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W.E. Gutman: Turning a hoax into an article of faith

Posted: April 16, 2010 6:13 p.m.
Updated: April 18, 2010 4:55 a.m.
 
An air of pious exultation wafts over the elegant Baroque city of Turin, Italy. Its most illustrious relic, the Shroud of Turin, which some Christians believe is Jesus' burial cloth, went on display last week for the first time since it was "restored" in 2002.

For the next six weeks, the world's most famous piece of linen will be on view. Two million people, including Pope Benedict XVI, are expected to behold an artifact that, despite its questionable authenticity, continues to feed the ecstatic character of Catholicism.

The shroud, which bears the likeness of an old bearded man with long scraggly hair that some Christians assert is Jesus, was repaired eight years ago to remove a patch woven by 16th century nuns after a small portion of the cloth was damaged by fire.

Many respected scholars contest the shroud's authenticity. Most believe it was produced in the Middle Ages when purported vestiges of biblical times - such as splinters from Jesus' cross - suddenly surfaced across Europe.

According to church historian Antonio Lombatti, "The shroud owner said in 1355 that the local bishop affirmed it was a forgery, and even the pope of that time (Innocent VI) said it was a fake."

A piece of fabric of dubious vintage hardly establishes anyone's historicity. It confirms, at best, the ancient Jewish tradition of burial in a shroud and a simple pine casket, a tradition maintained to this day by Jews who reject the flamboyance and ostentation of modern funerals.

I heeded my own father's last wishes that he be interred, his naked body wrapped in a shroud, in a biodegradable wood box. He's now feeding the worms at New Montefiore Cemetery on New York's Long Island.

The imprint of a human form on a piece of cloth produced by biochemical reactions does not provide scientific proof that the image is Jesus' anymore than he was "raised from the dead," a fantastical assertion that defies logic (unless he wasn't dead in the first place). It has no more basis in fact than the conspiratorial theory he, his wife Mary Magdalene and their brood took the Mediterranean Express to southern France, where they proceeded to found the Merovingian dynasty.

Hard as I try, I fail to see how a tale woven of pure cloth (pun intended) "demonstrates the human potential to conquer death," as some church diehards claim - a feat never duplicated before or since and which clearly violates natural laws - not to mention the fact that the image on the shroud is that of a very old and very dead man well past his 33rd birthday.

If I accurately quote from the lexicon of Christian mythology, transubstantiation refers to "the change from bread and wine to the body and blood of Christ." There is nothing in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic texts to suggest Jesus ever exclaimed, "This bread is my body," etc. This was added by overzealous scribes who, through the ages shamelessly redacted "inconvenient" or "politically incorrect" chronicles and added improbable scenarios that owe their longevity to blind faith in mind-boggling fiction.

Undeterred by scientific fact, unmoved by reason, the Church, which commands "Credo ad Absurdum" - believe because it is absurd - then insists that the science-fiction-like metamorphoses can also result in photo-luminescence.

In 1980, using electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction, the late Dr. Walter McCrone found red ochre (iron oxide, hematite) and vermilion (mercuric sulfide) on the shroud. The electron microprobe analyzer detected iron, mercury and sulfur on a dozen of the blood-image area samples of the shroud. The results fully confirmed McCrone's suspicions, that the image was painted twice, once with red ochre followed by vermilion to enhance the blood-image areas.

Later results of carbon dating at three laboratories confirmed Dr. McCrone's earlier findings: The shroud is a haunting painting created around 1335 for a new church sorely in need of a pilgrim-baiting attraction. The suggestion that a fire that singed a small portion of cloth could have altered the chemical character of the entire shroud - thus rendering it less authentic - is ludicrous.

The Catholic Church's official position regarding the shroud is as transparent as it is dismissive: Christianity's most cherished relic is an indispensable "tool" for faith; its authenticity is irrelevant. The archbishop of Turin, Cardinal Severino Poletto, has unequivocally urged the flock to "gaze upon the shroud with your hearts rather than your minds."

What?

Jesus, the consummate radical who abhorred all forms of idolatry, would have a fit if he knew how his teachings degenerated into faith by symbolism, superstition and subterfuge.

W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist and author. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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