An international team of researchers has found fragments of a burial shroud that cast serious doubt on the Shroud of Turin, the controversial linen cloth venerated by many Catholics as the proof that Christ was resurrected from the grave.
Discovered in a Jerusalem cemetery known as Akeldama, or "Field of Blood," where Judas Iscariot is thought to have committed suicide, the shroud fragments were found around the remains of a man buried in a sealed chamber.
Probably a Jewish high priest or member of the aristocracy, the man suffered from tuberculosis and leprosy, as DNA of both diseases was found in his bones.
"This is the earliest case of leprosy with a confirmed date in which M. leprae DNA was detected," the researchers, from Israeli, Canadian, Australian, U.S. and British institutions, wrote in the journal PloS ONE.
Although the molecular identification of these diseases is significant for the geographical and temporal distribution of tuberculosis and leprosy in the past, "what marked this tomb as unique from the other tombs in the Akeldama cemetery was the discovery of degraded shroud textile," said the researchers.
The first of their kind discovered in Jerusalem, the shroud fragments date from the same time of Christ's death, but are very different than the Shroud of Turin.
One of the most controversial relics in Christendom, the Turin linen features an intricate twill weave. The newly found cloth is made up of a simpler two-way weave.
Moreover, the Jerusalem garment is in two pieces — one for the head and one for the body —while the Turin shroud is a single piece of fabric.
If the remains in the Jerusalem tomb represent typical burial shrouds widely used at the time of Jesus, this casts strong doubt that the Turin Shroud originated from Jesus-era Jerusalem.
Scientific interest in the Turin Shroud began in 1898, when it was photographed by lawyer Secondo Pia. The negatives revealed the image of a bearded man with pierced wrists and feet and a bloodstained head.
In 1988, the Vatican approved carbon-dating tests. Three reputable laboratories concluded that the shroud was medieval, dating from 1260 to 1390, and not a burial cloth wrapped around the body of Christ.
The radiocarbon dating did not prevent many scholars from formulating various hypotheses on the shroud’s authenticity.
Last month Barbara Frale, a Vatican researcher, said she had found faint letters scattered on the cloth and claimed that was basically the burial certificate of a man named "Yeshua Nazarani."
Shroud skeptics quickly dismissed Frale's claim.
Kept rolled up in a silver casket, the Turin linen has survived several blazes since its existence was first recorded in France in 1357, including a mysterious fire at Turin Cathedral in 1997.
It has been on display only five times in the past century. When it last went on display in 2000, more than three million people saw it. The next display will be from April 10 to May 23, 2010 in the Cathedral of Turin.