A Shroud of Doubt


The historical Jesus remains an archaeological enigma. For instance, Jesus’s supposed burial cloth, the Shroud of Turin, has been venerated in Italy for centuries—and has been an object of controversy for almost as long. But the recent discovery of a mass tomb in Jerusalem has shed new light on Jesus’s work and has allowed for the first direct comparison of the shroud with a burial cloth from the first century A.D.

Archaeologist Shimon Gibson discovered the tomb in 2000 by accident, when he noticed ossuary (“bone box”) fragments scattered on the ground while leading a student tour near Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Carved into the rock were two central chambers surrounded by 20 long stone niches arranged somewhat like petals around a daisy. Years of digging followed, often under trying circumstances, says Gibson: “The excavation we did in the dead of night, fearful that the illegal tomb robbers might return and continue their looting of the tomb, or that the local ultra-Orthodox, who oppose archaeologists’ digging tombs and [who] can become quite violent, might turn up.”

But the efforts paid off. Gibson’s team found an adult male walled in behind white plaster. A DNA analysis revealed the reason for this precaution: the man had leprosy (Hansen’s disease). This was important because, even though Jesus famously treated lepers, the word leper in the Bible’s original language simply meant someone with a disfiguring skin condition, not necessarily someone with that disease. But it seems that leprosy was present in Jerusalem during Jesus’s time after all.

The team found the man wrapped in an ancient burial shroud as well, an unprecedented find. Because this was the first known shroud recovered from that era, Gibson says, “we naturally compared it to the Turin Shroud.” And unfortunately for the faithful in Italy, the Jerusalem shroud was made of a different material (wool) and its fibers were woven differently, in a much simpler pattern. So even though the Shroud of Turin will no doubt continue to attract thousands, the tale behind it has now unraveled a little more.

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Sam Kean is the author of six science books, including The Disappearing Spoon and The Icepick Surgeon.


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