One category of claims made in favor of the authenticity of the Shroud is that other artwork reflects the image of the Shroud. Often, this is linked to legal status for points of congruence. Thus, for example, it is argued that legally, 14 points of congruence between a suspect’s fingerprint and a fingerprint from a crime scene are necessary to determine a match. But with the Shroud, there are allegedly many icons and coins and other objects with a huge number of points of congruence well beyond the legal standard. Thus, in a video on Shroud3D (linked to me by one apologist interest in the Shroud), it is stated that there are “250 points of congruence between [the] Shroud and icon,” which is left as an argument for the clear link between the icon and the Shroud.
There are a number of problems with this species of argument related to the Shroud of Turin. I don’t have the time nor the expertise to analyze individual alleged points of congruence. Indeed, most of the sources I found making claims like this cited other sources, which in turn cited other sources, which in turn I was either unable to find or unable to determine the specific alleged points of congruence. The video I linked above shows someone waving a mouse icon on a screen at some alleged similarities between the Shroud and an icon, but that, with the claim on screen of “250 points of congruence,” does not do nearly enough to allow for any kind of detailed analysis. And, again, I am not any kind of expert in forensics of icons or the like. Instead, what I’m going to focus on are some broader problems with the argument.
Why It Matters
The reason this argument matters is that apologists of the Shroud claim that because coins, icons, and possibly other artworks reflect attempts to imitate the Shroud, this allows them to place the date of the Shroud much earlier in history than the earliest historical mentions of it (14th century). The logic is simple: if coins from earlier than the 14th century show that they are copied from or based upon the Shroud, it follows that the Shroud existed prior to the 14th century. I’ll have more to say about this argument in the future.
Points of Congruence
I mentioned above that claims are made about these alleged “points of congruence” or similarities between the Shroud of Turin and other objects. What I’ve struggled to track down are both the actual diagrams showing these exact points of congruence, the methodology used to detect these alleged points, and the linkage between those points and actual forensic evidence. After some deep searching online on the website of the Department of Justice, I was able to find a number of articles about fingerprint analysis. One of these, an abstract of a chapter of a book about forensics and fingerprinting, notes that identification of similarities involves: “perception, similarity judgments, memory, and decision making. These abilities vary among individuals and can be improved with training and experience.” This raises far more questions than it answers regarding the alleged proof of the earlier dating of the Shroud of Turin based upon its alleged “congruencies” with icons, coins, and the like.
First, what kind of actual training do those marking these supposed similarities have? From what I can tell, the people making these types of claims do not have any training in forensic analysis of photographs, art, or fingerprints. While expertise is not absolutely necessary in order to make identification of similarities (I’m fairly sure that without a degree in art, I could identify a painting by or in the style of Salvador Dali, for example), it certainly would give more credence to the claims being made. And, it’s possible that I, being fairly new to this discussion, am missing people with relevant degrees or job experience. But I do know how often I’ve seen online apologists making these claims without citation, and those doing that certainly do not have the relevant expertise, nor are they citing sources with that expertise. This alone should be enough to urge skepticism about said claims.
Second, what about making judgment calls? If I have an image with a crown of thorns and another image with a crown of thorns, how do I make a judgment call of how many similarities there are? One has a thorn piercing the forehead directly in the middle of the left eyebrow? That could be evidence of congruence, but it could also be happenstance–the thorns had to hit the head at some points, after all. It seems somewhat obvious to me that those making these judgment calls in favor of the Shroud may have significant bias in favor of finding more congruence than there may actually be. And without degrees or expertise to back them up, this becomes even more likely. It’s easy to multiply points of congruence when one wants them to be there. And, as I will note below, this is even more problematical because of the nature of what is being alleged about, anyway (see the section on Baseline below).
Third, it’s clear that nearly every aspect of these points of congruence regarding the Shroud and various artworks are matters of opinion. But when the subject being depicted has many features that are generally well-known (crucified figure, scourged, with crown of thorns, etc.), how does one determine whether a point of congruence is evidence of actual copying or whether it is just happenstance based upon the known circumstances of the subject being depicted? It seems like sorting that question out would be nearly impossible. It would rely so much upon judgment calls it would start to become absurd. Indeed, one would have to constantly assume intent into the depictions on the coins or icons–that they were intended to look like the Shroud, rather than happening to follow the same general outline of an image. But that brings us to the argument below.
There is a Baseline
Perhaps the most severe problem with claims about the supposed congruence between the Shroud and various artworks, coins, etc. is that these arguments fail to note the works are not independent. What I mean by this will take a little explaining. Going back to the example that is being cited–fingerprint analysis–the example has no independent goal towards which to aim. If I have a fingerprint from a crime scene, and I have the fingerprints of the suspect, I can compare them and conclude that if there are enough similarities–whatever that standard is legally–then that means they’re a match.
With the Shroud, however, we have two objects, the Shroud, and some other item, say a coin, which are not independent of each other. This isn’t like plucking a fingerprint from somewhere and hoping to find a match. Instead, it is taking two objects, each of which has a goal oriented towards depiction of a specific subject, and then declaring that because they have similarities to each other, they are necessarily connected. Icons, coins, and the like are all intended to depict Jesus, at least in some sense. Obviously, they didn’t have a photograph, and details about what Jesus looked like in the Bible are totally scarce, but there are very early artistic depictions of Jesus, some with significant variation. There are also obvious features of a crucified human being with a crown of thorns that would lead to points of similarity in depiction of a human in that state. Two people trying to show a crucified Jewish man from the first century would likely align on many “points of congruence” without having any other knowledge of each others’ works.
The history of iconography of Jesus is its own separate subject, but by the time the artworks like the coins and icons being discussed by Shroud apologists were created, there was already an established baseline for what Jesus was supposed to look like in such iconography. So if you have an established representative style for what a subject, Jesus, is supposed to look like, and you have an icon and a coin that match that style, having another object–the Shroud–have many dozens or even hundreds of “points of congruence” with those other objects does not prove that those objects are based upon the Shroud. At best, it just proves the Shroud is consistent with the established baseline representation of Jesus in that era, but that would hardly be surprising whether it is a copy or genuine. But if I have three independent things, Bob, a coin that is supposed to depict Bob, and something that allegedly is the cloth Bob was buried in, it would hardly be surprising that both the burial cloth and coin are similar, given that they are both trying to aim at Bob as an image. That would be true whether the cloth is genuine or not.
One example of this was found in a podcast I was listening to about the Shroud of Turin [and, of course, my apologies as I have been unable to find the exact time stamp, but it was the Backstory on the Shroud of Turin Podcast, “The Stories Coins Can Tell with Justin Robinson,” August 11, 2022]. In that podcast, the person being interviewed noted that the way a strand of hair came across Jesus’s face matches the Shroud of Turin. In fact, it gets better, said Robinson, because the coin had to be printed in reverse, and so the artist was intentionally matching how that strand of hair came across the face to the Shroud of Turin! But this argument is specious. If you have two depictions intentionally aimed at a long haired Jewish man crucified, it would hardly be surprising for there to be a strand of hair dangling across the face, no matter which side the strand of hair falls upon. And the argument about the image having to be flipped for a coin does nothing to strengthen the attempt to link it to the Shroud, apart from making a supposed link to intention that cannot be proven. But these types of arguments are put forth as if they give definitive proof of (or at least, strong evidence for) the notion that these artists were copying the Shroud. Even as one who would love to have such evidence, this rings hollow and reads as attempted justification for something tenuous at best.
Fingerprints and Coins?
Similarly, those making claims about coins, icons, and the like fail to recognize the goal-directed nature of artwork. These aren’t just someone’s happenstance fingerprints or something; these are intentional depictions of a figure purported to be a representation of Jesus. The people making the argument about forensic evidence in court of law and applying that same style of evidence-gathering to questions about the Shroud of Turin seem to be engaging in a category error.
Fingerprints, as one might note, are not coins. Fingerprints are subjects of nature, possibly subject to scarring, and have numerous other aspects that are quite different from coins or icons. Icons and the faces on coins are intentional depictions of something. They are meant to appear as whatever vision the artist intended. Not only does this make it problematic as an argument because there is a baseline, as noted above, but it also means that trying to establish a 1:1 correspondence between what is required to demonstrate in court of law that a suspect and a piece of fingerprint evidence are the same and what is required to establish that a coin was specifically based upon the Shroud at least requires some kind of argument to establish. But that argument is never made. It’s just noted that in court of law there is some number of similarities required for fingerprints, and then because there are allegedly even more similarities between the Shroud and some piece of artwork, that establishes the artwork was copying the Shroud.
The leaps in logic here are over vast chasms. Criminal forensic evidence just is not the same as analysis of art and vice versa. Expert analysis simply does not exist for comparison of the coins with the Shroud imagery, so far as I can tell. Forensic analysis would not be the correct category to make this comparison with anyway. What possible correspondence could there be between an artwork and a supposedly genuine image of a body and between a naturally occurring phenomenon–a fingerprint–and the discovery of a fingerprint at the scene of a crime? They’re entirely different fields of study with entirely different backgrounds, contexts, and levels of intent. While it sounds like a good argument to cite one to defend the other, when one examines the actual arguments, they fall apart.
There are more problems that could be raised with the supposed similarities between the Shroud and various icons or coins or other artworks, but many of them would need to focus on specific artwork. I have left aside analysis of specific, individual claims to focus more upon methodology. Because of this, my argument may be dismissed by some as being to vague or broad. That may be, but I think that the points I’ve raised here should cause some to pause and urge caution about claims related to the Shroud of Turin. So often, it’s not experts doing this analysis, the arguments are vague, or categories are confused. Apologists should hold ourselves to a higher standard, and I don’t think this is happening with the Shroud.
The Shroud of Turin- An Apologetics Sinkhole? – My first post in the series on the Shroud of Turin in which I comment broadly about my interest in it and why I think it demonstrates so many problems.
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