New data using infrared light date the Shroud of Turin to the time of Jesus. This is heartening news for believers, as the new data are at odds with a 1988 carbon dating analysis which placed the age of the shroud at the 13th or 14th century.
Criticism of the 1988 study centers on the possibility that the small swatch of fabric taken from the shroud may have actually been a patch added around the time of the 13th century when a fire scorched parts of the folded shroud. Could the scientists in 1988 have made such a methodological blunder?
But even if they didn’t, and if they took a swatch of the original cloth, there is still an interprative blunder that has been made regarding the carbon dating data. First, a brief explanation of exactly what happens in carbon dataing.
The procedure is simple. A sample is placed in a test tube and burned. The resulting carbon is analyzed and the amount of radioactive carbon (carbon-14) is measured compared to non-radioactive carbon (carbon-12).
How the dating is performed is based upon the fact that radioactive carbon (carbon-14) decays by half at a steady rate of every 5,730 years in what is known as its half-life. So, for instance, if we start with a pound of C-14 today, 5,730 years from today one-half of it would have decayed, leaving a half-pound of C-14. In another 5,730 years there would be 1/4 pound remaining. 5,730 years after that, 1/8 pound would remain, and so forth.
Living organisms incorporate C-14 from the atmosphere and serve as the baseline for the C-14 content that is measured in fossils and other archaeological artifacts. By comparing the C-14 content of an archaeological sample with the avaerage C-14 content of a comparably weighted modern organism, one may establish the age of the sample.
So, to use round and simple numbers, if a modern sample of human bone contains 5 nanograms of C-14, and a sample from bone found in an archaeological dig contains 2.5 nanograms of C-14, then the bone is approximately 5,700 years old. If the C-14 content of the found bone is 1.25 nanograms, then it is approximately 11,400 years old.
The same method holds true for dating cloth.
In the case of the 1988 carbon-dating of the Shroud, assuming that an original piece of the Shroud was tested, and assuming that the Shroud indeed dates from the time of Jesus, how could the results be off by 1,300 years? How could there be more C-14 present than there should have been?
A variable I have never heard mentioned is the fire that scorched the Shroud. Recall that C-14 analysis requires the burning of the sample to produce a readily analyzable sample of carbon. That fire carried soot from the church, and produced soot from the burned portions of the Shroud which deposited and permeated into the fabric of the Shroud. Add to that the soot from burning candles in churches and private halls in all the years the Shroud was opened and venerated.
All of this soot carries C-14 which, when deposited in the fabric of the Shroud, would artificially push up the age of the Shroud when C-14 analysis is performed. For example, suppose a sample of the Shroud ought to contain 1 nanogram of C-14 if it were from the time of Jesus. Soot deposits would actually raise the amount of C-14 present in the sample, leading researchers to believe that the sample is from more recent times.
Of course, even if all of the scientific evidence were to date the Shroud to Jesus’ day, science can never, ever ascertain that the image it contains is that of Jesus. But that is not important. What matters above all is faith, not so much in the image of a dead Jesus impressed in fabric, but in the sure and certain knowledge that He rose again and lives.
That singular reality is what has changed the world, offered hope to billions, and is the focal point of today’s Easter joy.