(RNS) Why are we so fascinated with any historical artifact — relics, as some call them — associated with Jesus?
Even the most suspect claim of a “lost” gospel or an “explosive” archaeological find that purports to shed light on the man from Galilee can generate a media frenzy, and gives believers — or skeptics — fresh evidence to try to finally win their argument while leaving their foes on the defensive.
Think of the recent “gospel” that seemed to show Jesus had a wife — and she was, of all people, the scandalous Mary Magdalene. Or the discovery a few years ago of an ancient papyrus that depicted Judas as the hero of the gospel story, not the great betrayer. Or, a few years before that, the revelation of a bone box with “brother of Jesus” inscribed on the top.
The argument in these purported blockbuster discoveries is that everything we’ve ever known about Christianity is probably false and that there has been a massive, millennia-long cover-up to hide the real truth. Remember “The Da Vinci Code”? There’s a reason that fiction sounded like fact to a lot of people.
Yet in spite of the overblown claims and dodgy artifacts floating around out there, genuine artifacts and solid historical research still provide the best window into that long-ago world and the best chance to figure out who Jesus really was, and what he meant.
That’s also the idea behind CNN’s “Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery,” a new, six-part series that we created (and book of the same name that we co-authored). “Finding Jesus” premieres this Sunday (March 1) on CNN and runs weekly through Easter Sunday, with each episode examining many of the very objects that have so often made for eye-popping headlines:
The Shroud of Turin (March 1); the bones of John the Baptist (March 8); the gospel of Judas (March 15); James, the brother of Jesus (March 22); the True Cross (March 29); and the gospel of Mary Magdalene (April 5).
Why focus on scraps of papyrus and splinters of wood, bone fragments and bits of ancient linen?
Obviously, objects associated with a famous person or a loved one (Jesus can qualify as both) have a great allure on their own. They provide a direct physical connection with the past, allowing us to reach across the chasm of time and space. It doesn’t matter if it’s a lock of hair or an old baseball card or something even more mundane, like an expired credit card that once belonged to the late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain — which is now on the auction block.
But artifacts related to Jesus, and the historical research around them, do three critical things:
ONE: They educate with actual facts
“Test everything; retain what is good,” St. Paul wrote to a community of early Christians. It pays to do the same with the various claims of amazing breakthroughs. Some can indeed provide a valuable new perspective on the Jesus of history, and even those that do not turn out to be what they seem can, through the process of testing and debunking, take readers more deeply into the reality of the first-century church.
That’s a good thing, and necessary: Christians can be woefully ignorant about their own scriptures, and just 45 percent of all Americans can name the four Gospels. (They’re Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, if you’re taking notes.)
In the absence of information, any argument or conspiracy theory can gain traction. You say Jesus was married? Well, why not? And Mary Magdalene was a prostitute? Who can prove that she wasn’t?
TWO: They provide context
The truth is that we know precious little about Jesus, mainly because the Gospel writers and even his immediate followers were interested in promoting his message, not writing historical biography.
For example: None of his contemporaries told us what he looked like, and no one even speculated about his appearance for centuries. All that great art is simply conjecture, which is one reason the image on the Shroud of Turin is so tantalizing. Could it be the original selfie? There are even arguments over exactly what language Jesus spoke, and whether he was literate.
Remember, after the Christmas narrative, there is only one passing mention of the young Jesus in one Gospel, when he was 12. The next we hear of him, he is a 30-year-old man, emerging as the Messiah and a miracle worker, and the Son of God. That’s a huge gap, and that vacuum has sucked in all manner of theories about Jesus as a teenager or maybe a 20-something wandering the world in search of himself.
Some of the so-called New Atheists are even resurrecting the old chestnut that Jesus never existed and was an invention of a group of first-century Jews.
That theory is widely discredited, but it shows that for both believers and skeptics, learning about the historical context of first-century Judaism is more important than ever. That knowledge is the frame that outlines the subject. The more we know about John the Baptist — who was essentially Jesus’ mentor — or Judas Iscariot, the more we know about Jesus.
Relics are, ironically, a rare patch of common ground between skeptics and believers, a place where science and religion can come together, not as foes but as pilgrims on a shared journey — wherever it leads.
THREE: They provide a reality check
The so-called “quest” for the historical Jesus has been going on for centuries, since European scholars began applying critical methods to holy writ once considered beyond question. The research has ebbed and flowed — we are in the midst of the third great “quest,” some say — and academics and theologians have produced much of value, and have also gone down many a dead end.
Perhaps the greatest peril for scholars, and Bible-reading believers, is that we wind up creating Jesus in our own image.
In recent decades, Jesus has been held up as everything from a proto-Marxist to an anti-tax Tea Partier. For others, he is the model of a simple-living, slow-food-loving peasant, or he is a model salesman who can teach you to be successful in business. Still others depict Jesus as a freedom-loving zealot or a detached Greek philosopher, or gay, or happily married — with kids, of course.
But these distortions actually make the quest to recover the Jesus of history — and of faith — more urgent.
Artifacts and archaeology can be a way to take us out of ourselves, to transport us to a time and place not our own, in hopes of discovering something about Jesus that is not filtered through the lens of our own desires.
(David Gibson, a national reporter for Religion News Service, and author and filmmaker Michael McKinley are co-authors of the new book “Finding Jesus” and creators of the CNN series).