I credit this article’s timely appearance to Professor James Tabor, who wrote about it in his blog yesterday morning. (Please read the note I’ve written at the end of this article.)
A shroud discovered in a burial cave known as the “Tomb of the Shroud” is unveiling clues about life and death at the time of Jesus, and challenging the authenticity of the controversial Shroud of Turin.
“In all of the approximately 1,000 tombs from the first century A.D. which have been excavated around Jerusalem, not one fragment of a shroud had been found until now,” said archaeologist and professor Shimon Gibson, who along with Professor James Tabor, and Dr. Boaz Zissu discovered and excavated the tomb on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2000.
“We really hit the jackpot.”
Evidence of Leprosy
What makes the tomb even more rare is the fact that the shrouded man–whose remains are dated by radiocarbon methods to 1 CE to 50 CE–did not receive a subsequent burial. Secondary burials were common practice at the time of Jesus. Normally, a year after death, the bones of the deceased are removed and placed in an ossuary (a bone box made of stone). In this case, however, the deceased man’s bones were left untouched for 2,000 years behind an entrance sealed with plaster.
According to a published report in the December 16 issue of the Public Library of Science Journal, researchers from the Hebrew University as well as from North America and Britain confirmed the presence of leprosy and tuberculosis in DNA samples taken from the shroud individual’s bones. This explains why no one dared enter the tomb to put the bones in an ossuary and also why the specimen remained so well-preserved.
Professor Tabor wrote in his blog yesterday that this is “the earliest case of leprosy ever found in the Holy Land or elsewhere,” and says the significance of this discovery is “a major contribution to our understanding of ancient disease…” Professors Mark Spigelman and Charles Greenblatt of the Sanford F. Kuvin Center for the Study of Infectious and Tropical Diseases at HU in Jerusalem concur, saying that since the origins and development of leprosy are largely obscure, finding a specimen with leprosy from this time frame may help explain whether Jewish leprosy referred to a skin disease such as psoriasis or something more akin to the leprosy we know today. (The leprosy we are familiar with today was thought to have originated in India and brought over via bacteria to the Near East and Mediterranean countries during the Hellenistic period.)
In the archeological exploration of ancient disease, molecular pathology is perhaps the most significant key to understanding the evolution, geographic distribution, and epidemiology of disease and social health in antiquity.
Some are already connecting the dots. The Jerusalem Post reported in their December 15 issue that co-infection of both leprosy and tuberculosis here and in 30 percent of DNA remains in Israel and Europe from the ancient and modern period provide evidence that the medieval plague of leprosy was eliminated by an increased level of tuberculosis in Europe as the area urbanized.
Though evidence of leprosy is a significant find, Professor Tabor mentions other “quite notable” aspects of research as well. To begin with, research of the Tomb of the Shroud is unique because it ‘s the first time DNA profiles were done on all the bones in an ancient tomb in Jerusalem from the Herodian period.
Second, the tight seal of plaster apparently allowed the shroud and some of the man’s hair—radiocarbon-dated to between A.D. 1 and 50—to survive the high humidity levels characteristic of Jerusalem-area caves. Tabor reports that the clump of hair was “lice-free, cut reasonably short, and well-groomed.”
Evidence of Aristocracy
There is evidence that the inhabitant of the tomb was an aristrocrat. The Tomb, located in the lower Hinnom Valley near the Jaffa Gate, is part of a first century CE cemetery called Akeldama–Field of Blood. It is filled with priestly and aristocratic burials, and resides next to the tomb of Annas, the high priest (6 CE to 15 CE), who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest who betrayed Jesus to the Romans. It is also adjacent to the spot where Judas hanged himself, and the site where the scapegoat was driven over a cliff on the Day of Atonement in Solomon’s Temple. The ancient Israelites called the valley Gehinnom, “hell”. Biblical references to this location are found in Matthew 27:3-8 and Acts 1:19.
In addition to the location, the size of the tomb and type of textiles used for the shroud also hint that the shrouded man was a moderately affluent priest or member of the aristocracy.
If the deceased was indeed an aristocrat of high status, then we can glean that leprosy and tuberculosis had already crossed socio-economic lines at the time of Jesus in Jerusalem—and that perhaps not all lepers were ostracized, as historical accounts often suggest.
Evidence Against The Shroud Of Turin’s Authenticity
If the Shroud of Turin is authentic, it only stands to reason that it should match the one found in the Tomb of the Shroud.
The problem is, it doesn’t.
The newfound shroud is made of a simple two-way weave of linen and wool* textiles, while The Shroud of Turin is a single fabric woven in a complex twill pattern not known to have been available in the region until mediaeval times–more than 1,000 years after the time of Christ, Gibson said.
Despite its simpler weave, the new shroud offers more evidence for the apparently elite status of the corpse, he added. The way the wool in the shroud was spun indicates it was imported from elsewhere in the Mediterranean—something a wealthy Jerusalem family from this period would likely have done.
Another difference between the newly studied shroud and the Shroud of Turin is that the new shroud is made up of separate sections, with a separate piece for the head, while the famous Turin Shroud is a single, continuous piece.
“What our shroud shows is that the practice of having a separate shroud or wrapping for the body and for the head was common practice. There was a separate wrapping for the head itself, which was very important because when they brought someone to burial they would place the head wrapping separately on the face in case the person wasn’t actually dead and woke up again, they would be able to blow off the face wrapping and shout for help,” said Gibson. “This did occur quite a lot in antiquity because they didn’t have the medical means we have today. The idea was that if you enshrouded somebody, you had a separate set of wrappings for the body and a separate set of wrappings for the head,” he said.
“There have now been only two cases of textiles discovered in Jewish burials from this period,” said archaeologist Amos Kloner of Bar Ilan University. “And both appear to contradict the idea that the Shroud of Turin is from Jesus-era Jerusalem.”
* A word about linen and wool:
- Leviticus 19:19 says, “Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed, neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.”
- Deuteronomy 22:11 says, “Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, [as] of woollen and linen together.”
- Jewish law, based on the above verses, states clearly in Kil’ayim 9:1, “Wool and linen alone are forbidden under the law of Diverse Kinds.”