Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Shroud of Turin Can't Mask Reality

The Shroud of Turin, which supposedly contains the image of Jesus magically superimposed there during his resurrection,  is back in the news.  An English art historian has written a book about it, claiming that the revered little piece of cloth housed in Italy somehow is responsible for Christianity.  “It was encounters with the Shroud itself, rather than seeing a risen Christ, that convinced the apostles that Jesus had risen from the dead,” according to the breathless news announcement.

The author told the media that “back then, images had a psychological presence.  They were seen as part of a separate plain of existence, as having a life of their own.  The Shroud's envelopment of Jesus's body would have fostered the idea of the transference of his soul from flesh to cloth... Christ's clothing (like Peter's shadow) contained or conveyed something of his spiritual presence. The Shroud, which clothed Jesus in the tomb, would surely have been infused with similar power -- a power focused and increased by its ‘miraculous’ image."

That, of course, requires that the Shroud existed “back then,” at the time of Jesus.  It didn’t.  Multiple studies using carbon 14 have shown the cloth dates from the 1300s.  The actual image has been reproduced using known techniques of that time period.  The Shroud was unknown before then, and a bishop of the time reports knowing who created it.

More importantly, it did not lie on anyone’s body.  If it had, the image would have been distorted.  That’s what happens when any cloth is placed across a face.  The image on the Shroud is not distorted in anyway.  It’s a mirror image – albeit faint – and had to be man-made. 

That’s not the main point, however.  The question is why such claims keep arising.  In this case, one reason is obvious: the author wants to promote his book, imitating Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code in 2003.  Brown did not care if the story that Jesus survived crucifixion was true; he just wanted to sell novels.  So does this guy. 

The main reason is more significant than a few dollars: people want to believe something because there’s no extant evidence to support Christian religious views.  No historians of Jesus’ day knew about him.  No one wrote about him.  No official Roman record mentions him.

There’s an abysmal void.  As Albert Schweitzer noted (right) in his 1906 iconic book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, authors of the Gospels were more influenced by their beliefs than by any historical interest.  As such, he said, New Testament could not serve as a valid historical source. Nothing is more discouraging than examining the Bible from an historical perspective, Schweitzer concluded.

One solution to the lack of credible historical data has been to dig up the Holy Land looking for proof.  All that has done is contradict biblical accounts.  Matthew contains a mention of a road that Jesus traveled, but which actually didn’t exist 2,000 years ago.  Matthew also has Jesus travel in the wrong direction to a destination.  Luke sends pigs hurtling off a high cliff that doesn’t exist.  The traditional site of the crucifixion actually is not on Roman soil. The list is endless.

Nothing has ever been found that confirms a single religious claim in the New Testament. 

That led to the second solution: fabricated relics.  That was a cottage industry in the late 1800s in France.  One creation, a death certificate for Jesus, was brought to my class.  It was obviously a fake, including as a witness the first Capetian king (left) who lived about 900 years after Jesus.

The Shroud falls into that category, created in a time when limited education mandated by the ruling Church guaranteed a credulous population.  So does the carved ossuary of our time, which bears the words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”  An Israeli court is deciding if the bone box (below) is authentic.  Most scholars have already decided it isn’t.
They are also convinced that the same antique dealer responsible for the ossuary fabricated other “holy” relics, including an inscribed pomegranate and the gold-flecked Jehoash tablet, both of which supposedly came from Solomon's Temple that was destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century B.C.E.

The discovery of the faked religious artifacts has created a severe backlash among true believers.  "The faithful — those who believe in a higher, supernatural power that leaves a material record of itself for man to literally hold and behold — must also confront and grapple with the painful presence of doubt,” wrote Nina Burleigh, who unraveled the story of fabricated relics in her book Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land.

The nice part of faith is that a believer inevitably accepts there is not a single fact to support that belief, but believes anyway.  That’s true for all religions.

However, the void provides ample opportunity for charlatans – think how many false messiahs (for example, Sabbatai Zvi, at left) have existed in the last 2000 years – and for profiteers to engineer their own “proofs.”  This new book about the Shroud  is just the latest in a long line; it won’t be the last.

People really want to believe.  So they will, even if the evidence, like the Shroud, has to be manufactured.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

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