Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Shroud History II: extraordinary evidence.

Thomas De Wesselow has set himself a mighty task.  Recognizing that two hundred years of searching for a plausible skeptical solution to the Easter Enigma has run dry (which is why the likes of Richard Carrier and PZ Myers toss all the evidence in the bonfire and declare Jesus a non-person, one might add), the art historian thinks he has found the solution that has eluded everyone.  That solution, he promises, will involve the Shroud of Turin, the true burial cloth of Jesus, and the origin of this myth called the Resurrection. 

My interest in his book is three-fold.  First, I appreciate the challenge.  DW is a clever, informed fellow who has read widely and expresses himself well. The more such challenges the Gospel survives, the more clear its truth becomes.  Second, DW shows not only that previous skeptical solutions have failed, but why they have failed.  His book is therefore loaded with observations, untainted by Christian bias, that support Christian conclusions, if (or when) his own theory fails.  Third, as an art historian, he brings special expertise to the table: perhaps not on history, as we have already begun to see, but on Medieval art.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonaide.  Some of the strongest arguments for the truth of Christianity are often quarried from anti-Christian arguments.  This book may prove a gold mine.

In this post, I follow DW's preliminary discussion of the Shroud's history, why it cannot be a Medieval fake, why secularists often seem afraid of this mysterious old cloth, and an argument DW begins, but fails to follow quite to the trail's end.

History of the Shroud

DW sketches the history of the Shroud of Turin in chapter 2.  He admits that "almost everyone" now considers it a Medieval fake.  That does not include art historians, however, who he says pretty much universally deny that Medievals could have created this work: 

It corresponds to no other image, artificial or natural, currently known.  Despite decades of trying, no modern experimenter has yet been able to reproduce it; despite decades of investigation, no scientist has been able to say conclusively how it was created.  The Shroud is a complete anomaly. (14)

Art historians should have leaped on the Shroud as oe of the most fascinating visual creations of the medieval period . . . Strangely, though, they have remained almost entirely silent.  The reason is simple: the negative photo of the cloth is an unmistakable sign that the Shroud's famous image could not have been created by a medieval artist.  Technically, conceptually and stylistically the Shroud makes no sense as a medieval artwork.  (22)

DW notes the bigotry and fear with which secular scholars have often treated the Shroud, precisely because it threatens to drag them beyond secular dogmas about the world: 

Although Delage made it clear that he did not regard Jesus as the resurrected Son of God, his paper upset the atheist members of the Academy, including its secretary, Marcellin Berthelot, who prevented its full publication in the Academy's bulletin. (20) 

The suggestion that the Shroud evinced "some sort of energy generated during the Resurrection" was regarded with "horror by secularists." (25)  In fact, the secular academy seemed at times to recoil from this concrete piece of physical evidence, as if in fear of its implications:

It is as if a spell has been cast over the Shroud, a spell consisting of the words: 'if the Shroud is real, then so is the Resurrection.'  This is the unspoken thought that prevents most people from taking the cloth seriously.  The way to break the spell is not the find out ever more about the Shroud scientifically, it is to rethink the Resurrection.

But shouldn't such a reaction in itself be a warning sign to anyone seriously seeking truth?  Why should so many people be afraid to consider a piece of physical evidence?  And is DW seriously suggesting that the right response is not to examine our motives, then approach ultimate questions with an open mind and perhaps with new perspectives, but to double down and find a new way of pandering to the prejudices of our era? 

A little soul-searching might seem in place, first. 

At the end of the chapter, Thomas even uses a word beloved of the skeptical community (see, for instance, Stephen Law's attempt to extend Hume's argument against miracles, and my response): "extraordinary."  The usual soundbite is, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."  DW notes that two great mysteries seem to touch at this one small patch of time and space: what happened to Jesus after he died, and where this mysterious shroud came from:

How could two such grand enigmas resulting from the very same burial be unconnected?  Surely, an extraordinary imprint on Jesus' burial cloth would imply something extraordinary having happened to his body. (27)

As a skeptical art historian, apparently an atheist, DW points at that hotly-contested ground and renders the point emphatic and explicit:

The Shroud is extraordinary evidence.  The stories about Jesus' resurrection are equally extraordinary.  So what is the connection?

Thomas is asking the right question.  But he has not, yet, plumbed the depths of mystery.  Other "signs" of something extraordinary character also congregate around this little plot of territory:

* Jesus' words, recorded in the Gospels DW derides, are also extraordinary.  "No one ever spoke as this man."  This is one reason, as we will see, that his dismissal of the Gospels later on in the book (I am reading ahead, now) is highly unreasonable. 

* Prophecies of the Messiah or Suffering Servant also stick to Jesus as to no one else, that I know of.  Attempts to find Mohammed in the Bible, for instance, are forlorn by comparison.  (Also see my How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture.)

* The works described of Jesus in the Gospels are also extraordinary, even (especially) when compared to other alleged wonder-working sages, like Apollonius, or that ghostly smart-aleck misnamed Jesus in the Gnostic texts.  

* The effect of Jesus' life on history is also extraordinary, as DW concedes -- whether or not he knows the whole story.

So now we meet not one, not two, but  at least six (and DW will add more) extraordinary sets of data, cohering on this one point, out of all of history and across continents. 

A good hypothesis needs to explain all outstanding evidence.  DW is on the right track, fixing on two extraordinary clues.  But he overlooks others, the great error (Wright points this out) of most partial pictures of Jesus.  He seems to be announcing that he only intends to ride the subway to the next 7-11, not all the way home.

In Part III, DW makes it clear that the reason he does not find the true historical Jesus, is because he wants desperately not to find him.  He proves remarkably honest about his own materialistic bias.  

1 comment:

Απολλωνιακός said...