THE SIGN: Key points
● The Sign solves one of the great mysteries of human history – how did Christianity take off so quickly and so convincingly after the death of Jesus? Early Christian belief in the Resurrection can now be thoroughly explained without reference to a miracle, using well-known Biblical passages, historical detective work, cutting-edge scientific research and expertise in art history. The answer lies in a familiar but much misunderstood historical source – the Shroud of Turin.
● The Shroud of Turin is a large linen cloth imbued with the image of a tortured, crucified man. According to tradition, it was used to wrap the body of Jesus. Still cherished by many Catholics as a miraculous imprint of the crucified Lord, the Shroud is regarded by nearly everyone else as a medieval fake, largely on the basis of a carbon-dating test carried out in 1988.
● However, the Shroud corresponds to no other image of the medieval period, and Thomas de Wesselow proves that it is literally inexplicable as a medieval artefact. At the end of the nineteenth century the Shroud’s image was shown to be an extraordinarily realistic negative image, much like a photographic negative. Since this discovery, there has never been a chance that the Shroud could be an ancient man-made forgery.
● The Sign provides other convincing evidence that the carbon-dating test was erroneous. There were major problems with carbon-dating in the 1980s and the Vatican-dictated protocol was seriously flawed. The current head of theOxford carbon-dating lab, Professor Christopher Ramsey, has stated publicly that the 1988 test was not definitive and that more tests should be run.
● The Sign shows how the Shroud, rather than being a miracle, may actually be a vaporograph, i.e. a natural image caused by vapours. The decomposing chemicals from the body would have reacted with starch deposits on the linen fabric via a Maillard reaction (the same process that makes bread crust turn golden brown).
● The Sign details myriad scientific studies that show why the Shroud is authentic. Pollens lifted from the cloth fibres indicate that the cloth was once inIsrael; a seam found on the cloth is identical to one found on a first-century cloth from Judea; limestone particles found on the Shroud match limestone from the area round Jerusalem; and the bloodstains consist of real blood.
● Christianity began when, after the Crucifixion, Jesus’ followers claimed to have seen him alive again. De Wesselow shows that the episode can only be understood if what they actually saw was something real but so out of the ordinary that they interpreted it as a sign of resurrection. What they saw was the Shroud.
● De Wesselow’s crucial breakthough is the realization that in the ancient world the Shroud would have been viewed animistically, that is, as a living presence. Witnessing the peculiar image of Jesus on his burial-cloth, his followers would have became convinced he had been raised from the dead and exalted to heaven.
● The Shroud makes sense in relation to the Biblical record of Jesus’ burial and solves several famous problems. All the synoptic gospels record that the body was wrapped for burial in a linen sheet, and Mark and Luke imply that the burial was left unfinished, setting the stage for the Maillard reaction. A mythical account of its appearance is preserved in the Gospel of Peter and is echoed in other texts. In the canonical Gospels the Shroud image is portrayed as the Risen Jesus appearing at the tomb.
● The famous appearances of the Risen Jesus are thus explained as showings of the Shroud. These appearances came to an end when the Shroud was removed for safe-keeping to the Mesopotamian city ofEdessa. In its absence, belief in a bodily resurrection gradually took hold, a belief enshrined in the Gospels. Even in these relatively late texts, the original understanding shines through again and again.
● This is the answer to the greatest historical question that can be asked. Christianity became an influential faith because it was kickstarted by the proclamation of a real, observable phenomenon, interpreted as proof of Jesus’s resurrection and attested by hundreds of eyewitnesses.
THE SIGN: The evidence
The Sign does not just present new discoveries about the Shroud; it offers a comprehensive new way of making sense of those discoveries and the birth of Christianity. The book sets out the new evidence for the authenticity of the Shroud:
• recent scientific findings that the Shroud is more than 1300 years old (the vanillin test), evidence published in a peer-reviewed journal but so far ignored by the academic establishment
• recent observations by the textile expert in charge of the 2002 restoration of the cloth, which connect the Shroud to 1st-century Jewish textiles
• a recent and extremely powerful hypothesis about the formation of the image, which shows how it is a natural stain produced by a dead body.
Thomas de Wesselow adds these findings:
• the image does not match the style, technique or concepts of medieval imagery. The Shroud cannot be a painting, rubbing or photograph
• the Pray Codex miniatures prove the cloth was in existence prior to 1192, long before the date indicated by the carbon-dating
• the form of the image proves the cloth was folded around a crucified corpse, and the pattern of the bloodstains shows the body was washed by Jewish buriers.
This analysis could not have been conducted by a scientist or even a general historian; it depends on the skills of an art historian. And the core of the book is built on a theory familiar to art historians: the theory of animism (that people instinctively see images as quasi-living beings). This is uncontroversial and beyond dispute, and its application to the Shroud is not hard to understand.
Sometimes discoveries come in the form of ideas, not scientific results or historical documents. The realization that the Shroud would have been viewed animistically in the 1st-century is as transformational as any scientific breakthrough.
Regarding the Biblical passages, The Sign:
• shows how the Shroud matches the earliest evidence regarding the Resurrection, from Paul
• locates the image of the Risen Jesus at the tomb, where the first recorded sightings of the Risen Jesus (and/or the angels) took place
• accounts for the reports that the disciples were at first unable to recognize the Risen Jesus
• shows how the Gospel accounts of Easter Day can finally be reconciled with the conflicting testimony of the creed in 1 Corinthians
• provides for the first time ever a historical narrative of the ‘forgotten appearances’ – the appearances to the More-than-500, to James and to all the apostles
There is new evidence here, evidence that has never been properly publicized or assessed, but, much more importantly, there is a new way of understanding it. The Shroud is not a sign of the supernatural; it is the answer to the greatest historical question we can ask.
Pressed for time? Read these chapters:
1. The Resurrection
2. The Shroud ofTurin
8. A Unique Spectacle
10. The Blood-Image
11. The Body-Image
13. The Carbon-Dating Fiasco
16. The Risen Jesus
19. The Far-from-Empty Tomb
22. The Appearance to the Twelve
27. The Easter Shroud