If biblical archaeology is defined loosely as "the study of the ancient things related to the Bible," then surely the sindon, linen used to wrap Jesus's body in death, has to be of interest. Most informed Christians now know that there is a serious candidate, the Shroud of Turin.
Special thanks to Professor Emeritus of History, University of Southern Indiana, Daniel Scavone for reviewing this paper and making suggestions for improvement. Special thanks also to Mr. Ian Wilson for pictures and especially for his historical reconstruction which this article follows.
Though the Shroud of Turin was practically unknown outside European Catholic circles at the end of the 19th century, in the last 100 years modern scientific studies repeatedly have produced evidence consistent with the view that the Shroud is an old burial cloth and not human artistry. (For a brief summary of the main conclusions, see A Summary of STURP's Conclusions [off-site link]. For how these influenced a professional archaeologist, see The Authentication of the Turin Shroud: An Issue in Archaeological Epistemology [off-site link].)
A 1988 radiocarbon dating of 1260 to 1390, subsequently shown to be possibly defective (see Latest Developments on the Shroud of Turin: Part II), is the only major scientific contradiction. However, there still remains the question of the Shroud’s earlier history. Critics complain that its known history only goes back to mid-14th-century France, a setting that is infamous for fabricating relics, suspiciously consistent with the 1988 C-14 result, and a long way from Jerusalem. A highly respected but nevertheless minor French nobleman, Geoffrey de Charny, was the Shroud’s first certain owner in about 1355. Unfortunately, before he could leave any testimony as to how he came by the cloth, he was killed the next year in a battle of the Hundred Years’ War. Writing 34 years later, an angry French bishop claimed that an investigation in Charny’s time had proven that the image “was made by human hand and not miraculously made or given” (Bonnet-Eymard 1991: 251). Although a consensus of modern scientific scrutiny disproves any known human artistry, many thoughtful Christians will remain doubtful unless the Shroud’s first 1300 years are better understood. There is now adequate reason to believe that researches in the last century have produced that history, albeit slender at times and, of course, controversial.
The ABR fellowship has no doubt who God’s point man is to understanding where Joshua’s Jericho may be found. Likewise, if the Lord eventually were going to reveal how the New Testament sindon reached us today, there would be someone who would receive the requisite insight. Ian Wilson was a 14-year-old English teenager in 1955 when he saw a picture of the Shroud’s photographic negative. Although strongly agnostic and disinterested in religious matters, his interest in art history made him wonder how medieval artistry could produce such a lifelike, photo-like image. About 1969 he made a remarkable observation that has opened the door to the cloth’s earlier history, and that eventually helped him become a professing Christian. His 1978 book The Shroud of Turin still remains the best place to begin a quest for the Shroud’s earlier history. Today, a substantial number, if not a majority, of informed researchers who believe the Shroud probably does date to antiquity subscribe to some version of Wilson’s historical reconstruction.
Most English translations of the Synoptic Gospels understand the Greek to mean that there was a piece of linen, a sindon, used to wrap Jesus in the tomb. John’s Gospel says Jesus was bound (edesan—an interesting word) or wrapped in sheets or cloths (othonia), and that a kerchief or sweat cloth (soudarion) had been over his head (at some unspecified point in time); the Synoptics’ sindon would have been either among the cloths or, a few believe, the sweat cloth. Did the Jews bury their dead in a simple shroud? Generally, authorities believe the deceased were dressed in their own clothes. However, Jesus had his clothes taken away. Sindonologist Dr. Gilbert Lavoie noticed that in the 16th-century Code of Jewish Law, a victim who died a violent death with blood flowing “should not be cleansed, but they should inter him in his garments and boots, but above his garments they should wrap a sheet which is called sovev [a white shroud],” a tradition that some Jewish scholars believe goes back to New Testament times (Wilson and Miller 1986: 45–46). Hence, if he died nude he would be wrapped only in a shroud. Ancient burial textiles from Israel usually have not survived (although a few pieces discovered in 2000 in an old Jerusalem cemetery were used by some news sources to deny the Shroud’s authenticity - for a discussion and refutation, see Fulbright 2010). That the New Testament makes no mention of what happened to Jesus’ sindon is not surprising considering the great risk to cloth and disciples alike if it became common knowledge that it was preserved. Most Jews (even the more legalistic Jewish Christians) would have been offended by a bloody and imaged grave cloth, and Roman authorities would have destroyed any such evidence suggesting Jesus escaped the death they inflicted. Even gentile audiences might have wondered how attractive the Christian message was when its founder was displayed dead and so gruesomely humiliated. Unless it could be disguised as something else, then there would have been little recourse to hiding it for a more secure time when the Christian message was better understood and appreciated.
The great bulk of early Christian literature is lost, but enough survives to indicate that the whereabouts of Jesus’ sindon was of continuing interest to believers. The second century apocryphal Gospel According to the Hebrews, considerably respected by early Christian writers, had a passage reporting Jesus giving his shroud to “the servant of the priest,” or as some scholars amend the text, “to Peter” (Sox 1978: 45 – 6). Other 2nd century apocryphal books like the Gospel of the Twelve Apostles, Gospel According to Peter, and Mysteries of the Acts of the Savior all show a concern for the sindon’s whereabouts (Savio 1982: 11). As a young girl being educated in 4th century Jerusalem, Saint Nino was told by her learned teacher Niaphori of a tradition of it being given to Peter (Humber 1977: 75). In the 6th and 7th centuries some pilgrims to the Holy Land witnessed cloths identified as Christ’s sudarium or linteamen (linen), but without matching the Turin Shroud’s dimensions or images (Scavone 1989: 76 – 77).
Unfortunately, none of these stories appears to provide any substantial grounds for identifying a place or individuals who possessed the NT sindon, let alone our Turin Shroud. However, if early historical texts are no immediate help, changes in Christian art at the end of antiquity suggest that the Shroud of Turin was not only becoming known, but also an accepted model for Christ’s facial appearance.
It is well known that in the first few centuries Christian art depicted Jesus in a variety of different ways, but most frequently as a beardless, Hellenistic-Roman youth. In the 6th century (some historians believe 5th) this rapidly changed to the more Semitic “true likeness” (moderate beard, moustache, shoulder length hair parted in the middle, etc. and often rigidly front-facing) passed down the centuries to us today. Some of the earliest of the new type are the beautiful mosaics in Ravenna, Italy (Wilson 1979: 102) which were constructed by the Byzantines (Eastern Christian successors to Rome) and date to the early 540’s. Wilson noticed that conventional academia had no accepted explanation for this change other than “the Byzantine tendency at this period to create rigid artistic formulae that then became the pattern for future generations” (Wilson 1979: 103). In the 1930’s French researcher Paul Vignon had observed about twenty facial peculiarities, subsequently called “Vignon markings,” in many of these new pictures. The earliest he believed was found on copies of a mysterious eastern icon, the Image of Edessa (Walsh 1963: 157–8). These oddities appeared to have little or no artistic function, but nevertheless could find parallel, corresponding markings on the Shroud. This suggested the latter may have been a model for this new Jesus face. Wilson subsequently reworked Vignon’s analysis into 15 characteristics including an open top square on the forehead, one or two “V” shaped markings near the bridge of the nose, a raised eyebrow, accentuated cheeks, enlarged nostril, hairless area between lips and beard, and large owlish eyes. No picture included all these characteristics, but some contained many. He also noticed that a few, especially forehead markings, were to be seen on saints, probably placed there as a sign of holiness (Wilson 1979: 104 – 105). Although some researchers express reservations noting that other non-Christian pictures sometimes have these markings, these peculiarities are so frequent on the new Jesus face that some special Shroud-like model is likely to have been used.
Shroud Face Darkened and Vignon Markings
A good example of this new “true likeness” is St. Catherine’s Monastery’s famous 6th century encaustic (painting on wax) Christ Pantocrator. The Pantocrator, “Christ Enthroned” and sitting in majesty as ruler of the world, was an important artistic type and preferred means for depicting him at this time. Shroud researchers Dr. Alan Whanger and wife Mary developed a photo comparison technique for overlaying one picture on another and then counting the actual “points of congruence” (PC’s) between the two (see Applied Optics, 15 March 1985: 766 – 772). Applying an overlay of the Shroud face onto the St. Catherine’s Pantocrator the Whangers counted 170 PC’s, and when they expanded the search to areas around the faces of both, over 250 PC’s (Whanger 1998: 19 – 20; see also Wilson and Miller 1986: illus. 23 – 25). Numerous other pictures, icons, and some images on coins dating from the sixth century onwards (the Whangers believe some even much earlier) often revealed good matches (see Wilson and Miller 1986: illus. 26 – 27). The Whangers note that 45 to 60 PC’s are sufficient to prove common identity in a court of law. Christ’s face on one 7th century coin from Constantinople, the Justinian II tremissis, is particularly striking. It is so crude, even harsh in appearance it is difficult to imagine what model the die maker followed; it certainly was not “naturalized” as other images to show what a living Jesus would look like. But a comparison with the Shroud face strongly suggests that the coin’s maker may have been more concerned with reproducing the unusual, stark detail of a model very much like on the Shroud. The Whangers count 188 PC’s between the two (Whanger 1998: 33–34). For an interesting comparison of the two images see the Whangers’ website at CSST (off-site link).
St. Catherine’s Pantocrator Icon: a good example of the new “true likeness” Christ face from the 6th century AD. When researcher Alan Whanger overlays the Shroud face on to this picture, over 250 points of similarity are observed.
If the Shroud were the new exemplar for the face of Christ, where was it and how did it so quickly influence Christian art from the 6th century? Wilson theorized that some unknown artist studied the Shroud face including Vignon’s peculiarities, made model drawings trying to incorporate each oddity, and then circulated copies to Christian communities engaged in religious decoration (Wilson 1979: 105). It probably began in the East, where some earlier art historians had recognized the important role played by the greater Syrian region in Christian art. O. M. Dalton observed “It was the Aramaeans [Syrians] who counted for most in the development of Christian art” compelling Hellenistic views to yield to Semitic modes of expression. This especially included “the cities of Edessa and Nisibis, where monastic theology flourished ...” (Dalton 1925: 24-25). This was an important key to their influence:
The East had always one advantage over its rival [Hellenistic West]... it was the home of monasticism, the great missionary force in Christendom .... Monks trained in the Aramaean theological schools of Edessa and Nisibis flocked to the religious houses so soon founded in numbers in Palestine. From the fifth century it was they who determined Christian iconography ... (Dalton 1925: 9).
The large pilgrim influx to the Holy Lands and migration of Syrian-trained monks to distant places ensured that what was current in the East would be known everywhere. “When we consider the part played by a monasticism trained in Aramaic theology, and the wide missionary activity of which Edessa was the base, the importance of the Syrian element in Christianity is at once realized” (Dalton 1925: 24). If there were an authoritative picture of Jesus to be found in the Syrian region, it is understandable how it could have become famous throughout Mediterranean Christianity. Although initially Wilson could not identify any contemporary documentary source for this new Jesus face, he recognized there was a likely candidate. In the 6th century a new class of icon was gaining prominence in the East, supposedly made by Christ himself and therefore acheiropoietos, “not made with (human) hands” (Wilson 1979: 111-112). The belief was that in one way or another they were imprints of Christ’s face. The most prominent was the Image of Edessa, the very picture Vignon had deduced as the earliest to exhibit the new “true likeness” features. Could the Image have been the Shroud? If so, why hadn’t anyone made that identification? Wilson soon noticed an obscure Greek word, tetradiplon, that proved to be the key to answering those questions.
First century Edessa, today known as Urfa in southeast Turkey, was the seat of a small buffer kingdom between the Parthians to the east and Romans in the west. It had a mixed population of Syriac, Greek, Armenian, and Arabic speaking peoples including a strong Jewish representation. By the 6th century it and the adjacent Assyrian region was home to a large, thriving Christian population. Most historians agree that Christianity was a growing force in Edessa late in the 2nd century under the famous ruler Abgar VIII (“The Great”), with a church sanctuary dated there in 201 (Segal 1970: 24). But when the Edessan Christians wrote their history in the 3rd century, they remembered that the Gospel originally came to them in the 1st century from a Jerusalem disciple named Addai and to a King Abgar V, a known historical figure contemporary with Christ. Eusebius included in his Ecclesiastical History a brief late 3rd century version, reporting a famous letter from Jesus still kept in the Edessan archives (Eusebius 1991: 43-47). But later in the 4th century (or possibly early in the 5th) a Syriac writer penned a much expanded text. Known as The Teaching of Addai (hereafter TA) one small passage has Abgar, who is corresponding with Jesus by way of a messenger Hanan, instructing him to make a picture of Jesus:
When Hanan the archivist saw that Jesus had spoken thus to him, he took and painted the portrait of Jesus with choice pigments, since he was the king’s artist, and brought it with him to his lord King Abgar. When King Abgar saw the portrait he received it with great joy and placed it with great honor in one of the buildings of his palaces (Howard 1981: 9 - 10).
Most modern scholars usually reject The TA as reliable history for a variety of reasons, but sometimes admit “a substratum of fact” (Segal 1970: 179–181). Wilson recognizes numerous “anachronisms and interpolations” more characteristic of Abgar VIII’s time than Abgar V’s but also concludes that many “elements of the story have an authentic period ring” (Wilson 1998: 165). As for the picture, this is the only certain place in antiquity that mentions the Edessa Image, and by itself would lead no one to dream that it was actually the NT sindon or Turin Shroud. Writers like the Edessan Church Father Ephrem in the 4th century show no knowledge of the picture, leading some scholars to believe there never was such an object in ancient Edessa (Drijvers 1998: 17). Others believe it was there, just not very famous (Drews 1984: 75). Historian Daniel Scavone opines that the story is “made up after the fact, when the real history was forgotten, to explain the presence of the Christ-picture in Edessa” (Scavone 1991: 180). What the TA may also suggest is that there was a distant memory in 4th century Edessa of a Christ picture coming to their city in an early evangelization, and if a lengthy history (like The TA) were to be written, contemporary readers might expect it to be included. However, because of persecution, it had to be hidden away and perhaps even lost, with only confused memories surviving by the 4th century (Wilson 1979: 129 – 130).
Whatever the truth about the Edessa Image’s existence in antiquity, most scholars concede there is sufficient evidence for its reality sometime in the 6th century. The primary document is Evagrius’ Greek Ecclesiastical History, written about 595. In it he recounts the desperate attempts of the Edessans to stave off a 544 Persian siege. When the enemy built a large wooden siege ramp aimed at overwhelming their walls, the Edessans mined under it stacking wood with the hope of burning it down. However, their wood found too little air to burn:
So, when they came to complete despair, they brought the divinely created image, which human hands had not made, the one that Christ the God sent to Abgar .... Then, when they brought the all-holy image into the channel they had created and sprinkled it with water, they applied some to the pyre and the timbers. And at once ... the timbers caught fire ... (Whitby 2000: 226 – 227).
The siege ramp was destroyed and city saved. Most scholars doubt the story’s miracle aspects, but it is believed generally that sometime in the 6th century an icon did achieve the fame of “The Holy Image Not Made With Hands of Edessa.” For reasons to be discussed later, Wilson believed the date of the Icon’s appearance to be somewhere between 525 and 530. But unlike in The TA, from this time forward the picture usually was not believed to be a work of human artistry, but rather a divine imprint, made by Christ himself. A second 6th century (or possibly 7th cen. based on a 6th cen. Syriac original – see Palmer 2009: 118) Greek text, the anonymous Acts of Thaddaeus (hereafter AT) described this new way of understanding the picture’s origin. This document is another brief account of the Gospel coming to Edessa in the 1st century in the time of Abgar V. The king’s messenger, Ananais, was unable to paint Jesus, so:
And He [Jesus] knew as knowing the heart, and asked to wash Himself; and a towel was given Him; and when He washed Himself, He wiped His face with it. And His image having been imprinted upon the linen, He gave it to Ananias ... (Roberts and Donaldson 1951: 558).
When Ian Wilson read the AT account he learned that what the Greek text actually said was that Jesus was given a rakos (piece of cloth) which was a tetradiplon, a word translated as “doubled in four,” and then imprinted his face on the sindon (linen). Rakos and sindon are common words, but tetradiplon very rare. Surprisingly, this word was never used except in reference to the Edessa Image. By three simple width-wide foldings, Wilson found that the Shroud of Turin was easily converted into a cloth with four, two-fold layers. Additionally, the final panel would be a landscape shaped horizontal rectangle. In this arrangement, through no special effort, this panel (one-eighth the original Shroud size) would show only the Shroud’s face, with the remaining body images hidden within the folds. Wilson noticed that the earliest surviving pictures of what the entire Icon actually looked like (from the 10th to 13th centuries) showed a rectangular picture frame with just a face on a cloth, seen through a circular opening in a slipcover. It was almost always set in a landscape (rectangular) shape, as opposed to the more artistically acceptable portrait shape (vertical rectangle) (Wilson 1979: 119 – 120). For Wilson these observations were an epiphany unlocking some of the Shroud’s earlier history, including a variety of mysterious changes in Christian art.
Evagrius’ Ecclesiastical History and the anonymous Acts of Thaddeus were the earliest Greek documents Wilson found referring to the Image. Recently his confidence in this historical reconstruction was considerably enhanced with the 1994 translation of discarded Georgian texts found at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt. They help confirm old Georgian traditions that Assyrian monks evangelized Georgia in the 6th century (Wilson believes the 530’s). One of the monks, Theodosius, was from Edessa where he was “a deacon and monk [in charge] of the Image of Christ,” a certain reference to the Edessa Icon (Wilson 2010: 135–36). Both Theodosius and a companion were tasked to paint religious art, and are rare examples of known individuals engaging in “icon evangelism” during this era. Additionally, the Syriac Acts of Mar Mari the Apostle (believed to be an early evangelist to the Assyrian region) briefly records the miraculous origins of the Icon and probably dates to the 6th century (Harrak 2005: xvii). In it Jesus is said to have made his image on a sdwn’ (linen cloth) (Drijvers 1997: 21–26). Although sometimes doubted in academic circles, the Holy Image of Edessa was a documented certainty no later than the 6th century.
Syriac documents and traditions continue to shed light on the Image for the next three centuries. Recently, Archbishop Gewargis Silwa, head of the Church of the East in Iraq, disclosed an unpublished mid-7th century letter addressed to Nestorian Christians in Edessa calling that city “a sanctified throne for the Image of his adorable face and his glorified incarnation,” an almost certain reference to the Icon (Wilson 2001: 34 – 35). The 8th and 9th centuries Jacobite Patriarch Dionysius of Tell-Machre (a town nearby Edessa) remembered that the Image of Edessa was in the hands of the orthodox Christian community going back to the late sixth century. His recollections mirror those of the Acts of Mari and recount Jesus making his swrt’ (Syriac for image) on a shwshaepha (piece of cloth or towel) (Drijvers 1997: 21 – 26). These accounts are almost identical to the image creation in Acts of Thaddeus, but without mention of a word like tetradiplon. Dionysius remembered one story told by his grandfather how a clever artist, in the employ of the fabulously wealthy Edessan Athanasius bar Gumoye, had made a copy “as exactly as possible [like the original] because the painter had dulled the paints of the portrait so they would appear old” (Segal, 1970: 213 - 214); he then tricked the Image’s original owners, the Orthodox Christian community, by exchanging the copy for the original. Whatever the full truth of this event, it would have occurred near the end of the 7th century. It indicates the Image had been revered for a considerable time, and it affirms that copies were being made. Additionally, having to “dull the paints” suggested to Wilson not just age, but the indistinct, faint image so characteristic of the Shroud face. Two early 8th century texts make it clear that the Edessa Image was a continuing and important religious object. The Church where it was kept was referred to as “The House of the Icon of the Lord” in manuscript BL Oriental 8606 dated to 723 (Drijvers 1997: 28). Scholar Hans Drijvers also knows of an unpublished text of an early 8th century dispute between a Christian monk and an Arab wherein the latter admits he has heard of the image made by Christ and sent to King Abgar (Drijvers 1997: 27).
Early medieval Edessan traditions indicate that this cloth on which Jesus imprinted his face was highly revered but kept in great secrecy. When in 525 Edessa’s most important cathedral was destroyed in one of the city’s periodic 100 year floods, a new one was finished about 30 years later. “It was called Hagia Sophia after the famous [and contemporarily built] church of that name in the capital [Constantinople], and is said to have been beautiful beyond description, with its gold plating and glass and marble” (Segal 1970: 189). In the “Liturgical Tractate,” a 10th century Greek text describing the Icon’s Edessan rituals discovered by the great 19th century historian of Christ pictures Ernest von Dobschutz, Wilson learned that no images were permitted in the cathedral except the Icon. It was kept secluded in a chest in its own sanctuary and guarded by an abbot (Wilson 1979: 145). “Then, on the Sunday before the beginning of Lent, there was held a special procession” in which the Image, still enclosed in its chest, was carried through the cathedral “accompanied by twelve incense-bearers, twelve torch-bearers, and twelve bearers of flabella or liturgical fans” (Wilson 2000: 222). Historian Robert Drews concludes that details in the Tractate make it apparent that “we are dealing with an object of some size, and not with a small, unframed cloth that the wind could lift and carry” (Drews 1984: 37). The chest in which the Icon was kept was allowed to be opened (and the Image seen) only by the archbishop. It was equipped with shutters which were opened on rare occasions “then all the assembled throng [general Edessan populace and visiting pilgrims] gazed upon it; and every person besought with prayers its incomprehensible power” (Drews 1984: 38). But this was done at a distance through a grille at the entrance of the Image’s sanctuary, making it difficult to see the face very well. Von Dobschutz believed that even then the Icon was covered up (Scavone, 2001: 13). Wilson emphasizes the profound effect this produced quoting the Tractate:
no one was allowed to draw near or touch the holy likeness with his lips or eyes. The result of this was that divine fear increased their faith, and made the reverence paid to the revered object palpably more fearful and awe-inspiring (Wilson 1979: 146).
This is of paramount importance in understanding the Holy Image of Edessa’s history, and why its identification with the Shroud of Turin is so apparently difficult; the cloth was almost always kept folded and hidden away from prying eyes, just as much as the Shroud during later centuries in Turin.
This concludes Part 1. In Part 2 we will trace the Image of Edessa to the great capital of Eastern Christendom, Constantinople, and find more reasons to connect it with our present Shroud of Turin.
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