Big Pic: Close-Up of Latest Shroud of Turin Claim

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Nov. 24, 2009 -- The latest claim by Vatican researcher Barbara Frale that faint writing on the Shroud of Turin proves it was the burial cloth of Jesus has roots which date back 30 years.

The first person who said to have seen faint letters on the controversial linen was the Italian Piero Ugolotti in 1979. Using digital image processing, he reported the existence of Greek and Latin letters written near the face.

Ugolotti's findings were further studied in 1997 by the late Andre Marion, director of the Institut d'Optique Theorique et Appliquee d'Orsay, France and his student Anne Laure Courage.

"My research begins where that of the French researchers ends," Frale, a researcher in the Vatican secret archives, told Discovery News. "Marion and Courage were not paleographists [experts in ancient scripts] and could not make much sense out of those words."

According to Frale, who has published her findings in the book La Sindone di Gesu Nazareno ("The Shroud of Jesus of Nazareth"), the letters scattered on the shroud are basically the burial certificate of a man named "Yeshua Nazarani."

"At the time of Christ in a Roman colony such as Palestine, Jewish burial practices established that a body buried after a death sentence could only be returned to the family after been purified for a year in a common grave," Frale said. A death certificate stuck to the cloth around the face was thus necessary for later retrieval of the corpse.

As with a puzzle, Frale reconstructed the death certificate by deciphering fragments of Greek, Hebrew and Latin writing. These could be explained with the polyglot nature of Greek-speaking Jews in a Roman colony, according to Frale.

Here is her interpretation of the letters appearing in Marion's image above:

1. (I)esou(s) "Jesus"

2. Nnazarennos "Nazarene"

3. (o)pse kia(tho) "taken down in the early evening"

4. in nece(m) "to death"

5. pez(o) "I execute"

There are apparently more letters on the linen, such as the word "iber," which Frale identified as referring to Emperor Tiberius, who reigned at the time of Jesus' crucifixion.

Piecing together the ancient multilingual puzzle, Frale came to this final reconstruction:

"In the year 16 of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, Jesus the Nazarene, taken down in the early evening after having been condemned to death by a Roman judge because he was found guilty by a Hebrew authority, is hereby sent for burial with the obligation of being consigned to his family only after one full year."

The certificate ends with a sort of signature: "I execute".

Shroud skeptics already dismissed Marion and Courage's claim when it was presented at a conference in 1997. They argued that the existence of the letters wasn't proven and even if real, those letters did not make enough grammatical sense.

Meanwhile, a harsh debate has opened up over Frale's theory.

"There is no evidence that those letters do exist. Many have seen faint writings on the cloth. Rather than a shroud it looks like an encyclopedia," Bruno Barberis, director of the International Center for Shroud Studies of Turin, told Avvenire, a daily Catholic newspaper.