The single greatest fact of historical significance in Christianity is the Empty Tomb on Easter morning. It is a fact, because either the tomb was found empty on that morning, with its stone rolled away, or it was not. (Fuzzy logic does not apply here.) If the tomb was not in fact empty, then there was no physical Resurrection. And if it was, that fact goes a long way toward supporting---but does not necessarily prove---the physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The reason an empty tomb cannot prove the fact of the Resurrection is that other explanations for its being found empty are logically possible:
1. The body may have been removed from the tomb, in one of two ways:
a. It was stolen; or
b. Jesus was not dead, but alive, after His crucifixion and either walked out on his own, or was helped or carried out.
2. The body was never placed in the tomb to begin with.
3. The tomb in which Christ's body was placed was not the tomb to which the women and the disciples came on Easter Sunday.
Some of these possibilities have been with us almost since the first Easter; Matthew reports (Mt 27:62-64), for example, the rumors among the chief priest and the Pharisees on the day after the crucifixion that the body would be stolen. And of course, combinations of the several possibilities could be conceived: Jesus was never placed in the tomb to begin with, because his body was stolen right after being taken down from the cross, for instance. But such combinations quickly devolve from the improbable (e.g., that Jesus was still alive when he was laid in the tomb) to the highly improbable (e.g., that Jesus was still alive when he was laid in the tomb, but then robbers who planned to steal his body broke in, knocked him out and carried him away, and then killed him and disposed of the body much later---you see what I mean).
Perhaps the most popular post-modernist explanation today is the one favored by certain Biblical scholars, teachers and bishops, who range from the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes, to our Presiding Bishop (although it appears she may now lean toward a more physical Resurrection), to the proponents of the Jesus Seminar: they avoid claims that the Resurrection was a physical event, and stress that it was in the main a spiritual or metaphorical one. (The details of what happened to Christ's body do not detain them for long---it was thrown to the dogs [John Dominic Crossan], or "the guardian of the cemetery used the first opportunity to move the body out of the grave that had been prepared for someone else" [Vermes].) [UPDATE 04/12/09: I see that my colleague D.C. Toedt, as usual, may be relied upon to present the best summary of this view, and I commend it to your attention before reading further.]
The unspoken reason for the popularity of this approach, I suggest, is that it does not require a belief in something that has no known physical explanation---i.e., a miracle. The rationalists since David Strauss (or, even before him, the eighteenth-century German scholar Hermann Samuel Reimarus and the Scottish philosopher David Hume) greatly downplayed the Gospels' accounts of miracles, and in particular the greatest miracle of all---the Resurrection. The disdain for miracles evidenced by the Enlightenment and its heirs stems from a certain kind of intellectual arrogance: "To say 'and then a miracle occurs' is no explanation at all, even if it is God Who is doing the miracle." Or, in other words, "If I can't understand just how it could happen, then it must not have happened that way---there must be some other explanation, which we just haven't found yet."
Enter now the Shroud of Turin into the debate about the Resurrection. It is perhaps the most disputed, and the most investigated, artifact in all Christendom. The controversy has hinged on whether it actually dates from the first century A.D. and was the cloth which enfolded Jesus' crucified body when it was laid in the tomb in question, or whether it is a clever medieval forgery created in the fourteenth century using a cloth no older than the thirteenth century. There are strongly held views on both sides of the question. While the resolution of the dispute in no way affects the verity of the accounts of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection in the Gospels, the cloth has yielded a surprising level of detail which, when it does not corroborate the Gospel accounts, serves to augment and enhance them.
Recent discoveries have discredited the radiocarbon dating of the cloth done in 1988, which claimed to "prove" that the artifact could not be earlier than the thirteenth century. According to one scientist who was given sample threads from the portion that was cut out and used for radiocarbon testing, the threads show unmistakable signs of a much later origin than other samples that had been cut from a different part of the fabric fifteen years earlier, indicating that a "repair" had been made to the original weave. These findings have since been greatly amplified in two thorough survey articles published here and here. (See also this review, and this one, of the recent documentary Turin Shroud: the New Evidence aired by the Discovery Channel.)
And now, from another direction entirely, comes a report from the Vatican that historical evidence has been found in its vast library that the Shroud was carried from the sack of Constantinople in 1204 A.D. back to France by the Knights Templar, and kept secretly in their custody until it "surfaced" at Lirey, France in 1353:
Barbara Frale, a researcher in the Vatican Secret Archives, said the Shroud had disappeared in the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, and did not surface again until the middle of the fourteenth century. Writing in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, Dr Frale said its fate in those years had always puzzled historians.
However her study of the trial of the Knights Templar had brought to light a document in which Arnaut Sabbatier, a young Frenchman who entered the order in 1287, testified that as part of his initiation he was taken to “a secret place to which only the brothers of the Temple had access”. There he was shown “a long linen cloth on which was impressed the figure of a man” and instructed to venerate the image by kissing its feet three times.
Dr Frale said that among other alleged offences such as sodomy, the Knights Templar had been accused of worshipping idols, in particular a “bearded figure”. In reality however the object they had secretly venerated was the Shroud.
They had rescued it to ensure that it did not fall into the hands of heretical groups such as the Cathars, who claimed that Christ did not have a true human body, only the appearance of a man, and could therefore not have died on the Cross and been resurrected. She said her discovery vindicated a theory first put forward by the British historian Ian Wilson in 1978.
The Knights Templar were founded at the time of the First Crusade in the eleventh century to protect Christians making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Order was endorsed by the Pope, but when Acre fell in 1291 and the Crusaders lost their hold on the Holy Land their support faded, amid growing envy of their fortune in property and banking.
. . . King Philip IV of France, who coveted the order’s wealth and owed it money, arrested its leaders and put pressure on Pope Clement V to dissolve it.
Several knights, including the Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, were burned at the stake. . . .
In 2003 Dr Frale, the Vatican’s medieval specialist, unearthed the record of the trial of the Templars, also known as the Chinon Parchment, after realising that it had been wrongly catalogued. The parchment showed that Pope Clement V had accepted the Templars were guilty of “grave sins”, such as corruption and sexual immorality, but not of heresy.
. . .After the sack of Constantinople [the Shroud] was next seen at Lirey in France in 1353, when it was displayed in a local church by descendants of Geoffroy de Charney, a Templar Knight burned at the stake with Jacques de Molay.
Its history from that point forward is continuously documented. So the importance of this new discovery is twofold: it supplies evidence that the Shroud existed before the earliest date range (1260 to 1390) established by the 1988 tests, and it links the Shroud definitively to Constantinople. The latter point is significant because it vindicates the theory first put forward by Ian Wilson that the well-described "Mandylion" of Constantinople, a cloth which was famous for having an image of Jesus mysteriously imprinted on it, and the Shroud were one and the same. If that is the case, documentation for the Shroud's existence would be continuous back to the fourth century (as explained in the last link).
I have long believed that the incredible level of microscopically authentic detail that appears in the Shroud image furnished very strong evidence that it had to be the authentic burial cloth of Jesus Christ. No theory has ever been put forward to explain how that level of detail, invisible to the human eye, could have been placed on the cloth by means of some clever technique invented by a fourteenth-century artistic (and archaeological) wizard, which was then lost to posterity forever afterward, and which remains inexplicable today. (The technique of N. D. Wilson described at this site succeeds in producing a negative image with three-dimensional information, but it also results in an intentional fuzzying or blurring of image details---in order to hide the forger's brush strokes---that would never sustain the level of minute detail which the Shroud image reveals. It also fails to account for the fact that the blood stains on the cloth originated before the image itself was formed, since the cloth was in contact with the corpse for quite a few hours before the Resurrection occurred. And it of course has no way to explain how the blood stains happen to match the stains on the Sudarium of Oviedo---with its independent history and documentation of an existence well before medieval glass blowers knew how to form sheets large enough to use the method Mr. Wilson describes [see his FAQs on this].)
Thus I find it paradoxical that the very rationalists who celebrated the radiocarbon dating as conclusive evidence of a forgery maintained their conviction without being able to advance any scientific explanation for how the extraordinarily detailed image came to be on the cloth. Here they were supposedly rejecting any "explanation" of the image due to a miracle, while insisting that the image was "somehow" man-made. All attempts to replicate it by the most advanced of modern techniques have failed even to come close, and with the latest discovery that the image has holographic elements, the basis for any attribution of the image to a clever medieval forger has been blown to bits.
All of this recent evidence leaves less and less ground for the skeptics to stand on, and is appropriately celebrated this Easter Day of 2009. The Shroud turns out to be, in effect, a first-century video clip, or (more accurately) an extended exposure over a span of thirty odd hours, culminating in the event that led to the Empty Tomb. It is a negative that has taken mankind some twenty centuries to learn how to develop for detailed viewing, and the more in-depth the examination of it, the more amazing the level of detail which it reveals. (As I wrote in this earlier post, its bloodstains---corroborated by those on the Sudarium of Oviedo--- also furnish incredible genetic evidence for a scientific explanation of the Virgin Birth.)
No small part of the difficulty in determining its genuineness comes from the fact that the negative continued to accrete microscopic fibers, cells, and paint particles from being handled and displayed over the centuries, while barely surviving three fires, which left burns, scorch marks and portions of the cloth that were destroyed and subsequently repaired. One could say that if it indeed is Christ's burial cloth, it is a miracle that it was preserved through twenty centuries at all.
If, as it now appears, the Shroud is genuine, that fact has huge implications for the Empty Tomb of history. For it all but eliminates the alternative scenarios sketched above. If the Shroud is genuine, then the body of Jesus was placed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea just as all the Gospels say, because (a) Mark records Joseph's purchase of the cloth on the day of Jesus' crucifixion (Mk 15:46), and (b) John records its specific discovery in the empty tomb on Easter morning (Jn 20:5-7). This eliminates the second and third alternatives as explanations for the Empty Tomb.
Next, the detailed nature of the image on the Shroud has been unable to be duplicated by leaving a bas-relief face in contact with a damp cloth that was rubbed with myrrh and aloes. (See Nickell, J. "The Turin Shroud: Fake? Fact? Photograph?", Popular Photography [Nov. 1979], pp. 99, 147, described at this link.) If the Shroud is genuine, that result eliminates the possibility that the body was stolen from the tomb before it was found open on Sunday morning, or that Jesus walked out or was carried out alive before that same morning---there would not have been any way of leaving such an image on the cloth if either of those scenarios had occurred. Moreover, the latter scenario is also eliminated by the limited quantity of blood on the Shroud, and its pooling in areas dictated by the laws of gravity. Had Jesus' heart still been beating while he was in the tomb, more blood would have flowed, and the signs of pooling and rigor mortis would not be evident in the image left on the cloth.
The Shroud thus operates in reflex with the evidence for the Empty Tomb. The accounts that we have from the Gospels authenticate what eventually we could see, with the aid of twentieth-century microphotography and detailed analysis, on the Shroud. And with each new detail that is found in the image of the Shroud---from the flowers placed with the body that are unique to Jerusalem, to the Roman-Palestinian coins from Tiberius' reign which were placed on his eyes, to the post-mortem separation of blood serum around the welts on His back raised by the Roman flagellum---the Shroud authenticates (and augments, with even greater particularity) the account of the Gospels. Were there any discrepancy between the two testimonies, they should have surfaced by now, after all the thousands and thousands of man-hours that have been devoted to investigation of the cloth. But they have not.
"When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth," said Sherlock Holmes. As the evidence mounts for the genuineness of the Shroud, Christians may draw on increased support for their faith, even if faith ultimately rests on much more than mere evidence. To be able to reduce other logical possibilities to insignificance after all this lapse of time is indeed a gift to us from the first century, and represents the proper use of such an intimate artifact, as the evidence allows. It is not so much that the Shroud needs to be venerated. Rather, the point is that its ability to emerge enhanced, and further strengthened, from all the disputes over its authenticity merits all the attention thus far bestowed upon it. God's Easter miracle is alive and well in the ongoing revelation which the Shroud represents for us today.