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Vatican says the Shroud of Turin is Real (?)

May 6, 2009

I don’t particularly make a hobbyhorse of relics. If folks want to venerate a gold-encrusted hand supposedly belonging to John the Baptists, or a splinter of wood allegedly from the Christ’s cross, that’s there business. However, a recent story in the Times on the Shroud of Turin gave me pause:

Knights Templar hid the Shroud of Turin, says Vatican

Medieval knights hid and secretly venerated The Holy Shroud of Turin for more than 100 years after the Crusades, the Vatican said yesterday in an announcement that appeared to solve the mystery of the relic’s missing years.

The Knights Templar, an order which was suppressed and disbanded for alleged heresy, took care of the linen cloth, which bears the image of a man with a beard, long hair and the wounds of crucifixion, according to Vatican researchers.


However her [Dr. Barbara Frale’s] study of the trial of the Knights Templar had brought to light a document in which Arnaut Sabbatier, a young Frenchman who entered the order in 1287, testified that as part of his initiation he was taken to “a secret place to which only the brothers of the Temple had access”. There he was shown “a long linen cloth on which was impressed the figure of a man” and instructed to venerate the image by kissing its feet three times.

There are of course problems in this line of reasoning. Just because a young Frenchman observed a ritual of veneration in 1287 doesn’t mean that the Shroud was real. Nor, in fact, does it even necessitate that the Shroud today is the “long linen cloth” that was being venerated then. There are a lot of dots but not a lot of lines to connect them.

Last year at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, Antonio Lombatti gave a paper entitled “Jewish Burial Practices in Second Temple Period, the Shroud of Turin, and the Media” (see my previous post on the day here).  He compared burial practices and cloth weaves found in the Shroud of Turin with archaeological remains from the time of Jesus in Palestine. His results: the Shroud employed burial practices alien to Second Temple culture and the weave of the fabric indicates it’s from medieval Europe, not 1st century Palestine. (For other data on why the Shroud’s historicity is untenable see Lombatti’s blog, especially this post.)

I feel the need to conclude by noting that Lombatti’s data does not conflict with Frale’s findings. The veneration of the Shroud neither proves nor disproves it’s authenticity. All it proves is that by the late 13th century the Shroud was perceived to be authentic.

  1. May 6, 2009 1:59 pm

    Since I am a Waldensian, the inauthenticity of the Shroud comes close to being an article of faith. When forced conversions were the norm, my ancestors in the faith were forced to venerate the Shroud.

    So the whole thing rubs me the wrong way.

    In other words, avanti, Antonio!

  2. Shawn permalink
    May 6, 2009 2:44 pm

    I love misleading titles on such new reports, as if Dr Frale’s research is to be equated with the Vatican’s official position on the matter. It seems the media has a difficult time distinguishing this from anything else. It is as if a proclamation ex cathedra is treated the same as a pontifical council document, the same as a papal encyclical, or the same as a brief remark by anyone working at the Vatican (these are in fact all quite different). The layers here are fascinating: first we have the actual researcher and their research (which only deals with the trial, not of the shroud’s authenticity), then we have her comments in a newspaper, then we have The Times newspaper report of the Vatican’s newspaper article. I love how the Times article switches from Frale’s research, to the authenticity of the shroud, with no transition, like they were somehow intimately related. At least this article admits “The Vatican’s” silence on the issue of the shroud’s authenticity. The saying of the Vatican “talk to us and we will get back to you in 100 years” seems appropriate here. Note JP II’s comment of the shroud as “an icon of the suffering of the innocent in every age.” It is like he knows what it is, thus an icon not a relic, but contextualizes it as still as a helpful focal point for faith, meeting people where they are in their faith journey. A smart move.

  3. May 7, 2009 2:22 pm

    You’re right James. Buy the way: I published the manuscript on the templars and (probably) the Turin Shroud in my book in 2000. So, Barbara Frale is a bit late on it… These medieval knights translated lost of relics from 1150 and 1300 from the Holy Land to Europe. They could also have taken the TS. Of course, it doesn’t mean the relic is the true burial cloth of Jesus.

    The witness of this templar, who said to have worshipped a linen with an image on it, doesn’t prove the definitive connection between the templars and the TS. At least, this is what I wrote in 2000.

    Hope to see you again in Rome 🙂

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