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Shroud of Turin speaker to unfurl relic's mysterious past

Russ Breault at Hopkins to discuss questions regarding Jesus' death

By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

October 9, 2013

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He was one of the most important figures of his day, a man who was tortured to death at the hands of his enemies. Yet no fingerprints were taken, no body was ever found, and the deed took place long before crime fighters had access to DNA profiling.

It's not an episode of "CSI" or "Cold Case Files" but the death by crucifixion of Jesus, a tragedy that remains steeped in ambiguity some 2,000 years later. Some say the only evidence from the scene is a blood-flecked swatch of linen kept in a climate-controlled reliquary in Italy.

To believers, the Shroud of Turin, as it's known, is the cloth that cloaked the body of Jesus before his planned burial. To skeptics, it's a hoax conjured up to sell Christianity or draw tourists.

It has been studied by everyone from theologians to NASA historians, and still, no one knows.

"The shroud is the most analyzed artifact in history, yet it's still the world's greatest unsolved mystery," says Russ Breault, an independent scholar who will present "The Shroud Encounter," an original multimedia show and lecture, at the Johns Hopkins University Wednesday night. "It's my mission to pass the subject on to a new generation."

Breault brings the rapid-fire show to the Homewood campus, complete with more than 200 original images and a commentary that explores the archaeology, science and theology surrounding the shroud.

Perhaps the most mysterious element of the linen cloth, which is 14 feet long and about 31/2 feet wide, is that it bears the faint but visible image of a man who stands just under 6 feet tall, including a bearded face that strikingly resembles popular images of Jesus.

Breault, who has seen it in person three times, says the image is hard to see up close, but if the viewer backs away a few feet, it becomes easy to distinguish.

Forensics experts cannot identify the materials that make up the image, but they have had better luck with the shroud's second strange feature. It contains organic matter they have identified as human blood of the AB type, found in just the places and configurations one would expect based on New Testament accounts of the crucifixion.

The blood matter can be glimpsed at the man's wrists and feet; in the upper right chest, where witnesses said executioners stabbed Jesus with a spear; and around the scalp and elsewhere on the body in patterns consistent with a crown of thorns and the "scourging" (flogging with whips festooned with metal balls and pieces of bone) that the Gospels describe.

The signs have convinced many people around the globe.

"For millions of Catholics and [others] around the world, the shroud is a relic, an image of Christ that captures the full mystery of his redemption — the fullness of his pain and suffering as well as the imminence of his resurrection," says Andrew Guernsey, a member of the Johns Hopkins Catholic Community, which is hosting the presentation.

Pope Benedict XVI, who first saw the shroud when he was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had a similar view.

"Jesus is nailed to the cross," he said. "The Shroud of Turin gives us an idea of the unbelievable cruelty of this procedure. ... Let us try to see his face in the people we might look down upon."

The shroud, which is kept sealed in a container at the Cathedral of Turin in Italy, is occasionally made available for public viewing. More than 2 million people flocked to see it during its last showing, in 2010.

Little is known for sure about its origins. Some say the earliest known reference to it was in 693, when coins minted under the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian II bore an image of Christ that many scholars believe is based on the shroud.

The shroud made its way to Constantinople in 944, then was stolen by raiders during the Fourth Crusade and moved to France. An Italian royal family, the Savoys, bought it in 1578, "for the price of a couple of castles," Breault says, and moved it to Turin. A Savoy descendant willed it to the Roman Catholic Church in 1982.

Modern scrutiny didn't begin until 1898, when an amateur photographer, Secondo Pia, was given permission to take pictures of the cloth. Viewers had always been able to see outlines of a crucified man, but when Pia developed his images, he was shocked to see something no one ever had: a face resembling that of Jesus, clearly articulated.

"I have looked into the face of the Lord," he is said to have cried, and news of the finding spread around the world. While some accused Pia of forgery, another photographer got the same result 33 years later.

The shroud was made available to scientists in 1978, when a consortium of American investigators who viewed it under a 3-D analyzer determined that the images of the face and body could not have been fabricated.

"The shroud image is that of a real human form of a scourged, crucified man," read their report, which stirred worldwide interest. "It is not the product of an artist. The blood stains ... give a positive test for serum albumin," an abundant protein in human blood plasma.

In 1988, three other laboratories appeared to undermine those findings when carbon dating suggested that the cloth had been created between 1260 and 1390. It was later learned that the Catholic Church had compelled them to work with a lateral swatch that people had handled.

Breault, who has served as a commentator on the History Channel, the Learning Channel and CBS, says his lecture will use the history of materials science to prove that the cloth could not have been made any later than the sixth century and was probably made much earlier.

No scientist has been able to identify the substance that makes up the image of a man's body. Some have said it could only have been imprinted by a brief and blinding flash of light — one similar to what the Gospels say Jesus experienced during the Transfiguration, a moment when he is said to have become physically radiant.

Guernsey says it was natural for his organization to reach out to Breault, a Georgia native who has been studying and lecturing on the shroud since 1980.

"Popular culture has established the idea that there's a dichotomy between faith and reason, but we see them as two avenues to the same truth," he says. "The Shroud of Turin has a way of bringing together a dialogue between faith and reason, one that can help us re-examine our assumptions whether we're religious or not."

Breault, who describes himself as a nondenominational Christian, says that when he lectures around the country, someone invariably asks which side he's on in the authenticity debate.

He declines to say, and his presentation — scheduled for 7 p.m. in Remsen 101 and open to the public — will offer no clues.

He'll simply roll out the history of this strangely powerful artifact, explaining the principal findings and theories around it through the lenses of archaeology, faith, history, forensics and more.

He hopes guests will leave with the same sense of wonder he has enjoyed for 33 years.

"It's the ultimate multidisciplinary topic," he says.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com