I had a recent conversation with someone on Facebook advocating that the Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth of Jesus and that the image on the shroud is a miraculous image of the real Lord Jesus. The exchange has driven me back to scripture to one again ensure that my position on the Shroud is not a mistaken one. I do not believe that the Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth of Jesus. I think a careful study of scripture reveals that the Shroud is not authentic. I’ve written previously about this, however, today I’d like to make a much more thorough case comparing the Shroud to the scriptures about Jesus’ burial to demonstrate why my conclusion is valid.
To keep the length of this article manageable, I will not be providing background information about the Shroud of Turin and its history. If you are interested in more details about the Shroud then you can find that information here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shroud_of_Turin) and here (https://www.shroud.com). My concern is with what the scripture reveals about Jesus’ burial and whether or not the physical evidences of the Shroud comport with the biblical evidences. What are those physical evidences? The Shroud is a single piece of burial cloth.
A body was laid on the Shroud and then the Shroud was folded over to cover the front of the body.
The Shroud covered the whole body of Jesus from feet to head.
There are four passages of scripture that deal with the burial of Jesus and the shroud that was used in his burial. At first examination it would seem that these passages conflict with one another. Three passages seem to state that Jesus was buried in a single piece of linen, while a fourth passage describes the body being wrapped in linen strips. What is going on here? Are these passages in conflict with one another? Should we ignore the one account in favor of the previous three accounts which would seem to support the idea that the Shroud of Turin is authentic?
As with any topic of scripture, it is important to systematize what is written in various passages in order to understand the full context of whatever is being presented. In the case of the shroud that covered Jesus’ body we have a very important statement in scripture that must guide our understanding of all four passages relative to this topic. It is found in John 19:40. It states that the body of Jesus was buried according to “The burial custom of the Jews.”
This is a very important statement. It means that whatever was done to the body was done according to the practices of the time. Anything which might show contrary to the burial customs of the Jews during that period must be discarded as inconsistent with the scriptural evidence about Jesus’ burial. Having this important Biblical principle in hand, let’s look at all four passages about the burial, one after the other.
“As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock” (Matthew 27:57-60).
“And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. 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 corpse to Joseph. And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock” (Mark 15:42-46).
“Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid” (Luke 23:50-53).
“After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there” (John 19:38-42).
Is the Shroud of Turin the burial cloth of Jesus? The first question we must answer is, “What is a shroud?”
First, we should note the obvious difference the text seems to imply between the synoptic Gospels and the book of John. Advocates for the Shroud of Turin note that Matthew, Mark, and Luke say that Jesus was buried in a single shroud, or single piece of linen cloth. However, the text doesn’t really say that. Look carefully. Let’s use Matthew’s statement, “Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb.” This brief statement isn’t mean to communicate everything that was done to Jesus’ body. In fact, this brief statement, like the others, covers activity that took place over hours of time. Saying, from this text, that Jesus was buried in a single cloth is an assumption on the text, not derived from the text. Matthew’s statement, like Mark’s and Luke’s, is a general account, not a specific one. It lacks specific information of the details of what happened. This is why we must systematize all four texts.
In modern times when we see a text expressed in the singular we interpret that statement to be singular. Thus, when the text, as in Matthew, says that he was “Wrapped in a clean linen cloth,” we naturally interpret that to mean that there was one, single cloth that Jesus was wrapped in. However, when we compare this to the passage in John we are told that Jesus was, “Bound in linen cloths with the spices.” Other translations use the term “strips” instead of cloths (NIV, NET, GWT), or “wrappings: (NASB NAS1977). However, the vast majority of translations use the term, “cloths,” signifying multiple wrappings, not a single wrapping. So what is going on here? We can clear up much of this confusion by defining what the scripture means when it uses the term, “shroud.”
A shroud, in New Testament times, was not a single item (though it begins that way). A single piece of cloth was often called a “shroud.” However, that single piece of cloth was ripped to create strips of cloth with which to wrap the deceased. The wrappings, which we might in modern times, refer to as multiple were referred to in the singular. Multiple wrappings were referred to in the singular as a “shroud.” Remember, according to John everything was done according to the burial customs of the time. We know from archeology and history that the practice of the Jews was to wrap a body in strips of cloth, mixing the cloth with spices in layers of the cloth. The legs and arms of Jesus would have been wrapped individually, then the upper body, with strips wrapping him from feet to neck. Then a separate cloth would be placed over the face as we see in John 20:7. Biblical scholars and commentators agree with this assessment. Note:
“‘Strips of linen’ is a translation of Othoniosos. Later usage in the koine Greek made the term of generic equivalent of clothes” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 9, John and Acts).
“The body was bound in strips of linen” (Believer’s Bible Commentary).
“As part of their burial customs, the Jews tore large linen sheets into strips and wrapped perfume inside them close to the body” (Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary).
By systematizing the passages and comparing them with what we know from history we come away with a simple conclusion. A single large linen cloth was brought to the tomb and subsequently torn into strips to wind around the body with the spices. A few commentators have argued that the linen sheet may have remained intact and instead of being torn into strips was, instead, wrapped around the body with the spices inserted into the folds. Either way, this type of burial is not consistent with the Shroud of Turin. Advocates of the Shroud of Turin note that the Shroud would have been folded over the body once, from feet to head, and laid flat over the front of the body. But scripture and history contradict this practice as not being what normally happened with a single winding cloth, or a single cloth torn into strips to wind around the body. Additionally, shrouds did not cover the face, as the Shroud of Turin would seem to depict. The body was wrapped up to the neck, then a separate cloth was used for the face or the head.
Allow me a bit of speculation. Understanding how the Jews conducted entombment 2,000 years ago brings insight into the text where it states that Peter and John went to the tomb to see if the report of the resurrection was true. Consider, after three days in the tomb, Jesus’ wrappings with the spices (some say applied as ointment) would have stiffened. I don’t believe that Jesus rose and then unwrapped himself. I think that Jesus rose through the wrappings so that when he rose the wrappings were left in the shape of his body. Thus, when Peter and John looked in they would have seen the wrappings having retained their shape, with the face cloth laid aside. This would have been a powerful testimony of the resurrection. If they would have seen the shroud unwrapped a conclusion could have easily been drawn that someone unwrapped and stole the body. But the strips remaining in a wrapped state would have been a very powerful sign of the resurrection.
It has been said by some that Joseph and Nicodemus did not have time to perform the standard burial ritual and thus, they buried Jesus quickly with a single linen sheet. I do not think this argument is persuasive for two reasons. First, the scripture does not state anywhere that they did not complete the procedure. It only tells us they were rushed. This does not automatically infer they could not complete the task. Second, there was enough time from Jesus’ death to entombment to finish the job satisfactorily.
How much time did Jesus’ friends have to entomb his body? The crucifixion was over around 3:00pm. Sundown, when the new day would start, was somewhere around 7:00pm for that time of year, giving the men roughly four hours to complete their tasks. They may have been rushed, but they were not without time to complete their task, especially considering how close the tomb was to the site of the crucifixion. The tomb was only about 200 meters away. A normal walk of this distance takes about 2-1/2 minutes. However, considering that Nicodemus and Joseph where carrying a body and 75 pounds of spices, the walk may have been closer to five to ten minutes. It is likely that they had servants to help them carry the body and the spices, but this is not stated directly in scripture. Regardless, very little time was needed to transport the body of Jesus to the tomb, leaving plenty of time in the three to four hours available to them to prepare the body and entomb it.
So where does this leave us? At every point, the scriptural and historical evidence for the Jewish practices of burial do not line up with what the Shroud of Turin seems to depict. The linen was torn into strips, not whole. The body was wrapped, not simply covered in a cloth. The body was wrapped from feet to neck, the head was not wrapped, but covered with a separate cloth. The Shroud of Turin stands in contradiction to these facts and thus can be dismissed as not consistent with the historical testimony of scripture and the extrabiblical testimony of historical Jewish practice.
The Shroud of Turin does not take away anything from our faith. But neither does it add anything to it. It is not miraculous, but is a creative piece of art. And it is not the burial shroud of Jesus.