The Shroud of Turin: perspectives, faith, and evidence

14 10 turin shroud(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OSC TOK blog) Intense emotions and extensive discussion have swirled around the 4-metre-long cloth known as the Shroud of Turin. Is it really the burial cloth that was wound around the body of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion (as many Christians believe), miraculously preserving His image? Or is it a hoax? Earlier this month (Oct 9-12), a conference in St. Louis, Missouri  brought together international presenters and participants on the topic “Shroud of Turin: The Controversial Intersection of Faith and Science”. However, it is an article by historian Charles Freeman that may at last give some definitive answers. In an article published this week in History Today, he argues that the cloth is neither a miraculous burial shroud nor a deliberate hoax, but a 14th century cloth used in church Easter rituals — with significance attributed later. His research is riveting for those of us interested in how knowledge is created.

As a starter for Theory of Knowledge teachers potentially interested in using the Turin Shroud in class, I’ll offer some ideas on whether and how to use it in class. These are opening ideas for you to improve if you choose this topic. I’d certainly welcome your comments on this post if you’d like to join the brainstorming.

Is the Turin Shroud a useful example for you to take to class?

I blogged earlier on the general criteria I’d used for selecting class material.  Does the Shroud make it onto the menu? I think it does, but teachers have to apply the questions with their own class circumstances in mind.

Certainly, the overall controversy over the Turin Shroud raises knowledge questions about the role of faith in interpretation of evidence – or more broadly about the role of perspectives in what is even considered to be “evidence”. Indeed, the basic beliefs or assumptions of perspectives are a good starting point for questions:

  • if people do not accept the possibility of divine miracles and/or the divinity of Jesus Christ, they are likely to reject knowledge claims that the Turin cloth is His burial shroud;
  • if they do accept this possibility, or if they are uncertain, they may or may not be persuaded by “evidence” that the first group is likely to discount

Relevant here are a coherence check for truth (Does this knowledge claim fit with what I already know?) and confirmation bias.

Many examples could be used for the interaction of faith and evidence in justifications for knowledge claims. However, I think what makes the shroud controversy stand out as useful for class is the contribution of historian Charles Freeman. It seems to me to fill a need in TOK, one emphasized in the subject report from the May 2014 session: “Once again, examiners complained bitterly about the gross misrepresentations of history that seem to have become so deeply entrenched.” (page 6) In the commentary on a particular title, the report laments, “History as an area of knowledge continues to be badly treated.” (page 15) It could be very useful for students to look closely at the evidence and reasoning that Freeman uses to reach his conclusions, see the careful scholarship behind them, and recognize some of the methodology of a professional historian.

Will this material “work” in class? Teachers will certainly have to judge for their own class groups according to criteria such I proposed regarding amount of time and the level of complexity of material.

But will students feel comfortable talking about this religious topic? On religious topics, people sometimes feel threatened if they think a belief core to their identity is being questioned, and consequently they sometimes find it hard to hear what is actually being said. It’s not likely that the Turin Shroud would make students anxious, though. Plenty of Christians do not accept the shroud as authentic or feel its status has any bearing on their faith. Even the Pope is non-committal about it. But it’s worthwhile assuring students that the purpose of treating it is not to discuss whether it’s reasonable to believe in Jesus Christ but whether it seems reasonable to believe that the piece of cloth is His burial shroud. The TOK purpose is to consider the role of perspectives and the interplay of faith and evidence as justifications in giving answers to knowledge questions.

What materials would be useful to bring to class for this lesson?

I’ll just offer a few thoughts on dealing with the Turin Shroud in class – and leave it to you to generate better ideas and to fill in the blanks I leave.

For the controversy as a whole, you might gather some alternative interpretations of the shroud for students to consider. Plenty of views are available online, including some of the discussion at the Missouri conference.

I pick out here a few potential sources that contribute different angles on what a range of people think. They can act as starters for the better lesson that you’ll build!:

  • Many people believe the shroud is the authentic burial cloth of Jesus. The shroud will go on exhibition in 2015 in Turin, and tours are being extensively organized. Two million people are expected to visit, many of them pilgrims coming to venerate a holy object.  In a review of one book on the shroud, a writer in The Telegraph observes, “For most “shroudies”… [the puzzle of the shroud] is more than just intellectual. It offers that elusive but faith-validating proof that Jesus died exactly as the gospels say he did.”
  • Those who believe the shroud is authentic find justification in the Shroud of Turin Research Project mentioned above.  Another study concludes that the Shroud could be authentic, and attributes the image of a body imprinted on it to a sudden release of radioactivity triggered by an earthquake at the time Jesus was wound in the cloth.   Useful source for this interpretation: “Shroud of Turin Real?  New Research Dates Relic To 1st Century, Time of Jesus Christ.”  (About this explanation, you might want to include this Washington Post commentary on “click-bait journalism”.)
  • The Catholic Church, which owns the cloth, does not commit itself to a view that it is the authentic burial shroud of Jesus Christ. The Pope uses the Turin Shroud for more general reflection and messages: he speaks of the face in the shroud as a representation of human suffering, at the same time conveying peace. Useful source: “Pope Francis: Turin Shroud ‘conveys a great peace'”.
  • The article by Charles Freeman is essential as one of the sources for a TOK critical treatment of the topic, and for a demonstration of the methods of the historian: “The Origins of the Shroud of Turin”, History Today. His article summarizes evidence such as carbon dating previously done and adds new research findings.
  • It would be sad not to introduce students to a sense of the continuing controversy – not just its content but its tone. Refer students to the blog by Stephen Jones  in which he rages at Charles Freeman – for his credentials as an historian (which, I must interject, are excellent!), the religious beliefs Jones infers that he must have, and his treatment of evidence. Stephen Jones’s own assertions are in turn dismissed with cutting brevity by another blogger, who accepts that the shroud may be authentic but ridicules Jones’ treatment.  If you want to demonstrate how controversial knowledge claims can lead to emotional ranting and silliness, try clicking into some of the reader comments added to articles on the shroud.

How do these materials lead to a good TOK lesson?

Once you’ve prepared your own sample of perspectives, how do you make a good class lesson?

For one thing, it’s important to keep your eyes on the purpose: whether or not the Turin Shroud is authentic isn’t ultimately what we care about in TOK. Instead, we care how people think and argue about it depending on their perspectives – that is, according to my own analysis,

  • their assumptions and their values,
  • their consequent selection of information they consider relevant and convincing,
  • their processes of validation of knowledge claims, and
  • the implications they draw from their methods and conclusions.

Discussion of the Shroud can lead to appreciation of how very much people really care about particular knowledge claims and what justifications they accept and pass on. In part, we can enjoy the human spectacle of varying views and hot reactions. Most important, though, we can hone our own critical thinking skills by seeing knowledge claims in context and evaluating the justifications offered.

How to manage the class time?

My own suggestions are pretty ordinary, but do get some variety into the activity:

  1. give one class period to the overall controversy to bring out knowledge questions of perspectives and justifications (using a video, student reading and presentation, teacher introduction),
  2. then give the Freeman article for homework with some guiding questions, such as those I suggest below
  3. and then, in the subsequent class, give discussion time to the methods of historians.


LESSON 1: perspectives and justifications

• (10 minutes) Open with the 3 1/2 minute video (“Shroud Encounter: Experience the Mystery”. ) that stresses the mystery, and take a few minutes after it to discuss its slick and high-energy presentation, which clearly owes much to advertising. (Is it, in fact, advertising? Advertising what?)

• (25 minutes) To put the different perspectives into play, break the class into small groups.  Assign each one to try to understand one of the perspectives and to explain it to the rest of the class. Allow no more than 20-25 minutes for this part, since if you sink into details you’ll never climb out! To get students to move from description to analysis in their quick summary, it can be helpful to give them some prompting questions, such as:

  • What seem to be the central views expressed? What seems to be assumed, and what is presented as argument?
  • What justifications convince those who accept them?
  • What counter-arguments are acknowledged by those who hold a particular view, or by the writers of articles on those views?
  • How convincing do you find the justifications put forward in both the argument and counter-argument?

• (20 minutes) Give students a brief introduction to the conclusions and kinds of arguments made by historian Charles Freeman, a quick summary of the attack on him, and a summary of the attack on the attack. You’ll be giving them some sense of how historical research works not just within peer debate but also within public controversy – before they zero in on historical research.

HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT: reading and analysis

Ask the whole class to look at the article by Charles Freeman, in order to consider his methods as characteristic of a historian — and to do it as homework so that students can read at the own speeds and come prepared for class discussion.  As quick background to his article, a short review in The Guardian sums up many of his main points: “Turin shroud was made for medieval Easter ritual, historian says”,  Freeman’s article itself (“The Origins of the Shroud of Turin”) requires considerable attention and close reading to absorb its nuances – but a rougher treatment in class is probably sufficient to make essential points about what evidence an historian uses, and how.

Many students would benefit, I suspect, by some support for reading comprehension of this scholarly article – either by having you as the teacher sum up the arguments and their support (fast) or (better) by having you guide them to the structure of the argument with its questions, evidence, and stages of conclusions so that they are able to skim more effectively.  The information in the article is not, in the end, what’s beneficial for TOK; students need also to prepare for discussion on historical methodology. Feel free to use the support I’ve worked out below if it’s useful to you.

If you find the questions below useful, download a class handout here: Freeman Shroud guiding questions  

1. Roughly trace the argument made by Charles Freeman, watching for key sentences that summarize points or mark stages in reasoning.

“It is obvious that many areas of its history and the iconography of its images have not been fully explored,” says Freeman of the Turin Shroud in the second paragraph of his article. Here at the beginning, what areas does he pick out as having been insufficiently considered till now?

The first part of the article considers depictions and descriptions (largely 1578 to 1750) of the Shroud, which was in the possession of the Savoy family. Notice the careful details gathered toward support of the shroud being a medieval work made 13 centuries after the death of Jesus Christ (first record of the shroud’s existence in 1355 and subsequent references, apparent vividness of the images on it at the time compared to now, consistency of those images with 14th century iconographic styles of representation). Then watch for the sentences such as the following that indicate stages of argument:

“One is moving toward an attribution of the images on the Shroud to the 14th century, but what is perhaps the most fascinating evidence is still to come.” What point does Freeman then make through giving (unpleasant) details of the scourge marks on the body?

“When one sees the variety of depictions of the Shroud in the 16th and 17th centuries it is hard to see any other explanation for their vividness than that they were painted on the linen.” Why does Freeman examine linen and paintings on linen in such detail? On what grounds does he cast doubt on the STURP studies?

“So the argument that the Shroud is a painted linen cloth of the 14th century and that it has decayed significantly seems strong but it is important to see whether there is any evidence that contradicts this.” What further evidence does he draw from the carbon dating and from a study of contemporary spinning and weaving? Why does he bother to consider the possibility of cotton fibres floating around in the workshop? What is his point regarding the presence and later absence of the modest loincloth?

“What can we say about the painting on the Shroud?” Why does Freeman examine body position in the image?

Why does he rule out, at the end of Part I, the possibility of deliberate forgery?

At the beginning of Part II, Freeman sums up what he has already established: “…the Shroud cannot be, as many still believe, the burial shroud of Christ, nor can it have been expected to have been passed off as that by whoever painted it.” He then moves on to confirm its 14th century context. He comments on the use of representation of Christ that was conventional in the 14th century, the contemporary use of linen cloth for display in church ritual, the pilgrim badge that confirms details of the shroud’s image, and probable places for the shroud to have been made. Why does he give so much detail as he places the Turin Shroud in context of “the most joyous of the medieval liturgies, that commemorating the Resurrection of Christ at Easter”?

2. Overall, what does this piece of research illustrate of the methodology of history as an area of knowledge?

To what extent does Charles Freeman rely on research already done by others, building on their work? Pick out a couple of examples of earlier historians or scientists to whom he refers for his own evidence. To what extent is history, necessarily, shared knowledge?

To what extent does he critique research already done by others, arguing against their conclusions when he finds omissions and flaws in their work? Pick out at least one example. Do you agree with this claim?: “History is a record of the past created by competing interpretations?” If so, what makes some interpretations win out over others?

Which of the following come into Freeman’s treatment of the topic as evidence to support his overall argument: historical documents referring to his object of study, historical visual depictions of the object, examination of physical materials of which the artifact is made (cloth and paint for chemical composition, carbon dating, techniques of weaving)? With reference to other history with which you are familiar, what can you add to other kinds of artifacts and records that historians examine?

Why does Freeman go into so very much detail in his treatment of his subject?

To what extent can Freeman, studying the past, point to single pieces of evidence as conclusive, and to what extent does he depend on converging “lines of evidence” which contribute to building an overall argument? How much and where does he depend on high probability rather than watertight proof?

To what extent does Freeman look not just at the one object itself but at the consistency between it and factors in the context that help to explain it – e.g. consistency between the object and similar ones at a given historical period (in iconographic style of representation, in materials from which it is made and style of workmanship)?

In what regard does Freeman’s test of the plausibility of his own explanation depend on considering what could contradict it?

To what extent does his explanation at the end also gain support from consistency as he opens up into a broader consideration of the practices of the time in which he sets the creation of the shroud? Since we can’t replay the past to make fresh observations, does history depend even more than the sciences on the overall coherence of the knowledge claims and interpretations?

LESSON 2: methods of the historian

The two sets of homework questions provide a basis for discussing the article, first for understanding what Freeman is arguing and then – much more important for the TOK take-away ideas — discussing the general methods of historians.


I’ve gone into much more detail here than I ever intended to do as I started to tackle this topic. I must stay away, for a few days, from the “recreational thinking” that compels me to blog! It gets too absorbing! Still, I hope that something here may be useful to you – if not the topic of the Shroud of Turin itself, then perhaps some of the ideas on approaching material that I’ve offered along the way.  I welcome comments if you’d like to add your own ideas on treating the topic of the Turin Shroud within the TOK course.

Selected References

Charles Freeman, “The Origins of the Shroud of Turin”, History Today. Volume 64, Issue 11. October, 2014.

Conference “Shroud of Turin: The Controversial Intersection of Faith and Science”.

Meredith Bennett-Smith,”Shroud of Turin Real?  New Research Dates Relic To 1st Century, Time of Jesus Christ.” The Huffington Post. March 28, 2013.

Charlotte Higgins, “Turin shroud was made for medieval Easter ritual, historian says”,The Guardian, October 23, 2014.

Joel Achenbach, “The Shroud of Turin, pseudoscience and journalism”, The Washington Post, February 14, 2013.

short video and short write-up “Pope Francis: Turin Shroud ‘conveys a great peace'”, The Telegraph, March 31, 2013.

short video “Shroud Encounter: Experience the Mystery”










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