The Shroud of Turin

I'm writing about the Shroud of Turin as evidence for Jesus. Is it? See also here.

Catholic physicist Frank J. Tipler, of the anthropic principle fame, has recently defended the Shroud of Turin as genuine in his newest book.

In his book, if I understand him correctly, he argues that a virgin birth of a male child has the probability of 1 and 120 billion from happening naturally. Given the fact that he calculates there have been 60 billion Homo sapiens who have populated the earth, such a thing becomes somewhat probable. Mary would have been an XXY chromosomal female (Klinefelter’s syndrome), except her womb would’ve been normal. The virgin born male child would have a XX chromosomal structure, just like females. This child might not have male genitals.

Now comes the Shroud. DNA evidence from the Shroud showed that the blood had an XY pair, but Tipler argues this might be from contamination. The full results of the DNA testing of the Shroud were published, he says, in an obscure Italian journal, which included "a computer output of the DNA analyzer." However, "there was no attempt to interpret the data.” As soon as Tipler saw the data he was able to interpret it "at once." He says, “They are the expected signature of the DNA of a male born in a virgin birth”--a double XX structure. (p. 184). Thus, “the DNA data support the virgin birth hypothesis,” and that the Turin Shroud “is genuine.”(p. 187).

Blinded by Science?
by Lawrence Krauss

By the time I was halfway through Frank Tipler’s new book I scanned the table of contents and was disappointed to find there would be no explanation of the recently reported miraculous appearance of Mother Teresa’s image on a cheese Danish in Nashville. That was unusual, given that Tipler goes out of his way to provide convoluted physics justifications for key Christian miracles, including the image of Jesus on the Shroud of Turin, long debunked as a 14th-century forgery by many experts. Moreover, whenever conventional physics doesn’t provide a sufficient explanation for the phenomenon of interest, Tipler re-invents it.

As a collection of half-truths and exaggerations, I was first tempted to describe Tipler’s new book as nonsense, but I soon realized that that would be unfair to the concept of nonsense. These descriptions are far more dangerous than nonsense, because Tipler’s reasonable descriptions of various aspects of modern physics, combined with his respectable research pedigree, give the distinct illusion that he is honestly describing what the laws of physics imply. He is not. This book provides an object lesson in the dangers of pushing science beyond its domain of validity, and using various scientific approximations as if they are completely valid in all contexts.

The Physics of Nonsense
Tim Callahan

Dr. Frank Tipler really, really — no, I mean really — needs to take a basic, freshman level, course in comparative mythology. He could also use a course in the development of Christian dogma. He could as well use a little knowledge of what the Bible actually says in the original Hebrew (for the Jewish Scriptures) and the original Greek (for the Christian Scriptures).

As is the case of previous works of this sort, Tipler’s attempt to shoehorn science into the Bible ignores the disciplines of biblical scholarship. There is an arrogance implicit in this. The author is saying, in essence, that his discipline should be respected, but that the disciplines of linguistics, biblical scholarship, comparative mythology, history, and archaeology are of no consequence.

In past exercises of this sort tsunami’s have been used as the explanation for the Exodus story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea dry shod — when the waters rolled out just before the tidal wave — and for the ensuing destruction of their Egyptian pursuers — when the tsunami proper hit. Earthquakes have been used to explain the collapse of the walls of Jericho, and a multitude of scientific causes have been proposed for the sun standing still at the command of Joshua (see my article “Sun Stand Thou Still” Skeptic Vol. 7, No. 3, 1999). Tipler plays fast and loose with translation of the biblical text and Christian dogma, ignores comparative mythology as an explanation for such things as the virgin birth, and makes bizarre demands on science itself to prove as literally true the Trinity, the Star of Bethlehem, the Virgin Birth and, of course, the Resurrection.

Tipler wades through well-trodden turf in the matter of the Virgin Birth, by trying to make the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 fit the birth of Jesus, even though it was plainly misused by Matthew. Here is Is. 7:14 as rendered in the King James Version: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Here is the same verse as rendered in the Revised Standard Version: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

Notice that the “virgin” of the King James Bible has transmogrified into a “young woman.” This is because the Greek of the New Testament and the Septuagint had one word, parthenos, that could be rendered both as “virgin” and “unmarried woman,” whereas the Hebrew scriptures used two words. One, bethula, means specifically “virgin.” The other, almah, means simply a young woman. The word used in Is. 7:14 is almah. Ergo, it is not a prediction of the Virgin Birth, Q.E.D. Yet Tipler rationalizes (pp. 156-157) that maybe the meaning of almah changed over time, and asserts, without supportive evidence, that there are numerous references to the Virgin Birth in Paul’s letters, as well as in Mark and John.

There is an amazingly simple way to cut through all this rationalization and speculation, and that is to put the Immanuel Prophecy back in the context of Isaiah 7. King Ahaz of Judah is being attacked by King Pekah of Israel in alliance with Rezin, prince of Damascus. Isaiah assures Ahaz that God will protect him, saying that a young woman will shortly bear a child named Immanuel, meaning “God is with us.” After this prediction Isaiah says (Is. 7:16) that before this child knows how to refuse evil and choose good, that is, before he reaches the age of moral discrimination, 12 years old at the latest, the kingdoms of Israel and Damascus will be deserted. In other words, this prophecy dealt with the period of the Assyrian conquest of Israel and Damascus by Tiglath-pileser III ca. 732 BCE. There is simply no way to honestly stretch this to fit the Matthean Nativity and the Virgin Birth.

While Tipler’s attempt to use the Immanuel Prophesy as a prediction of Jesus being born of a virgin is both tired and tiresome, his attempt to make the Virgin Birth compatible with science is novel, if nothing else. He argues that parthenogenesis, whereby a female animal can reproduce without being fertilized by a male, could be a scientific way for a virgin to give birth. There are a number of problems with this. First, parthenogenesis has never been observed in mammals. Second, parthenogenesis results from the female egg not undergoing meiosis or reduction division, which produces a haploid cell that needs to unite with another haploid cell to produce a new individual. In parthenogenesis the egg keeps its full compliment of chromosomes, meaning, in mammals, two X chromosomes. Thus a parthenogenetic birth should only produce a daughter. How do we get Jesus? Tipler argues that Jesus was a double X male, an oddity that appears in one out of every 20,000 births. This might just be possible, though it’s still stretching things. However just when you think Tipler’s going to be rational, he brings in something weird. In the case of attempting to prove that Jesus had a double X chromosome genotype, it’s the Shroud of Turin, from which he hopes to find Jesus’ XX genotype in the DNA from the blood on the Shroud. Most people know that the Shroud was radiocarbon dated to the 14th century. Not so says Tipler:

The radiocarbon dating of the Shroud is known to be incorrect, first because bacterial contamination was not taken into account (bacteria add carbon of a later date than the actual Shroud material and thus make it seem younger than it is), and second, because the Shroud samples tested were apparently from a section that had been partially “repaired.” The chemist Raymond Rogers has done a careful chemical analysis of linen fibers taken from all areas of the Turin Shroud, and he is almost certain that the linen used to obtain the radiocarbon date was medieval in origin. That is, the particular sample taken from the Shroud to obtain its age by radiocarbon dating was not manufactured at the same time as the rest of the Shroud. This suggests that the linen from the radiocarbon sample was added at a later date, probably to repair the Shroud. The radiocarbon analysis yielded a date between A.D. 1260 and 1390 completely inconsistent with Rogers’s chemical analysis of the linen fibers from the radiocarbon area.

It is interesting that the argument that bacterial contamination corrupted the date could be used against accepting the radiocarbon dates of the wrappings of the mummy of Rameses the Great or the beeswax used to seal the paint on the bust of Nefertiti. Of course, it never is because no one is trying to make Egyptian archaeology fit into the narrative of a holy text.

As to the argument that the parts of the Shroud tested were either burned or were patches, consider that in an article on the carbon dating of the Shroud in the February 16, 1989 issue of Nature, P.E. Damon and colleagues reported that textile experts took pains to select samples of the cloth away from areas that were either charred or patched. This was done under the auspices of the Holy See and under observation of the local Roman Catholic archbishop. Not only were samples of the Shroud sent to three independent laboratories, as controls they also sent pieces of cloth that were not from the Shroud. The pieces of cloth were labeled A, B, C, etc., and the laboratories were not told which samples were controls and which were from the Shroud. Also, the three laboratories did not compare results until after they had been transmitted to authorities at the British Museum, which was coordinating the testing. In other words, the samples of the shroud were not charred, nor were they from later patches. Furthermore, rigorous steps were taken to insure that the three independent findings were as objective as possible, with the following results reported by Damon in the Nature paper:

The results of radiocarbon measurements at Arizona, Oxford and Zurich yield a calibrated age range with at least 95% confidence for the linen of the Shroud of Turin of AD 1260-1390 (rounded down / up to the nearest 10 yr.). These results therefore provide conclusive evidence that the linen of the Shroud of Turin is medieval.

Defenders of the shroud’s authenticity also claimed that pollen in the cloth could only have come from Israel and that the red brown paint was actually blood. That the heightened defense of the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin in response to the radiocarbon dating by the independent labs is rooted in pseudoscience fueled by faith, can be seen if one considers what the reaction from these sources would have been had the three independent labs found the cloth samples to be from the first century. Then there would have been nothing but praise for the radiocarbon process.

What about the fact that myths of virgin births, along with heroes and demigods rising from the dead, parallel the Christian accounts? Tipler abandons reason and empiricism in favor of what “rings” true to him:

Indeed they were common, but the Gospel accounts of the Risen Jesus have in my judgment (and Pannenberg’s and that of most other scholars who have studied the matter with open minds) a ring of reality unlike these myths. Similarly, the accounts of the Virgin Birth in Matthew and Luke have the ring of reality, unlike the equally common ancient myths of the conception of a god born of copulation between a god and a human female. Matthew and Luke describe the Virgin Birth as the result of the action of the holy spirit, not as the result of intercourse between God the Father and Mary.

It is curious that Tipler finds that the accounts in Matthew and Luke of the Virgin Birth “have the ring of reality,” particularly since these two accounts disagree with each other in nearly every particular. Matthew says Joseph and Mary were living in Bethlehem, and only left for Nazareth to escape persecution, first from Herod the Great, then from his son Herod Archelaus. Luke says they were originally living in Nazareth, but had to go to Bethlehem to be entered into an empire-wide Roman census (which, by the way, is fictional). Thus, they had to make the 70-mile trek to get to Bethlehem with Mary in the late stages of pregnancy. This piece of melodrama, along with other important details, are missing from Matthew. Missing from Luke are the star of Bethlehem, the Magi, the slaughter of the innocents, and the flight of the holy family to Egypt. As to the supposed differences between the Christian myths and those of the pagans, consider what the early church father St. Justin Martyr (ca. CE 100–165) had to say on the subject in item 21 of his First Apology, a philosophical defense of Christian belief addressed to Emperor Antoninus Pius:

And when we say also that the Word, who is the First-begotten of God, was born for us without sexual union, Jesus Christ our teacher, and that He was crucified and died and rose again and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing new beyond (what you believe) concerning those whom you call sons of Zeus. For you know of how many sons of Zeus your esteemed writers speak: Hermes, the interpreting Word and teacher of all; Asclepius, who though he was a great healer, after being struck by a thunderbolt, ascended into heaven; and Dionysus too who was torn in pieces; and Herakles, when he had committed himself to the flames to escape his pains; and the Dioscouri, the sons of Leda; and Perseus, son of Danae; and Bellerophon, who, though of mortal origin, rose to heaven on the horse Pegasus. For what shall I say of Ariadne and those who, like her, have been said to have been placed among the stars? And what of the emperors, whom you think it right to deify, and on whose behalf you produce someone who swears that he has seen the burning Caesar ascend to heaven from the funeral pyre?

That Justin compares the Christ myth to those of Greek mythology and even to the deification of emperors, saying, “we propound nothing new beyond what you believe,” indicates that he saw the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ in the same light as what he acknowledged to be already existing beliefs, only assuming that the Christian myth was the true one.

Tipler’s science behind the Immaculate Conception involves his theory that evil was implanted in our genes (his version of the Fall) in the distant past. Jesus and Mary would both, according to Tipler, be free of this genetic evil. Here Tiper returns to the Shroud of Turin:

Since Jesus and Mary would share the same genome on my XX male theory, if the genes were absent from Jesus’ genome, they would be absent from Mary’s. Jesus would indeed have been conceived immaculately. A DNA search of the Shroud for the X-chromasome gene just mentioned would be the first step. If this gene were indeed involved in our tendency to commit evil, we would expect to see this gene modified from the human norm in the Shroud DNA. In fact, if the evil gene is connected to bone generation, the amelogenin gene, which codes for the generation of teeth, might be entirely absent from Jesus’ genome both in its X form and in its Y form. If so, this gene would be absent from the DNA in the Shroud of Turin if this artifact is genuine. If the Christian tradition that the Fall affected the entire animal kingdom is correct, we would expect to see a similar evil gene complex present in all animals, presumably in the chromosome coding for the sex differentiation.

Moving on to the Resurrection, Tipler claims that skeptics haven’t made a strong case against it. One could also argue that skeptics haven’t made a strong case against the existence of giant sea serpents. The fallacy in both statements is that it is virtually impossible to prove a negative. Those arguing for the validity of either sea serpents or the Resurrection are the ones bearing the burden of proof. The skeptic’s job then is to examine the evidence to see if it can be either verified or falsified.

Tipler goes back to the Shroud of Turin for actual proof. He then compounds this offense with a whole section devoted to the idea that the Shroud is the actual Holy Grail. This is simply nonsense. The Grail is the invention of medieval writers, specifically the French poet Chretien de Troyes, who wrote his Grail story ca. 1180, the Burgundian Robert de Borron and the German Wolfram von Eschenbach, both writing in the early 1200s. Tipler is really reaching to try to make the source of the Grail stories the Shroud of Turin, which wasn’t even known to exist until after the Grail stories had been written.