KCHS chemistry teacher Dr. Kelly Kearse leads presentation on the Shroud of Turin
By Dan McWilliams
Dr. Kelly Kearse of Knoxville Catholic High School offered “Reflections in Faith and Science,” a talk April 6 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus on the Shroud of Turin and the technologies employed to authenticate whether it could be the burial cloth of Jesus.
Dr. Kearse is a chemistry teacher at KCHS who has presented at several shroud conferences, most recently in Canada in 2019, and has visited the shroud in Italy.
“I first became aware of the shroud in the 1980s,” he said. “I was in college. I was working at a grocery store. I saw a magazine in a rack when I was on break one day. I kind of flipped through there. I was interested in it, but it was sort of a casual interest. It pretty much stayed a casual interest throughout the years. I read a couple of paperback books about it, watched a few TV shows, ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ and that kind of stuff.”
As he became more and more interested in the shroud, “having a background in immunology, the bloodstains kind of stood out to me most. The more I learned about it, it was like the more questions I had about it,” he said.
His presentation at the cathedral included slides featuring his original research, but he stressed that he has not directly experimented with shroud samples.
“Is the shroud real or not?” he asked. “The answer to that is, for some people, it is real. Some people believe it’s a miraculous icon, that it’s an imprint of the physical body of Jesus. Others think it’s just a hoax that was created during the medieval era at a time when relic trade was really booming. I think each person really has to make up his or her own mind where they think that question of authenticity lies.”
Pope St. John Paul II had a strong devotion to the shroud, Dr. Kearse said.
“‘For the believer, what counts above all is that the shroud is a mirror of the Gospel,’” he quoted the Holy Father as saying.
Dr. Kearse’s talk at Sacred Heart covered 10 points: why it is called the Shroud of Turin, how long the Catholic Church has owned the shroud, what the Catholic Church says about the shroud, physical characteristics of the shroud, what the Gospels say about the shroud, scientific investigation of the shroud, “didn’t carbon-14 dating show that the shroud is a fake,” bloodstains on the shroud, recent findings about the bloodstains, and how the image was created.
On the first point, Dr. Kearse said the shroud “is located in the Cathedral of John the Baptist in Turin, Italy. When it’s not on public exhibition, which is most of the time—it usually just comes on public exhibition every 25 or 30 years—it’s in a specially designed glass case, and there’s a cloth over it.”
Dr. Kearse saw the shroud in 2015 along with some 2 million other visitors to Turin.
The Church has owned the shroud only since 1983, when the last king of Italy died and willed the shroud to the popes.
“The Catholic Church has owned the shroud for just about 40 years, and that’s it. Before then, it had always been privately owned,” Dr. Kearse said.
The KCHS teacher detailed the history of the shroud before 1356, which is when an unbroken chain of custody started. The shroud moved from France to Italy in 1578 and has been there ever since.
Regarding what the Church says about the shroud, “the Catholic Church has never come out one way or another and said the shroud is real or the shroud is not,” Dr. Kearse said. “The official position is this: it’s an object of veneration. It’s worthy of love and honor. It can certainly enhance someone’s faith, but by no means should someone’s faith depend entirely upon it.”
The shroud’s physical characteristics were detailed by Dr. Kearse.
“You can see a kind of imaging event has taken place. Because of the way the cloth was wrapped around the body, you have this sort of double, back-to-back, head-to-head image formation,” he said. “The real thing looks like this: it’s a little bit over 14 feet long. It’s a little bit under 4 feet wide. It’s attached to a backing cloth to help support it. It’s made of 100 percent pure linen. It’s woven in a herringbone three-to-one pattern with a Z twist. What’s significant about the weaving pattern is it’s been suggested it might be representative of a relatively high-end cloth in first-century Jerusalem.”
The shroud contains burn holes from fires over the years and water stains from water to put out the fires. The shroud also resembles a photographic negative, Dr. Kearse said.
Modern-day pathologists conclude, he added, that “it’s the body of a male, height approximately 5-10, estimated 175 pounds [figures which correspond to Jewish male skeletons excavated from that time]. Some pathologists believe that the body appears stiffened, so there may be signs of rigor mortis visible, and you have to break the rigor to bring the arms down. The chest ap pears expanded, and the abdomen appears to be distended—that’s consistent with someone who has had trouble breathing. The body appears to have been scourged. There are wounds corresponding to crucifixion, and there is a post-mortem or after-death wound in the right chest cavity.
“You have all these indications that you have a crucifixion victim, but it’s known that thousands of people were crucified throughout history. How do you know that this might in fact represent Jesus?”
Each of the four Gospels talks about the burial cloth. Matthew states that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped the body in fresh linen, Mark that it was wrapped in a cloth, Luke that it was wrapped in a shroud, and John that it was wrapped in a linen cloth according to the burial custom of the Jews.
Scientific investigation of the shroud largely relies on the work of the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) conducted more than 40 years ago, Dr. Kearse said.
“STURP was composed of over 40 scientists, and they did about 122 hours, or five days straight, of examination. . . . trying to get as much data as they could,” he said. “‘We thought we’d find a forgery and we’d be out of there in half an hour,’ they said. Most of them thought it was just a free trip to Italy. They had two ideas going in—No. 1, it’s a painting, very quickly ruled out. No. 2, it’s a scorch, and somebody used a hot metal statue to make it—also eventually ruled out.”
STURP in the 1980s concluded in part that there were no methods known that could account for the formation of the image, Dr. Kearse said.
“The image was an ongoing mystery; the problem remains unsolved—unsolved in the early ’80s when they wrote it and still unsolved in 2022,” he said.
Carbon-14 dating, according to a 1988 headline, said that the shroud was shown to be a fake made from 1260 to 1390, Dr. Kearse said, but he added that scientists at that time didn’t take samples from the best part of the shroud for experimentation.
“Even some of the scientists directly involved in the carbon-14 dating, in hindsight they said this is probably worth a redo, although whether that will be done or not is something that remains to be determined,” he said.
On the shroud’s bloodstains, Dr. Kearse said people want to know “No. 1, is blood really present? Is the red stuff blood? Is the red stuff paint? What is it? No. 2, if you have blood on the shroud, is it human blood? Is it animal blood? Blood from a male, blood from a female? Is there any way to tell whose blood it is?”
STURP determined that hemoglobin was present in the shroud, Dr. Kearse said, but several follow-up studies to determine the species of blood haven’t reached the peer-reviewed scientific level of publication, including a theory that the blood is shown to be of human origin, from a male, and is type AB.
A determination of human blood in shroud samples is not conclusive, Dr. Kearse said, because albumin from some animals is similar to human albumin—animals that were not included in the original studies.
“The blood is most correctly classified as species unknown. Based on what we now know, it really takes us back to square one,” Dr. Kearse added.
Complicating claims the DNA is from a male, he said, is the fact that thousands of people handling the shroud over years could have left their DNA on it.
“Regarding tests to determine blood type, it could be AB, but I really don’t think there’s any solid scientific evidence to back that up,” Dr. Kearse said, adding that eucharistic miracles’ blood type is often AB, claims that suffer from similar scientific issues.
While the blood on the Shroud of Turin is red, Dr. Kearse said that his experiments with human and animal samples containing high levels of bilirubin show that the redness of blood doesn’t last over the course of weeks or months, that it turns brown. The scientific basis for the redness of the shroud blood remains unknown.
“Could the shroud blood have been directly added by a forger or transferred from a body?” Dr. Kearse asked. “It’s been suggested that the shroud shows evidence of clotted blood transfer. That’s based on some of these STURP studies that were done under ultraviolet light.”
His own experiments show that there are multiple routes that can achieve the same results, studies which led to a new method to study blood serum in modern forensics.
On how the image was created, Dr. Kearse said that “it’s really easier to say what the shroud image is not than to say what it really is. Several people have tried to create a copy of the shroud. Many of the results, to be quite honest, are pretty lousy. Some of them are OK, but whenever you get them under a microscope there always seems to be something that just doesn’t line up. To date, the shroud is not thought to be a type painting or rubbing and not thought to be a type of bas-relief. It’s not believed to be a high-heat scorch or a primitive photograph.”
Scientists have tried to recreate the image, Dr. Kearse said, by hitting linen with a super-quick burst from a laser that colored the linen, and they have also speculated that the shroud image was an electrical one that came out of the body. Dr. Kearse also presented some recent work on natural image methods.
The last slide in Dr. Kearse’s presentation may have been the most revealing, containing a quote from historian John Walsh: “It is either the most awesome and instructive relic of Christ in existence, or it is one of the most ingenious, most unbelievably clever products of the human mind and hand on record. It is either one or the other; there is no middle ground.”