In their new book Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery, the companion book to the CNN documentary series, David Gibson and Michael McKinley examine six historical artifacts connected to the life of Jesus, and discuss the degree to which there is evidence for what is claimed for the artifacts.
It’s mostly an exercise in debunkery, though I hasten to say this is not a polemical work. There is no “ha ha, look at all the crazy things Christians believe” sense here; Gibson is a Catholic who writes for the Religion News Service. Some of the stuff is easy to debunk (e.g., claims that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife); some of it is especially interesting to me, namely the claims made for relics of the True Cross. It turns out that it’s fairly unlikely that the Empress Helena really did discover the actual cross on which Jesus died, but it’s not as impossible as you might think (or at least as I did think prior to reading the book). Calvin’s jibe that if you collected all the pieces of the True Cross in reliquaries across Christendom you could fill a ship is demonstrably untrue, and indeed very far from the truth.
The one artifact in the book that really cannot be explained satisfactorily is the Shroud of Turin. Watch a CNN clip about it here. Gibson and McKinley write that the 1988 radiocarbon tests that demonstrated the Shroud was a medieval fake turned out to have been made not from the original shroud, but by an edge that had been patched onto the shroud in the 14th century. “Subsequent experiments cast further doubts on a medieval origin for the burial cloth,” they write.
Then, in recent years, the pace of revelations picked up. In 2011, scientists at Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy, and Sustainable Economic Development found that the markings on the shroud could have been created only by a “blinding flash of light.” Other, new experiments detected the ancient version of a “death certificate” on the shroud, while a recent study showed that the blood patterns on this “Man of Sorrows” indicated he was crucified on a Y-shaped cross — not the traditional T-shaped one that is the central icon of Christian art, and so central to Western civilization.
The authors say that “of all the Jesus relics in existence, [the shroud] is the best documented.” We know that the existence of a shroud-like burial cloth for Jesus is written about in the Gospels, having been purchased by Joseph of Arimathea. Jewish burial practices of the day are consistent with the image of the man on the shroud. Shroud debunkers allege that it was not mentioned in writings until the Middle Ages, but that is not true. St. Jerome writes about it in the fourth century. There is other historical evidence that Christians in the early church were aware of the shroud, and written accounts of it being displayed in the Christian East. Evidence strongly suggests turned up in medieval France as Crusader loot after Western Christian armies sacked Constantinople. In 1207, the authors write, a Catholic translator for the newly seated Latin patriarch of Athens wrote about how French knights robbed “the treasury of the Great Palace, where the holy objects had been kept,” and how he personally saw, with his own eyes, the burial linens of Jesus.
Scientifically, the tests on the shroud have produced remarkable results. Detailed analysis of the image showed that there is a three-dimensional quality to it, not observable to the naked eye, and that could not have been produced by painting. The stains on the shroud come not from paint, but human blood, and their patterning indicate that the man of the shroud suffered a savage flogging consistent with what the Gospels say Jesus endured before crucifixion.
The shroud depicts a crucifixion victim nailed to the cross through his wrists — this, even though Christian art shows Jesus nailed through his hands. We now know that the crucified had to have been nailed through their wrists, because nailing them through their hands would have been insufficient to support the weight of the body on the cross.
Scientists have found pollen on the shroud that can only have come from plants around Jerusalem — plants in bloom in the spring, in the season of Passover, when Jesus died. Particles from limestone tombs found in the Jerusalem area were discovered embedded in the shroud. More recently, detailed medical analysis confirms that the man of the shroud suffered precisely what the Gospels say Jesus suffered.
And then there is the matter of the Sudarium of Oviedo. I knew that the Sudarium existed, but I did not know until reading Finding Jesus that it had been used to validate claims for the Turin shroud as the burial cloth of the Nazarene.
To be sure, science can never prove that the Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. All it can do is rule out natural, human origins for the mysterious image. So far, the discoveries of science have revealed that the story that tradition tells about the Shroud is highly plausible — or at least that a natural explanation, including that it is the work of human hands, cannot account for this remarkable object.
The Shroud.com site has all you could ever want to know about the garment. I found this article, about the swelling on the cheek of the Shroud man, and early-church icons and mosaics depicting the resurrected Christ with a swollen cheek, to be fascinating new (to me) information.
I wish all you Catholic and Protestant Christians a blessed and joyous paschal weekend. Sunday is Easter for you, but Palm Sunday for us Orthodox.
As you search for the face of Jesus, do not forget that in our time, his face is the face of the poor, the persecuted, and the martyrs, most recently the 147 Kenyan Christians murdered by Muslim terrorists because they worship Christ:
A small group of militants, most likely between four and 10, roved from dorm to dorm, separating Christian from Muslim students and killing the Christians, the authorities said. Students described being awakened before dawn by the sound of gunfire and fleeing for their lives as masked attackers closed in.
Officials said that by the time Kenyan commandos cornered and killed the attackers on an upper floor, 147 people lay dead.