Relics & Fakes

By Dr. Robert M. Schoch

Copyright 2006


Note:  This is a modified version of an article originally written for The New Archaeology Review.


        There seems to be a general fascination with relics, be it relics of famous people, saints, prophets, historical events, or in the Christian world the epitome of all relics, those associated with Jesus of Nazareth:  the Holy Grail, pieces of the True Cross (so many of which have been claimed over the ages, that some joke they could be used to build a house), the Shroud of Turin, or the Spear of Longinus that was supposedly used to pierce the lifeless body of the Christ as it hung on the cross.


        Just a few years ago (2002) another, and quite sensational, relic apparently related to Jesus appeared on the scene:  The James Ossuary (bone box) found in the Jerusalem region.  This object is a box, carved of limestone, which was used as a repository for the bones of the deceased.  Such boxes were commonly used in the Jerusalem area during the first century A.D., and are often found in grave and cemetery contexts.  What is remarkable about the so-called James Ossuary is that it includes the following Aramaic inscription on its side:  “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”  Is this the James of the New Testament, the very brother of Jesus Christ?  The James who was so prominent in the Jerusalem branch of the fledgling Christian church?  Does this simple limestone box provide a direct connection, and historical documentation, through the ages to the man that so many have considered the Son of God?  Oh the stories that this box could tell, and people would weave around it, if authentic.


        But the craze over the James Ossuary was short-lived.  In June of 2003, after meticulous study, the Israeli Antiquities Authority declared that the inscription on the ossuary (the ossuary itself is undoubtedly genuine) is a forgery.  According to one contention, the inscription “James, son of Joseph” may have been inscribed first (possibly authentic?), and the “brother of Jesus” portion was added later  (definitely a forgery?).  A few persons seem to hold on to the notion that the James Ossuary inscription is possibly genuine, but most people have now dismissed it as one more fake. 


        Anyone familiar with the history of relics realizes that many, if not most, such objects are not exactly what they are said to be (for a wonderful discussion of fakes, including archaeological objects, see Fake? The Art of Deception, edited by Mark Jones [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).  A genuinely ancient artifact of the time of Christ, for instance, may be claimed to have an association with Jesus that is nonexistent.  Plenty of pious frauds have been perpetuated on the unknowing for all the “right reasons,” sometimes rather unscrupulously.  Eusebius (third-fourth century A.D.) in his Ecclesiastical History cites apocryphal letters exchanged between Jesus and Abgar, King of Edessa.  The Shroud of Turin, supposedly containing the image of Jesus that was impressed upon it when the cloth was used to wrap his body after the crucifixion, remains enigmatic.  Radiocarbon dating performed on the cloth in 1988 gave a result of circa 1260 to 1390 A.D., corresponding approximately to the first known records of the shroud, and thus indicating to skeptics that it is a medieval forgery.  But wait!  Some researchers have found a bioplastic coating on the fibers, a fungus-like growth, that could have had the effect of making the sample appear younger than it really is.  Furthermore, no one really knows how the image was formed on the shroud, and even if it is an image dating back to the early first century A.D. that does not prove that it is the image of Jesus Christ.


        And then there are some artifacts that have survived, and are apparently of unquestioned authenticity, yet seemingly so rare that it is a wonder they are with us.  My favorite in this category is what appears to be an example of Cleopatra’s very own handwriting.  On a royal ordinance dated to 33 B.C. written on papyrus (now housed in a museum in Berlin) granting tax privileges to one Publius Canidius the queen wrote in Greek “make it happen,” thus giving her approval (see Cleopatra of Egypt, edited by Susan Walker and Peter Higgs [Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2001, p. 180]).


        When it comes to sacred relics, such as those associated with Christianity, for many people archaeological or scientific “authenticity” is not even the ultimate criterion.  What really counts is whether the artifact is imbued with “sacredness.”  This may be manifested as miracles performed with the aid of the artifact.  An old piece of wood said to be a piece of the cross upon which Jesus perished, or a common Roman spearhead said to have pierced the side of Christ, if it serves as a vehicle to cure the sick and perform other “miracles” over and over again is self-evidently authentic to some people, no matter what scientific analyses may reveal.


        While on the subject of questionable artifacts, I cannot forget one of my favorites:  The Vinland Map housed at my old alma mater, Yale University.  Apparently dating from about 1440 A.D. (thus a half-century prior to Columbus’s first voyage), the map shows part of the New World in the form of an island labeled Vinlandia Insula and includes brief commentary on the Norse discovery of Vinland.  Since its announcement by Yale in 1965, the Vinland map has raised much controversy.  A notable group of experts in antique maps and books vouched for its authenticity, but from the start others disagreed.  In 1972-1974 scientific analysis of minute ink samples led a group of researchers to conclude that the map was a forgery as they believed they detected titanium dioxide in a form that was not available until the 1920s.  But a decade later (1984) another team reanalyzed the map using newer techniques and refuted the earlier report, suggesting that the amount of titanium dioxide was overestimated by a factor of 5,000 by the first group, and the Vinland Map titanium dioxide falls within the range found among genuine manuscripts of the period.  Ironically, as scholars continue to argue over the authenticity of the Vinland map, numerous archaeological finds, including the excavation of a Norse settlement on Newfoundland, have confirmed the message of the Vinaland map: 


Columbus was by no means the first European to set foot on the Americas.



by Robert M. Schoch





 Some of the most greatest hoaxes have even made into Ripley's Believe it or Not!

As of August of 2006, we may now add Bosnia and Semir Osmanagic and his fake pyramid

to the long list of world wide questionable intangibles and his balls of course,

and you can click here for even more further reading . Thank you. CMD





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