Miracles, Relics, and Other Follies

The following lecture is one that I never thought I would find necessary to undertake.  It is on the concept of miracles, as well the greatest miracle of all–belief in the Shroud of Turin, the alleged burial cloth of Jesus which he left behind when he was resurrected from the dead.

I must confess that I had the naïve notion that no one with education in the present day believed the Shroud was authentic.  But my husband recently paid a routine visit to his cardiologist. His doctor noticed that my husband was reading a book on the flaws of Intelligent Design, and they chatted about it for a while.  Just as the visit ended and the doctor was leaving the room, he suddenly told my husband that the Shroud of Turin had been authenticated and found to be the actual shroud of Jesus.  Off the doctor went, leaving my husband with his mouth open in astonishment.  My mouth opened in astonishment as well when my husband related what had happened that morning.  His doctor is a highly skilled, excellent physician and a well-read man.  An hour later, I determined to undertake a lecture on miracles for this series.

Before I define a miracle, I would like to discuss a few of the methods proponents of religion use to support their supernatural claims.  The most obvious device is to aver that evidence supports their beliefs.  The so-called evidence consists of bogus claims, fabricated or exaggerated tales, illusions, and mistakes.

When the miracle or relic is put to authentic scientific or historical testing, such claims are usually withdrawn quietly, or the object is removed from further testing.  The certain fallback, when all else fails, is for supernaturalists to insist that one must have faith that god can bring miraculous events outside of nature to pass.

There are also those Christians who take another way out of the dilemma of miracles by claiming that the age of miracles is past.  But I hope my lecture will help determine that the age of miracles never existed.  The common sense approach of the secular community to miracles is derided by Christians who proclaim that even though we in the present day are sinners who deserve to suffer for all eternity in hell, Jesus still continues to perform miracles for us.  They insist that we secular people cannot see or accept these miracles because we are self-deluded, or deceived by the devil. In any case, they maintain that our arrogance keeps us in ignorance of modern miracles and belief in the miraculous events of the past.

As Richard Carrier points out in his 2005 volume, Sense and Goodness without God, there are many natural miracles, which are unexpected fortunate events.  The media loves to cover these happenings, which are often merely good luck or the fortuitous result of scientific skill.  There are medical miracles in the industrialized West every day, as well as spectacular rescues and disasters averted. We can light whole cities, explore space with our spacecrafts, and change the course of many diseases. But there are unfortunate events, as Carrier points out, which no one attributes to the supernatural, unless of course, some fundamentalists decide to blame the devil.  So the world’s good luck and bad luck balance out pretty closely in the present day. 

There is a strong possibility that if science and humanistic values prevail, natural miracles will continue to proliferate, and will become so common that they will thankfully cease to be called “miracles.”

I would like to define supernatural miracles, and talk about the types of such miracles. There is some agreement among scholars that for an event to be called a miracle, three criteria must be met. A miracle must break a law of nature. That is the sine qua non of a miraculous happening.  But many experts add the event should have a purpose and importance that is open to religious or spiritual significance and interpretation. This lecture will confine itself to miraculous events or objects that are purported to have a religious significance.  Many New Age believers have non-salient notions that encompass belief in miracles without necessarily attributing them to a god or gods. They credit such events to a vague universal energy that coalesces in some manner.  We shall overlook such fancies. This lecture will be concerned with miracles brought about by the Christian god, either by his direct intervention, or by the intervention of his mother, Mary, or the various saints of the Church.  Saints may be defined as persons who have been exceptionally holy in their lifetimes, and have had miracles attributed to them.  It is also necessary that their holiness and miracles have been recognized by the Catholic Church, which claims to thoroughly investigate the remarkable events associated with candidates before granting them sainthood.

I would like to quote some important thinkers about miracles so that we may look at many sides of the controversial issue of events that happen outside of nature, apparently brought about by god’s power.

Thomas Aquinas, the brilliant 13th Century Catholic theologian, defined a miracle as “…Those things, which by divine power depart from the order generally followed in things.” Aquinas stated that there were three types of miracle. (1) Events done by god that nature could never do, for example, stopping the sun in Joshua 10 of the Bible, or making the sun move in the sky, as happened at Fatima in the 20th Century. (2) The second type of miracle consists of events done by god that nature might be able to do, but could not do it in that order, such as bringing someone like Lazarus back to life after he had died, or healing someone of blindness.  (3) The last type of miracle defined by Aquinas is events done by god that nature can do, except for the fact that god does not use the laws of nature for performing miracles such as healing someone by forgiving their sins. Aquinas went on to argue that if an action is logically possible, not for example, to square a circle or make 2X2 =5, then it is absolutely possible for god, with his creative ability, to perform such an action as a miracle.

Note Aquinas’s emphasis on such an action having to be logically possible.  In the present day, we have many examples of theologians who do not try to claim evidence for the supernatural or for supernatural miracles. Instead, they cleverly sit back and state that they have logically reasoned about their belief in the existence of god, angels, miracles and so on.  They maintain that their position is logically possible, having arrived at it from general philosophical principles.  If they can prove their belief is logically possible, even though they cannot produce evidence for it, then they state that they have prevailed.

Here is Aquinas from his Summa Contra Gentiles, circa 1264: “The divine will is not limited to this particular order of causes and effects in such a manner that it is unable to will to produce immediately an effect in things here below without using any other cause.” Here is another opinion from his Summa Theologica, of 1265: “Since their abilities and activities are limited, all created beings are bound by laws of nature, and a work exceeding the world in which they live cannot be produced by any power there. And if it comes about, then it is done immediately by God.”

Here is the atheist John Mackie, the author of The Miracle of Theism, 1983, on miracles. He defined miracles as “a violation of natural law… by divine or supernatural intervention.  The laws of nature describe the ways in which the world- including, of course, human beings, works when left to itself, not interfered with.  A miracle occurs when the world is not left to itself, when something distinct from the natural order as a whole intrudes into it.” Mackie’s book contains cogent refutations of nearly all theist claims for the existence of a god.

I have discussed the work of the great Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume many times during this lecture series, and glanced at some of his reasons for discrediting the possibility of miracles.  For the purposes of this talk, I would like to discuss his arguments against belief in miracles in more depth.  Here is his working definition of a miracle as a “…transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the deity.” He wrote an important and much quoted chapter called “Miracles,” in An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, published in 1748.

In the “Miracles” section, Hume effectively does away with the notion of miracles, arguing that there is no compelling reason to believe in them and certainly not to consider them as a foundation for belief in religion.

Our knowledge of miracles, Hume states, comes exclusively from second hand testimony of others.  These other people claim to have seen or experienced miracles.  Hume maintains that we need to treat such second hand accounts as less reliable than our own experience. With miracles, then, the evidence for them comes from the testimony of witnesses and the evidence against them from the knowledge of natural laws.  We have faith in the testimony of others and also faith in our own knowledge of the laws of nature from our prior experience.  Often, but not always, the testimony of others may align itself with reality.  At the same time, the laws of nature tend to remain constant, so since a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature, we can only accept the miracle if the testimony in its favor has more credibility or force than the laws of nature that it contradicts.

Hume then lists five reasons why there has never been enough evidence to render the possibility of any miracle having happened.  His first reason is very important, as he does not believe there have ever been a sufficient number of truly trustworthy witnesses to a miracle to rule out falsehood. To be able to trust people with regard to miracles, they must be, he claims, “…of such unquestioned good sense, education and learning as to secure against us, all delusion in themselves.” Secondly, while as a general rule we can generally credit what most closely accords with past experience, Hume reminds his readers that the sensations of surprise and wonder often lead to absurd beliefs. 

He argues that there are innumerable tales and allegations whose roots are not in reasonable belief but in the love of surprise and wonder.

Hume’s remarks on his second point about miracles seem to suggest that people believe in miracles because they want to and because their faith provides them with pleasant emotions. Miracles are a so-called “proof” of a world beyond the present one, and of a being who may break the laws at will that he originally ordained himself.

Third, Hume maintains that most of the reports of miraculous events occur among ignorant and superstitious people who may not be knowledgeable or sophisticated enough to disregard testimony that is either fabricated or mistaken.  Such people do not understand how the world really functions as they have little knowledge of science. Hume’s fourth point is that each religion has belief in the veracity of its own particular miracles, as opposed to the miracles claimed by all the other religions.  Such supposed evidence of differing miracles in all religions creates a suspicion about the evidence of miracles in any one religion.  We have already learned that what might be considered a miracle in say, the Muslim religion, might be considered heresy in all the other religions. Reports of miracles are often religious propaganda.

Hume’s fifth, and last point against miracles, is arguably the most important one: “…no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such as kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.” Basically, Hume is arguing about the balance of probabilities and that we should most reasonably accept the more believable explanation of a so-called miracle.

This means that a scientific explanation of why an event has occurred is the one people should accept rather than arguing that god has brought it about. God as the origin of the extraordinary event is the more extraordinary explanation and has no validity.

Hume’s position as a naturalist and skeptical philosopher leads him to naturalist explanations rather than metaphysical ones.  He makes the suggestion that the miracles found in the Bible are more likely the fabrications of the authors than any true rendering of facts.  He states that a kind of miracle is necessary for a person to believe in religion- the miracle is our willing subversion of our natural reason. Please see Robert Todd Carroll’s Skeptic’s Dictionary, listed in the Bibliography, under the heading, “Miracle,” for a more extended discussion of Hume’s building an argument against miracles that had been previously initiated by Anglican divines against the Catholic “miracle of transubstantiation.”

C.S.Lewis, a renowned literature critic, converted back to Christianity after several years of having been an atheist.  At least one biography, however, hints that Lewis wavered somewhat in his faith once again later in life, due to a crisis when his beloved wife died.  Lewis, for most of his career, was a fierce defender of Christianity, writing many volumes that attempted to demonstrate the notion that Christian belief was rational.

In 1947, he wrote his well-known Defense of Miracles. I am gratefully dependent on James Bradbury’s review of the volume, which may be found on the secular web, and on his opinions concerning the validity of Lewis’s assertions.  Bradbury makes it clear that Lewis was far afield in many of his arguments. 

Other scholars have also written erudite refutations of Lewis’s book; they are available on the Web, and particularly the secular web.  Bradbury points out that Lewis begins his first chapter by alleging that “the question of whether miracles occur can never be answered by experience.” This is a very odd statement, as we have learned from many first person accounts, that a number of religious people claim that it was a personal miraculous experience that convinced them that god exists. 

Lewis then argues that reason, or the human mind, is a genuine miracle.  If that is so, it is surely a natural miracle. He seems, however, to mean human thought processes, even though he uses the word, “mind.” It is important to remember that he wrote his defense of miracles before even the little we now know about the human mind had been discovered.  I have read Lewis’s critique of James Joyce’s Ulysses, 1918, in which he denies that the human mind works randomly, with loose associations and often irrational thoughts, when it is not engaged in performing specific tasks. I have come to the conclusion that Lewis was ignorant or disingenuous about the way his own mind functioned.

 If by rational, Lewis means “able to make true evaluations about the world,” as Bradbury believes he means, this ability is hardly miraculous and is not exclusive to humans.  Some higher primates can recognize themselves in the mirror and are also aware of their place in their own social groups.  As Bradbury contends, these traits are simply more developed in humans, not exclusive to them.  They are hardly a supernatural miracle.

Lewis states that science, or the study of nature, cannot disprove miracles. That is a platitude, unworthy of a man of letters. 

He should have stated instead that there has never been conclusive proof of miracles.  Lewis then engages in prioritizing the Christian god as the source of all miracles, as though other religions, such as Islam and Hinduism, do not have miraculous gods who exist outside of nature.  It does not take Lewis very long to mount an attack on pantheism, as well, criticizing it on the grounds that it is very old.  That is an astonishingly weak argument for finding pantheism untrue.  He also finds that pantheism is not salient because it is only occasionally fashionable. It is very difficult, despite Lewis’s reputation as a defender of Christianity, to take any of his statements seriously.

Bradbury demonstrates that Lewis’s putative proof of miracles is “proof by analogy.” Lewis tries to explain why an omnipotent creator would create anything that would need changing by a miracle, something presumably outside his creation.  So he uses the analogy, explains Bradbury, of a skilled craftsman who knows the rules for carrying out his job in an efficient manner, but sometimes breaks those rules.  The Christian god, according to Lewis, breaks the rules of his created universe by means of miracles, and we humans are not able to comprehend his reasons for doing so.  Apparently we must accept god’s unfathomable actions.

Bradbury easily brushes aside such arguments. He refutes Lewis’s analogical position easily.  Skilled craftsmen know and break rules, but an omnipotent creator makes the rules.  He has absolute control over them.  He is perfect, so when he has brought his desire to completion, why should that desire change?

Bradbury exposes the weakness in arguing that god is omnipotent and perfect, but then sees the need to change the rules he has created, suggesting that neither god nor his rules come anywhere near perfection.  God is exposed as not being satisfied with his own creation, negating any assertion of his perfection and completeness.  Lewis has not made a good argument for miracles.

I would now like to discuss Bruce Monson’s article, “Post Hoc Miracles,” in which Monson points out what so many unbelievers have noticed, that all of the events described as “miracles” in the present day “seem to come in the form of naturally occurring phenomena” or events that have perfectly natural explanations. He speaks about catastrophes that occur, such as a skyscraper being collapsed by an earthquake and hundreds of people being killed under tons of concrete and steel.  When a few people are pulled out alive, it is hailed as a “miracle from Jesus,” but says Monson, it is a statistical probability that a few people will be alive. For any particular person to survive is of course, statistically extremely low, but that some people will be alive is virtually 100%, so there is nothing miraculous about their survival.

Christians, wishing to be convinced of a miracle, and that Jesus is real, latch on to a favorable improbable event and explain it as a miracle.  At the same time, they ignore the thousands of improbable events that happen every month because it is only certain events that have religious significance for them.

Monson recalls a major league baseball game when the pitcher threw a “blazing fast ball” to home plate and just at that moment, a bird flew right into the path of the ball and was killed. Now that is an improbable event, witnessed by many people. 

Monson notes that Christians did not proclaim it as a miracle because they had no religious motivation to do so.  He believes they also probably realized there was nothing outside the natural world required for such an event to have occurred.

I believe Monson speaks for the majority of the secular community when he asks why it is that, despite the billions of prayers said year in and year out, by millions of Christians across the world, we have never seen a “miracle” come from even one resurrection of the dead? Monson asks why god cannot provide one resurrection as proof of his reality?  He cites John’s Gospel and recalls that Jesus reportedly waited for Lazarus to be dead and buried for several days. He waited because he thought it would be a splendid opportunity to perform a resurrection for his disciples so that, and I quote John 11:42, “they may believe.”  Why then, if god exists and performed miracles in the past, does he not perform just one for our contemporary world so we may see and believe?

I would like to reiterate Theodore Drange’s important argument for the non-existence of god in Arguments for and against the Existence of god at AtheistScholar.org. Drange argues that since god supposedly loves us, his most significant creation, and desires that we believe in him and love him, why does he not provide us with some proof of his existence that would convince all humanity to believe in him and be saved for all eternity?  One splendid miracle outside the form of naturally occurring phenomena would convince us all.  Why then, should we, in the present day, be expected to merely have “faith?” I believe it is logical to infer that there is no god and no miracles.  The so-called “silence of god” is merely the vacuum where something does not exist and what is more, never did.

Before we return to the question of proof for a miracle that could not be a natural phenomenon, but one indisputably caused by supernatural intervention on the laws of nature, I would like to glance at Richard Carrier’s refutation of miracles from the historical side of the issue.  In his excellent 2005 volume, Sense and Goodness without God, he argues that the most important reason to doubt miracles is a historical one. He cautions that we should not believe everything we read. Carrier is a splendid historian of ancient history and I would like to repeat his tale of a “miracle” experienced by Marcus Aurelius and one of his legions. Aurelius was the Roman Emperor in 172 CE, when one of his legions came into a great deal of difficulty.  As I retell this tale, please keep in mind that Aurelius’s chosen philosophy was Stoicism, but he was most eclectic in his religious practices, probably for political purposes.

In the year 172 CE, a Roman legion was battling barbarian tribes in Eastern Europe during a draught.  The soldiers were dying of thirst and surrounded by barbarian warriors.  They prayed for the pagan gods to save them.  Suddenly there was a torrential rain, which not only filled the Roman legion’s shields with water to drink, but also rained lightning and thunder down on the barbarians, killing and dispersing them.  Carved in stone on the Aurelius Column, still able to be seen today, is a winged rain god pouring water into Roman shields and delivering death to their enemies. The emperor additionally dedicated a statue to Jupiter Thunderbolter and minted a coin, praising the pagan religion. Note that a rainstorm, of course, is a natural phenomenon.

But now, the interesting part begins. Only eight years after this incredible victory, the Christian writer Apollonarius, according to Carrier, claimed the legion on that eventful day was composed entirely of Christians and that they had prayed to the Christian god, who saved them. Furthermore, Appollinarius asserted that the legion was called “The Thundering Legion” as a result of the victory.  Twenty years later, the Christian Church father, Tertullian, repeated the same fable.  But fifty years later, the pagan historian, Cassius Dio, recounted the story of the miraculous battle, and claimed that an Egyptian wizard named Harnouphis used magical spells to summon the god, Hermes, who then created the storm. There is an inscription in Eastern Europe which places the Egyptian wizard with the Roman troops at that same time period; additionally Aurelius’ coin, which I just mentioned a moment ago, depicts the god, Hermes, standing in an Egyptian temple.

But there is more to this strange miraculous tale.  Marcus Aurelius, while usually a tolerant man, did not think much of Christians and there was no mercy extended to them during his reign.  Several important Christians were martyred at that time, such as Polycarp, Justin and others.  Aurelius, according to Carrier, was sent letters beseeching him to show more respect to Christians. 

Most importantly, all soldiers of the Roman Army had to offer daily prayers to the emperor’s guardian spirit and routinely praise Jupiter, Best and Greatest, the protector of the Roman legions.  If you will recall from previous lectures, Christians could not pray to other gods than the Christian one.  So unless they were backsliders or hypocrites, it is highly unlikely that the Thundering Legion had any Christian soldiers in it at that time.

Carrier also states that the legion had been called “The Thundering Legion” for nearly two centuries before its miraculous victory in 172.  This story is one more proof of Christian appropriation of pagan “miracles” or astounding events. The Christians regrettably won the propaganda war and achieved hegemony by the Middle Ages.

In our contemporary time, we know that such a rainstorm at such a crucial moment is quite possible and can be termed a natural miracle.  We have some proof that the event actually happened, but it was probably greatly exaggerated after the fact. Carrier states that throughout the Middle Ages, Christian writers repeated their version of “The Thundering Legion,” which by now had become solidly Christian.  The propaganda war was over and victory belonged to the Christians.  Their version of the fable had prevailed, having been first put forth only eight years after the Roman victory.  At the time of the 172 battle, hundreds of eyewitnesses would have been alive to refute the Christian tale, the emperor and the state were celebrating the alternative pagan account, and the records concerning the miracle were available. The appropriation of the pagan miracle was a coup that Christians repeated many times in retelling different events, convincing pagans to convert to the Christian god who was far stronger than the pagan deities.

Richard Carrier opens an interesting window into the ancient Roman Empire that helps explain the proliferation of miraculous fables that became commonplace in that era.  As Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776- 1789, pointed out, fraud and credulity were more common at that time than they are today. That is one reason we see many more miracles reported in the ancient world than in our world. 

But our contemporary society remains filled with tales of miracles. One egregious example is the “miracle” of the appearance of the so-called cross at the scene of a terrorist attack.  The cross that was in the shape of a Christian cross was nothing more than two riveted steel beams which happened to survive the 2001 World Trade Center bombing that destroyed two buildings and everyone in them.  People began to visit the cross and pray near it.  The courts declared it was not an endorsement of the Christian religion.  In 2011 it was moved back to Ground Zero and placed in the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.  That is just one of the reports of miracles in our own time.

Carrier explains that the early Roman Empire was filled with “kooks and quacks” of all varieties, from sincere lunatics to ingenious frauds, and innocent men who were mistaken as divine.  Magic, miracles and ghosts were everywhere, according to Carrier, and few disputed the tales of miraculous characters and events.  Scholars credit most of the credulity of the Empire’s citizens to lack of mass education, with the ensuing absence of critical or scientific thinking.  Though we moderns too often see the harm done by the media in reporting frauds and phony miracles as though they were true, the media also has investigative reporters who look into frauds and hoaxes and expose them.  The early Roman Empire had no such investigators.

William Harris’s 1989 volume, Ancient Literacies, states that only 20% of the population of Roman citizens could read at all, and only 10% could read well.  In comparative terms, he discovered that one single page of blank papyrus cost the equivalent of thirty dollars. Ink and the labor of hand copying every word cost much more. Again, in comparative terms, books could cost thousands or tens of thousand dollars each.

This meant that books were generally in the possession of the wealthy. There were very few libraries and usually only elite scholars had access to them. 

Carrier cites his own Master’s Thesis from 1998, “The Cultural History of the Lunar and Solar Eclipses in the Early Roman Empire.” He states that the common people believed a lunar eclipse was an attack by monsters who were trying to devour the moon, or of witches trying to force the moon down with their spells. The solution was to try to scare away the monsters or interrupt the witches’ spells by making a huge noise- banging pots and blowing brass horns at a furious rate, which filled both cities and country sides with a horrible din.

Carrier explains that only a very small class of elite, educated people was skeptical about popular superstitions.  The common people were suspicious and scornful of such non superstitious ideas.  Many of the poor would make use of a local wizard when real doctors were willing to attend them for little or no fee. Plutarch, the noted author and a pagan priest, lamented the gullibility of many Romans.  He pointed out that the fable of the statue of Lady Luck having spoken was likely the result of mass hallucination. We secular people, well acquainted with religious chicanery, are likely to suspect some trick or other.  Plutarch also attempted to give naturalistic reasons for the accounts of so many bleeding, weeping or moaning statues. People in the present day still flock to such miraculous statues of Christian saints.  Carrier makes a splendid point- if pagan statues could weep and bleed like Christian ones, then one could ask why we should not believe that pagan gods were as real as Christian ones?

Statues effected miraculous cures of people in Rome, not only statues of gods, but of emperors, wise men, generals and athletes. The god, Asclepius, the child of the sun god, Apollo, was the most famous healer. The huge number of inscriptions left at his temples by people he allegedly cured has provided us with a catalogue of ills in the ancient world. Asclepius healed blindness, paralysis, lameness, muteness and so on.  The testimonials, states Carrier, range from the 4th Century BCE to the 2nd Century CE and later.  They were found all over the Mediterranean world.

Carrier explains that people believed all manner of things that other people claimed they had seen, such as temples where water was changed into wine every year, flying lizards, animated statues and so on. Lucian, the satirical author, described his personal encounter with a religious con man, Alexander of Abonuteichos.  This fraud created his own religion.  He claimed that a snake  god named Glycon was an incarnation of the healer god, Asclepius. Glycon was a snake with a human head and Alexander was both his keeper and intermediary. The cult lasted from about 150 CE until the 3rd Century and drew adherents from many areas and from all classes.

The snake was a trained reptile with a puppet head and his miracles were either tall tales, explains Carrier, or trickery perpetrated by Alexander. The government was credulous as well- the rulers agreed to the petition that asked for a city’s name to be changed because the god resided in that town. Coins are still around from the reign of Antoninus Pius until the 3rd Century which have the image of a human-headed snake.  There are also extant statues, carvings and inscriptions to the god.  Carrier explains that very few of the common people would ever read skeptics like Lucian.

Intellectuals and skeptics were always in the smallest minority. Before each ceremony in Glycon’s honor, his cult followers would cry: “Away with the Epicureans, Away with the Christians!” because both of these groups were critical of the popular religion.

Carrier has a serious point to make by citing these amusing examples.  As he states, eyewitness testimony and peoples’ word were all citizens had to attest to an event.  There were, he explains, no reporters, coroners, forensic scientists or even police detectives.  People judged the veracity of a tale by what they believed was the sincerity of the teller and the possible rewards gained by accepting his story, such as being healed of a malady and so on.  The age did not lack keen and skeptical critics, but as Carrier explains, and I quote him in full here: “Rather the shouts of the credulous crowd overpowered their voice and seized the world from them, boldly leading them all into a thousand years of darkness.  Perhaps we should not repeat the same mistake.  After all, the wise learn from history.  The fool ignores it.”

We have been talking about learning from history, and now I would like to turn to the topic of relics and the medieval cult of relics.  I am using the definition of a relic as it is used in religion.  Relics are the physical remains of a saint or the personal effects of a saint preserved as tangible memorials for the purpose of veneration. A reliquary is a shrine that houses one or more religious relics.  Greek pagans placed the remains of heroes and venerated people in their altars, but generally did not ascribe miraculous properties to them.  The Christians began to venerate saints and martyrs in the early years of the Church and by the Medieval Era, the cult of relics grew.

In 787 CE, the Council of Nicaea dictated that all church altars should have a relic placed within them.  The obligation only waned after Vatican II in the 1960’s and 1970’s. 

The cult and trade of relics flourished and became prodigious. Saints’ bones, teeth, blood, clothes, tears, the Virgin’s breast milk, Jesus’ crown of thorns, the lance that pierced his side, his foreskin and pieces of his cross turned up at an astounding rate. There is an amusing story concerning Jesus’ many foreskins. The one that rested in a reliquary in the small town of Calcata, Italy was believed to be the most authentic. Since the 16th Century, there was always a parade on the Feast of the Circumcision with the foreskin in its reliquary as the featured event. The villagers would rush forward to kiss the reliquary.  Unfortunately, the relic suspiciously disappeared in 1983. In 1900, Pope Leo XIII had threatened to excommunicate anyone who spoke of Jesus’ foreskin, so many people believed the Vatican had something to do with the relic’s disappearance from Calcata.

 It is obvious to us, as well as it was to skeptics of that era, that many of the relics, probably most, were fabricated.  Relics were bought, sold, traded and bartered. Some saints’ bodies were stolen from one city and placed in another one. The alleged freshness of the bodies was most likely due to the fact that they had been embalmed. Sometimes wax was placed over the faces and hands and made up to look life-like. The presence of certain important or especially holy saints brought honor to the cities where their bodies rested and also revenues from the pilgrims who made the journey to the holy sites. For anyone interested in a complete history of medieval relic adoration and trade in Europe, I highly recommend the eminent historian, Charles Freeman’s, Holy Bones, Holy Dust (2011.) 

Freeman has detailed the history of relics in combination with an excellent history of Europe.  For readers who wish to learn more about relics and their considerable importance during the Middle Ages, Holy Bones, Holy Dust is an impeccable text.

Freeman has shed light on another important facet of relic cults that is too often overlooked.  He explains that while the Catholic Church had become a universal, monolithic institution, the local relic cult traditions of cities and regions helped them retain and assert their independence from what is often called the Church Triumphant. Just as pagan cities had their presiding god or goddess, so did the Christian towns.  Local saints, some of their aspects borrowed from earlier pagan deities of the area, and their relics were often considered more important by the city’s populace than the remote hierarchy of Rome.  Saints’ relics were credited with miraculous powers and were a source of pride and independence to the towns.

The Golden Legend, a book about the Christian saints, was compiled by a Dominican in the 1260’s.  It discussed a saint for each day of the liturgical year, in very comprehensive detail, becoming popular among nobles and the common people alike. It was a best seller and yet another reinforcement of the importance of saints to the people.  Freeman’s claim that Christianity began to become polytheistic with the worship of local saints and their relics and miracles is very perspicacious.  The Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century began to critique the saint cults and try to do away with them.  Martin Luther gave a series of sermons in which he condemned “idolatry,” and one of his examples was the superstition that took place at the shrines of the saints.  He claimed the Catholics had made the saints their slaves and returned to polytheism. 

Here are Luther’s words on the issue, and many other clerics and critics of the age were in agreement with him. “It still causes us Christians no shame to share out the business of worldly things among the saints, as if they had now become servants and bonded labourers: things have nearly gone back to that morass of superstitions, such that we have once again created the confusion of gods among the Romans, and made a new Pantheon.” The emphasis of the Protestant religion was on sacred texts and not on the showy shrines and dramatic stories of the saint cults.  Slowly, especially in Northern Europe and England, the shrines were done away with and replaced with more sober religiosity.

But people were not willing to allow all superstition to die away.  They have kept their faith in relics and miracles up to the present day.  Now I would like to turn to one of the most famous relics of all, the Shroud of Turin, the putative burial shroud of Jesus Christ, left behind at his resurrection from the dead. I am most gratefully dependent on Joe Nickell’s extraordinary detection of supernatural hoaxes for this portion of the lecture. He has spent years investigating many paranormal frauds, not all of them religious.  He is the best source for the true story of the famous Shroud. I refer those who are interested in a comprehensive discussion of the shroud to Nickell’s 1987 volume, Inquest on the Shroud of Turin. For the purposes of this lecture, I am referring to his Relics of the Christ from 2007, another recommended book.

The shroud was judged a forgery by an important medieval Catholic bishop who maintained that the forger had confessed. Why it retains a reputation for being the burial cloth of Jesus among many Christians is somewhat of a miracle in itself.  

In the middle of the 14th Century, around 1356 or so, the shroud was displayed at a church in Lirey, France, called Our Lady of Lirey. A knight, Geoffroy de Charny, had presented it for display to the church which he had founded.  It was a fourteen foot length of linen which bore the imprint of a man who had apparently been crucified, as Jesus had been. It was advertised as “The True Burial Sheet of Christ.” Medallions were struck for the purpose of commemoration of the event, and one dredged from the Seine in Paris shows that the 1356 date is the earliest record of this particular Holy Shroud. Nickell states: “Prior to this, there were thirteen centuries of silence.” In addition, there is no biblical record of any evangelist stating that Jesus left the imprint of his body on his empty burial clothes.

Because of the lack of provenance for the Shroud and the silence of the gospelists about an image left on the sindon, or burial cloth, many intelligent people were suspicious and asked the Bishop of Troyes, Henri de Poitiers to investigate.  His successor, Bishop Pierre d’Arcis, wrote a long report to Pope Clement VII around 1389, concerning the earlier investigation.  He told the Pope that the Dean of Lirey had obtained a cloth, with the unusual painted, note the term, painted, image of a man, both the man’s front and his back. The Bishop stated that the Dean had used the cloth, cunningly painted by an artist’s clever sleight of hand, for the purpose of raising money.  The Dean then put the story out that the cloth was the shroud of Jesus; the church at Lirey made a great deal of money as people came many miles to see the sindon and gave donations.  

The Bishop told the Pope that to increase profits, the Dean of Lirey hired people to pretend they were healed at the moment the shroud was revealed.

D’Arcis said the previous Bishop had conducted a thorough investigation and had discovered the skilled artist, who confessed that he had painted the image on the cloth. The previous Bishop then began formal proceedings against the Dean and his accomplices.  The culprits became frightened and hid the shroud so that the officials could not find it. It remained hidden for over thirty years after that.

The shroud was put on view again around 1389 and Bishop D’Arcis tried to have it declared a forgery. The son of the original knight and the Dean of Lirey fought back, receiving approval from a cardinal legate. The deceivers did not publicly say the cloth was the shroud of Christ, but put out rumors that it was. The Bishop obtained the opinion of Pope Clement in 1390 that the shroud “…was a painting or picture made in the semblance of the shroud.” The Pope signed the documents attesting to the fact that the shroud was a fraud, but that only settled the matter for a little while.

The granddaughter of the original knight, who never stated how he had obtained the shroud, took it into so-called safekeeping when Lirey was threatened by war in 1418. She never returned it, despite numerous threats from church officials.  After much negotiating and unfulfilled promises to return the shroud, she sold or traded it to the Royal House of Savoy (the later Italian monarchy) in 1453.  They gave her two castles in return.  She was excommunicated as a result, but two castles must have been a fine recompense for the rejection by the Church.

In the meantime, the shroud seemed to be gaining additional powers, and it was even claimed to protect the city that housed it.

But, as Nickell points out, it was nearly consumed in 1532 by a fire at the Savoy Chapel in which it was housed.  It would seem that the shroud couldn’t even protect itself.  The fire damage left burn marks and water stains that marred the image. The Savoy capital was moved to Turin, Italy in 1578. The shroud was taken there, too, where it remains, and is only rarely displayed.

It is important to keep in mind that the Catholic Church shrewdly never proclaimed the Shroud was authentic, but merely allowed a general vague belief that it was to circulate.  In 1670, the Congregation of Indulgences granted a plenary indulgence to pilgrims who came to see the shroud. But here is the exact wording used by the Congregation: “…not for venerating the cloth as the true shroud of Christ, but rather for meditating on his Passion, especially his death and burial.”  According to Nickell, the shroud was placed in its present shrine in the Cathedral of John the Baptist in 1694, given a new backing cloth and some patchwork.

That is the unsavory history of the people connected with the shroud until more hi jinx began with scientific experiments that commenced in the late 1800’s.  The investigations were the opening moves in a controversy that the religious continue, despite the final scientific conclusions in the 20th Century that the shroud was a medieval forgery. When it comes to matters of faith, the religious never regard scientific evidence as bringing closure to issues. It has really been settled for many years that the shroud is a painting or rubbing made by an artist of some skill and craft in the 1300’s.

I would like to give some definitions of the terms used in shroud investigations and books on the topic, such as sindon and sindonology. Sindon is a Greek based word from the Bible with many meanings, such as a covering.  But the word was most often used to mean a burial cloth.  Sindonology is the term employed for reference to the study of the Shroud of Turin, and sindonologists are contemporary scholars of the shroud‘s history and attributes.

The Shroud of Turin Research Project, known as STURP, began in the 1970’s. It concluded in 1981 and issued some incorrect statements about the findings of the investigation. Additionally, STURP made the decision to call “what produced the image on the shroud” a mystery which remains unsolved.   We shall glance at some of the scientific research conducted. I am unable to fathom, after studying the various investigations and tests conducted on the shroud, how any intelligent person who respects the scientific method, can either believe that the shroud is authentic or that the results are truly inconclusive.

Before I discuss the Gospel accounts in the Bible concerning the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, and glance at Jewish burial customs of that era, I would like to reiterate that there is some doubt as to whether Jesus was an actual historical person.  It is a certainty that we have no proof of his trial and crucifixion.  We have only the gospels and Paul to testify to any of the so-called facts. (Please see Biblical Criticism- “The Historicity of Jesus” at AtheistScholar.org, as well as the lecture entitled “Jesus and Mary’s Pagan Roots” at that site.)

The three New Testament accounts of Mark, Matthew and Luke, called synoptic gospels because they are in some agreement with each other, merely say the dead Jesus was wrapped in a fine linen cloth. Wrapping the dead body in this way was not in accord with Jewish burial customs of that time, according to scholars.  There was generally a napkin placed over the face and head, in addition to the sindon. John’s Gospel describes the burial clothes more elaborately and speaks of burial cloths, not one cloth, several times. He mentions the spices used to embalm the body.  Jewish law at that time prescribed washing of the body before the spices were applied. John specifically refers to the napkin that had been placed on Jesus’ head. He says that it was not left lying with the other burial cloths but by itself after Jesus’ resurrection. (John 20, 6-7.)

John uses the word othonia to describe the burial clothes. Some experts say that his use of that plural word means that the body was wound around by linen strips of the burial cloth, a common Jewish burial custom. It is controversial to credit everything John states because his gospel was likely written later than the others.  But if Jewish law was observed, and John is to be believed, the sindon would not bear Jesus’ facial image on its large surface.

We have discussed the historical accounts of the Shroud of Turin and now I would like to turn to the scientific evidence for its supposed authenticity. This lecture can only glance at the piled up proof that the shroud is a forgery.  The most compelling and thorough case made for this point of view is in the aforementioned Joe Nickell’s Inquest on the Shroud of Turin.

As I have mentioned, the scientific scrutiny began in 1898. The shroud was photographed for the first time then, and its double imprint, the front and back of the man depicted on it, was intensely studied. Better photos were taken in 1931. During those years, the alleged photo negative quality of the imprint was analyzed and became a subject of debate. There were secret investigations conducted in 1969 and again in 1973. The tests for blood were negative.  The so-called blood on the shroud is apparently red in color, not the rusty brown of old blood stains, and has what Nickell calls a picture-like appearance.

As I have mentioned, a large research project, STURP, was undertaken in 1978.  Unfortunately, most of the officials on the committee were religious leaders on the Executive Council of the Holy Shroud Guild. The Guild was a Catholic organization dedicated to the Shroud’s cause. One member, however, was not in the Guild.

This man was the esteemed microanalyst, Walter C. McCrone. He held a doctorate in philosophy from Cornell University and studied microscopy at that institution under two renowned experts. His company, Walter C. McCrone Associates, was composed of professionals skilled in solving problems with ferromagnetic coating compounds causing noise on electromagnetic tapes.  The firm was renowned as well for forensic work. McCrone was employed by art galleries around the world to discover the authenticity of paintings by major artists, including Rembrandts and Da Vincis.  He researched and exposed the forgery of an alleged Christopher Columbus letter. He was the expert who studied the famous Vinland Map.

The Map, said to have been drawn by a 15th Century monk, showed the American coast and suggested that Leif Erikson had visited America five centuries before Columbus.  McCrone discovered that it was a fake.

When McCrone examined tape-lifted samples from the shroud, he found that the so-called blood and image prints had been done in tempera paint. Nickell states that McCrone discovered that the “blood” consisted of red ocher and vermillion, with traces of rose madder. Medieval artists used the same pigments to depict blood in their paintings. When he reported this fact, he stated that he had then been “drummed out” of the STURP investigation and any samples he had in his possession were removed from his custody.

Most of the alleged evidence for the authenticity of the shroud is mistaken, false or suspicious.  The experts that STURP approved said the cotton traces on the cloth were Mid Eastern, even though cotton was a flourishing industry in 13th and 14th Century Europe. The weave of the shroud’s linen is a complex, three to one pattern. No evidence of that pattern from the time of Jesus has ever been discovered. Another expert approved by STURP, Max Frei-Sulzer, found pollens on the cloth that he stated were characteristic of Istanbul. He also claimed to have found pollen grains on the shroud that had come from Palestine.

 Frei became well known in 1983 for pronouncing the forged Hitler Diaries authentic.  A renowned expert questioned that since the cloth had a European history, how could thirty-three different Mid Eastern pollens be on it?  McCrone also studied samples before they were taken from him and found there were very few pollen grains on the cloth.

On October 13, 1988, samples of the cloth were carbon dated, using carbon-14 tests. Three well-known labs tested postage size samples of the cloth from its main section.  Using accelerator mass spectrometry, says Nickell, the labs were in close agreement about the date of the shroud.  They concluded the linen dated from 1260 to 1390, which if you will remember, was about the time of the original forger’s confession that he had painted the image. The shroud’s advocates have refused to accept the conclusion of the labs, saying that the radiant burst of energy released at Christ’s resurrection had altered the shroud’s carbon ratio. 

They have also insisted that the cloth samples tested by the labs had been from a much handled section of the shroud and were contaminated. When its suppositions are found to be contradicted by science, religion simply denies the science is correct.  That is what has happened with the case of the Turin shroud.

The way the image accorded with the artistic conventions of the medieval era made other experts suspicious of the shroud’s date.  The Christ picture on the shroud shows the long, lean and distorted body very common to Gothic Art. The photos taken of the image, as mentioned earlier, supposedly showed a so-called photographic negative on the cloth before the invention of photography.  By rubbing paint on cloth, Nickell and others have produced similar effects.  Nickell used powdered pigments.  Please see the explanation of his detailed experiments in the Inquest on the Shroud of Turin. As mentioned earlier, McCrone found the double image had been done with a dilute tempera medium. 

The Chicago artist, Walter Sanford, under McCrone’s direction, painted convincing shroud like images in 1982.  Nickell was an invited guest to that investigation.

The image on the Turin shroud is of a crucified man, one that accords with most of the descriptions of the crucified Jesus from the Gospels. The man has pierced hands and feet, scalp bleeding as if, says Nickell, from a crown of thorns, and a lance wound in his side.  The Dean of Lirey and his hired forger, the artist, seem to have taken care to match the image to the biblical description of Jesus. Here is what the distinguished Michael Baden, a medical-legal expert and a forensic professional, said about the shroud’s imprint. 

He stated: “If I had to go into a courtroom, I could not say there was rigor, whether the man was alive or dead, or that the picture was a true reflection of injuries. In no way do I hold myself out as an expert on the shroud, but I know dead bodies. Human beings don’t produce this kind of pattern.” Baden offered his opinion that the shroud never held a body, according to Nickell.

Nickell astutely points out how the methods of real science and “shroud science” mirror each other. The shroud advocates have started out with the “answer” to the shroud. They believe that it was the authentic burial cloth of Jesus and work backward to find the evidence to prove their belief. They consistently come up with so-called explanations for any facts that are discovered which point to the image on the shroud as a painted representation of Jesus done in the 1300’s. The true scientific method is to subject the object in question, in this case the Turin shroud, to many exhaustive tests and then reach a conclusion as to its nature.

Nickell has thoroughly reviewed the facts found by independent investigators in the case of the shroud. Here is his review of their conclusions. “The shroud never held a body, and its image, I must repeat once more, is the handiwork of a clever medieval artisan. For example, the artist’s confession is supported by the lack of a prior record, in other words, lack of provenance. The “red” blood and the presence of pigments are consistent with artistry and the carbon dating is consistent with the time frame indicated by the iconographic evidence.” “Indeed,” Nickell continues, “skeptics had predicted the results of the carbon dating virtually to the year- a measure of the accuracy of both the collective evidence and the radiocarbon testing technique.”

But the shroud propaganda continues, aided by the press.  The press validates the shroud as the burial cloth of Jesus to a degree by emphasizing the “mystery of the shroud.” But it never claims that the cloth is authentic. We have come to expect this state of affairs.  It is very reminiscent of how the media have presented a “balanced” comparison between evolution and the fraud of Intelligent Design.  Many Americans have come to believe that both concepts, evolution and Intelligent Design, should be taught as equal points of view to children in our United States public schools. They seem to be unaware or do not care that Intelligent Design has been definitively exposed as non-science.

We must educate our children to understand science and the scientific method and encourage them to engage in critical thinking. Our society needs more citizens who understand the difference between hearsay and solid evidence. The fact that people still believe in miracles and the supernatural testifies to how strong the tendency is to accept such notions. 

As Hume pointed out several centuries ago, people often believe in miracles because they want to.  They enjoy the feeling of wonder they receive when confronted by a mystery or a miracle.

This lecture makes it clear that religion not only cooks the books when it comes to its history, but in the medieval Catholic Church, it also cooked the bodies.  The practice of cutting up saints’, or presumed saints’ bodies, and even boiling them for their bones to be used as relics, was fairly common by the 13th Century.   St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Catholic theologian, died in 1274 at an abbey while on the way to Rome.  The monks quickly separated his head from his body and boiled the body to obtain his bones. 

Dante, the author of the 14th century Divine Comedy, claimed that Aquinas had been poisoned. It is more likely he died a natural death.  Another future saint, according to Freeman, was visiting a city, when he heard rumors that there were plots to kill him in order to obtain relics from his body. He pretended to have suddenly become mad, and had his attendants hurry him out of the town.

We know now that the recounting of miracles, including those performed by relics of dead saints and by the Shroud of Turin, were the result of group hallucinations, placebo cures of sick people, or simply cooked up, sometimes literally, by the Catholic Church’s clerics and advocates.  People in the present day still see images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in pieces of toast and other every day, innocuous objects.

David Carrier is quite correct. We must not let the voices of the credulous and the ignorant and the con men, unfortunately in the majority, overwhelm our skeptical and secular voices. 

We are slowly creating scientific, medical and technological miracles on our own, by our own efforts and with our own intellects.  We must continue to insist on our secular point of view and to make ourselves heard.  We need to endorse the efforts of groups such as CISCOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and of people like Joe Nickell, James Randi and others that examine and expose hoaxes such as the Shroud of Turin.

The Catholic historian, Canon Chevalier, wrote these words about the Shroud of Turin, and we can expand his thoughts to the entire dark world of religious miracles and relics. He said: “The history of the shroud constitutes a protracted violation of the two virtues of justice and truth.”  I hope and trust that the secular community will always be on the side of justice and of truth and mount a strong resistance to the voices of irrationality and superstition. We are engaged in a war we must win for the sake of the generations who come after us and in honor of those early freethinkers and doubters who died for the truth they saw clearly and who were not afraid to speak it to the world.

Video of Lecture: Miracles, Relics, and other Follies

Lecture: Miracles, Relics, and other Follies

Video of Discussion: Miracles, Relics, and other Follies

Discussion: Miracles, Relics, and other Follies


Books and Printed Articles

Carrier, Richard. Sense and Goodness without God. Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2005.

Carroll, Robert Todd. The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 2003.

Drange, Theodore. Non-Belief and Evil: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998.  (See Also Web Articles)

Freeman, Charles. Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011.

McCrone, Walter C. Judgment Day for the Turin Shroud. Chicago: Microscope, 1966.

_____________. “Light Microscopical Study of the Turin Shroud.” Microscope 28, (1980), 29, 1981.

Nickell, Joe. Inquest on the Shroud of Turin: Latest Scientific Findings. Amherst, New Jersey: Prometheus Books, 1998.

________. Relics of the Christ. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007.

________. “Scandals and Follies of the Shroud.” Skeptical Inquirer 25, no. 5 (September/October 2001.)

“Shroud of Christ?” Secrets of the Dead Series, PBS, aired April 7, 2004.

Sox, H. David.  The Image on the Shroud: Is the Turin Shroud a Forgery? London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1981.

Wilson, Ian. The Blood and the Shroud. New York: Free Press, 1998.

________. The Shroud of Turin. Rev. Ed. Garden City, New York: Image, 1979.

Web Articles

Drange, Theodore. (1998.) “Science and Miracles.” Internet Infidels, Inc.  10 Pages.Retrieved from: http://infidels.org/library/modern/theodore_drange/miracles.html

Monson, Bruce. (1998.) “Post Hoc Miracles.” Internet Infidels, Inc. 3 Pages. Retrieved from: http://infidels.org/kiosk/article/post-hoc-miracles-185.html

Packham, Richard. (1998.) “The Man with No Heart.” Internet Infidels, Inc. 4 Pages. Retrieved from: http://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_packham/heart.html

Tattersall, Richard. (2000.) “A Critique of Miracles by C. S. Lewis.” Internet Infidels, Inc. 12 Pages. Retrieved from: http://infidels.org/library/modern/nicholas_tattersall/miracles.html