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The Turin Shroud - made with holy ultraviolet lasers, or something
First things first. The "authenticity" or otherwise of the Shroud of Turin does not have any implications for whether or not Christ was real, or whether He was divine. If it was a medieval forgery, it doesn't mean the stories aren't true; if it really was made in the first century AD, it doesn't mean they were. Until we find a reliable method of linking the shroud with Christ Himself - a nametag stitched in it by His mum, perhaps - the existence of a 2,000-year-old cloth does not imply that a particular person who died around the time it was made was the Son of God.

I mention this because today, we report that a group of scientists - working, unexpectedly, for the Italian sustainable energy agency ENEA - claim that the marks on the cloth could only have been made by ultraviolet radiation. They say that "When one talks about a flash of light being able to colour a piece of linen in the same way as the shroud, discussion inevitably touches on things like miracles and resurrection," and that they "hope our results can open up a philosophical and theological debate". They do, however, say "as scientists, we were concerned only with verifiable scientific processes."

The implication, of course, is that a divine light shone when Jesus's body was taken to heaven, and that this emitted a burst of high-frequency photons which burned an image on the cloth around him. This possibility has been discounted in the past by Raymond Rogers, a member of the Shroud of Turin Research Project (Sturp) which examined the fabric in the 1970s, who said: "If any form of radiation degraded the cellulose of the linen fibers to produce the image color, it would have had to penetrate the entire diameter of a fiber in order to color its back surface", but that the centres of the fibres are unmarked. There are many hypotheses about how the images could have been made, and they have each come in and out of favour. Without wanting to be too cocky, when the ENEA scientists say that radiation is the "only" way the image could have been made, I imagine that many of their fellow researchers will say it's the only way that they managed it.

However it was made, if - as many have claimed - the Shroud was made in the 13th century, then it isn't a relic of Christ, for obvious reasons. Radiocarbon dating has repeatedly placed the Shroud as medieval in origin - specifically, between 1260AD and 1390AD. There have been suggestions that the radiocarbon process got it wrong - but this is unlikely, according to Professor Christopher Ramsey of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, one of three labs which carried out the research. "We're pretty confident," he told me. "There are various hypotheses as to why the dates might not be correct, but none of them stack up.

"One is that the samples were contaminated. But that doesn't work, because to make an 2,000-year-old object appear just 800 years old, about half the material would have to be contaminant, and that's if it was all modern. If it was older, it would have to be even more. Various tests have also suggested that the material was pure. It's also been hypothesised that the patch we tested was a modern repair, but most of us agree that's implausible, because the weave is very unusual and matches the rest of the shroud perfectly. Then there are fanciful notions, like contamination with carbon monoxide, but tests have shown that carbon monoxide doesn't react with the fabric under any circumstances that you might expect."

Regarding the ENEA findings, he is similarly sceptical. "Just because you can create similar results using an ultraviolet laser, that doesn't mean it's the only way it could have been made in the first place," he says. "There are several possibilities, although I wonder whether it was just a chance result. But in archaeological science, being able to reproduce something, doesn't imply that that's the technique used; if anything, it just implies that you've got a new technique you want to try out." He adds that the confidence in the medieval result is such that, were it not suggested to be a relic, there would be no more discussion over its age.

So there remain questions about how the Shroud of Turin was made, but there seems to be little reason to think that it's anywhere near old enough to have been Christ's. (Interestingly, John Calvin in 1543 already thought it was a fake: he pointed out that according to the Gospel of St John, two cloths were used to shroud Jesus, one on His body and one on His face; he also suggests that it is strange that none of those recording his death in the Gospels mentioned a miracle "so remarkable as the likeness of the body of our Lord remaining on its wrapping sheet".) It's a fascinating and mysterious object, but it says nothing about the questions of whether Christ was a historical figure, whether He was the Son of God, or whether He ascended to Heaven.

More importantly, I think, the rush to suggest that it does is a bit undignified. The intelligent faithful don't need trinkets like this to justify their belief, surely? We are constantly told that science cannot disprove God; that it is a non-scientific question, that the two fields of science and religion are non-overlapping. But then, when something which goes the other way occurs - something which might suggest that one or other given Bible story is true - suddenly all that goes out of the window. The Turin Shroud is (almost certainly) fake. It makes no difference to anything. Get over it.