Hello and welcome again to Faith and Philosophy. Today’s topic is “Proof of the Resurrection.”
Now I’m going to admit right at the outset that this title is a bit of a come-on. If you’re expecting Josh McDowell type, “evidence that demands a verdict” then you may be disappointed. Rather, I want to ask just what would count as proof of the resurrection. Simply asserting that Christ’s tomb was empty on the first day of the week isn’t enough. Today I want to approach this question by considering one artifact in particular, the Shroud of Turin.
Shroud mania reached its apex when I was growing up in the late 1970s and 80s. I remember seeing all sorts of documentaries about it and I remember many people claiming that the shroud was proof of the resurrection. One popular explanation for the mysterious image on the shroud was that it was produced by a burst of radioactive energy from Christ’s body at his resurrection. In other words, the shroud gives us an exact photographic negative of the very moment of the resurrection. I’ll have to admit that sounded pretty cool when I was sixteen. However, leaving aside the rank silliness of the idea that the resurrection was accomplished through nuclear physics. The idea that radiation produced the image has been dismissed by just about every scientist that has ever been involved with the shroud, including those most open to its authenticity. In short, the image on the shroud is not a picture of the resurrection and, as I will make clear in a few minutes, no one in the Orthodox Church has ever claimed that it was.
A greater blow to the shroud’s credibility than even the silly theories of over zealous supporters came in 1988 when the results from carbon dating performed at three different laboratories were published. All three tests agreed that the material came from the middle ages. The shroud could not possibly be the burial shroud of Christ. Yet even before this announcement there were all sorts of theories purporting to describe how the image could have been faked. Most claimed that this is a clever painting of some sort. But my favorite theory published in 1994 is that Leonardo Da Vinci produced it using a primitive camera. There’s just one little problem with that theory. Leonardo was born almost a century after the first recorded appearance of the shroud in Lirey, France, in the middle of the fourteenth century. But hey, who ever let niggling little details like that stand in the way of a good story. Maybe Dan Brown could use that for the Da Vinci Code II.
All of this illustrates the fact that people’s reactions to the shroud, as is often the case with religious artifacts, are often as interesting as the artifact itself. On the one hand we have folks that want the artifact to be genuine so they can have physical proof of their beliefs. And on the other hand we have people who want the shroud to be a fake so they can prove that religion is non-sense. People on both sides of the fence are willing to swallow some outlandish theories so that they can maintain their beliefs, or lack of beliefs as the case may be. As it turns out, by the way, a compelling argument has been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal that the sample used in the carbon dating was not homogenous with the rest of the shroud. Apparently the corner from which the very small samples were taken had been re-woven at some point in the middle ages. Thus, the date was correct but the sample was wrong. Yet, even before the carbon dating tests in 1988, and even after this latest revelation, critics of the shroud have persistently ignored one extremely important historical fact. About a century and half before the shroud turned up in Lirey, France, a shroud matching its description and believed at the time to be the very burial shroud of Christ disappeared from Constantinople in the wake of the fourth crusade. The odds are very high that these shrouds are one and the same.
There’s an ancient legend that early in the first century, King Abgar of Edessa, sent emissaries to Christ. Although the stories differ somewhat in details, the basic plot line is that Christ sent Abgar a cloth with an image of his face imprinted on it. This is the origin of the icon type that we know as the Αχειροποίητον or “Image Not Made With Hands.”
In the middle of the sixth century, workmen working on the wall of the city of Edessa discovered an image sealed in the wall above one of the gates. This image was believed to be the very “Image Not Made With Hands.” However, descriptions of the cloth from the time indicate that it bore a full-body image. Not just a facial image. Although it was folded in a way such that the face is what was readily available. This artifact now called the “Mandilion” or “Holy Napkin” was forcibly transferred to Constantinople for “safe keeping”, so they said, in the middle of the tenth century. We have historical documents describing the transfer. It is also at this time, for the first time, that we have descriptions of the burial shroud of Christ being kept in the imperial treasury. Given the descriptions, it is likely that the Mandilion transferred to Constantinople from Edessa was in fact, this shroud. If this is the case, and this is by far the best explanation for the historical evidence we have, then the Shroud of Turin may well indeed have a history back to the sixth century. When you factor in all of this, the chances of the shroud having some real connection to the historical Jesus go up and the chances that this is some medieval forgery go down precipitously.
And yet, even if the Shroud of Turin really is the burial shroud of Christ, what exactly does it prove? The documentary evidence for the shroud’s sojourn in Constantinople from 944 to 1204 is very instructive here. One person who saw the shroud opined, that the image had been made by the sweat of Christ, a view that is remarkably similar to some modern theories about the image’s formation. What is significant about this is that not everyone who saw the shroud believed that the image was produced by miraculous means. Although many if not most of the people certainly did. For the people of Constantinople, the most important thing about the shroud was not the mystery of how the image was created, this is a modern preoccupation, but rather the fact that this was a real historic relic of Christ’s passion. In other words, they did not take the shroud as proof of Christ’s resurrection but rather as proof of his death and burial.
The tenth and eleventh centuries marked a period of rich liturgical development in regard to the Holy Week offices of the Orthodox Church. These culminated in the introduction of what some have called an “emphatic realism” into the services. I was reminded of this earlier in April when I had the joy of attending the Paschal services with my friends at St Symeon the New Theologian Church in Burmingham, Alabama. During the Vespers of the Unnailing I had a profound sense of being there and participating in Christ’s burial. Especially as the Epitaphios or Plaschanitsa was brought out to the tomb and while we sang “The Noble Joseph” to the Bulgarian melody. I had the same feeling later on at Matins and at Nocturns singing the praises and especially the canon. Singing “Do not lament me…” in Lesser Znamenny chant sends chills up my spine every time.
That the singing of these hymns is centered around the Epitaphios is no accident however, for the use of these decorative shrouds dates precisely to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. These shrouds are “liturgical copies” if you will of the shroud in Constantinople and our present Holy Week services are a direct result of the impact that the shroud’s presence had on the people there. The shroud also explains a rather bizarre Holy Week icon, “Extreme Humility.” In this icon, Christ is depicted in a state of repose but he is standing up from a box. Some have tried to interpret this as Christ arising from the tomb but this is absurd. The figure is clearly dead and of course, dead bodies don’t stand straight up. The icon makes no sense whatsoever until we consider that in Constantinople on Holy Friday the shroud was raised out of the box in which it was kept by some sort of pulley system. In other words, if you had been in Constantinople say in 1160 you would have seen the shroud displayed in a way very similar to the depiction of Christ in the icon of “Extreme Humility.”
Now the theological lesson in all of this is that there is no way to get to the resurrection without going through Golgotha and the inhabited tomb. For the people in Constantinople who viewed the shroud at first hand, it was not a circus attraction or a museum piece. It was not kept on display. It was, rather, a tangible way of entering into the reality of Christ’s passion. Only to the extent that we enter into that reality can we also enter into the reality of his resurrection. In the final analysis, the only proof that we have to offer a disbelieving world that Christ is indeed risen from the dead, is the evidence of our own lives. But we will never be adequate witnesses to the resurrection of Christ unless we have first died and been buried with him. Unless we have first died to our sins and to our egocentric passions and self will. Only then can we be raised to walk in newness of life. A life of humility and love. A life that St. Silouan describes as a life of unconditional love for our enemies. In this Paschal season as we sing Christ is Risen time and again let us seek the risen Christ not through rational argumentation and archaeology but through a life of obedient faith. Most importantly, let us not forget that there is no Easter Sunday without Great and Holy Friday. And let us also be mindful that we are the only witnesses to the Resurrection that most people will even know.
And now may our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, the vanquisher of death, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska and the Blessed Elder Sophrony Sakarov have mercy upon us all and grant us a rich entrance into his kingdom.