Relics Still Potent: The Shroud of Turin

By Antonio Lombatti
Deputazione di Storia Patria
Parma, Italia
April 2010

The Shroud of Turin is surely the most known relic of Christianity, much more than the James Ossuary or the Talpiot Tomb. On it you can find all sorts of pseudo-historical investigations. In 1978, a certain R.P. Cĉme explained that the position of the crossed hands on the genitals of the man of the Shroud was due to the fact that Jesus had a penis post mortem erection. He also asked scientists to search for Jesus' sperm left on the linen, since he knew cases of ejaculations in violent deaths. In 1980, a Jesuit scholar said he had spotted the shadows of letters of some Roman coins on the eyelids of the man of Shroud, looking at a computer enhanced picture. The lastest one, reported by media reports some months ago, is the discovery by an Italian historian who claims to have found Jesus' death certificate imprinted on the linen left by a Roman official.

After 10 years, the Turin Shroud will go on display again for a month in the city cathedral beginning on April 10. So, after the embalmed body of Saint Pius of Pietrelcina, or the relics of Saint Anthony of Padua, which attracted hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in the past months, now about 2 million people have reserved their trip to Turin to see the relic. Relics are still very powerful cult objects ready to draw the faithful from all over the world.

Rich and poor, strong and weak, sophisticated and simple all alike in the XXI century pray in front of a relic to ask for aid. Only if we understand the power of such contemporary Catholic faith, can we also laugh at the absurdity of some aspects of the cult of relics in the past. Frequent idiocy has surrounded the people's behavior: relics would punish those who mocked them; relics were bought and sold, cut into little pieces, fought over, lost and found, stolen and given away as presents. In times of dire distress men could also physically punish and humiliate a relic.

In the beginning, as St John said, was the word. And after Jesus' ascension too, there were only words. Later Christians started claiming the possession of the head of John the Baptist or the body of Mary Magdalene. But in no way, could they claim to have any tangible relics of the body of Jesus since he ascended to heaven. However, this was not a problem: the milk teeth of Christ were miraculously found in the middle ages, his finger nails, then some hairs of the beard and his foreskin (there were at least seven!). The Passion relics were by far the most wanted ones.

In the middle ages, commerce in saints' bones, bodies, handkerchiefs, vests, and shoes created a group of busy middlemen, trading in shady goods. Bought and sold, the relic was an investment, bringing its owner the opportunity to raise money, to attract supplicants and their gifts, to create an apparently inexhaustible supply of secondary relics for sale to the faithful laity. Relics raised money. The generated work. They encouraged feasts and fairs. They enriched the men of God and were used to fool the gullible.

The study of history, however, has shown that the secularists need their relics quite as much as the religious: the severed head of Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon's cloths and boots, the embalmed body of Lenin on Moscow Red Square, Elvis Presley's guitar in Memphis. All these objects were shown and displayed to people who believed in the glorious deeds performed when these men were alive. But when we talk about the relics of Jesus, it is another story. It is a story of frauds and deception to forge the material evidence of his life and resurrection. The Shroud of Turin is the brightest example of this sort.

The behavior of professional Bible scholars on this relic has been deplorable. It's true, the Turin Shroud may be seen as a ridiculous topic to deal with. So, apart from Joe Zias, James Tabor, Rachel Hachlili, Shimon Gibson, and Levy Rahmani - experts on Second Temple Jewish burials and Early Christianity - scholars have rarely tackled the fancy claims made by the Shroud authenticity supporters. And this has left room for popular quackery both on library shelves and, above all, on the web. Lurid falsehoods and distorted reasoning have been repeated so many times that the common people and some scholars too may think they are facing the real burial cloth of Jesus. The method used by these "shroudologists" bends the mind the wrong way, an insidious and real corruption, and it has nothing to share with scholarly analysis and philological tools.

The Gospels don't mention this double full-length image of Jesus left on his burial cloth. The Second Temple Jews used to bury their dead in a completely different way. There's no historical record on the relic until 1355. When it was first displayed in France, the owner, the diocese bishop and even the pope called it a «representation' of Jesus» burial shroud. Finally, when the linen of cloth was carbon 14 dated in 1988 it turned out to be from 1325 circa. So, despite the fact that the historical and scientific data do match, the Turin Shroud enthusiasts, usually pushed by their faith, couldn't stop and admit that the relic was a medieval forgery. They kept on finding all sorts of causes responsible for a wrong radiocarbon date: fire, smoke, fungi, bacteria, and even Jesus' miraculous radiation emitted during his resurrection. As you can imagine, no scientist who performs carbon dating as a profession has ever imagined questioning the validity of the medieval date of the Turin Shroud.

Despite the fact that the Vatican has never officially affirmed that the Turin Shroud is the real burial cloth of Jesus, the way it has been used and displayed inside the city cathedral has given the people just the opposite view. The Epistle to the Hebrews says that «faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen»: however, the contemporary faithful, like the illiterate folk of the middle ages, are still looking for material and visible evidence of Jesus' earthly life. And they don't seem to care if the relics are evident forgeries. Above all, they don't seem to understand that the Bible, a sacred book and divinely inspired text - as it is considered by Christians - shouldn't need to be proven historically accurate and reliable. Even if archaeologists will find the real burial cloth of Jesus, there would be no way to determine that he was the son of Yahweh or that he was raised from the dead. This is why the Turin Shroud should be placed in a museum and not inside a church.

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