Another Jesus relic goes down the drain

March 21, 2020 • 12:30 pm

UPDATE: Greg found the debunking paper from J. Archaeological Science Reports (Science got the name wrong), and a judicious inquiry will land you the paper.


I’m about to start reading the book below, which was published on March 1 and was kindly sent me by the author, Andrea Nicolotti, a professor at the University of Turin: specifically “Professor of History of Christianity and Churches”. That’s ironic because, according to Andrea, the Shroud of Turin is a bogus relic—something that most people acquainted with the evidence have realized for a while. As Andrea wrote me:

There is no evidence that the shroud comes from the time of Christ. On the other hand, there are three major contrary proofs: 1) the historical documents, which points to the 14th century (that was showed for the first time by a serious French historian more than 100 years ago); 2) the radiocarbon analysis, which points to the 14th century; 3) the study of the type of fabric, which points to the 14th century. Obviously these three arguments are ignored or manipulated by believers in authenticity. In my book you will find a detailed discussion of the historical matter (point 1) and the story of the C14 radiometric dating (point 2). I have also published an in-depth study about the type of fabric, but in another book (point 3)—unfortunately only in Italian. In the book you will receive I can’t go deeper into all the scientific aspects, because it remains a history book. In any case, I know all the literature about the argument, and if you will have any doubts on some issues I can provide you with the bibliography.

It’s a long book—524 pages—but I’m looking forward to finally seeing all the arguments collected in one place.

As the cover says, the Shroud is “the world’s most famous relic” (at least of Christianity), but another famous one has just bit the dust, at least according to Ann Gibbons’s new article in Science (click on screenshot). Her piece recounts a new analysis published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, a journal I can’t access through my library.

It’s a short piece about what was thought to be the “Nazareth Inscription” a Greek inscription on a piece of marble acquired in 1878 by a curator at the Louvre, and left behind with a note that the stone “came from Nazareth”. The Greek inscription is an “Edict of Caesar” that threatens death to anyone who robs the grave that the marble presumably topped.

Naturally, Biblical scholars—often faithheads who want to prove the truth of the Bible rather than question it—took the curator’s note and the inscription to mean that, yes, Jesus himself was in that tomb. The article, says epigraphist (one who studies inscriptions) John Bodel of Brown University, was “considered by many Biblical scholars to be the oldest physical artifact connected to Christianity.”

Well, rational people should abandon that view, according to the new article in the journal by Kyle Harper. Chemically analyzing the marble, Harper showed that it was a close match to the chemical composition of rock from a marble quarry on the Greek island of Kos. That doesn’t rule out that the marble was mined in Kos and transported to Nazareth, but Bodel considers that unlikely.

Further, says Gibbons, other epigraphists argue that the kind of Greek used on the inscription “was rare outside of Greece and Turkey.”

So what is this thing, if not a warning to leave the bones of Jesus alone? Gibbons summarizes the paper’s conclusions:

Based on the style of the inscription and the age of the quarry, Harper and colleagues propose the object was carved in the first century B.C.E. for a ruler on Kos known as Nikias the Tyrant. Sometime after his death in about 20 B.C.E., angry citizens of Kos pried open his tomb and dragged out his corpse, according to an ancient Greek poem.

Then-Emperor Augustus, who knew of Nikias, may have ordered the tablet to re-establish law and order in the region, Harper says, although that inference has not yet been proved. Harper’s team plans to use stable isotope analysis on other Roman and Greek marble artifacts, too, he says. “We want to apply this to other tales.”

And another beautiful idea destroyed by ugly facts.  It’s curious, but not surprising, that every time a bit of evidence offered to support Jesus’s existence is debunked, “Biblical scholars” and believers don’t reduce their belief in a Bayesian way. But when evidence is adduced in favor of Jesus (e.g., they once thought the Shroud of Turin was real because they said it contained pollen from spring-blooming flowers of the Holy Land), they strengthen their belief. This is no way to deal with evidence. But it’s Christianity, Jake!

h/t: Ken


50 thoughts on “Another Jesus relic goes down the drain

  1. Interesting this on the day the cross artifacts are presented in the Hili Dialogue – meaning, in a good, topical way.

    What is the deal with relics? I can understand the magical qualities they are supposed to have, providing a time-travel and spirit-world radio function to victims of religion. The relics also are marked by absolute focus of attention, with concomitant shut down of other faculties – thus invoking a spellbinding delirium.

    1. Unfortunately it seems to be a human trait considering the huge amount paid for things associated with celebrities. For example: John Kennedy’s golf clubs sold in 1996 for $1,160,000 during the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis estate auction. Just another aspect of built-in human irrationality.

  2. One of my favorite books is “Judgement Day for the Shroud of Turin” by Walter McCrone of the McCrone Institute. It was published in 1999 and Dr. McCrone did an exhaustive microanalysis of the pigments and pretty much concluded there was no blood there–only red ocher and vermilion which are common pigments in use at that time.

    When I was in grad school for art conservation, this subject was discussed and it was suggested that the shroud is a painting on unprimed linen that was meant to be carried in parades. There is a specific name for that kind of painting but I don’t recall the proper spelling–something like “tuklein”. But they’re meant to be ephemeral and few survive.

        1. Thank you! It’s been 30+ years since I heard the lecture and it’s rather a miracle that I remembered that much. 🙂

  3. Yes, the believers certainly like to pick and choose. In a doorstep conversation with Jehovah’s Witnesses a few weeks ago, I pointed out that Herod the Great, who the faithful generally associate with the infant Jesus and the so-called massacre of the innocents, died in, er, 4BC. They said they would get back to me on that one. Last week they were at the doorstep again, this time with a computer printout for me to read and discuss next time. Most of the 10 pages were irrelevant, but very heavily reliant on citing Josephus as evidence of Herod’s wickedness etc. (Christians just love Josephus because they think he provides extra-biblical evidence of their favourite sandal-wearer’s existence.) When it came to the date of Herod’s death, the printout tied itself in knots trying to reconcile Josephus’ account with the required year – he might have counted regnal accession dates unconventionally etc. etc.) – before stating that “Josephus is unreliable when it comes to dates” and that for those the Bible is the best source. So my original point stands, and I’m relishing our next doorstep discussion!

      1. If I’m not busy, I’m usually happy to engage on the doorstep with them not least because if they are wasting their time on me someone else is spared. I am upfront about not being a believer but they haven’t run away yet. They have to submit a monthly Field Service Report (I’m not making this up), so perhaps they are hoping for a miracle that they can include – after all, most people slam the door on them so they are probably desperate for material.

    1. Yes Herod the Great probably dies in 4BCE and Quirinius became governor of Judea in 6CE.

      The dates don’t actually matter though.

      It would be impossible to reconcile the time lines if we had no dates at all. Why? Because Herod was a client king of the Roman Empire and he ruled Judea until his death. Quirinius could not possibly have taken over in Judea until after Herod died. (In fact one of Herod’s sons took over after Herod died and screwed it up so badly that the Romans took direct control so Quirtinius couldn’t even have taken over directly on Herod’s death).

      Quirinius came after Herod, which is unfortunate because Jesus was born during Herod’s reign (Matthew) but Mary was only pregnant with him when Quirinius came to power (Luke).

      Both birth narratives are fiction.

  4. “. . .every time a bit of evidence offered to support Jesus’s existence is debunked. . . .”

    Both the shroud and the inscription were concocted to support the story of Jesus’ resurrection, not the fact of his existence. All this kind of iconoclasm really establishes is that people are inclined to make up stories to reinforce their hero-worship, much like the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree. I don’t see that such revelations ipso facto debunk either Jesus’s or George Washington’s existence.

    1. Debunking his resurrection at the same time casts doubt on his existence. Do you seriously think that people didn’t take the Shroud as evidence that Jesus was real, not just that he was resurrected?

      And given that there is no convincing extra-Biblical evidence that Jesus ever lived as a person, much less as a son of God, we needn’t accept his existence any more than we accept the existence of Paul Bunyan or Beowulf.

      Finally, we have plenty of hard evidence that George Washington lived, so debunking fictitious stories casts no doubt on his existence.

      1. Nicely put (of course) PCC(e). As an aside, if any story ever emerges of the infant tRump saying “I cannot tell a lie,..” and fessing up we’ll not have to wonder about whether it is fictitious

      2. “And given that there is no convincing extra-Biblical evidence that Jesus ever lived as a person, much less as a son of God. . . .”

        Both the longevity and persistence of the Jesus cult and Christianity itself argue for the existence of a charismatic persona as its source rather than some sort of religious-inspired conspiracy. The extra-Biblical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person may not be convincing enough to persuade non-believers but it should be strong enough to persuade them to just let it go and concentrate on debunking any evidence that this Jesus person was also a son of God. Treating the claim for his existence as being on a par with the claim of his divinity weakens rather than strengthens the non-believers’ case, seems to me.

        1. Just as the longevity and persistence of the John Frum cargo cult argues for a real John Frum!

          And why should the absence of hard evidence for Jesus persuade non-believers to lay off–why not just say that there WAS a Jesus but he wasn’t divine? I’m sorry, my friend, but debunking the Jesus story starts with trying to see if there was a real person on whose deeds the Jesus myth rests. Nobody says that the existence claim is on a par with the claim of divinity, but if you can’t show the existence, then there’s no need to deal with the divinity. It doesn’t work the other way around, you know.


        2. Completely illogical, mirandaga. That is as sensible as arguing for the existence of Huitzilopochtli based on the scale of blood sacrifice in Tenochtitlan.

        3. Both the longevity and persistence of the Jesus cult and Christianity itself argue for the existence of a charismatic persona as its source rather than some sort of religious-inspired conspiracy.

          This is one of those flags where you know there is no point in bothering. George Bush blew up the WTC… no point in bothering.

      3. I don’t see how you can doubt the existence of Paul Bunyan. If you drive up highway 71 until you are just about sick of driving you will see him standing around there at lake Bemidji. Bigger than life.

        1. And the evidence for John the Baptist is overwhelming – I’ve seen three separate reliquaries all of which contain his left hand.

        2. And I have a picture of Paul that was taken in northern Michigan. Obviously he’s mobile therefore he’s real.

      4. The existence of Christianity is evidence that somebody founded it. The question is really whether the stories in the Bible are based on that person or some myth that that person or his followers made up.

        My opinion is that, on the balance of probabilities, the Jesus stories are based on a real person. How much truth is in them is another matter. Obviously, the resurrection didn’t happen, but I think that Jesus being executed is a reasonable assumption.

        1. I think this view is wrong. Christianity is only one of countless religions. Substitute “Aztec religion” for “Christianity”, continue that “somebody founded it” and see if this gets you to the existence of a real Xipe Totec or Tezcatlipoca. It just doesn’t pass through a logical washing machine.

            1. If you’re going that route, then Paul is a better candidate for the “founder” here. Again… not reasonable evidence for the existence of Jesus any more than Joseph Smith is evidence for the existence of Moroni.

              1. Paul is a better candidate for the “founder”

                No he isn’t. Paul’s own letters document the fact that the church already existed when he came along.

                Joseph Smith is evidence for the existence of Moroni

                Nobody I know would regard the Angel Moroni as the founder of Mormonism, they would say it was Joseph Smith.

                Incidentally, I just looked up Xipe Totec and Tezcatlipoca. They are both deities. My point is not that the existence of a religion is evidence that its deities exist, I am saying the existence of a religion is evidence that a human founder existed.

              2. “Of course Jesus wasn’t a deity.”

                This will come as news to a great many practicing Christians.

            2. I don’t think that’s accurate.
              Richard Carrier has discussed this several times, I believe.

              “… historicizing mythical founders is actually anthropologically normal, and is driven by its polemical advantages (pp. 352-53). We see it in the Cargo Cults (Element 29, Ch. 5), the Mystery Cults (Element 11, Ch. 4; and 31, Ch. 5), the Hadith, Torah, Mishnah, and beyond. A religion that converts its disparate revelations and inspirations into the singular deeds and teachings of a made-up “historical founder” is inherently more successful in the marketplace of ideas, quite likely to drive extinct its less-adapted ancestor. As in fact happened (e.g. the original mystical resurrection teaching was driven extinct by the physical resurrection teaching).
              —Richard Carrier

              1. How do religions come to exist without human founders? As I said above, there must have been a human founder for Christianity. The question is whether the stories we have about Jesus were myths applied to the founder or not. I thin k they were.

              2. I think you are making the mistake of thinking that cultural things are invented by some individual. It is much more accurate to understand them as evolved constructs, sets of ideas that get shared and modified over time. Everything that you would call “a religion” is made up of ideas that were floating around before. Cultures generate religions. It is useful to look at this through Richard Dawkins’ “memes” (as proposed in The Selfish Gene).

    2. Yes, I agree. Making up stuff about someone famous has likely always been a popular pastime. It works whether the famous person was real or imaginary.

      BTW, in the new Hulu tv series “Devs”, a company invents some sort of quantum computing device that can peer into the past. This allows them to see a fuzzy image of Christ on the cross and hear the very clear voice of Christ on another occasion.

      Actual sound and video might be proof we could accept. Without that, it will always be an unknown. Even if we found a tablet where it’s author admits to fabricating the Jesus story, it still might be fiction.

  5. Another hoax is the liquefaction of blood of a saint in Naples, Italy. Don’t laugh:

    I once said to a Napolitan friend that this was nonsense. Although she calls herself an atheist, she was quite angry then I called this a hoax. A possible explanation is that the blood sample liquefies because you heat it with your breath.

  6. Almost from the beginning Christianity has fabricated relics as a way to drown the faithful in the stupor of belief. This became especially good business during the crusades where these objects are now scattered all over Europe in various cathedrals.
    As for the shroud I have read that the size of the figure painted there is way out of proportion to any human torso.

  7. I’m surprised that the faithful don’t believe their own unerring Bible which clearly describes Jesus’ burial shroud as being of two pieces of cloth – as was the local custom at the time. OTOH I prefer to look at the painted eyes of this figure which are too close to the top of the head to be real – a common mistake of medieval artists.

  8. “…looking forward to finally seeing all the arguments collected in one place.”
    Believers, faithist, the end is nigh..😁. Prepare yourself for a dusk (or dawn) showdown with one Prof (E) self quarantined, (we hope) powerful forces are about to turnin your symbol into a peice of rag. 🤪😄

  9. How can this be true when Jesus was a fictional character? No historical authors at the supposed time of Jesus ever mentioned him.

  10. As Flip Wilson once said: For this church to walk it first must crawl. And for this church to run it first must walk. And for this church to run it takes money.

  11. Those 13th century artisans were clever devils. I bet one of them would have chuckled if he knew he would be fooling a bunch of church folk 800 years hence.

  12. The projection is wrong. Mapping a face to a piece of cloth would distort the face the way various map projections distort countries and continents in different ways. If you actually took a human face and laid it flat on a table it would look very odd and nothing like the shroud of Turin.

    Plus the shroud has a definite Gothic style to it. Which would fit the 14th century and not the first century.

  13. I may be wrong about this, since I haven’t read the Bible in more than 50 years, but as I recall, among the numerous conflicting accounts in it, there are two completely separate accounts of Jesus’s birth. In addition to one having the wise guys and the other the shepherds, one has Mary and Joseph going from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of some probably fictional Roman edict about taxes and the other has them living in Bethlehem.

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