The Shroud of Turin: A Secret History? – Apologetics of the Shroud

I am writing a series of posts about the problems I see in apologetics related to the Shroud of Turin. Check out my introductory post here.

Tracing the Shroud in History

A number of claims are made about the Shroud historically and the alleged trail that can be pieced together in order to get it from Turin back to Palestine. Most apologists I’ve read or watched in videos are careful to say that we know with a fairly high degree of certainty where the Shroud was in the 14th century, but before that it becomes murkier. That doesn’t stop many apologists from then turning to making extremely specific claims about the Shroud in history. Here, I’ll be starting an examination of “The Shroud of Turin: Photograph of the Resurrection,” a video from Duran Smith, an apologist with Ratio Christi, an apologetics organization.

Even referring to a “murky history of the Shroud” prior to the 14th century begs the question in a way, by assuming the Shroud did exist and so would have had a history at all prior to the 14th century. I wrote in my introductory post that I’m not convinced by the evidence for the Shroud. In fact, I think the apologetics related to the Shroud of Turin generally show many of the issues I have identified with apologetics more broadly.

Duran Smith, in this video, goes over a wide swathe of arguments about the Shroud of Turin. Here, I’ll be focusing only on how he traces the Shroud in the earliest periods of its supposed existence.

The Discipline of the Secret?

Smith alleges that the Discipline of the Secret is something that can be applied to discussions of the Shroud. In the video at 8:24, you can see a slide in which he writes about the Discipline of the Secret: “It was used until the 5th century.” Intentionally or not, this slide and the discussion surrounding it make it seem as though the Discipline of the Secret is both an established fact of history with a specific lineage and that it persisted in Christianity from the beginning “until the 5th century.” Neither of these are true as stated that way. The Discipline of the Secret is, like many assignations from historians, a categorization of something they observed in the past, rather than a specific Discipline. Hopping again over to Wikipedia, one can trace the historical origins of the phrase and that it was a categorization invented in the 17th century to describe something happening in the 4th and 5th centuries, but not before. So it is technically true that the practice was “used until the 5th century,” but not true that it was persistent throughout Christianity until then, and certainly doesn’t appear to be some kind of strict practice as Smith makes it out to be.

I belabored the above point because it is important to see that it is easy to throw out terms, phrases, and dates and start piecing a case together based upon them. The untrained eye may find it very easy to go along with this. However, on examination, it makes the case pretty thin to have it based on a 17th century categorization of something that was 4th-5th century, especially when it’s applied in this way. Smith specifically says that the Christians after Jesus’s resurrection “had to keep a lot of things hidden,” which strongly implies he is saying that this was a 1st century discipline. “There were things that they couldn’t… write down,” Smith says (about 8:35).

Smith actually goes on to make a number of claims about the Discipline of the Secret. Starting around 8:50 into the video, he claims: “the Apostles and the disciples spoke in a secret code… it was called The Discipline of the Secret. That’s [a/the] name given to it by some of the early church fathers. It was a code language that the early Christians used to protect themselves [from] being found out by the oppressive government. And it was used until the 5th century.” He goes on to imply this may be why we don’t have exacting evidence of the Shroud’s existence in this early period. The problem is that each of these claims, so far as any research I can do, appears to be false. There is no church father that talks about the “Discipline of the Secret,” falsifying the claim that that name was “given to it by some of the early church fathers.” Web searches turn up many, many sites talking about the discipline, but even in the corners of Catholic Encyclopedias, one finds time and again that they say that term did not originate until the 17th century or so, and the practice itself may have had earliest origins with Tertullian (3rd century) but didn’t solidify until the time of Basil (early 4th century) or Gregory of Nazianzus (mid-late 4th century). Not one of these church fathers used the phrase “Discipline of the Secret.” Where Smith found a source for his claim is unclear, and I understand YouTube is not an easy place for citations, nor are lectures like this, but I am curious as to exactly what source Smith is basing this claim upon. There doesn’t appear to be a foundation for it anywhere.

The claims about this Discipline continue, as Smith says a lot of research goes into decoding this secretive language and says that “this is where the fish comes from” referring to the symbol of a fish as a symbol early Christians used. Once again, there is no source cited or concrete evidence to suggest that this is in any way connected to an actual discipline that any church father referenced or named anywhere.

Note that I have not used the word “lying” here in regards to what Smith is saying about the Discipline of the Secret. I don’t know Smith’s intentions or mindset and believe one should always assume others are sincere unless you have direct counter-evidence. Instead, what I’m observing is that Smith is making a number of explicit claims about the origins of the Shroud and this “Discipline,” none of which appear to be backed by reliable historical data. So where did it come from? It is possible Smith made it up, but in my own experience in academic apologetics as well as apologetics circles online, it seems more likely that Smith has fallen victim to what I’ve seen as a kind of group re-affirmation process in which a claim is made and then others pile on more supposed evidences to back up that claim, whether through anecdotes or other experiences, which are then taken to be true and real evidences, which then back up the claim, until an kind of circle of evidence is made such that the original claim seems unassailable. I could see someone reading about the Discipline of the Secret, and then having a kind of enthusiastic discussion about that related to the Shroud and how it could explain why there aren’t explicit writings about the Shroud or evidence referring explicitly to it prior to the 14th century. How you get from that to making an explicit claim that the church fathers explicitly gave the practice the name is conjecture on my end, but I could see it being inferred and then taken as true at some step along the way.

However it happened, Smith’s discussion of the Discipline of the Secret shows some gaps in understanding, along with several claims that, upon examination, cannot hold weight.

The Lost Gospel of the Hebrews?

Smith then turns to an allegedly lost Gospel of the Hebrews. Again, digging around online turns up that this lost Gospel may in fact be three separate Gospels, that it may have had its origin in the Gospels in the Bible today, and a number of other tidbits. There’s not a lot there, just some fragmentary quotes, including one from Origen (a favorite of mine) that hedges bets a bit when he writes “And if any accept the Gospel according to the Hebrews” before citing a fragment in his On John. Anyway, all of this is to say we don’t have much by way of established fact here, either.

After noting that the Gospel is lost and we don’t have it at all, Smith claims that “We use it to kind of get insight into what those early Christians were thinking… It’s used for some theological purposes, but it also has some historical details…” [around 10:20 and following]. Then he quotes it, “and when the Lord had given the linen cloth to the servant of the priest, He went to James and appeared to him.” I was able to confirm this is a quote from Jerome attributed to the Gospel of the Hebrews. Smith then states that the “servant of the priest probably refers to Peter, who was traditionally known as the Priest.” Going on, he says “it’s very likely that, according to the Discipline of the Secret, that the Gospel of the Hebrews is indicating that Jesus gave the linen cloth to Peter.” Going on, Smith notes that Peter is the head of the church, and the rock upon which the church is founded, and that it would then make sense that Peter would have this “very important relic” (the Shroud). Peter then spent quite a bit of time in Antioch.

There are problems with many of the claims made in this section. First, Peter wasn’t traditionally known as “the Priest.” He was known as the Rock. I don’t have comprehensive knowledge of or access to early church writings, but I struggle to find any reference to any tradition in which Peter is known as “the Priest.” Some believe he was known to the High Priest. Several Roman Catholic claims about Peter being the first Pope would then make him a priest, but having him referred to as “the Priest” is different from that claim. Again, I found no referent anywhere in searches online or through books on church history. I’m willing to be corrected here, of course, but it seems to me that if a claim can offhandedly be made that Peter “was traditionally known as the Priest” then that tradition should be fairly easily associated with Peter, and it is not. But suppose Smith is right, suppose Peter was known as “the Priest.” The passage he cites says that the “linen cloth” was given to “the servant of the priest.” So the passage would in fact be saying that the linen cloth was given to Peter’s servant, not to Peter himself. Of course, one might surmise that that would then mean that the linen made its way to Peter, but that is another step of transmission that Smith needs to establish. He also needs to establish that the linen cloth is, in fact, the Shroud.

Second, given the problems with Smith’s interpretation of the Discipline of the Secret noted above, it is highly problematical for him to deduce anything from that analysis. But he explicitly states that it is “according to the Discipline of the Secret” that the citation from the Gospel of the Hebrews is telling readers that the linen cloth is given to Peter. Note the shift here. It’s subtle, but it happens. In just a few minutes in the video, Smith has moved from saying that there is such a thing as a Discipline of the Secret in which Christians secretly communicated with each other to making that very Discipline the actor in interpreting passages from a fragmentary text available only through quotations from others. It isn’t that it is possible that there is a secretive explanation of a passage; no, Smith states that it is “according to” that secretive discipline that we may then infer that the passage is referring to the Shroud. In no small amount of time, and without argument, the Discipline of the Secret has moved to a broad way to explain that Christians spoke secretively to a means by which we may infer truths. I really can’t belabor this point enough because it’s a major shift. It is according to the Discipline, which is by no means established by a discipline and which did not exist even according to sources writing about it in this time period, that we may then conclude that a fragmentary passage from a book that is not extant to this day is explicitly referring to none other than the Shroud of Turin. This is such a massive leap, but is made without even an argument.

The shift from “there’s a secretive discipline in the early church” to “we may infer from that secretive discipline conclusions about what they were saying in specific texts” is huge. Again, careful examination of Smith’s arguments make it clear they come up quite short when it comes to whether they can actually support the conclusions he’s drawing.


Duran Smith has demonstrated here a number of problems I find in apologetics more generally. He makes claims that are unsupported by evidence, other claims are, upon closer examination, false. He shifts from argument to evidence without enough evidential support to make the conclusions he does. It also seems that he’s not as fully versed in the claims he’s making as someone giving a lecture on a topic ought to be. Whether it’s the claims about what Peter is traditionally called or about the actual dates and extent of the Discipline of the Secret, there are a number of errors that a bit more research could have prevented. But these errors are integral to the case Smith has made so far. If they are indeed errors, most of his case to this point falls apart. We’ll be examining more of the historical evidence Smith claims exists for the Shroud in the next post in this series.


What’s Wrong with Apologetics? – I raise a number of pitfalls apologists ought to avoid.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


One thought on “The Shroud of Turin: A Secret History? – Apologetics of the Shroud

  1. Good article. I learn something new each time to read your articles.
    Keep them coming

    Posted by Donna Covello | December 1, 2022, 12:21 PM

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