Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Lost 40 days?

Ray Downing and John Jackson, a physics lecturer at the University of Colorado who runs the Turin Shroud Center of Colorado (photo courtesy History Channel)

Every year, when we draw close to Easter, television pays some attention to Jesus Christ and the Gospel. In previous decades movies like "The Greatest Story ever Told" were aired; between 1977 and and 1985 NBC would show the mini-series "Jesus of Nazareth." For a time this changed, especially as we went through the opening decade of the 21st century. It became fashionable, due to the unfortunate success of  The Da Vinci Code, to make TV specials that attacked Christian belief altogether, the chief offender being the National Geographic channel several years running. Generally, as I have described for Touchstone magazine, these specials involved the money making enterprise of producing a TV special that went hand in hand with a book. And, not just any sort of book, but the sort of book that real academics in universities dismiss as unscientific, and devoid of true information. Never mind that. Just bypass real historians and archeologists, and sell those books to the public; promote them on TV as "a challenge to the faith of every Christian," present them as earth shaking, as new discoveries, and sell the sizzle of sensation with the latest and greatest "shocker."

Now, however, it seems we have advanced to a time when people have become tired of all that. The specials now seem to be less insulting to our intelligence (not to mention our faith). On the whole, this is better. Nonetheless, even the best specials that aired in 2010 and 2011 must be challenged in part, though the better  portions of them can be received as wholesome and sound. I speak here mainly of two specials that aired on the History Channel about the work of Ray Downing, described as the "creator of the 3D computer technology that produced the 'real face of Jesus' from the image of the crucified man in the Shroud of Turin." In 2010 the History Channel produced "The Real face of Jesus," from which it borrowed whole sections for "Jesus, the lost forty days" in 2011. 

First, let me say why I believe these productions have merit.

On the whole, I think Downing's work is valuable for apologists, and that he was completely correct when he said (as reported on World Net Daily), "Jesus was more than just a spiritual event. Studying the Shroud [of Turin] to produce the 3D face of Jesus, we encountered scientific evidence that the resurrection was a real physical event that happened in a moment of time 2,000 years ago." 

I agree. Considering all the evidence, I am convinced that the famous shroud, which defies all attempts to explain it away, contains an image created by a kind of energy as yet unknown to the most advanced science. Certainly, the resurrection of Christ was a physical event, and so a burst of mysterious energy into the created universe of space, energy, matter and time, had to be part of how the miracle occurred. It appears that what it left for our observation was the closest thing possible to a photograph of Christ's resurrection. 

Anyone who sees these specials will have learned useful facts. For example, (as people who are genuinely interested in the shroud already know) we have more than sufficient reason to dismiss the 1988 Carbon 14 test, after which many people claimed that the Shroud was from the 13th or early 14th century, as severely flawed. This is  especially so if, as it now appears, the cloth was not even part of the original, but an addition sewn on after a fire on December 4, 1532 at Chambery Castle in France, where the shroud was located (not to mention the affect of extreme heat and of excessive handling, both of which could create new carbons). The best evidence by which we must dismiss the Carbon 14 test results as completely wrong is, as many know, the discovery of the the Sudarium of Oviedo.1

The value of the two History channel productions lies in their expression of faith that Christ truly rose from the dead. We hope that this faith is not entirely dependent on one relic, no matter how apparent it may be by the standards of modern science that the relic is genuine. Nonetheless, if the Shroud helps the faith of some people, that is good. If its bloody picture of the crucifixion, and if the very existence of the image indicates the fact of the resurrection, then it is both a relic and very icon that silently preaches the Gospel. It draws the world's attention to Him, the One we must all behold by faith for our salvation.

Unfortunately, the History channel has added the same old baggage left over from the selling of sensation that was so tiresomely created over and over a few years ago. The fact that Dr. Elaine Pagels was among the commentators tells us that the world of TV cannot free itself from pseudo-intellectual distractions that muddle and distort the real message. The 2011 special called "Jesus, the lost forty days" was promoted in these words: 

"According to the Bible, Jesus came back from the dead and walked the earth for 40 days before ascending to heaven. But the New Testament reveals little about this defining miracle of the Christian faith. Using tools of history, technology, science and faith, HISTORY tells the little-known story. Long-buried non-Biblical sources, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Secret Revelation of John and the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus yield astonishing information and detail about these seemingly lost 40 days. Could Jesus’ words in these ancient manuscripts contain some of his most important teachings, even though they were not included in the New Testament?"

(By the way, Josephus wrote nothing at all about those forty days.) We have two problems to tackle here. First of all, these sources are worthless as a source of reliable facts, and they contain doctrinal error. The irony is that attention to them added nothing to the TV production, but rather created a distraction from the line of argument and evidence that was proceeding along very well until that point. The bones thrown to "Gnosticism" are just a trend that is still fashionable in our time, just as several years ago it was fashionable and stylish to spend great energy on discussing both Zealots and Essenes, forcing them awkwardly like square pegs into round holes. Just as the sensation "scholars" of the 1970s tried to reconstruct an interpretation of the New Testament based on Zealots and Essenes, the first of which are barely mentioned in the New Testament, and the second not at all, so it is that these days we are subjected to the absurd spectacle of treating Third Century "Gnostic" texts as if they were equally valid to the Four Gospels. 

The simple fact is, we already know the history of the Canon of the New Testament, and we can trace how the Church identified it by a very early consensus throughout most churches in the first and second centuries. We know that it took time for Second Peter, Jude and Revelation to be universally recognized; we know that the only other books that were considered and taken seriously by any churches were The Shepherd of Hermas, and to a lesser extent, The Didache. The books of the New Testament Canon were generally received, and it is in them that the Fathers had recognized real authority. But, the "Gnostic" texts were not stifled, nor were they "banned from the Bible." The simple fact is, the Church, to whatever extent its people were even aware of them, never took them seriously.

The producers of the special treated us to the spectacle of Elaine Pagels, in true sensation monger style, reading into the text of the Gospel of John a dark and sinister effort to discredit the reputation of St. Thomas. Of course, in the fantasy world of Pagels' writing, that was because of his "Gospel" that had all the secrets of gnosis that the other Apostles had not been permitted to hear-only Thomas and the alleged Mrs. Jesus, Mary Magdalene. Somehow, Pagels manages to overlook the fact that Thomas is honored by the Church as an Apostle, one of the twelve, who built the church as far away as India, and who died a martyr; just as she manages to overlook the respect given Mary Magdalene and her title as "Saint" in the Church.

As we have seen before, Pagels has no scruples about inventing her fairy tales from whole cloth, nor any inner moral restraint from slandering holy men and martyrs of the Faith, nor any ethical problem with inventing wild historical assertions based on innuendo and suggestion. If only real history could be created in this manner-but real history cannot be created at all. Pagels does not have the respect of professional academia, because among genuine scholars she has earned only disdain. But, her books sell; so she can tolerate the cold shoulder of the academic world as she "cries all the way to the bank."

It would be good to see a documentary on Ray Downing's work without the undeserved homage paid to the sensationalist "scholars." Needless distraction would be taken away from the overall effort, and the total effect would be truly wholesome, safe even for the average person whose defenses against hogwash have not been erected and fortified. Sadly, for a few more years no doubt, we will be hearing about the "Gnostics" and their "Scriptures," and about the mean, bad "mainstream Christians"--you know, the ones who were regularly hounded to the death by Roman persecution, while the "Gnostics" managed to avoid persecution altogether. And, will someone please tell the TV producers that there was no group called "the Gnostics" in history? It is Christian scholars who have labeled "Gnostic" a kind of heresy, so naming many different heresies that had in common nothing more than claims to special knowledge. They could as well be called esoteric (and, for centuries, it was only the Church that had preserved any memory of them at all, and of their writings, as part of history).

The other problem with the 2011 special was the whole idea of forty "lost days." What did Jesus do in that time? St. Luke has told us that already.

"And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures." (Luke 24:44,45)

"The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen: To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God." (Acts 1"1-3)

In the New Testament, we see a consistent pattern of how the Old Testament was quoted to bring out its greatest meaning, the truth about Messiah. In the various Epistles we read a clear, coherent and well established theology, truth that was at one time defended in Jerusalem at the proto-Council of apostles and elders (Acts 15). The truth about the kingdom of God did not belong to one of several competing camps, nor to only one Apostle. Nor were the things that Jesus explained to them covered in a brief conversation. The forty days have not been lost. Jesus used them to explain and to teach, and the fruit of those days has been the property of the whole Church ever since. 

1.  Numerous historic documents tell us that the Sudarium has been in Oviedo since the 8th century and in Spain since the 7th century. It seems, too, to have arrived from Jerusalem. Documents from the late Roman period and the early Middle Ages are often sketchy and prone to chronological mistakes, and those pertaining to the Sudarium are no exception. But from a multiplicity of sources, scholars have extracted core elements of historical certainty and plausibility sufficient for a fair degree of historical reconstruction...

The blood (stain symmetry, type and other indicators) on the Sudarium matches the blood on the Shroud.

There are many points of coincidence between all these points and the Shroud of Turin - the blood group, the way the corpse was tortured and died, and the macroscopic overlay of the stains on each cloth. This is especially notable in that the blood on the Sudarium, shed in life as opposed to postmortem, corresponds exactly in blood group, blood type and surface area to those stains on the Shroud on the nape of the neck. If it is clear that the two cloths must have covered the same corpse, and this conclusion is inevitable from all the studies carried out up to date, and if the history of the Sudarium can be trustworthily extended back beyond the fourteenth century, which is often referred to as the Shroud's first documented historical appearance, then this would take the Shroud back to at least the earliest dates of the Sudarium's known history. The ark of relics and the Sudarium have without any doubt at all been in Spain since the beginning of the seventh century, and the history recorded in various manuscripts from various times and geographical areas take it all the way back to Jerusalem in the first century. The importance of this for Shroud history cannot be overstressed. (You may read this whole article here).


Anonymous said...

So, you think you can just ignore the evidence discovered at Nag Hamadi?

Fr. Robert Hart said...

No. The discovered library was evidence--evidence of what we had already known for a long time; that Gnostic manuscripts were composed in the Third Century AD, and fictionally attributed to much older, long departed, sources. So, it was evidence, but not of anything to do with the real Jesus.

Jackie said...

I watched the show and liked it a great deal, especially the work with the shroud. When talking of Nag Hamadi, it was mentioned the manuscripts were written in Coptic and that the original Greek texts have never been found. So, in this case, you would have only the translation of a source as your source which makes them not as credible as the books which do have original source material, no?

welshmann said...

Fr. Hart:

It's like going through the Church's household garbage 2,000 years after the fact, digging out all the theological junk mail, and crying out "Aha! So, what have we here? What were they trying to hide?"

An evangelical ministry called Radio Bible Class has a Sunday morning TV program called "Day of Discovery" that recently aired a series about the veracity of the Gospels. One of the participating academics made the observation that anyone with honest doubts about the "hidden gospels" should read them in their entirety and compare them to the canonical gospels. One quickly sees that the faux scholars who are touting these "gospels" at the expense of orthodox faith don't know what they're talking about.


Alice C. Linsley said...

Were we to pay attention to the more comprehensive picture of the origins of the Proto-Gospel among Abraham's Nilo-Saharan ancestors, we could more easily point out the difference between faux science and good science as it applies to the Gospel.