Relics of the Christ

Relics of the Christ

Joe Nickell
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 232
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    Relics of the Christ
    Book Description:

    Religious relics, defined as "either portions of or objects connected with the body of a saint or other holy person," are among the most revered items in the world. Christian relics such as the Holy Grail, the True Cross, and the Lance of Longinus are also the source of limitless controversy. Such items have incited people to bloodshed and, some say, have been a source of miracles. Relics inspire fear and hope among the faithful and yet are a perennial target for skeptics, both secular and Christian. To research the authenticity of numerous Christian relics, Joe Nickell takes a scientific approach to a field of study all too often tainted by premature conclusions. In this volume, Nickell investigates such renowned relics as the Shroud of Turin, the multiple heads of John the Baptist, and the supposedly incorruptible corpses of saints, first examining the available evidence and documented history of each item. From accounts of true believers to the testimony of the relics' alleged fabricators, Nickell then presents all sides of each story, allowing the evidence to speak for itself. For each relic, Nickell evaluates both the corroborating and contradictory bodies of evidence and explores whether the relic and attributed miracles can be reconstructed. In addition to his own experiments, Nickell presents findings from the world's top scientists and historians regarding these controversial objects of reverence and ire, explaining the circumstances under which each case was examined. Radiocarbon dating and tests to determine the validity of substances such as blood or patina indicate a variety of possible origins. Nickell even reveals some of the techniques used to create archaeological forgeries and explains how investigators have exposed them. Each relic is a mystery to be solved; guided by the maxim, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof," Nickell seeks only the truth.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7212-5
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction: The Life of Jesus
    (pp. 1-12)

    The founder of Christianity, the religious movement that helped shape the course of Western civilization, was an itinerant, wonder-working, Palestinian rabbi from Nazareth named Yeshua (in Hebrew), today known as Jesus (from the Greek form of that name). He has been viewed in quite different ways. As portrayed in the Christian Gospels, he was the Messiah, or Christ (from the Greek “anointed”); scholars have attempted to understand him as a historical figure, sometimes called the Nazarene; and some have even seen him as largely or even completely fictitious, the product of an evolving mythology. This chapter treats each of these...

  6. Chapter 1 The Cult of Relics
    (pp. 13-25)

    A relic is an object that was once connected with the body of a saint, martyr, or other holy person (see figure 1.1). In Christianity, veneration of relics appeared early in both Eastern and Western church practices(Encyclopaedia Britannica1960, s.v.“Relics”).

    Early Christians believed that the bodies of the dead—or, by extension, objects that had touched them—had special qualities or powers that made them worthy of veneration. This was based on the concept of beneficent contagion:

    Its basis is the idea that man’s virtue, or holiness, or protective healing powers, do not die with him; they continue to...

  7. Chapter 2 Christian Relics
    (pp. 26-49)

    Supposed physical traces of Jesus were paramount to the cult of relics, but so were those of his family and followers. This chapter examines relics related to Jesus’ nativity and infancy, his subsequent life and ministry, his disciples, and the saints that came later.

    Relics supposedly related to the birth and early years of Jesus were conveniently discovered retroactively. Germany claimed to have relics of the three wise men, including their gifts to the Christ child (Nickell 1998, 51). “Wise men from the east” are referred to only in Matthew (2:1), but there is no mention of how many there...

  8. Chapter 3 The Holy Grail
    (pp. 50-66)

    For centuries, romantic stories about the quest for theSan Grèalor Holy Grail—popularly believed to be the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper (see figure 3.1)—have proliferated. Here I examine the Grail legends, the historical evidence, the Grail as relic, andThe Da Vinci Code,the best-selling novel that sparked a revival of interest in the Grail.

    Popularly, the Holy Grail is the talisman sought by the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table. The quest is known to English audiences largely through a compilation and translation of French romances by Sir Thomas Malory. Completed by...

  9. Chapter 4 Self-Portraits of Jesus
    (pp. 67-76)

    Since the beginning of Christianity, the question of Jesus’ physical appearance has provoked an almost Grail-like quest. There are legends—and pictures to go with them—that Jesus miraculously provided his own self-portrait. Here I investigate the earliest concepts of Jesus’ likeness, his purportedly miraculous Edessan image, and the face he legendarily imprinted on Veronica’s Veil.

    No clue to the physical appearance of Jesus exists in the Gospels, the Epistles, or anywhere in the New Testament, the Apocrypha, or contemporary histories. As St. Augustine lamented in the early fifth century, although there were many representations of Christ, “we do not...

  10. Chapter 5 The True Cross
    (pp. 77-95)

    As the central image of Christianity, the cross on which Jesus was crucified is among the most powerful of all symbols and relics (see figure 5.1). The story of the True Cross involves its alleged revelation to St. Helena, the recovery of the Holy Cross and theTitulus(title board), and the proliferation and dispensation of fragments and nails from the cross.

    The story of the purported discovery of the True Cross begins with Constantine the Great (274–337), who became sole emperor of the Roman Empire. Constantine was the out-of-wedlock son of Constantius Chlorus and Flavia Helena, who (according...

  11. Chapter 6 Other Crucifixion Relics
    (pp. 96-110)

    In addition to the True Cross and related items, there are other reputed relics of the Crucifixion. These include relics of the trial and scourging, the crown of thorns, the holy garments, and the so-called lance of Longinus.

    In Rome, near the Lateran Basilica, is a sanctuary that originally served as the chapel of the papal palace (until the schism in the church from 1309 to 1378, when the papacy was relocated in Avignon, France). Here is a twenty-eight-step marble staircase known as theScala Sancta(Holy Staircase), supposedly from Pontius Pilate’s palace. According to tradition, the steps were those...

  12. Chapter 7 Holy Shrouds
    (pp. 111-121)

    Among the most revered—and disputed—relics of the Passion are those associated with the burial of Jesus. Such relics include bits of the angel’s candle that lit Jesus’ tomb and the marble slab on which his body was laid, complete with traces of his mother’s tears (Nickell 1998, 52); most, however, are burial linens. This chapter examines Jewish burial practices, the various alleged winding sheets of Jesus, the controversial Holy Shroud of Constantinople, and what are known as liturgical shrouds.

    The synoptic Gospels are in agreement about Jesus’ burial but give scant information. The Gospel of Mark, believed to...

  13. Chapter 8 The Shroud of Turin
    (pp. 122-138)

    The Shroud of Turin is rarely on display, but in 2004 I visited the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, where the cloth is kept (see figure 8.1), as well as the nearby shroud museum (see figure 8.2), which contains a wealth of information (albeit presented from a pro-authenticity perspective) concerning the veronicas, shrouds, and related topics.

    This alleged burial cloth of Jesus has a controversial history. I begin this chapter by describing the first appearance of the Shroud of Turin, including the scandalous affair at Lirey, France, when a forger reportedly confessed that it was his...

  14. Chapter 9 “Photograph” of Christ
    (pp. 139-153)

    Despite evidence to the contrary—the Gospel accounts, lack of provenance, forger’s confession, suspiciously modern weave and condition of the cloth, and radiocarbon date of 1260 to 1390—many are still convinced that the Shroud of Turin exhibits an authentic imprint of Christ’s body. In this chapter I consider the shroud’s double image, possible imaging methods, anatomic and medical considerations, and evidence that the image is a work of art.

    As Bishop Pierre d’Arcis described it, the shroud bears “the twofold image of one man, that is to say, the back and front.” The effect is of a cloth placed...

  15. Chapter 10 The Sudarium of Oviedo
    (pp. 154-166)

    Although science has established the Shroud of Turin (see chapters 8 and 9) as a fourteenth-century forgery—rendered in tempera paint by a confessed forger and radiocarbon-dated to the time of the forger’s confession (Nickell 1998; McCrone 1996)—the propaganda campaign to convince the public otherwise continues. As part of the strategy, some shroud proponents are now ballyhooing another cloth, a supposed companion burial wrapping, that they claim militates in favor of the shroud’s authenticity.

    At issue is the Oviedo cloth, an 84-by 53-centimeter (33-by 21-inch) piece of plain-weave linen, stained with supposed blood, that some believe is thesudarium,...

  16. Chapter 11 Blood of Jesus
    (pp. 167-179)

    Although the central symbol of Christianity is the cross, a piece of Jesus’ cross would only be a second-class relic (one that touched his body; see chapter 1), whereas a trace of his blood would represent a first-class relic (an actual part of his body). If genuine, it would constitute evidence of Jesus’ historical existence, as well as provide a powerful reminder of his Crucifixion and death. Here, I examine the various alleged traces of Jesus’ blood, especially those on the Shroud of Turin and thesudariumof Oviedo.

    In hisTreatise on Relics,John Calvin (1543, 49-50, 56) decried...

  17. Chapter 12 The James Ossuary
    (pp. 180-190)

    Supposedly recently discovered, the James ossuary—a limestone mortuary box that purportedly held the remains of Jesus’ brother—became the subject of controversy in 2002 (see figure 12.1). It captured the attention of theologians, secular scholars, laity, and journalists around the world. Some rushed to suggest that the inscription on it is the earliest known reference to Jesus outside the Bible, providing archaeological evidence of his historical existence. “World Exclusive!” proclaimedBiblical Archaeology Review. “Evidence of Jesus Written in Stone,” the cover continued; “Ossuary of ‘James, Brother of Jesus’ found in Jerusalem.” Urged the contents page: “Read how this important...

  18. Conclusion
    (pp. 191-192)

    As investigation after investigation has shown, not a single, reliably authenticated relic of Jesus exists. The profoundness of this lack is matched by the astonishing number of relics attributed to him. They range from his swaddling clothes and foreskin to countless artifacts of his life and Crucifixion, including his shroud—or, more appropriately, shrouds, some forty of which have been counted in Europe alone.

    The Shroud of Turin has been at the center of repeated scandals, exposes, and controversies—a dubious legacy for what many consider the holiest relic in Christendom. Nevertheless, historical scholarship and scientific analyses reveal it to...

  19. References
    (pp. 193-200)
  20. Index
    (pp. 201-215)