Beliefs Culture

3 ways relics and artifacts can help us ‘find Jesus’

Dr. John Jackson of the Turin Shroud Centre of Colorado examines the Shroud of Turin in CNN's Original Series "Finding Jesus." Photo courtesy of Nutopia/CNN
Dr. John Jackson of the Turin Shroud Centre of Colorado examines the Shroud of Turin in CNN's Original Series "Finding Jesus." Photo courtesy of Nutopia/CNN

John Jackson of the Turin Shroud Center of Colorado examines the Shroud of Turin in CNN’s series “Finding Jesus.” Photo courtesy of Nutopia/CNN

(RNS) Why are we so fascinated with any historical artifact — relics, as some call them — associated with Jesus?

Even the most suspect claim of a “lost” gospel or an “explosive” archaeological find that purports to shed light on the man from Galilee can generate a media frenzy, and gives believers — or skeptics — fresh evidence to try to finally win their argument while leaving their foes on the defensive.

Think of the recent “gospel” that seemed to show Jesus had a wife — and she was, of all people, the scandalous Mary Magdalene. Or the discovery a few years ago of an ancient papyrus that depicted Judas as the hero of the gospel story, not the great betrayer. Or, a few years before that, the revelation of a bone box with “brother of Jesus” inscribed on the top.

The fragment of papyrus that offers fresh evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus was married. Photo courtesy Karen L. King

The fragment of papyrus that offers fresh evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus was married. Photo courtesy Karen L. King

The argument in these purported blockbuster discoveries is that everything we’ve ever known about Christianity is probably false and that there has been a massive, millennia-long cover-up to hide the real truth. Remember “The Da Vinci Code”? There’s a reason that fiction sounded like fact to a lot of people.

Yet in spite of the overblown claims and dodgy artifacts floating around out there, genuine artifacts and solid historical research still provide the best window into that long-ago world and the best chance to figure out who Jesus really was, and what he meant.

That’s also the idea behind CNN’s “Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery,” a new, six-part series that we created (and book of the same name that we co-authored). “Finding Jesus” premieres this Sunday (March 1) on CNN and runs weekly through Easter Sunday, with each episode examining many of the very objects that have so often made for eye-popping headlines:

"Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," is a new series from CNN and a book from RNS reporter David Gibson and co-author Michael McKinley. It examines biblical relics to discover the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Photo courtesy of St. Martin's Press

“Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery,” is a new series from CNN and a book from RNS reporter David Gibson and co-author Michael McKinley. It examines biblical relics to discover the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Photo courtesy of St. Martin’s Press

The Shroud of Turin (March 1); the bones of John the Baptist (March 8); the gospel of Judas (March 15); James, the brother of Jesus (March 22); the True Cross (March 29); and the gospel of Mary Magdalene (April 5).

Why focus on scraps of papyrus and splinters of wood, bone fragments and bits of ancient linen?

Obviously, objects associated with a famous person or a loved one (Jesus can qualify as both) have a great allure on their own. They provide a direct physical connection with the past, allowing us to reach across the chasm of time and space. It doesn’t matter if it’s a lock of hair or an old baseball card or something even more mundane, like an expired credit card that once belonged to the late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain — which is now on the auction block.

But artifacts related to Jesus, and the historical research around them, do three critical things:

ONE: They educate with actual facts

“Test everything; retain what is good,” St. Paul wrote to a community of early Christians. It pays to do the same with the various claims of amazing breakthroughs. Some can indeed provide a valuable new perspective on the Jesus of history, and even those that do not turn out to be what they seem can, through the process of testing and debunking, take readers more deeply into the reality of the first-century church.

That’s a good thing, and necessary: Christians can be woefully ignorant about their own scriptures, and just 45 percent of all Americans can name the four Gospels. (They’re Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, if you’re taking notes.)

In the absence of information, any argument or conspiracy theory can gain traction. You say Jesus was married? Well, why not? And Mary Magdalene was a prostitute? Who can prove that she wasn’t?

The latest scientific advancements are used to determine whether a piece of wood from an Irish church is a relic of the Cross on which Jesus was executed in CNN's Original Series "Finding Jesus." For use with RNS-JESUS-FILM, transmitted on February 26, 2015, Photo courtesy of Nutopia/CNN

In the CNN series “Finding Jesus,” the latest scientific advancements are shown being used to determine whether a piece of wood from an Irish church is a relic of the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. For use with RNS-JESUS-FILM, transmitted on Feb. 26, 2015. Photo courtesy of Nutopia/CNN

TWO: They provide context

The truth is that we know precious little about Jesus, mainly because the Gospel writers and even his immediate followers were interested in promoting his message, not writing historical biography.

For example: None of his contemporaries told us what he looked like, and no one even speculated about his appearance for centuries. All that great art is simply conjecture, which is one reason the image on the Shroud of Turin is so tantalizing. Could it be the original selfie? There are even arguments over exactly what language Jesus spoke, and whether he was literate.

Remember, after the Christmas narrative, there is only one passing mention of the young Jesus in one Gospel, when he was 12. The next we hear of him, he is a 30-year-old man, emerging as the Messiah and a miracle worker, and the Son of God. That’s a huge gap, and that vacuum has sucked in all manner of theories about Jesus as a teenager or maybe a 20-something wandering the world in search of himself.

Some of the so-called New Atheists are even resurrecting the old chestnut that Jesus never existed and was an invention of a group of first-century Jews.

That theory is widely discredited, but it shows that for both believers and skeptics, learning about the historical context of first-century Judaism is more important than ever. That knowledge is the frame that outlines the subject. The more we know about John the Baptist — who was essentially Jesus’ mentor — or Judas Iscariot, the more we know about Jesus.

Relics are, ironically, a rare patch of common ground between skeptics and believers, a place where science and religion can come together, not as foes but as pilgrims on a shared journey — wherever it leads.

A reenactment of The Last Supper from CNN's Original Series "Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery." Photo courtesy of Nutopia/CNN

A re-enactment of the Last Supper from CNN’s series “Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery.” Photo courtesy of Nutopia/CNN

THREE: They provide a reality check

The so-called “quest” for the historical Jesus has been going on for centuries, since European scholars began applying critical methods to holy writ once considered beyond question. The research has ebbed and flowed — we are in the midst of the third great “quest,” some say — and academics and theologians have produced much of value, and have also gone down many a dead end.

Perhaps the greatest peril for scholars, and Bible-reading believers, is that we wind up creating Jesus in our own image.

In recent decades, Jesus has been held up as everything from a proto-Marxist to an anti-tax Tea Partier. For others, he is the model of a simple-living, slow-food-loving peasant, or he is a model salesman who can teach you to be successful in business. Still others depict Jesus as a freedom-loving zealot or a detached Greek philosopher, or gay, or happily married — with kids, of course.

But these distortions actually make the quest to recover the Jesus of history — and of faith — more urgent.

Artifacts and archaeology can be a way to take us out of ourselves, to transport us to a time and place not our own, in hopes of discovering something about Jesus that is not filtered through the lens of our own desires.

(David Gibson, a national reporter for Religion News Service, and author and filmmaker Michael McKinley are co-authors of the new book “Finding Jesus” and creators of the CNN series). 

KRE/MG END GIBSON

Video courtesy of Grace Hill via YouTube

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

About the author

Michael McKinley

28 Comments

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  • Jesus was raised from the dead just as Bible prophecy always predicted
    which is why people who did not even believe in Him/Jesus lied and said
    His body was stolen. Why would Roman soliders and people who did not
    believe in Jesus lie and say that His body was stolen from the tomb/grave?
    It’s because the Bible is true and Jesus is real so they lied because they
    didn’t want the Bible prophecy to be true and many today are still trying
    to discredit the Bible because they don’t want the Bible to be true but it
    is true! Jesus is very real/He is alive and well. Jesus Christ is the Messiah!

  • Re: “Some of the so-called New Atheists are even resurrecting the old chestnut that Jesus never existed and was an invention of a group of first-century Jews.”

    It’s all well and good, I suppose, to throw the mythicist position around as though it were a product of those horrible “New Atheists” … but that idea’s been around since the 1800s. And while I don’t necessarily buy into it myself, there’s a very good reason it keeps being “resurrected” (and not just by those horrific “New Atheists”): it’s because the historical record of Jesus’ existence is very, very thin. A lot thinner than most Christians would like it to be.

    As an aside, I wonder how and why it is that so many article authors seem to have this compulsion to insert mention of “New Atheists” — used in disparaging ways — into their essays. Makes me wonder why they’re all so angry with them. Is it really necessary to cast aspersions on them all the time?

  • Karla, your ongoing spam has been reported as abuse. You have been caught more than 30 times posting the same copy-paste.

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  • Karla, your ongoing spam has been reported as abuse. You have been caught more than 30 times posting the same copy-paste.

    CEASE AND DESIST.

  • Stephen Lewis, festoon your quagmire. Within the indigenous parapets can be found novels and other grapes of paint. There is no caveat to the Klein bottle, and there will be no gold watch for the unspoken zero. Gobble the fertile gravel. Focus your nose on the test tube. Stay succulently upon your velodrome and fear not the coming of the essential kangaroo. Strawberries are your incidental chemistry. Present the fulcrum in advance of the gypsum cookie, for as the tree is combed, so goes the predicate. Expand quietly but do not relish. Whether or not you agree with the plumber, harvest away ye hearties. Kalabash in Friebourg but not in spanners while it’s raining. Bring out the mustard but flap flap flap until takeoff. Why would you say such a thing in the presence of the substrate? 64. 1112. Welcome to the new sandwich lumberyard. Bus stops follow movement, or do they? The impediment to your posterior is large but can be dissected with chestnuts. Obermeyer. Glasnost and shallot cookies will do the main job when a steamshovel is too distant for pomegranate. Don’t obfuscate the primary prenuptials with rasberries. Often, the pertinent cat presents fabled necessities in the parking chamfer. Realize your net precedent.Triangulate! Save the best for the alligators. Serpentine. Indigo chestnuts. Give voice to your negligible garage. Walk with found yellow in the fold. Perish your underwear in the crescent.

    And remember, never pass up an opportunity to watch an elephant paint Mozart.

  • Stephen Lewis, festoon your quagmire and marvel at the Cajun peanuts. Within the indigenous parapets can be found novels and other grapes of paint. There is no caveat to the Klein bottle, and there will be no gold watch for the unspoken zero. Gobble the fertile gravel. Focus your nose on the test tube. Stay succulently upon your velodrome and fear not the coming of the essential kangaroo. Strawberries are your incidental chemistry. Present the fulcrum in advance of the gypsum cookie, for as the tree is combed, so goes the predicate. Expand quietly but do not relish. Whether or not you agree with the plumber, harvest away ye hearties. Kalabash in Friebourg but not in spanners while it’s raining. Bring out the mustard but flap flap flap until takeoff. Why would you say such a thing in the presence of the substrate? 64. 1112. Welcome to the new sandwich lumberyard. Bus stops follow movement, or do they? The impediment to your posterior is large but can be dissected with chestnuts. Obermeyer. Glasnost and shallot cookies will do the main job when a steamshovel is too distant for pomegranate. Don’t obfuscate the primary prenuptials with rasberries. Often, the pertinent cat presents fabled necessities in the parking chamfer. Realize your net precedent.Triangulate! Save the best for the alligators. Serpentine. Indigo chestnuts. Give voice to your negligible garage. Walk with found yellow in the fold. Perish your underwear in the crescent.

    And remember, never pass up an opportunity to watch an elephant paint Mozart.

  • Stephen Lewis, festoon your quagmire. Within the indigenous parapets can be found novels and other grapes of paint. Squiggles. There is no caveat to the Klein bottle, and there will be no gold watch for the unspoken zero. Gobble the fertile gravel. Focus your nose on the test tube. Stay succulently upon your velodrome and fear not the coming of the essential kangaroo. Strawberries are your incidental chemistry. Present the fulcrum in advance of the gypsum cookie, for as the tree is combed, so goes the predicate. Expand quietly but do not relish. Whether or not you agree with the plumber, harvest away ye hearties. Kalabash in Friebourg but not in spanners while it’s raining. Bring out the mustard but flap flap flap until takeoff. Why would you say such a thing in the presence of the substrate? 64. 1112. Welcome to the new sandwich lumberyard. Bus stops follow movement, or do they? The impediment to your posterior is large but can be dissected with chestnuts. Obermeyer. Glasnost and shallot cookies will do the main job when a steamshovel is too distant for pomegranate. Don’t obfuscate the primary prenuptials with rasberries. Often, the pertinent cat presents fabled necessities in the parking chamfer. Realize your net precedent.Triangulate! Save the best for the alligators. Serpentine. Indigo chestnuts. Give voice to your negligible garage. Walk with found yellow in the fold. Perish your underwear in the crescent.

    And remember, never pass up an opportunity to watch an elephant paint Mozart.

  • Gus-You are loved by Christ and God/Jesus are real so I’m going to
    preach the Truth. You know God is real and that is why you come to
    this website/fight Him so hard cause you know God is real. God bless.

  • Jesus himself indentified the only true God to be his Father, when Jesus, his son, was praying to him (John 17:1-3).

    He also indicated that taking in knowledge of God, as well as his son, Jesus, would mean everlasting life. That knowledge would need to be true or accurate (2 Peter 1:2; 2 Timothy 2:3-6).

  • Karla, your ongoing spam has been reported as abuse. You have been caught more than 30 times posting the same copy-paste.

    CEASE AND DESIST.

  • I find it amazing how the liberal media always does this stuff around Easter, and claim to be unbiased about it, yet clearly are fully biased. There is nothing new about the Gnostic Gospels from the Second Century. They were condemned by the Early Church as fabrication, but have nevertheless been preserved by the Church to have for the record. These so called “discoveries” are only newly found fragments of writings we’ve already had for two thousand years. It will be interesting to see the way they present the Shroud of Turin, because the most recent scientific Carbon dating work on the fibers, dates the Shroud to “33 B.C., give or take 250 years.” My suspicion is CNN will not include that in their special. Or if they do, it will be done with skepticism. In my opinion, the CNN special will probably have one objective, to rob people of their Faith. I hope I am wrong about that; I will try to be open mined, but cautiously open minded.

  • It is impossible to believe that the 4 Gospels were created without facts by 1st Century authors, and that this hoax has persisted undetected to this day. For that to be true, the first Christians are the most brilliant con artists known to mankind. People died for these truths……there are no sources from that time that tell an alternate tale of Jesus, no Jewish denial of Jesus’ existence, crucifixion, or Resurrection. What makes some people today believe that everything was written down daily……for a largely illiterate world? The Gospels date from 62 – 100 AD, and the corroborative Epistles even earlier?
    If there was ANY conspiracy at all, the tale would have fallen apart within a decade……for there were just too many people involved in the New Testament. It would imply that the Apostles, the Disciples, even the Virgin Mary were all swindlers and liars. Common sense tells us that the stories are true, and they are based on eyewitness accounts.

  • Hi Stephen:

    The Carbon dating in 1988 as with any scientific study of this sort, is not conclusive. We at our lab send samples out all the time for various analytical analyses, and they are all over the place. So one needs to study the entire breadth of the sciences to come to a conclusion. For example the pollen studies of the shroud confirm the dates and places of its travel over the last two thousand years. The weave is consistent, and the fabric studies are convincing. But more recently in 2013, additional comparative studies were performed by Giulio Fanti studying the cellulose in the fiber, with Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) and Raman spectroscopy, and these place the shroud at about 33 BC +/- 250 years. So that is very exciting. Of course we will see how CNN presents that (if at all), but the negative of the Shroud is a pretty clean picture of a dead man who was crucified, whose body possibly experienced an exothermic reaction after death (Resurrection?).

  • Jesus was impaled, certainly not crucified; but faith is the assured expectations of things that occurred in the past, such as the death and resurrection of Jesus; as well as Bible prophecies that will be fulfilled in the future!

    We can therefore also have faith that God’s kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 2:44) will soon put an end to all human governments and rule over man with love, righteousness and justice (Isaiah 11:1-9). Jesus is the Prince of Peace and King of that kingdom.

  • Luke 23:33 “When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals.” Impaling was done after Jesus had died. John 19:33-34 “But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out.”

  • Only the Jehovah Witness profess this…..a cult created a mere 150 years ago. And why in the universe would God need help in governing the universe at the end of time? Sin would exist no more, and our will will be one with God eternally…

  • It’s pretty obviously not a Jesus burial shroud, even assuming that the body of Jesus made it down from the cross to be buried in the first place.

    If the body had been wrapped in a shroud immediately on coming down from the cross, or while still oozing blood wet enough to stain the shroud with no effort to clean it up, there should also be staining from bowel and bladder, whether they relaxed while he was still on the cross or after he was wrapped. The very feces of God.

  • Everybody has the same body of evidence.

    Even without biases of scientism or atheism — even accepting the possibility of miracles or of a creator/designer god — honest, serious, critical study of the evidence justifies the following conclusions:

    1. The Bible is a purely human artifact from the bronze & iron ages, with no god anywhere involved, and is neither the word of a god nor reliable history.

    2. In the Tanakh, neither Yahweh Elohim, nor humankind “created in his image”, nor the Jewish scriptures have any need, use or interest in a bloody human Jesus sacrifice.

    3. Jesus did not fulfill Jewish messianic scripture or any other prophecy.

    4. Regardless that Paul believed his own gospel, the Gospels are not reliable history but the contrived conversion of a failed, false, dead Jewish messiah into a successful, true, living Christian messiah thru the creative use of story and Jewish scripture.

    5. Judaism has been right about Jesus, the NT & Christianity…

  • Well this really is nice ! I just want the world to know yes I am alive , I have spent .33years already walking with man…. for quite a long timE I have been trying to figure out what my purpose. Was and is !!! Finally I knew. God finally gave a few clues! Yes jesus is alive … im 33 almost 34 ,left handed and a carpenter~heavy equipment operator! I always knew I was different than everyone else….. right now jesus resides in southern oregon and is happy to see legalization and he is working on himself to be able. To display great healings and saviors. I love all of you !see you all very soon

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