Joe Nickell – The Relics of the Christ

May 11, 2007

The world’s leading paranormal investigator, Joe Nickell is a regular contributor to Skeptical Inquiry science magazine. He is the author or editor of more than twenty books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1983, 1998) and most recently, The Relics of the Christ (2007).

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Nickell talks about his new book, Relics of the Christ, and various Holy Artifacts he has scientifically investigated over the years. He details current skeptical thinking on the Shroud of Turin, purported to be Jesus of Nazareth’s original burial cloth, certain relics cults throughout history, and the important role that relics have played in the history of the Catholic Church. He also touches on his research on the Holy Grail, investigations of the famed James Ossuary, the burial container claimed to belong to James the brother of Jesus, and fragments of the Cross of Jesus.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, May 11th, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York CFI, also maintains branch centers in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood, Washington, D.C., Toronto, Ontario, Canada and a number of other cities around the world. Every week on this show, we look at big questions through the lens of scientific naturalism. Before we get to this week’s guest, Joe Nicole, we’re going to talk about relics of the Christ. Here’s a word from this week’s sponsor. 

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We just had our next guest on Point of Inquiry a few weeks ago. He’s the world’s leading paranormal investigator. Joe Nickell, we brought him back today to talk about his new book, Relics of the Christ. He’s investigated scores of paranormal occurrences and haunted house cases, religious artifacts. He’s investigated The Amityville Horror and the McKensie House in Toronto. He’s a veteran of hundreds of TV and radio appearances and the author of over 20 books, including Inquest of the Shroud of Turin, Secrets of the Supernatural. Looking for a Miracle Entities, Psychic Sleuths, Real Life X Files, the UFO invasion and on and on. His most recent book and the book he’s going to talk with me about today is Relics of the Christ. Welcome back to a point of inquiry. 

Joe Nicole, thanks for having me again. You were just on a few weeks ago, but as I said in the introduction, wanted to have you on right now because your schedule’s really tight so that we could talk about this book. Relics of the Christ. First off, I guess we should talk about how you are not an historian of the late Roman period. You’re not an historian of Christian origins. You’re an investigator. The world’s leading paranormal investigator. Your considered show. Why are you turning your critical eye to the life of Jesus and all these relics and shrouds supposedly supporting the claims that he actually existed? 

Well, as you say, I’m not a biblical scholar and not looking at the issue of whether Jesus was a historical person or a figure of mythology, except to discuss those different perspectives a little bit in the introduction. What interests me is what’s imminently investigational, and that is these physical relics alleged of his existence. Are they real in more than the carny sideshow sense of being real fakes? 

Well, it was shit in science. Stay out of that debate. These seemed to me to be questions while they’re matters of faith better left to religious people to thrash out. You’re not a believer who seems to be sincerely looking into these claims, the relics out of your own faith. Your you’re a skeptic. 

I’m looking at them the same way I investigate everything. And that is neither with a view towards promoting it nor dismissing it out of hand, but simply trying to find out if such a thing as the Shroud of Turin or the Holy Lands is authentic and science is the way to do that. These are not matters of faith. There’s no reason why anyone should look at the Shroud of Turin, for example, as an article of faith, unless and until they have clearly investigated it to see if the blood is genuine. It isn’t. If the cloth is ancient, it’s not. And so on. Therefore, one should. Look at such objects with a can of objectivity that a forensic expert would look at something, and that’s the perspective you’re bringing to bear on investigating these relics. 

You began your book by talking about Jesus, the person and and exploring in just an introductory way. Evidence for his existence. Do we have physical evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth? 

You’re asking me to turn to the last page of the book and sum it up for people and thereby torpedo all my sales. But that’s that’s. That’s true. That these relics that I have have looked at with with some years of of looking, in fact, do not. Turn out to be authentic. And so far as I know, until something else is uncovered, we don’t have an authentic trace, physical trace of Jesus. 

But absence of evidence, just because there’s no physical evidence doesn’t mean that’s evidence of Jesus, his absence that he never existed. 

Well, that’s exactly right. And that, therefore, there are issues beyond this book. But but I think this book needed to be done to say here for those who are wondering here, here is a look for those who are insisting that there are physical traces of Jesus. Let’s see if those claims hold up. And let’s settle. To the extent we can, whether there are any true relics of Jesus. And by the way, I go on to look at other holy relics associated with him in his life. But I do not try to go beyond the relics to say, as you suggest, that therefore we can draw a conclusion that because there are no authentic relics of Jesus, he didn’t exist there. There are plenty of historical figures that we have, not a single relic of who we know did exist. 

Right. I hear from Christian apologists a lot that we have more physical evidence that Jesus existed than Caesar Augustus existing. In other words, there are more lines of evidence to support the claim that there was an actual man called Jesus of Nazareth than many other historical figures that may or may not be the case. 

Again, I. I have not looked into all that evidence except the physical evidence itself regarding these relics, these Ron Lindsay, the actual physical, tangible relics of his holy coat. 

So let’s talk about some of those. Historically, there were whole movements of people surrounding the veneration of these supposed relics of Jesus. It’s not just museum pieces, but whole movements of people kind of following these relics across Europe over history. 

Yes, they is a single thorn from the crown of thorns. Could be the impetus for building a cathedral. And there were unfortunately numerous examples of of many of the relics. For example, there were some 40 genuine holy shrouds of Jesus. Now, I’m sure are very bright listeners out there are saying, well, it at at least 39 of those are bogus and that that would seem to be the case. One is reminded of the joke about John, the Baptists head when when it was learned that. Pilgrims going to the UN pilgrimages would would be told that there were two of these and they would wonder how this could be until they were told that, well, the other one is from when he was a boy. Well, because one does have to acknowledge that there are, as John Calvin said, enough pieces of the true cross to fill the cargo hold of a goodly ship. 

And there have been enough nails probably to nail the ship together with and so forth. But. Again, the proliferation of relics was something beyond. 


Museum artifact. These were the word Holy says says much people venerated these. They wanted them. They were potent. They were said to have magical powers. Great stories of relics, doing all sorts of things. Probably not true. These are pious legends that that don’t withstand scrutiny. Many of them are very late vintage, but they were said to be magical. And so whenever we have people wanting something very, very badly. Some other group of people of a dastardly sort, perhaps, or are perhaps. Simply utilizing the end justifies the means approach are willing to supply. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Relics of the Christ through our Web site point of inquiry dot org. Everyone interested in the historical Jesus origins of Christianity also bringing to bear the investigative methods of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. And Joe Niccolò on these questions should get a copy of this book. It belongs in your library. 

Joe, there are different kinds of relics, not just pieces of the cross. There are relics supposedly from Jesus’s childhood, from later in his life. 

Everything from the holy foreskin of which there were many reported examples. Really? Yes. Yes. There were also vials of Jesus’s mother’s milk relics from Joseph’s carpentry shop. Nearly anything you could think of, skulls of the wise men. Just it’s just incredible. 

The whole Christian communities grew up around one or another relic in different parts of Europe. 

Critical thinking clearly was in the tournament stage because most of these claims today would not get very far. Still, it’s it’s a great and sad commentary on human credulity. Let’s talk about the Holy Grail. 

That’s a topic you treat in the book. I don’t think of the Holy Grail as maybe it shows my ignorance, but as a Christian relic, as much as it is, you know, part of Christian lore and really English lore more than, you know, world Christianity. 

Yes. Well, it it is simply the stuff of legend and and traces to early romances that tell the story and of the chalice from the Last Supper. But clearly, these are of very late vintage and are written, as you know, today. We would realize that these are simply romances. 

They’re they’re they’re fiction, but people have taken them more seriously. And so, of course, they’ve identified several alleged holy grails and the Holy Grail even been interpreted to be other things. Yeah, as in Vinci Code and The Da Vinci Code is, of course, gone off the deep end in several directions and and is a ludicrous book. But to those people who say that The Da Vinci Code is defended as well, after all, it’s fiction. So enough said. Well, it isn’t enough said since Dan Brown makes clear at the very beginning that while it’s fiction, it’s based on certain facts, which he states. And unfortunately, those aren’t true. The Priory of Scion, which is the secret organization that supposedly Leonardo da Vinci belonged to and others, and that involved with the Holy Grail and so forth, is based on forged documents of recent vintage. And Dan Brown was taken because take it in the con man sense, because he relied on certain books, a couple of notorious books of pseudo history that are, you know, end up on bestseller lists at the time they published and take up space in the bookstores. But are anything but history, they’re they’re pseudo history. 

Let’s talk about the true cross. Earlier, you mentioned fragments and nails from the cross, but there were accounts and claims made about actual well, not just splinters of the cross, but big pieces of the cross that people traipsed around Europe and were the center of cathedrals. 

Well, that’s true. There were many, many relics of the cross. And and I have I have seen at least one piece of the true cross. They’re not as common now as as they once were. They’re not always on exhibit. 

But when did all this stuff go out of fashion? Do. Are there movements within Christian Christianity right now? Catholicism right now that’s still venerates these relics like hundreds of years ago. 

Relics are still important to Catholicism. I believe they’ve gone into decline to some extent, that in former times you had to have a relic in order to have a Catholic church. And I think now that’s not not so true. But I I’m not privy to all the the doctrines of Catholicism. But the relics are are in huge numbers. I went to one church in Italy that was just filled. To the rafters with them. I mean, each one in a beautiful little silver case or something, and then just one after the other after the other, just covering the walls and in display cases and so forth, just from all over the place. 

So the the church economy or the the religious economy was really based on what church had the most relics that were there was kind of a ranking of of churches, cathedrals. The more relics you had the whole year you were, the better you were. 

There was a competition you’d had. There was a competition because if you had a better relic than some other church and in some other city, you would draw the pilgrims. So the relics were good for business. 

We could do a whole show on the Shroud of Turin. That’s one of your areas of expertize. Let’s just touch on it briefly here. We’ll have you back. Maybe we could get more in-depth about it at some later date. Hasn’t a team of scientists investigated it and suggested that it is indeed authentic? I thought I saw something on PBS or NOVA. You know, one of these TV shows saying as much. 

Yes. Recently PBS reran a documentary of a few years ago that I think is really, really beyond the pale because they left out of the documentary the important facts. Let me just briefly mentioned the place, the Shroud of Turin, a 14 foot length of linen cloth that people say in shrouded Jesus in his burial tomb. Yes. That wrapped the body of Christ. And that bears the imprints of a seemingly crucified man with bloodstains and so forth. An image of a man. 

Now, no burial cloth in the history of the world has left such imprints, but no burial cloth in the history of the world covered Jesus of Nazareth except purportedly the well. 

And this is an important dilemma. Right away is because there are factions that want to say the shroud could be a perfectly genuine, normal physical thing. But at some point, you get into, well, maybe it’s a miracle and maybe it’s something extraordinary and supernatural. 

That’s how the face of Jesus is imprinted on the shroud. Miraculous. 

Well, but but you have you have within the even the pro shroud movement, you have people wanting to say it’s it’s simply a natural thing. And note does not itself require a miracle and therefore can be dealt with by science and that science shows it’s genuine. Others, of course, say otherwise. And you have scientists saying somewhat with some sarcasm that they need to develop a science of miracles in order to talk about these things. 

So you say it’s a 14th century forgery, but hasn’t radiocarbon dating and other scientific investigation been brought to bear on it to suggest that it’s authentic? 

No interest even on TV? Noah’s on TV because while we have it, we have no burial cloth ever to have such imprints. We have there is no record of this cloth being saved. No mention the Gospels at all that that these clogs were saved. In fact, plural klores, including a separate cloth called the Napkin in the Gospel of John. Cover Jesus’s face. And if the gospel of John is correct about that, then there’s something wrong with the Shroud of Turin because there should be a blank spot where the face is cause and cause. A napkin should have should have the face covered the face. And in the Gospel, John uses verbs like tying and binding and and refers to a 100 pound weight of myrrh and allows spices and so forth, not a speck of which is on the Shroud of Turin. So. So the shroud is not consistent with the Gospels. It’s also has no history whatsoever for some thirteen hundred and fifty years. This is homo long time. The earliest records of bishops report to Pope Clement that the forger was found and confessed. 

And we have so there’s documentary evidence in the Catholic churches. Ramsey is where leaders in the Catholic Church said that this was a forgery. 

And Bishop, a bishop, wrote to Pope Clement in 13 89 saying, Holy Father, let me tell you about this scandal that’s going on in my diocese. And he says why they’re hiring people to pretend that they’re sick and then they reveal this fake shroud and so they pretend they’re revealed. So that, as he said, this is almost an exact quote, that money might be cunningly wrung from the pockets of unsuspecting pilgrims. So you can see there’s there’s a lot we could talk about at a later time about. About the scandals and the follies of the holy shroud. And, of course, in recent years, a number of of examinations of it starting with a secret. The mission which the Turin authorities denied having and then had to admit they hadn’t told the truth, and that was rather skeptical, there were actual forensic psychologist who said that it failed all the tests for blood. And we’re constantly being told that this or that scientist has now authenticated blood or done something. And you just are left in all at times of how people are able to claim things that aren’t true. 

One other quick point about the shroud before we get into it in-depth. At some later date, the material of the shroud is said to be in keeping with the kind of weaves in the late Roman period. 

This is not true. And no examples of that herringbone three to one. Well, we have been found from the time of Christ. Well, no matter what you’ve heard or read. 

Well, what’s that we’ve consistent with then, if not the first century? 

Well, that’s closer to the Middle Ages. And. And. But. But the great arguments go on for a long time about things like weaves which are which are hard to be absolutely definitive about. But because somebody might have done something just we don’t have an example of, it doesn’t mean they couldn’t have done it or didn’t do it. But much more important to two quick things about the shroud. One is that it it radiocarbon date it. It dates, would one imagine to the time of Christ or. Last week or when? Well, it dates almost exactly practically to the month and day of the forger’s confession. I mean, it’s just a remarkable coincidence that it dates if it’s incorrect, that it dates to that time. 

So why are people saying that radiocarbon dating supports the claim that it is authentic first century artifact? 

What most of the pressure people are doing is saying that the radiocarbon dating, which was devastating and said that it was not authentic, that that they can explain, that they can explain it and do some calculations and so forth, that they could explain it away or it makes sense to make it make sense of it. The other thing that has to be said is that the the shroud is covered with Red Ocher and Papillion tempera paint in a college and temporal binder. And that was that was discovered by the McCrone Laboratory, the best in the world doing that sort of analysis. And and I I have been to McCrone Laboratory, saw the slides, and I’m absolutely convinced that this work is that his work is solid and that it explains, for example, why the blood is still bright red, which is every schoolboy, I think in school. Girl, no real blood doesn’t stay bright red very long, certainly not in centuries as terms Brownless again. That’s a miracle and so forth. There’s no reason to invoke a miracle because what we have is a very clear pattern of evidence that if you just take the this statement that is the work of a medieval forger, you can see how all the evidence is mutually corroborative and and supports that to finish up. 

Joe, or before we finish up Joe. I want to talk about one other subject you treat in the book, and that’s the James Ossuary. You were involved in looking at that firsthand. First, tell me what the James assurer he is. It made some big press 18 months ago or so. And how you got involved with looking at it? 

Well, I was first asked by a reporter to comment on it. It’s it’s it’s a bone box. And Oshri is a bone box that in Jewish practice for a limited period of time. Bodies were allowed to decompose in a tomb and then the bones were put together in a in an Ushery box. 

The James actuary is supposedly the ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus. 

Yes, it is. It says James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. And so. 

It appears to be, of course, proof of of Jesus’s historicity. But unfortunately, as is so often the case, it has no provenance. We don’t know where that guy who had it. Got it. He doesn’t remember exactly where he got it. Has no proof. There’s no question is a genuine ossuary. And when I went to Toronto and was able to see it on display there, I did something that not everybody was doing. People were walking up and looking at this inscriptions, very small, very sort of neat little inscription. I didn’t do that. I walked around the box and got to look at the whole thing. And when I did, it was clear that there were carvings on the other side. These large rosette designs. Even though biblical archeology magazine and some of the people touting this were saying there were no designs on it other than the inscription in a border, well, there they were. And they had every appearance of looking old and blurred and ruffled with age and pitted an absolutely genuine and I I’m quite sure this is genuine old Ushery. When you walked around to the other side, in contrast, here was this inscription which looked, as I said to a colleague at the time, looked like it was done last week with a dentist drill. And that it was a box with two sides because Osiris fit it into a niche and they usually had only one side out. Choying That was the side with the decorations. Very few had carvings on them. 

Very few would have carvings on both sides because the backside wouldn’t be seen right in the in its storage place. Right. 

But all things are possible and there may be some exceptions and so forth. But it seemed odd to me people were more or less looking at the you know, there were they were calling the back the front. And it was, as I joked, a box with two fronts. Those were reasons enough with the lack of provenance to suggest that it might be like other artifacts I’ve investigated over the years. A dictionary with some notes by Charles Dickens, a rifle carved with Daniel Boone’s name and some not just for the Indians killed and several others that I could mention in which a clever person took a genuine old object and then ice the cake by adding an inscription or something and hoping for the best. 

And you published your thoughts about the James Ossuary and Skeptical Inquirer magazine. What effect did that have on the on the chatter out there about the claims regarding the sorcerer? 

It’s hard to say how much effect that had, but it certainly didn’t do any harm because in in time there was already skepticism. And and we we called further attention to the problems. And soon enough, the man who owned the actuary, Oded Golan, was arrested and charged with antiquities forgery, fraud. And at least one other sensational piece was had similar dubious background and seemed seemed possibly faked. He had the tools and things necessary for faking things. There were things in various states of carving and stuff. He, of course, maintains his innocence. And we will see. He says that he was doing research and sort of, I guess seeing how you could fake things in order to authenticate them or something doesn’t look good for for Mr Golan. But we’ll see. I pointed out that patinas can be faked. And and the authorities are saying that the petina that is the coating of age in the letters is false and was applied. There still are defenders of the James Ossuary. 

It is it seems that when we get one of these dubious relics like the Shroud of Turin, a group of people come out of the woodwork, fall in love with it, embrace it, and can never, ever, ever give it up no matter what you do. They will pay. They will have, despite the evidence. They will turn the evidence right upside down and and continue to believe it. 

They will see it as the more you carbon date or find something, the more they twist that into belief that it’s absolutely genuine. 

So last question, Joe. I want to ask you to step back just a little here. You’ve spent so much of your life investigating these sorts of questions. You wrote this book on it. It’s gotten great reviews. People are enjoying it. It is the only book that cast a skeptical eye in a comprehensive way at these relics of Jesus. Let me ask you, stepping back. Do you think. If there weren’t these cults of relics, if there if there wasn’t this widespread belief in the history of Christianity in these relics, do you think Christianity would be what it is today? Would it be as powerful or as popular as it is today? 

That’s really difficult to say. But there is there is no question in my mind that the relics helped give the lie to to myth that whether it’s more than myth is is still an open question, I think. 

But they falsely. 

Appeared to give endorsement to the reality of this figure, Jesus. That that here were actual, tangible things. We go in and look at things that belong to Abraham Lincoln. And we we. We see that this was a real man and we see these. And we appreciate that these are physical artifacts. And since the relics also purportedly had supernatural powers and were used to heal and do things and that they were endorsement’s for the authenticity of Jesus. And it’s really hard to say what would have happened had they not been around. 

But but they were around and they played an important, important role that is still continuing because we have. There are new relics. Not only is are some of them still around and still being defended, but new ones crop up like the James Ossuary or now some other actuaries were paying out, being it is the family representing the family tomb of Jesus. I’m skeptical of that as so. They really do. You will hear. For example, supporters of the Shroud of Turin, which is which is the biggest and strongest one, because it would not only prove Jesus was a historical person, but do a couple of other things to prove he looked like artist, said imagine he would look, it wouldn’t prove that if it’s a supernatural imprint of some kind that he maybe grows in the day. That gives the supernatural basis for the claims. But you will hear people say, oh, I don’t need the Shroud of Turin. My faith, you know, we’ll go on if no matter if the shrouds are fake and so forth. And yet use I’ve seen particular people who, it appeared to me, really did need it. They worked up their faith. The more they protested that they didn’t really need it, it was clear that they really did. What they wanted to do was to. Offer it to others as here’s why these things are true. Here’s here’s a fact. Here’s a here’s proof of Jesus. Science can’t explain this and so forth. But some, I think, are rather like the woman who told me once that she said you’re you’re missing the point with the Shroud of Turin. And I said, oh, I hope not. And she said, yes, you’re missing the point. The point isn’t whether the shrouds genuine or not. Well, you’ve got me there because that’s that to me, that’s it. And I can live with whatever the case is. As with any of my investigations, I just don’t get personally involved. I just want to know the truth and do the best I can trying to find that out. And then I’ll live with that. She’s a no no. You’re missing the point. The point is whether if we can make people believe it’s genuine, we can lead them to the true religion. Mm hmm. And I said, oh, so to sort of tell a little lie for Jesus. And she she started backing off from that. But it does seem like a lot of people have justified in the same way they justify, let’s say, faking a weeping statue that, well, if it leads people to the true religion, lie leads people to the truth, then then it’s it’s not so bad. And this kind of pious fraud I detest. And I think is well, if I may use one one word that may be controversy here, I’d say it’s it’s sinful. 

Thanks a lot for joining me on point of inquiry, Joe. Thank you. 

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DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.