The controversy over the image of Jesus on the Shroud of Turin never seems to end?is it a miracle or a hoax? Microbiologist Stephen Mattingly says it’s neither?he thinks it was created by bacteria from a dying man’s body, despite the fact that there’s no other known shroud from ancient times with similar markings on it.

Mattingly believes the image on the shroud wasn’t hoaxed by humans or made by supernatural means. Instead, he thinks it was created by microbes in the wounds of a person who was slowly dying. Since crucifixion took as long as 72 hours to kill, the victim would have had time to lose a lot of blood and bodily fluids, which would encourage bacteria to multiply to unusually high levels. When the body was washed before being wrapped in the linen shroud, the washing made the wounds sticky, so the cloth stuck to them and became impregnated with bacteria.

When the bacteria finally died, it shed proteins that gradually oxidized, staining the cloth. The stain turned yellow and darkened, like a slowly developing photograph. This theory clears up some mysteries about the image, such as how it got its three-dimensional quality. This could have been caused by varying densities of bacteria accumulating in the crevices of the dying man’s body. The fact that the image only appears on one side of the cloth would also be explained by his theory, as well as the absence of brushstrokes. Mattingly says, “Bacteria do not need a paintbrush.”

One of the most common types of bacteria found on the human skin is Staphylococcus, which is harmless in low concentrations. Mattingly swabbed the Staph from his skin and grew the microbes to greater concentrations, killed them to prevent infection, then smeared them back on his skin. He found this made his skin extremely sticky. Then he applied a damp linen cloth to his body, allowed it to dry, then peeled it off. He found there were straw-yellow imprints of his body on the cloth that became darker as time went by. The bacterial imprint revealed fingernails, a ring and facial features, very similar to the details on the Shroud.

While Mattingly is a Catholic and believes in the resurrection, he says he doesn’t need the Shroud of Turin to bolster his belief. “Is this the burial linen of Jesus of Nazareth?” he asks. “We will never know for certain.”

He may or may not be right about that. Shroud research continues worldwide.

Religion isn’t the only route to transformation.

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