medieval origin.