Back in the late 1970s, a British author named Ian Wilson wrote a book about the Shroud of Turin (pictured above in negative), believed by many to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth. I read it soon after it was published.
Over the years since then the Shroud, kept at a Catholic cathedral in Turin, Italy, has been the subject of various investigations and conflicting conclusions, including stories published just four months ago about blood research that concluded the Shroud is not the real deal. If those stories interest you, you can read three of them here and here and here.
And if you're really into the Shroud and its meaning, you can read this National Catholic Reporter column I wrote about it four years ago.
So why am I bringing all of this up now as Christians move into their season of Advent, preparing to commemorate not the death but the birth of Jesus?
For an odd reason.
Several years ago I acquired (don't ask me how; I don't know) a 2012 book by a British art historian named Thomas de Wesselow called The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Secret of the Resurrection. For reasons I can't explain, I apparently just stuck it on a shelf in my house and forgot about it without reading it. When I stumbled across it recently I was surprised that I owned it and surprised I hadn't read it. Now I have, and I want to tell you a bit about it to make a point about religious truth.
It is quickly clear that de Wesselow does not come at this subject as someone committed to the Christian faith, and certainly not as someone who wants others to imagine that the New Testament is a historically reliable witness to the life of Jesus and the way that what became Christianity eventually emerged from Judaism. But he spent years digging into the history of the Shroud and came to formulate a theory about why the Shroud was so important to the formation and growth of Christianity.
You can think of the book has having halves. The first half makes a powerfully persuasive case that the Shroud is truly the burial cloth of Jesus. He acknowledges that carbon dating done on the Shroud in the 1980s labeled it as a mysterious product of the Middle Ages, but he describes in considerable detail why such carbon dating is unreliable and why the supposedly scientific process used in the particular case of the Shroud was especially so.
He argues that the 1980s carbon dating of the Shroud is a major outlier bit of evidence to consider when trying to date the Shroud and determine its geographic origin. Everything else, he insists, places the Shroud in the time of Jesus and in the vicinity of Jerusalem. And the markings on the Shroud that show a crucified man are an excellent match to the Christian story of Good Friday.
Once he concludes that the Shroud is authentic, he spends the second part of the book arguing that when Jesus' early followers, including Mary Magdalene, Peter, John, other disciples and, later, the Apostle Paul, testify to having seen the risen Christ, what they are really saying is that Jesus' physical body was still in the tomb but that the image on the mysterious Shroud convinced them that he had been raised and now existed as some kind of spiritual being.
No matter what story the New Testament tells about the post-resurrection time -- whether it's Doubting Thomas, an appearance by the risen Christ to 500 people at once or the Damascus Road experience of Paul (then Saul) -- de Wesselow insists that it all can be explained by the Shroud and its strange power.
And not only that, but without the Shroud, he insists, Christianity would have died aborning.
Frankly, de Wesselow asks readers -- especially Christians -- to swallow a lot, and that lot has gnostic thinking written all over it.
Does he ever say directly what ultimately happened to the crucified body of Jesus? No. He just leaves it in the tomb. Does he explain how all of Jesus' followers could be convinced of both resurrection and ascension by a single linen cloth? Well, he tries.
Look. The Christian story of resurrection and ascension if full of mystery and strangeness, which is no doubt part of its appeal. Indeed, every one of the world's great religions tells mysterious and strange stories. And stories draw people in, make them think, make them wonder about eternal matters.
But in the end what really matters is what each of us does with the gift of life we've been given. What matters is how we live and, in that regard, how our faith traditions teach us to live in relation with the eternal. Would it really matter if de Wesselow is right that the Christian idea of an empty tomb is itself empty? Well, yes, it would. Might his alternative explanation of resurrection and ascension be acceptable to Christians today? Maybe to some.
But isn't it more important for Christians to love Jesus and be his disciples than it is to figure out exactly what happened on that first Easter and whether the Shroud really tells that story accurately?
Well, isn't it?
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A CATHEDRAL GOES FROM PROTESTANT TO CATHOLIC
Here's an interesting religious conversion: The Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California, was built by a Protestant televangelist, Robert Schuller. But it's now becoming a Catholic Cathedral for the Diocese of Orange. Sort of an appropriate follow-up to my post here from yesterday about what to do with abandoned or underused church buildings.