Shroud of Turin history presented in Upstate

Retired surgeon relays his nearly 40 years of research on the Shroud of Turin


GREENVILLE — Dr. William E. Rabil has no doubt that the Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. Rabil, a retired general surgeon from Winston-Salem, N.C., began studying the shroud in the late 1950s and has been lecturing about it for nearly 40 years. He made two slide presentations to parishioners at St. Mary Church on March 6.

Rabil began with a brief history of the shroud. After the crucifixion, the shroud was originally hidden in Jerusalem and was thought to have been moved to Edessa (Urfa, Turkey) after Jerusalem fell to the Romans in A.D. 70. In 944, the Byzantine Imperial Army invaded Edessa to recover the shroud and brought it to Constantinople (now Istanbul). Raiders from the Fourth Crusade invaded Istanbul in 1294 and took the shroud to Europe. It is believed to have been hidden by the Knights Templar until Geoffrey DeCharney exhibited it in Liren, France, in 1353. From that point forward, its history is fully documented. The shroud was moved to Turin, Italy, in 1578 and has remained there ever since. It is kept in a silver reliquary behind bullet-proof glass inside the Chapel of the Shroud.

The shroud was first photographed in 1898 by Italian photographer Secondo Pia. His first shot was a misfire, but his second shot caused him to fall to his knees. On the negative was the “positive image of Jesus Christ.” The markings on the shroud are negative images, and it took the photographic reversal of light and dark to reveal the positive image of a man’s body.

While the evidence cannot prove conclusively that the image on the shroud is Jesus, it is definitely the image of man between 5 feet 11 inches and 6 feet tall who weighed approximately 175 pounds. Forensic medical investigation confirms that the man died from crucifixion.

The body in the shroud was unclothed. All four books of the Gospel tell of Roman soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ garments.

The shroud was not wrapped around the body, as one might expect. The body was placed on top of the shroud with the feet at one end. The other end of the shroud was brought over the head and spread on top of the body, ending at the feet.

Jesus’ torture and crucifixion were much bloodier than most paintings have ever depicted. The back of the body in the shroud shows multiple scourge marks from the nape of the neck to the feet. The Romans used a flagrum for scourging. A flagrum was a whip with bone or metal-tipped leather thongs that was specifically designed to tear flesh. One-hundred twenty scourge marks were counted on the body.

Blood had not been washed from the body in the shroud. The Sabbath was fast approaching when Jesus was taken down from the cross, and he had to be buried before sundown. The doctor emphasized that Jesus’ body would have gone into rigor mortis almost immediately after death because of the trauma of crucifixion, which would have made washing very difficult. Jewish burial practices also precluded washing blood that was flowing at the time of death.

The face shows bruising on the nose; Jesus was struck on the nose by a high priest. The body had a mustache and beard, and there is evidence that facial hair had been plucked.

There were no broken bones, but some bones were displaced. There is evidence of spike wounds to both wrists and the feet. Forensic investigators have proved that the spikes were not pounded into Jesus’ palms because the weight of an adult would have torn completely through all tissues, and he would have fallen off the cross. The spikes were pounded into his wrists, and the bones separated. One foot was nailed over the other.

According to Dr. John Heller in his book, Report on the Shroud of Turin (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1983), “There is a swelling of both shoulders, with abrasions indicating something heavy and rough had been carried across the man’s shoulders within hours of death.”

There is no pigment on the linen cloth of the shroud. If paint had been used, the wound pattern would have become obliterated. The blood stains on the back of the skull demonstrate the unique cohesive properties of blood. No other substance behaves the same way. Scientific testing has confirmed that the stains are blood and body fluids.

The forensic examination shows that the crown of thorns was actually a cap over the entire scalp. A painting done from the shroud image shows a thorn above Jesus’ right eye.

Some photos of the shroud show the image of coins placed over both eyes, a Jewish burial custom. The image exactly matches that of a coin minted during the reign of Pontius Pilate between A.D. 29 and 33.

Botanical experts have examined fragments of the shroud and found spores and seeds from 27 plants that are indigenous to Jerusalem. Geological analysis of particles showed limestone indigenous to caves surrounding Jerusalem and suggested that the shroud was placed in a damp tomb or cave.

Jesus died after about three hours on the cross, which was considered fast for a man of his age and physical condition. Medical experts theorize that he was severely weakened by the brutal scourging. Death by crucifixion is very painful. The muscles of the arms, chest, and legs quickly go into spasm, and the victim dies of asphyxiation.

The shroud has been studied and tested carefully by surgeons, forensic scientists, nuclear scientists, radiologists, Biblical scholars, botanists, and historians. Experts have disagreed with each other and challenged each other’s theories and tests. Nobody will ever prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Shroud of Turin was the burial cloth of Jesus Christ — but nobody can prove it wasn’t either.