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Relics of the Christ

Joe Nickell

Publication Year: 2007

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.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky


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pp. v-vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-xi

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pp. xiii

I am grateful for the assistance of many people, including all my colleagues at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York, notably, Paul Kurtz, chairman, and Barry Karr, executive director, for their continued support. So, too, the entire staff of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, in which some portions of this book appeared. ...

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Introduction: The Life of Jesus

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pp. 1-12

The founder of Christianity, the religious movement that helped shape the course of Western civilization, was an itinerant, wonderworking, 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. ...

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1. The Cult of Relics

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pp. 13-25

The impulse to keep a relic may simply begin as an act of respect for a beloved person. For example, when Buddha died and was cremated, in about 483 B.C., his bones were reputedly saved by some Indian monks. Subsequently, a few pieces were taken to China, where a finger bone was discovered beneath a temple in 1987. ...

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2. Christian Relics

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pp. 26-49

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 ...

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3. The Holy Grail

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pp. 50-66

For centuries, romantic stories about the quest for the San Crèal or 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, and The Da Vinci Code, the best-selling novel that sparked ...

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4. Self-Portraits of Jesus

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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, ...

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5. The True Cross

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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 the Titulus (title board), and the proliferation and dispensation ...

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6. Other Crucifixion Relics

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pp. 96-110

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 the Scala Sancta (Holy Staircase), supposedly from ...

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7. Holy Shrouds

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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. ...

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8. The Shroud of Turin

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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 ...

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9. "Photograph" of Christ

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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 ...

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10. The Sudarium of Oviedo

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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. ...

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11. Blood of Jesus

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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, ...

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12. The James Ossuary

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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 ...

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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 ...


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pp. 193-200


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pp. 201-215

E-ISBN-13: 9780813172125
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813124254

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2007