Shroud of Turin Not Jesus', Tomb Discovery Suggests

Mati Milstein in Jerusalem
for National Geographic News
Updated December 17, 2009

From a long-sealed cave tomb, archaeologists have excavated the only known Jesus-era burial shroud in Jerusalem, a new study says.

The discovery adds to evidence that the controversial Shroud of Turin did not wrap the body of Christ, researchers say.

What's more, the remains of the man wrapped in the shroud are said to hold DNA evidence of leprosy—the earliest known case of the disease.

"In all of the approximately 1,000 tombs from the first century A.D. which have been excavated around Jerusalem, not one fragment of a shroud had been found" until now, said archaeologist Shimon Gibson, who excavated the site for the Israel Antiquities Authority.

"We really hit the jackpot."

Found in a first-century cemetery filled with priestly and aristocratic burials, the tomb was initially opened by looters, who left the shroud behind, apparently thinking it has no market value. Experts were able to retrieve the artifact before it began to disintegrate.

The so-called Tomb of the Shroud is a rarity among Jerusalem tombs from the time of Jesus.

For starters, the Tomb of the Shroud appears to have been sealed shut with plaster for 2,000 years, perhaps as a precaution against the spread of leprosy or tuberculosis, which was also detected in DNA extracted from the man's bones.

The tight seal apparently allowed the shroud—radiocarbon-dated to between A.D. 1 and 50—to survive the high humidity levels characteristic of Jerusalem-area caves.

Archaeologists were surprised to even find remains inside the tomb. Traditionally corpses were removed from such tombs after a year or so and placed in ossuaries, or bone boxes. (Related: "'Jesus Box' Is a Fake, Israeli Experts Rule.")

Evidence Against Jesus Link to Shroud of Turin?

Housed since 1578 in a Turin, Italy, cathedral, the Shroud of Turin is believed by many to have wrapped the body of Jesus Christ after his death in Jerusalem—but the cloth has been decried as a hoax by many others. Several studies have attempted to settle the debate.

Carbon-dating studies by three different laboratories in the late 1980s, for example, suggested the shroud was made between A.D. 1260 and 1390, long after the time of Jesus. In 2005 another study asserted that the 1980s test had been based on a patch added in the Middle Ages and that the shroud is actually 1,300 to 3,000 years old.

(Related: "'Jesus' Shroud? Recent Findings Renew Authenticity Debate.")

The weave of the Tomb of the Shroud fabric, the new study says, casts further doubt on the Shroud of Turin as Jesus' burial cloth.

The newfound shroud was something of a patchwork of simply woven linen and wool textiles, the study found. The Shroud of Turin, by contrast, is made of a single textile woven in a complex twill pattern, a type of cloth not known to have been available in the region until medieval times, Gibson said.

Both the tomb's location and the textile offer evidence for the apparently elite status of the corpse, he added. The way the wool in the shroud was spun indicates it had been imported from elsewhere in the Mediterranean—something a wealthy Jerusalem family from this period would likely have done.

First Such Shroud, Second Such Textile

Assuming the new shroud typifies those used in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus, the researchers maintain that the Shroud of Turin could not have originated in the city.

That's perhaps a big assumption, given that there are no other known shrouds from the same place and time for comparison—though in one case clothing had been found in a Jerusalem tomb.

"There have now been only two cases of textiles discovered in Jewish burials from this period," said archaeologist Amos Kloner of Bar Ilan University. And both appear to contradict the idea that the Shroud of Turin is from Jesus-era Jerusalem.

As for the analysis of the newfound shroud, the researchers "checked their findings with the best experts, and this textile was found to be different [from the Shroud of Turin]," said Kloner, who was not involved in the new study, published today in the journal PLoS ONE.

To Kloner, the most important aspect of the new find is that the shroud could be carbon-dated. Examples of Jerusalem textiles from this period—never mind burial shrouds—are so rare that their main importance is in providing organic material for such tests.

The opportunity to compare the weave of this shroud to the weave of the Shroud of Turin is simply an added bonus, he said. "It is wonderful that they found this niche with the remains of a person, and even remains of hair," Kloner said.

Shroud Is a Picture of Health

In addition to adding to the Shroud of Turin debate, the newfound shroud could help paint a clearer picture of the public health situation in the biblical era.

Experts don't know much about the origins of leprosy, and biblical references may well have referred to various skin conditions. The disease is believed to have originated in India and to have arrived in the Mediterranean region sometime between the fourth and second centuries B.C. These most recent findings in Jerusalem may be able to fill critical gaps in knowledge of the disease.

The deceased's apparently high status, right up to the end, indicates leprosy and tuberculosis crossed socio-economic lines at the time in Jerusalem—and that perhaps not all lepers were ostracized, as historical accounts often suggest, the study says.

The origins of leprosy remain hazy, but the researchers are hopeful that, as with the new study, a combination of archaeology and molecular pathology will help trace the evolution and distribution of this and other ancient diseases.

"The medical research has been quite extensive and has shed enormous light on the inhabitants of Jerusalem," study leader Gibson said. "This is the first time that DNA research has been done on the skeletal remains of human beings from the period of Jesus around Jerusalem."




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