The Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be the burial cloth of Christ and debunked by others as a hoax, was on display for six weeks in April and May in a Catholic church in Torino, Italy, where it has been kept for centuries. It is on public display only every 10 years.
Dr. Steve Wunschel, a Modesto urologist, went to see the shroud with his wife, Beka, and their two daughters, Madeline and Liza. They had planned to be in Italy but didn't know about the shroud exhibit until their pastor, the Rev. Joseph Illo of St. Joseph's Church, told them about it and offered to get them tickets.
Illo spent nine months in Italy on a study leave and, along with other priests in Italy, had been asked by the Vatican to spend time in Torino hearing confessions for the 2 million people who showed up to see the shroud. This was only the fifth public exposition of the shroud since 1898 and the longest in its modern history.
Illo saw the shroud three times, including one memorable, private moment with only two other priests in the church.
Merilyn Copland, an Old Testament, history and archaeology professor at William Jessup University in Rocklin, was in Modesto last week to give a seminar on the top 10 discoveries in biblical archaeology. The shroud is one of those, and although she hasn't seen it, she has seen a bronze statue made from the cloth's measurements and markings. The bronze figure is on display in Jerusalem.
Last week, the Wunschels, Illo and Copland shared with The Bee their experiences and beliefs regarding the shroud:
Beka Wunschel said two things struck her the most. One was the "throng of people" who waited in line for hours to see the exhibit. Even when the crowd was about six to eight people deep passing by the shroud, she said, she didn't see anyone pushing or upset. "It was amazing, the peace that everyone in the crowd had," she said. "It was beautiful."
The second thing, she said, is "I now have a clear picture of my mind of Mary Magdalene, who was the first one in the tomb that morning (the day Jesus rose from the grave), picking up that cloth and holding it up to her body. I also kind of feel like Mary, his mother, probably kept that (cloth) with her.
"Seeing it was very moving. I wish I could have sat in front of it all day."
Steve Wunschel said seeing the shroud "was a pretty phenomenal thing to see. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience; we couldn't pass it up.
"You can see the crown marks (of thorns) on his head. You see the marks on his side, on his hands. It's a very moving experience. My wife saw it from the mother's perspective. For me, it was seeing all the details of the blood and the whip marks. You see that and realize how much pain and torture (Jesus) went through for us."
There's no doubt in the Wunschels' minds that the shroud is the burial cloth that surrounded Jesus' body. "It looked authentic," Steve said. "It would be something hard to replicate, and why would you? It's an incredible testament to our faith and his sacrifice.
"It made my faith stronger, knowing the pain he went through, the sacrifice."
'Blood of Christ'
Illo heard roughly six hours of confession a day for three days in May. Most people came in for confession after viewing the shroud. "There were some who came to confession who didn't know what Jesus had suffered for us until they saw it with their eyes," he said. "They were now convicted of his infinite love for them personally."
He saw the shroud three times -- once in a group of priests who were taken through a back entrance, a second time when he joined the crowd outside the exhibit and a third time, which he called "the most impressive."
"I went with two priests from Mexico early on Sunday. We prayed our morning prayers just in front of the image. There were just three priests in the church and two guards chatting off to the side.
"Then, one of my favorite archbishops, Raymond Burcke, celebrated Mass that morning. He preached about the heart of Jesus, the love of Jesus, that bled for humanity, bled for love. As he was saying that, I saw the bloodstains on the cloth. It was a very tangible, concrete experience of the humanity and the divinity of Christ. If it's real, this is the blood of Christ, the blood of God."
And is it really the shroud of Jesus? "It's almost impossible to prove," Illo said. "I think the weight of the evidence points to the authenticity of Christ, that it is really the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. But in any case, it portrays one man's suffering and his dignified repose in death. Even though his body was torn up, which you can see from the marks on the shroud, his face is at peace.
"There's a kingly dimension to him with his body in regal repose. His face is not contorted. It shows the dignity inherent in the human person, despite the outrages committed against it."
'Blue light special'
Copland said that for years, she doubted that authenticity. When radiocarbon dating tests were done in 1989 at three sites and all showed the cloth to date back only to the Middle Ages, it confirmed her skepticism.
"I used to think it was something sold to one of the Crusaders," she said. "He was passing through Jerusalem and someone came up to him and said, 'Have I got something special for you.' It was like a blue light special."
More recent studies have changed her mind. "Turns out, the carbon dating was done on a medieval repair job," she said. "People in those times would weave a patch into something else and make it look like the whole thing, but it wasn't. It's how they repaired tapestries. This patch had cotton fabric, which wasn't available in Jerusalem in the first century."
Besides the discovery of the patch, she said, "there are recent studies by outstanding scholars who had no vested reason in proving it to be the actual first-century burial cloth of Jesus. They weren't pro or con." One such study, she said, was completed this year by paleobotanist Avinoam Danin, a Jewish professor at Hebrew University. He identified 28 species of flowers from the images on the shroud.
"He was amazed," Copland said. "Having identified them, he plotted where these flowers grow around the world and their blooming time. He discovered three of the flowers have a very restricted area that they grow in -- only from Jerusalem to Hebron, about 20 miles away. And they only bloom in March and April. So if they're going to be in a burial garment, it would have to be placed on it only in March and April (Jesus died during Passover, which is celebrated during those two months).
"Wow. Explain that."
Beyond that, she said, modern equipment has brought to light "very specific things about the individual wrapped in it," such as wounds from a two-pronged scourge and from a crown made like a cap covering the entire head. "I don't know how someone in the Middle Ages would know what a Roman scourge looked like," Copland said. "Even the type of crown of thorns is not the type that we've pictured. It was a cap. A very unusual 'crown.' The circlet types were common for Greeks and Romans. So it has some detail to it that you wouldn't expect from someone in the Middle Ages.
"All of this together has a very high rate of probability. I'm 100 percent convinced."
But even if future studies incontrovertibly prove the cloth was Jesus' burial shroud, it may not matter to some people, she said.
"I'm not sure in and of itself it would convince someone to believe in the claims of Jesus. Did he rise from the dead and is he in fact the son of God who took away the sins of the world?" she said. "This wouldn't prove that, but would prove that he died and was crucified."
What isn't known is exactly how the cloth ended up in Europe. "It perhaps originated when Constantine's mother went to Israel to identify places where Jesus lived," Copland said. "She may have been shown the shroud. It may have then stayed in Jerusalem until the Crusaders went. I can see someone taking that to Greece and then someone took it to Italy. It ended up in Italy as part of the dowry for one of the daughters of a king in Europe."
Bronze fleshes out details
Copland, who visits Modesto every week to see her mother, said she "highly recommends" that people see the shroud when it's back on display in 10 years. In the meantime, she said, people can see a bronze statue created from the shroud's measurements and images. It's on permanent display in Jerusalem.
"It's not in a museum," she said. "It's in the Notre Dame Hospice, a very old place for (Christian) pilgrims to stay. It's a five-star hotel now. They've taken one room and made this as an exhibit.
"It shows what (Jesus) would have looked like -- how tall he was. One of the most remarkable things is the look on the face of absolute serenity. Once wouldn't expect that of a victim of crucifixion. It's remarkable. For a Christian, it brings to mind that Jesus was a willing sacrifice and he did this in order to atone to the sins of the world."
The shroud is only one of the discoveries that excites Copland, in terms of biblical archaeology. She has been on numerous digs in the Mideast. "I went every year for 10 years at a site not that far from Tel Aviv," she said. "It's called Timnah in the Bible. It's where Sampson got his first wife. I also excavated one harbor at Dor, Solomon's harbor. In Galilee, I excavated at Chorazin, which is one of three places that Jesus cursed.
"This summer, I did a very short-term dig at Maresha. It's also in hills toward the coast, where Herod the Great had his childhood and close to where Micah the prophet was from."
Archaeology, she said, will never find everything. Some things, like manna and wooden objects that disintegrate, are long gone. And it's not a treasure hunt like the Indiana Jones movies, she added. But archaeologists can find clues to how people lived. For example, she said, she is particularly interested in a site that was alternatively fought over and inhabited by the Israelites and the Philistines.
"The Israelites should not have won that war," Copland said. "They were outgunned dramatically. And yet, they managed. To figure out why that happened was very interesting to me. It's like a whodunit mystery. As an archaeologist, you're trying to solve those mysteries.
"I had one woman who was sweeping a floor (on a dig) and said, 'Just think. the last woman who swept this floor lived in 701 B.C.' Archaeology is like that; it brings it to a personal level."
And on that personal level, Copland is putting together a dig in Magdala -- home of Mary Magdalene -- hopefully during her Christmas break. She's looking for volunteers to join her. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or email@example.com.