The Shroud of Turin: why religion is a pseudoscience

February 20, 2014 • 10:32 am

A recent article by Carpinteri et al. (no link or free download, but judicious inquiry may yield you a pdf) demonstrates the two ways that religion is a pseudoscience.  The first is that it relies on empirical claims to buttress its dogma. While Sophisticated Theologians™ may argue that God is beyond all evidence, being some imperceptible and numinous “thing” that can neither be defined nor seen as interacting with the cosmos, that’s not what believers think.  So, for example, claims that Jesus was born of a virgin, died, was resurrected, or that Mohammad went to heaven on a horse, or that Joseph Smith received the golden plates in New York and translated them, or that 75 million years ago Xenu loaded his alien minions onto planes resembling DC-8s, or that there is an afterlife, and that good people go to Heaven, or that God hears and answers prayers, and is benevolent and all-powerful, are claims about the way the world is. And many of those claims are testable, though all have been refuted. In the prescientific era, these claims constituted a sort of science.

But as real science arose in the 15th and 16th centuries, and began eroding religion’s claims, religion began turning into a pseudoscience. That is, it still made empirical claims, but immunized itself against refutation of those claims using a variety of devices—the same devices used by other forms of pseudoscience like ESP, UFOlogy, homeopathy, and astrology. These include arguing that the propositions themselves are untestable, using poor standards of evidence (including reliance on “revelation” as a “way of knowing”), reliance on a priori personal biases that are not to be tested but merely confirmed, refusing to consider alternative hypotheses, and engaging in special pleading when religious tenets are disconfirmed.

We can see all of these—but especially in the last—in a paper by A. Carpinteri et al. on the Shroud of Turin, a paper that’s gotten a lot of publicity. It’s an attempt to defend scientific radio-carbon dating of the Shroud, which showed it to be a medieval forgery, by special pleading invoking earthquakes.

First, a short review. You almost surely know that the Shroud of Turin is a sheet of linen in a cathedral in Turin, Italy, bearing the likeness of a man who is said to be Jesus. The cloth is, indeed, supposed to be the burial shroud of Jesus. Here’s what it looks like: the image is much clearer in negative form than as a positive. Here’s the body (pictures from Wikipedia; there are actually two images on the shroud, as if the body had been enfolded):


The face in negative and positive:


Although scientists and artists aren’t yet sure how the image was made (it appears to include AB blood, suggesting, since Mary was a virgin, that God carried either an A or a B Landsteiner allele (or both), but what is not in dispute is that radiocarbon dating of the linen shroud by three independent labs puts the date at between 1000 AD to 1260 AD. In other words, the shroud was medieval, and could not have been Jesus’s burial shroud.

While religionists have raised numerous reasons why the dating could be wrong—foremost among them is the claim that the dated sample was taken from a piece of cloth used to patch the shroud much later—none of these appear credible. The Vatican itself takes no position on the authenticity of the shroud, which of course means that believers are free to think the Church thinks it could be real.

Science has thus debunked this as Jesus’s shroud.  But religionists, in their pseudoscientific way, won’t give up.  They have now raised a new ad hoc hypothesis to explain why the dating was wrong—earthquakes! To be specific, an earthquake occurring after Jesus’s body was wrapped produced a bunch of neutrons by shaking up the rocks. Those neutrons were captured by Nitrogen-14 to produce Carbon-14, the parent material used in radiometric dating. (This is in fact how Carbon-14 is formed in the atmosphere.) But Carbon-14 also degenerates back to nitrogen by emitting an electron. Carbon 12, the more common isotope of carbon, does not decay. Since a carbon-containing sample will have, when it is made or when its possessor died (like an old piece of wood), the same ratio of Carbon-14 to Carbon-12 present in the atmosphere at the time of manufacture or death, the Carbon-14 will gradually decay (no more carbon can be absorbed from the atmosphere). At the end, if we know the rate at which Carbon-14 decays (its half-life is 5720 years), we can estimate the age of a sample by simply measuring the ratio of C-14/C-12.

You can see, then, that if a sample were to somehow be able to be infused with extra Carbon-14 after it died or was manufactured, it would look younger than it was: as if the original amount of radiometric carbon had not sufficiently decayed to give it a lower and time-appropriate C-14/C-12 ratio.

And that is what Carpinteri et al. suggest: an earthquake around the time of Jesus’s death (33 A.D.) caused a huge emission of neutrons; those neutrons were captured by the nitrogen in the shroud, producing a higher level of C-14 than would have been there if the shroud were really made at the time of Jesus. That, in turn, would make the shroud look younger than it really was. In other words, they’re suggesting the original dating was wrong because the assumption (that no C-14 had gotten into the shroud) was violated by a big earthquake.

Oh, and they also suggest that neutron capture, presumably by the body, would have produced the image, though there’s no reason, scientifically, to think that an image could be produced by that.

Although there is evidence that some earthquakes can transitorily release substantial amounts of neutrons into the atomosphere, there are three scientific problems with this hypothesis.

1. The evidence for an earthquake is thin. The authors cite four sources. The first is Thallos, a historian in Rome who wrote about 50 A.D., and whose works mention Jesus as well as an earthquake and a solar eclipse that happened during the Crucifixion. This evidence is not credible (there was no solar eclipse then), and Biblical scholars no longer accept Thallos’s quoted words as evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

The second is the Gospel of Matthew, which also mentions an earthquake when Jesus died. Needless to say, this is not independent evidence, and the other Gospels don’t mention an earthquake.  Why not? If it had happened, wouldn’t all the Gospels have mentioned it?

The third source is Joseph of Arimathea, who, according to the Gospels, donated his own future tomb to Jesus. His “narrative,” a non-canonical Gospel that mentions an earthquake, is not accepted by scholars as independent evidence for the historicity of Jesus; indeed, I can find no credible evidence that this Joseph even lived.

Finally, Carpinteri et al. cite, of all people, Dante’s Inferno (XXI, Canto: 106-114) as mentioning a big earthquake, but who would possibly think that that is independent evidence for an earthquake, since Dante wrote this 13 centuries after Jesus supposedly lived and was, of course, basing much of his poem on the Bible. The authors fail to cast any doubt on the credibility of these sources.

2. There is no evidence that neutron emission during an earthquake could alter the C-14 content of a shroud. This, of course, could be tested in laboratory experiments, but the authors didn’t do it.

3. The alteration of the amount of C14 in the shroud would have to be sufficient to make it look sufficiently pre-modern, but not too young. In fact, the first accepted mention of the Shroud happens to be 1390, pretty close to the time when it was radiocarbon dated. If there was more C-14 generated by the earthquake, it would make it look like it dated from, say, 1600 or later, which wouldn’t comport with the historical records.  So the earthquake managed to give it a false data that happens to correspond to its first mention. That’s too much of a coincidence, and the authors don’t mention this.

4. There is no known way that an earthquake could, by neutron emission, produce an image of a body on a shroud. The authors don’t deal with this, either.

The Carpinteri paper is thus a confection of unlikely and untested hypotheses, all assembled to try to save the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin as the true burial cloth of Jesus. It is not a piece of science, but a piece of apologetics.

Nevertheless, it’s been uncritically accepted in some venues. Take a look at the February 11 article in the Telegraph, “Turin Shroud may have been created by earthquake from time of Jesus.” It presents the theory, and offers not a single piece of counterevidence, nor a single dissenting scientist (and there are some), casting doubt on the thesis. This can be attributed to shoddy journalism, to a credulous or lazy journalist (Sarah Knapton), to a desire to placate a public hungry for evidence that Jesus really lived, or all of these factors. What is certain is that the Carpinteri et al. paper is deeply flawed, is not objective science but advocacy, and has been reported uncritically by the press. I’m just a lowly website writer who spent an hour reading the paper and an hour writing this piece and looking stuff up. Why couldn’t Knapton do the same thing?

Indeed, even Wikipedia does a better job than the popular press, and points out something that Ms. Knapton should have known: Carpinteri is the editor of the journal that published this flawed paper. What does that say about the review process? As Wikipedia notes:

A team of researchers from the Politecnico di Torino, led by Professor Alberto Carpinteri (and published in the journal Meccanica, where same Alberto Carpinteri is currently the acting Editor-in-Chief, believe that if a magnitude 8.2 earthquake occurred in Jerusalem in 33 AD, it may have released sufficient radiation to have increased the level of carbon-14 isotopes in the shroud, which could skew carbon dating results, making the shroud appear younger.This hypothesis has been questioned by other scientists, including a radiocarbon-dating expert. The underlying science is widely disputed, and funding for the underlying research has been withdrawn by the Italian government after protests and pressure from more than 1000 Italian and international scientists. Dr REM Hedges, of the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit of the University of Oxford, states that “the likelihood that [neutron irradiation] influenced the date in the way proposed is in my view so exceedingly remote that it beggars scientific credulity.” Raymond N. Rogers conducted various tests on linen fibers, and concluded that “the current evidence suggests that all radiation-based hypotheses for image formation will ultimately be rejected.”

Of course none of this counterevidence will shake the faithful, who will still see the Shroud as authentic, and will come in droves to pay homage when the Shroud has one of its rare showings. Like believers in homeopathy or ESP (or, now, Adam and Eve), they continue to hold their faith despite all scientific counterevidence.


Carpinteri, A., G. Lacidogna, and O. Borla. 2014. Is the Shroud of Turin in relation to the Old Jerusalem historical earthquake? Meccanica DOI 10.1007/s11012-013-9865-x

167 thoughts on “The Shroud of Turin: why religion is a pseudoscience

  1. There’s really only a couple things you need to know about the Shroud to know that it’s a fake.

    First, one of the “miracles” originally cited to “prove” its original authenticity…was how vivid its colors were, as if it was made only yesterday (heh) and the gods preserved it thus ever since. One might note that it has rapidly faded since then, and now looks exactly what one would expect from an artifact from the Middle Ages.

    Next, the figure depicted is not at all lifelike. Indeed, his proportions are so grotesque that children would hide their faces in their mothers’s skirts of they saw him coming their way. But…they are a perfect example of a style of portraiture popular in the Middle Ages.

    And then, of course, there’s all the objective lab experimentation that also dates it to the Middle Ages — a time when exactly this type of pious fraud was a booming business. Indeed, just from the number of Jesus’s foreskins that were traded, one must conclude that Jesus had more penises than Hindu gods have arms. And, from the number of pieces of the Cross bought and sold, it took an entire forest to support all of them.

    Quite the well-endowed zombie, wouldn’t you agree? Makes you wonder how such a fact could have escaped the notice of the Gospel authors….



    1. The only thing you really need to know is that there have been a lot of linens worn around earthquakes, and we’ve never seen this effect on any other cloth. IOW, the effect is irreproducible.

      As a nuke guy it also peeves me that anyone could think that earthquakes could crush rock hard enough to make neutrons zing out of nuclei…but I have gotten over the fact that the public is largely ignorant of the differences between chemical and nuclear processes.

        1. And zero point energy! Also, it’s a widely-known fact that using telekinesis to bend spoons releases levels of radiation that are dangerous, unless done under the supervision of a skilled spoonbender. Who will charge only a very modest fee for the services.


      1. Of course, if you’re addressing the claims of the so-called “study” in particular. I was addressing the more general ways that should make it obvious even to somebody who flunked out of junior high school science classes why it’s a fake.



        1. Well, I was trying to parse a “only one thing you need to know” in a way suitable for a JHS-level education, but maybe it didn’t come across that way.

          Since your average JHS student is pretty net savvy, I might say: “Look here (zoom out to get the whole world). That’s just today’s earthquakes. None of them produced the effect these guys are claiming. None of the earthquakes yesterday did either. Or the day before’s earthquake, or the day before that, or before that, or before that. Its baloney because if it were true, we’d see shrouds of turin being produced every day.”

      2. Well, it’s not the crushing of rock releasing neutrons. What Earth movements do (including tides)is let some radioactive gases escape, sometimes. So you get more alpha particles locally. Not single neutrons though, so I don’t see how it would increase C-14 production.

    2. If moisture (in this case, sweat, skin oils) is transferred to a cloth draped over a solid object (the facial half cranium), then when the cloth if flattened, you get a wider image than the normal face-on view. The gaunt image of the Turin shroud is obviously an attempt by an artist to portray a Jesus who suffered. A real (distorted) image would look distinctly goofy.

  2. Richard Carrier also posted about this. There are some more problems than just the four you mention:

    1. An earthquake of this magnitude would have devastated the whole eastern mediterranian, for which there is no evidence either geologically, archaeogically or in written sources.

    2. If the process were real, it would have altered ALL artefacts from that era.

    3. And apparently, the amount of neutrinos necessary to do so would have killed everyone in the region.

    1. If the process were real, it would be altering all artifacts everywhere, today, because there are hundreds of earthquakes daily and none of them leave a photographic image on cloth or alter the isotopic ratio of carbon in anything.

        1. I’m no astronomer either, but aren’t the neutrinos the initial blast? (If they came from a supernova, that is.)

          1. The “initial blast” happens when the radiative pressure from normal hydrogen / helium fusion is no longer greater than the star’s own gravity. At that point, a sudden phase shift type of event occurs and the star’s gravity rapidly pulls everything in close. At a certain point shortly thereafter, another critical density is reached, one in which other types of fusion occur. The process is not unlike that of a fission bomb in which two halves of a sphere of uranium or plutonium are normally kept apart, but suddenly forced together by a small triggering explosion.

            Once criticality is achieved in the star, you get all sorts of exotic types of fusion taking place, with all the usual products — heavier elements, photons, and, yes neutrinos.

            The neutrinos are unhindered by the mass of the star and thus leave the core at an insignificant fraction of the speed of light. But the other products of the fusion, even the photons, still have to work their way through all the outer layers of the star. As a result, the neutrinos escape long before the blast is visible.

            The same basic thing happens in healthy stars, too; the neutrinos sleeting through your body this moment were formed in the Sun’s core eight minutes ago; the photons formed at the same time won’t reach the surface for much, much longer. I seem to vaguely recall that it could even be a matter of centuries, but I wouldn’t quote myself on that.



            1. Ben – what I meant was, from the point of the person getting the “lethal dose”, don’t the neutrinos reach you first? With reference to the xkcd page, if you are on Mars and the sun inexplicably goes supernova, isn’t it the neutrinos that hit you first?

              1. Yes, the neutrinos reach you before anything else.

                …but…the lethal dose of neutrinos, per Munroe, would occur, as you note, at about 2.3 AU…which is actually inside the atmosphere of the typical pre-supernova red giant. And they still have surface temperatures not that much cooler than that of our own Sun. I don’t know how low atmospheric pressure is at that distance, though; it’s generally described as, “tenuous.” I imagine it might be possible to do a fly-through with sufficiently advanced alien technology, but convection will heat anything inside the atmosphere, sooner or later, to ambient hotter-than-boiling-metal temperature, and friction will quickly degrade any orbit such that anything substantial (like a planet) will soon fall to the core of the star.

                So, if you wanted to die by neutrino overdose, you’d probably have to be on a perfectly-timed parabolic dive through the outer layers of a red giant star. Otherwise, just being close enough to be in the right position would kill you….


        2. That is (Lethal Neutrinos) the most amazing thing I have read all week.

          Some estimates put neutrino absorption around once every 80 years for a human. Of course, the statistically naive might take that to mean you die when you absorb your one lifetime neutrino…alas it does not work that way at all. Some will absorb many and others will absorb none and we have never witness random deaths of humans associated with these types of statistics.

        1. I don’t know why neutrinos were mentioned in the first place! Neutrinos can’t knock out protons, and they don’t interact with anything!

      1. Somewhere in here there’s a “neutrinos don’t kill people; people kill people” joke just waiting to get out.

    2. I was going to comment that if the authors wanted to pin all their conclusions on an earthquake, it would behoove them to consult with a volcanologist or geologist so that such a claim could be tested; instead they picked shady historical references.

      Artifacts like this were common in the middle ages; they are even mentioned in Chaucer. I hope whoever had didn’t rip off too many destitute people with it.

      1. You should remember that since the Aquila earthquake trials, Italian seismologists are likely to be in jail or in hiding. Given geological hazards there, vulcanologists should be similarly circumspect.

        1. Yes that was a silly trial. Hopefully, if they err about information in the past, they won’t be prosecuted.

    3. Yes I did wonder about that!.. Having last year been shaken by a couple of high 6 earthquakes I did suspect that an 8.2 might not go unnoticed. However your point 3 does explain all the zombies walking around at the time

    4. But if the earthquake killed everyone in the eastern Mediterranean then there would be no one left to remember and that’s how it went unrecorded.
      Anyway you don’t need no dam earthquake, God used neutrons to reanimate the corpse and extra neutrons changed the shroud and the shape of the corpse to make it look like a mediaeval icon. How else could mediaeval artists know what he looked like? From their dreams? How could they all have had the same dream unless Jesus exposed himself to them?
      Checkmate skeptics!

  3. “Those neutrons were captured by Nitrogen-7 to produce Carbon-14”

    Slight correction needed, Jerry. I think you meant to say Nitrogen-14, since you are talking about isotopes which are referred to by atomic weight, not number. Or, possibly you really did mean to list them by atomic number, in which case you should have written Carbon-6.

    1. Also, according Wikipedia:
      “Carbon-14 decays into nitrogen-14 through beta decay.” So I think it’s wrong to say that neutron capture turns N14 into C14 because if it did, where did the mass of the neutron go?

      1. Neutron capture does turn N14 into C14. The relevant production reaction is (in plaintext approximation): N14(n,p)C14. Once produced, this C14 then decays via beta decay.

              1. The reaction produces an ion not a neutral atom, correct. Then (separate and having nothing to do with the nuclear reaction) normal chemical reactions take place.

                Let me use an analogy. Let’s say I mix two chemicals together which creates an explosion, and that explosion blows the window out. Would you say that blowing the window out was part of the chemical reation? No, you wouldn’t. In the same way, the nuclear reaction does not involve the release of an electron.

        1. Another example of where radioactive sources might (might)build up a little 14C is seen in diamonds. Some diamonds have been sampled for 14C content, and they can have a small amount. This is likely due to a smidgeon of contamination, but it could be b/c diamonds and their surrounding rocks are subjected to deep radiation, converting 14N –> 14C.

          1. Yep, and of course creationists love to “carbon date” diamonds to “prove” that C14 dating is unreliable.

  4. Relative to ESP (and PK), unlike the others, it is testable. Unfortunately, thus far, it has not been reliably detected, despite the claims of Dean Radin and Jessica Utts and the late Joseph Rhine.

  5. In fact, the first accepted mention of the Shroud happens to be 1390, pretty close to the time when it was radiocarbon dated.

    Not a bad feat for people who hadn’t even invented the atomic model 🙂

        1. Worse — we’d need to deal with the endless whining of religious wingnuts claiming they’re being “censored,” a card they’re already too quick to play.

  6. I’m puzzled why believers would want to come up with a naturalistic explanation for the image; part of the appeal of the shroud is that the image is supposed to be supernatural.

    1. Oh, but they LOVE “evidence” that supports their beliefs. They only fall back to blind faith when they have no other leg to stand on.

      1. One notices, though, that only the catholic franchise accept the “evidence” that the SoT is authentic. The protestant franchise doesn’t.

  7. Looks like the Shroud supporters have this Jesus character at between 6 feet 4 and 6 feet 7 ½, unless I’m misinterpreting the claim. Bejasus that’s a big feller for 1st century Palestine: average male height – 5 feet.


    1. That’s because their Jesus is a light skinned, tall, blue eyed northern European. Haven’t you seen the JW pamphlets? 😉

      1. Gospel of Peter has JC as tall as the clouds: well, I suppose to the craning diddymen of Jerusalem he would have seemed that big.


        1. Clearly, Paul Bunyan was the Second Coming of Jesus.

          And, in light of Marcion’s description of Jesus’s initial appearance, we may similarly conclude that Captain Kirk is the Third Coming.



    2. Interesting since the only information in the Bible about Jesus’ appearance is that “he was of short stature”! (Luke 19) So if the average was about 5 feet, that must put Jesus at about 4’6″.

      1. @ Marella

        Isn’t Zacchaeus the publican the diddyman in Luke 19? Usual problem with the NT’s cavalier translation of the personal pronoun: but the more likely reading is Zacchaeus, not JC, being a friend of Dorothy in regard to verticality not orientation isn’t it?

        1. Indeed, the fact that we have not even the slightest clue about Jesus’s physical appearance is much more consistent with his fictional origins than other theories.

          For about a month’s rent / mortgage, you can buy, for your very own collection, a coin minted during Gaius Julius Caesars’s reign, with a very realistic portrait of him on it. That portrait will match the ones on countless other coins, busts, statues, and the like, as well as descriptions of him in documents penned by people who knew him personally.

          Not everybody had his (or her) face plastered everywhere like that, of course, but the Christians would have us believe that Jesus was an even more important historical figure than Caesar, and a number of Christians would even go so far as to claim that Jesus’s life was significantly better documented than Caesar’s.

          You have to get to the real hard-core conspiracy theories, in which Jesus’s biography didn’t even vaguely resemble that in the Gospels, before it makes sense that nobody even thought to mention in passing that he towered over all who gathered near, or that his piercing voice carried to those at the back even though he was too short for them to see him, or that his kind brown eyes brought comfort to those he healed, or something.

          Instead, he’s even more non-descript than the typical Pagan demigod (Hercules was a big, strong man, for example) and no two portrayals of him are even remotely recognizable as the same person. Indeed, for most of the early portrayals, the artist blatantly copied some other Pagan demigod and slapped Jesus’s name on….



          1. We got lucky with Caesar. He was following the Republican tradition of portraiture which showed experience. Later, statues were more stylized – for example Augustus kept his youthful look in his statues despite his aging into decrepitude. All the Julio-Claudians were portrayed with a similar hairstyle (you can see the little crab claw at the front of the hair) in order visually connect with the older Caesars (Caesar & Augustus).

            However, those portraits are probably quite accurate otherwise just photoshopped in an ancient way I guess. Check out this statue of Phillip the Arab. I swear he looks like Harrison Ford but no one else seems to see it.

            1. Artists have virtually always taken artistic liberties in portraiture and its variations…but the result is still almost always recognizable as, if not the individual in question, at least a very close relative. And, lacking evidence to the contrary, it’s entirely possible that things such as hairstyles were accurate portrayals; look, for example, to powdered wigs as an example of fashion that spanned generations and was associated with power and leadership.

              Philip looks like a generic white dude to me. I’m sure Ford would do a bang-up job playing him in a movie.


          2. OT, I was impressed in the Louvre last week that Roman statuary put so much *character* into the faces of real people. I came away with the strong feeling that Id easily recognise these people if Id met them.


            1. There’s a reason why the statuary of the Classical Era remains the gold standard to this day. Brilliant artists.

              Pro tip: if you’re looking to do portraiture today, as a photographer or a painter or the like, study the posing of the Classical masterpieces. The angle of the head, especially.



              1. Oops, your mixing your ancients. Classical is Greek but the Roman style post Republic did for a time look similar.

              2. Sorry…I was painting with a broad brush — “Classical Antiquity,” I think, is the generic term. Say, roughly a millennium centered roughly around the Twelve Caesars.


            2. Do you remember if they were during the Republican Period? I once saw one that looked just like Spock’s dad.

              1. The aniconism of the NT theological biographies is understandable within the anti-representational traditions of Judaism. I cannot think of any detailed reference to appearance in the OT apart from that to Goliath’s height. Sarah in the Apocrypha was beautiful, but that’s about it, off the top of my head.

                It was the norm for YHWH not to be pictured; indeed he was imagined as hovering invisibly above the Ark, whereas Greek art helped define the form of the gods. There is no contemporary figurative depiction of any Israelite monarch save for that of Jehu in an Assyrian relief.

                The public spaces of Jerusalem had no commemorative statues to remind their people of their historic heroes: no officially sanctioned representative mosaics, architectural facades denuded of figurines, gargoyles, sculptures, effigies. Nothing to attract our Hellenized eyes and expectations. Blank and anachronistically quasi-stalinist: like monumental art deco without the frills.

                It was the exception for Jews to introduce pictures of humans and even animals on public art: the Hellenised Herodians occasionally did that, Herod the Great, very controversially on the Temple, and Agrippa minting coins with self- portraits. Antipas, in Galilee, the tetrarch for most of Jesus’ life, avoided animal and human representation on his building projects, apart from those on his private palace; he was obviously sensitive to public Jewish iconographic sensibilities. The coins minted by the Jews at the height of the Roman revolt again are aniconic.

                In this context we should not be surprised at the absence of a personal description in a genre which appears to have been invented by ‘Mark’, the theological biography. It’s of its time and traditional setting.

                Mind you, I would love Jesus to have been 4 feet 6 à la Marella. We’ll never know.


              2. @ Ant (@antallan)
                Posted February 21, 2014 at 4:23 pm

                Re: aniconism, on reflection I overstated its complete domination and implied its co-definition with all forms of Judaism.

                I think of Daniel (completed ca. 164 BCE) calling God the ‘Ancient of Days’ and his hair being like pure wool. Revelations also has phantasmagorical physical descriptions. It seems that descriptive appearances were acceptable as long as they were connected with the Apocalypse: the word after all refers to what is hidden; in this case, at a very basic level, what the beings of the End Times actually look like.

                There are also very primitive and old pictures depicting Yahweh with his consort Asherah. So there were non-official iconographic strands in BCE Judaism: the Jews in Elephantine in Egypt were prepared to sacrifice to the Persian gods in the Persian period.

                But generally, with the success of the Temple priests after the Exile, aniconicism seems to have gained the upper hand.

                Regarding the source of Islamic aniconics, I don’t know. But within 1st millennium monotheism it recurs: the Byzantines, no less, went through a huge iconoclastic upheaval in, I think, the 8th century CE.


              3. Yeah, I wondered that but I think Roddenberry seriously must’ve looked at Roman busts from the Republican period when he created his Vulcan characters.

            3. Do you remember if they were during the Republican Period? I once saw one that looked just like Spock’s dad.

  8. If earthquakes reseting 14-C were real, think of all of the archeological chronology in places like the western United States, western South America, much of southern and eastern Asia, the Middle East, etc. that would be invalidated.

    Clearly someone would have long ago noticed the unreliable 14C age in earthquake zone and this effect would be well-established in the literature.

    By the way, an optical microscopist and expert on paint pigments named Walter McCrone recognized the shroud as a fake way back in (I think) 1978. The independently derived 14C dates were a nice confirmation of this conclusion.

    1. Exactly my thought as well. Some points along the calibration curves made from tree ring data and ancient corals would show a discontinuity beyond the usual small blips in background 14C levels.

    2. I recall many years ago reading in a photo magazine (not sure why it was there) a pretty good description of just how you could create the fake using medieval technology (probably an early version of photoshop given the point above that they could also manage carbon dating at the time).

  9. This is a good article by Gregory Paul on the shroud.

    If the shroud is authentic, Jesus would have been a very weird looking fellow. But then, that would have fulfilled Isaiah 52:14!

    Just as there were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness

  10. The infamous paper is available on line and for free here. If someone wants to check those BS, I will anticipate that this is a bad written paper.

  11. I like to think of religion as a bunch of non-science.

    It’s a bit cutesy but I think the framing (shudder, shades of Mooney and Nesbit, but framing is still a valid technique (in spite of the lack of credibility of some of those who have advocated for better framing in conjunction with other less valid arguments) that works to some degree; and people who are into pseudoscience are increasingly trying to falsely turn the term around back on actual science, such as calling climate change science, or any science they dispute for ideological reasons, pseudoscience. Perhaps “non-science” may be more resistant to such misuse.

  12. Where are all the other shrouds with neutron images from this period / locale, or any other period / locale where a major quake occured? Shit, what about all the living people wearing clothing that happened to be in the same area?

    To call this a “paper” is to lend way too much legitimacy to these authors.

  13. Don’t these literalist types usually argue that C dating makes things appear older so they can have 6 day creation etc?

    1. My favorite is when you present them with 2 dfferent methods that give similar dates. Do this with multiple samples, then ask them to figure out how much the decay rates changed, and when. Then they can publish a paper presenting this “proof”! Hint: it can’t be done, because there’s no way to make the numbers agree unless the rate of change = 0 for all rates.

      1. You could probably do it if you posit the half-lives of different isotopes varied at different rates. So a fundie could, for example, say (just throwing out examples here) that the C14 decay rate changed by a factor of 100 while the U chain decay rates changes by a factor of 10^6.

        A much more amusing counter is that, if U decay rates had been significantly higher in the past, there would’ve been a lot of runaway criticality events in uranium ore deposits. Boom! Boom! Natural nukes going off all over creationist Eden. 🙂

          1. Oh, YECism requires far more spectacular events than just Oklo. The U235% 1.7 billion years ago (when Oklo blew) was about 2.5x what it is today (3.6% vs 0.7%). To try and compare that to the ‘faster half-life’ idea, we could say that this is analagous to about 4% of Uranium having a half-life 10x faster than it is today. For YECism to hold, 100% of Uranium would have to have had a half-life 1,000,000x faster than it is today. Boomity boom boom. 🙂

  14. Pseudoscience; good call!

    My concern is the religious willingness to throw science under the bus, since earthquakes are frequent and this would make carbon dating problematic. (Which problematic there is little evidence of, safe to say.)

  15. The first is Thallos, a historian in Rome who wrote about 50 A.D.,… and Biblical scholars no longer accept Thallos’s quoted words as evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

    More widely known as Thallus. The “quoted words” were quoted by Sextus Julius Africanus (160-240), who was quoted by George Syncellus (9th century). How’s that for provenance? Whether Thallus or one of the quoters mentioned Jesus is in serious doubt.

  16. I always love the bits that rarely get mentioned as well, the ones that would require even more mental gymnastics to explain away. Such as, the shroud material was done on a loom, which wouldn’t be invented for another six hundred years…

    The images are ‘flat-plane’ in nature, looking normal (more or less) to us when the shroud is laid flat – but that’s not how a shroud lays on a body, is it? It would be beyond pointless to use burial shrouds in this manner, which were intended to keep the body in a nice package for handling, as well as keeping everything in one place as the skin degraded to the point of failure, especially around the abdomen. And even the bible says there was a separate cloth for the face…

    Moreover, the images imply a linear light or energy path – what we capture with our pinhole eyes, but not what we could expect from any form of radiation. The shroud should be fogged near-uniformly, no matter what mechanism is claimed to produce the image.

    And since the back image starts a very short distance from the front, inverted on the lengthwise shroud, we have to assume jesus was nearly flat as a board and only a few inches thick, which would make the people of the time even more weirded out.

    I’m sure apologists could find ways to explain all of these, given even more time to be inventive, but only one explains all of them without postulating previously unknown sciences.

      1. Sorry, can’t locate my original source, and everything I’ve found on a quick search now is wildly conflicting. Sources that support the authenticity of the shroud say the looms existed and the fabric consistent; skeptical sources point out that no such examples have been found, that such a loom isn’t consistent with the artifacts from the time period, and that the effort involved would have made such a large piece of cloth exceptionally rare. It’s vague enough that I’ll retract that portion, which for religious folk is considered a win, I suspect, despite all the other problems, many of which haven’t even been mentioned here 😉

        1. Ah, yes, it could be the size of the cloth that indicated it would have had to have been made on a later mechanical loom. What I found indicated that looms wider than the arm-span of the weaver were relatively late, even though there were earlier looms going back to antiquity (even the Neolithic).

          Thanks for responding, Al.


  17. The best and most convincing explanation that I have read about how the images on the Shroud were made came, unfortunately, from a fringe crackpot book, but the authors, to their credit, did some experimentation and managed to reproduce very similar images “in negative” on a piece of linen. The technique was to use a camera obscura, which projected the image onto the linen cloth after it had been coated with some light-sensitive chemicals that would have been easy to find or concoct in the 14th and 15th centuries.

    The unnaturally tall “size” of the image, and the disproportionate relation between the head size and the body, could be explained by (1) the forger’s use of a head and a separate cadaver’s body, with exposures made on the linen at separate times and (2) the absence of a 1:1 ratio between the size of the body and the projected image of the body.

    The Shroud that was displayed to great public fanfare in the late 15th or early 16th centuries could have been a “new and improved” Shroud that was made to replace the earlier one (which was not seen in public or referred to much for about a century before). It is interesting that the first public appearance of the current Shroud occurred, I think, in Italy during the era of the corrupt Renaissance Popes, including Sixtus IV. Did he commission someone to create the current Shroud? Nobody knows, but a late 15th-century forger could have used 100-year-old linen.

      1. From that article, nice bit of Emperor Vespasian quoting:
        “Garlaschelli received funding for his work by an Italian association of atheists and agnostics but said it had no effect on his results.

        “Money has no odor,” he said. “This was done scientifically. If the Church wants to fund me in the future, here I am.”

    1. I saw a documentary about that not too long ago. They put forward the hypothesis that it was done by Leonardo Da Vinci, possibly even a self-portrait, using the camera obscura method on old piece of linen.

  18. (pictures from Wikipedia; there are actually two images on the shroud, as if the body had been enfolded)

    Yes, and the other image is of the back of the person. So if the image was made by neutrons, they had to originate within the body, in order to explain both the back and front images. So if the neutrons were caused by an earthquake, the earthquake also had to occur within a body laying on a slab in a tomb.

  19. If the Shroud was a shroud, i.e. if it wrapped around the body, and the image was from contact with that body, then we’d see the face transition on both sides to a contact image of the side of the head. If the ears were not covered by hair, we’d see side views of the ears, floating off to either side of the face.

    It would look a bit like “Alfred E. Neuman”, the kid on the cover of Mad magazine.

    Is “What, me worry?” somewhere in the New Testament?

  20. Why do shroud apologists even bother with odd ad hoc scientific-sounding explanations?

    Jesus was buried in a shroud from the future. That’s arguably even more of a miracle. Apologists should be happy!

  21. I really do wish the shroud were real. It would show the world just how pitiful their God is to provide only one piece of evidence in the whole of universe. Shroud = 880 year old toast.

  22. The Shroud of Turin does not comport with burial techniques described in the Gospel of John.
    John 20:5-7
    “[5] And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in.
    [6] Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie,
    [7] And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.”

    So the head was wrapped separately.

          1. Good point Reginald. This, following Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorised Version. Historically, before science got involved the evidence was already overwhelming that the Shroud was a late fake.

            The Bishop of Troyes investigated it after the shroud was first produced and concluded that there was no evidence of its antiquity. He claimed to have found the person who admitted to faking it. Two other Christian enquiries within 30 years of its discovery confirmed his opinion.

            In parentheses there is no ancient parallel of a corpse’s hands being folded across the private parts: this is a 14th century artistic representation; this veronica, or ‘true image’ fed into the contemporary market for cloths and burial shrouds.

            The shroud actually refutes the only NT allegation of eye-witness evidence for Jesus’ death, that of John’s Gospel: the ‘disciple whom he loved’ saw Reginald’s linen cloths and napkin for Jesus’ head, not the single shroud of herringbone weave we see today.

            Oh, what a tangled web we weave…


  23. The Shroud of Turin is very interesting from both an artistic point of view (how it was made) and a sociopolitical point of view (how it has been used in religious contexts), and in a sociology of science and religion sort of way: the development and persistence of controversy across knowledge-gathering boundaries, and across scientific boundaries, and the influences of belief systems, interests, technology, etc on the continuing interest in what the image represents. So sometimes pseudoscience and the struggle over what constitutes pseudoscience can be very illuminating for folks studying these various aspects of the history of science, religion and the evolution (or not) of popular culture. But calling religion a pseudoscience is a misnomer, I think. That’s a category mistake IMO.

    1. IMO, you should scroll up and read the first paragraph of Jerry’s post (for the first time?), and then rethink.
      Your ‘category mistake’ claim presumes NOMA, which was always horseshit.

  24. A big grin and chuckle were elicited when I read The Telegraph article and this post, for a couple reasons. It’s more than coincidence this ITALIAN study contradicts U.S., Anglo, and Swiss results. And, the post is a thorough update on my undergraduate zoology thesis on how science can test and refute religious dogma, using the Shroud of Turin as a case study. Somewhat ironically, my chosen topic was viewed, at the time (30+ yrs ago), as odd and idiosyncratic.

      1. How so? It dealt with the scientific method, which is the tool of zoology. The program I was in could be considered unorthodox as I also completed two additional theses on endosymbiosis and adaptations of freshwater fishes in a local stream.

  25. Jerry:

    The first two paragraphs of your post are magnificent! Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World” in two paragraphs; a crash course for those wondering about the the difference between science and pseudo-science. This will be used often; I’ve already quoted it once, over at the comments to your New Republic post about the Ham-Nye debate. Bravo!

  26. The theological piece of religion is a pseudo science. The Catholic nuns I grew up with would agree. Gregor Mendel was a Christian Friar and a good example of religion contributing to science. Much of today’s science stems from religious institutions. Much of religion is a socio-cultural institution that provides a sense of community, runs family events, runs soup kitchens, provides child care, education, and adult support groups and it’s not reasonable to label those things as psuedo-science.

      1. Most US universities have various folklore, not commonly believed, that could be similarly categorized as pseudo science. Religion serves a ton of practical functions beyond the biblical tales and theological beliefs.

    1. Much of todays science stems from religious institutions.

      As the saying goes, [citation needed]. The big-news science today is coming from multi-billion-dollar governmental or quasi-governmental agencies, like CERN and NASA and ESA. Most of the rest is at publicly-funded research universities.

      The best example I can think of for the religious institutions would be the Vatican observatory. They’re doing meaningful work, sure, but they’re not even remotely close to the big leagues — they’re more at the top of the amateur leagues.

      Next best would be some of the Catholic-run universities, but the science there is completely separated from the religion. (As is the case with the Vatican Observatory.)

      For the most part, the influence that religious institutions have on science these days is overwhelmingly destructive, especially with respect to the full-on attack on modern biology being waged by religious conservatives of all stripes. That’s not the kind of achievement you’d want to include on your résumé when applying to a reality-based organization.



  27. To start with, there is no evidence at all for an earthquake of this magnitude in 33 CE. Second, if Jesus was crucified when he was 33 years old, as is commonly believed, this cannot have happened in the year 33 CE, because according to Matthew, he should have been 37 years old (Matthew says Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE)…So the whole story doesn’t even tally with Matthew, who is the greatest inventor of stories that never happened!
    Now a small remark about Nitrogen turning to C14 under the influence of neutrons: I fail to see how this could happen. A Nitrogen nucleus has 7 protons and 7 neutrons: if it captures 1 neutron, it will have 7 protons and 8 neutrons, whereas C14 has 6 protons and 8 neutrons! So what the hell are they talking about??

  28. The Torygraph has for years been an enclave of Catholic reactionaries — from Conrad Black to the Barclay Brothers as owners, and from Charles Moore to incumbent Tony Gallagher as editors (though like Dacre at the Daily Fail they are adept at spinning their pre-Tridentine prejudices towards the sensibilities of British conservatives more generally, most of whom would instinctively distrust anyone who was too obviously popish). It’s disingenuous treatment of this disingenuous “research” is thus *exactly* as I would have expected.

  29. Suppose neutrons were able under exceptionally favourable conditions to produce homogenous whole-body images on linen, front and back. We could assign an arbitrary small probability, say p<0.001 (that's a 1 in 1000 chance of success – probably far too generous. Now imagine that in addition to that small miracle, those same neutrons were able to convert exactly the right number of nitrogen atoms to C-14 to give a date almost the same as the 88 radiocarbon dating. Let's give that the same small (probably over-optimistic probability)of p < 0.001.

    Now if I'm not mistaken, any conceivable mechanism for image formation, involving primarily chemistry, would be totally different from that of C-14 formation, the latter being primarily nuclear physics. That means we are dealing with independent events where one can multiply the probabilities to arrive at the chance of both events happening simultaneously. That makes a probability of p<0.000001%. Common sense says that's an near-impossible conjunction of events.

    Common sense should also have told me not to bother doing the calculation anyway, risking a misplaced decimal point (fingers crossed they are OK)

  30. Might check:

    Craig, Emily A. and Randall R. Bresee
    1994 Image Formation and the Shroud of Turin. Journal of Imaging Science and Technology Volume 34, Number 1.

    For info on how the shroud was created. They show that the shroud can be reproduced by using techniques used in the middle ages, again matching up with the radiocarbon dates.

    1. Too complex!

      I’ve just this minute put up a chart showing how I think the Shroud of Turin was fabricated – first as a scorch imprint, and then artificially aged and toned down at the same time to fool people into thinking it was a big brother of the Veil of Veronica, in other words, an ancient sweat imprint.

      I could be wrong, mind you, in which case that’s two years of my life wasted (to say nothing of well over 200 postings!). But it’s been interesting, following a trail of clues, and experimenting with different ways of scorching linen. Technique is crucial to get faint, superficial imaging, while at same time capturing that 3D information from a heated template (crucifix etc).

  31. Here’s a fun test for those playing along at home.

    Have a good look at the shrouds image. Note that the elbows of the individual are fully at it’s side. In other words, just to the outside of the hips as viewed from above.

    I invite you to lay on your bed or floor and attempt to cover your genitalia with your hands in the manner depicted in the shroud.

  32. Since cloth, even linen cloth, would fall around the sides of the face and body, were that to be the real McCoy, it would mean that Jesus had an incredibly narrow and long face and skull, about three or so inches wide for the face and perhaps four inches wide for the head, and a very strangely shaped and skinny body. Compared to such a face, Akhenaten’s face would seem quite round and chubby…

  33. I just want to say this is another great article Jerry.
    You are a master of reasoned and scientific take-downs and provide us all with clear refutation of all types of woo and claptrap.
    You are doing a great job here – thank you.

    1. Well said simonw.

      For some years now I’ve been encountering creationists and ID enthusiasts on MSM websites (“sciencebod”. “newsjunkie” etc). My stock reply is that I won’t waste a second of my time engaging if they can’t convince me they have read Jerry’s book. The sections on re-modelling of existing and, in some cases, highly specialised structures to end up serving entirely new roles are for me at any rate the clincher. Being trained as a biochemist helps too (being able to appreciate otherwise invisible evolution at the molecular level).

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