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Joe Nickell, Relics of the Christ (The University Press of Kentucky, 2007)

Reviewed by Robert M. Price.


What are relics and why are they important? They are material remains of holy people of the past, figures of any religion, though Nickell is interested here in Christian relics, particularly those related to the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The best, most valued relics are fragments of the bodies of biblical and early Christian heroes and saints (or Old Testament prophets). Slightly less holy, but still quite venerable, are objects which have come in contact with those holy bodies, especially clothing. Since these remain out of the reach of personal possession, belonging to churches, there are lower-tier relics (available in the lobby), too, namely, objects having come in contact with relics of either of the first two types. That’s what they are.

Why are they important? To believers, their importance lies in providing a tangible link with the Holy as revealed in past history. Relics are like tell-tale vestiges of a dream, proving after all, that it was no mere dream, as when Fred Gaily and Doris Walker find what seems to be Kris Kringle’s cane in the dream house little Suzy requested from him for Christmas (Miracle on 34th Street). Even so, a relic is supposed to be tangible proof that divine revelation occurred in the very same historical time-stream in which the believer lives, not some storybook realm of fantasy. Understandably, believers hold tenaciously to such life-preservers of faith. Moreover, these vestiges are supposed to serve as channels for the contagious holiness of that past to travel along to reach the present for those who own or can at least touch the relics. This reduces the relic to a fetish or a rabbit’s foot.

Joe Nickell, intrepid investigator of all things alleged to be paranormal, has in this beautifully written and produced volume, gone to a good deal of trouble to investigate great numbers of relics housed all over the Christian world. He is thus much like the crowds of pious pilgrims among whom he moves in shrine after shrine. Only, whereas the others come seeking the relic as an answer, Nickell is approaching each relic as a question which he hopes to answer. He knows that there is nothing holier than the truth, and that is always his grail. And, like Perceval, he usually finds it.

Many of us inhabit worldviews in which relics exist only as a variation on Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a side show, a curiosity shop filled with quaint and amusing fakes. But it is a mistake to leave it at that, for relics still possess a power that they have always possessed. They are tokens of authority contested by rivals for power. In this respect they have everything in common with apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Peter Brown, in his classic The Cult of the Saints, shows how the veneration of martyrs took the form of worship services at their gravesites or inside their mausoleums, usually out in the countryside. These shrines and their attendants were rivals of the metropolitan churches and their bishops. The saints’ shrines were competing loci of sacred power and therefore of financial and religious clout. Just as itinerant holy men were dangerous loose canons uncontrollable by the staid bishops of settled churches, even in death the saints’ charisma threatened to outweigh that of the ecclesiastical bureaucracy in the cities. The bishops’ solution was to exhume and re-inter the relics in new shrines within the city walls and therefore within their own jurisdiction. (Again, that remains the issue as to whether the Church will officially recognize particular Marian apparitions today. Should they endorse and thus co-opt the borderline-sectarian devotion rendered to the local Mary-avatars? Or would that be to risk the institution’s credibility depending on what happens there?)

For churches to house saints’ relics is to claim their clout. It is a poor man’s version of being able to claim that this or that apostle founded one’s church. While such claims mean less and less in the modern church world, the relics that continue to claim the headlines still function as religious authority anchors. The most obvious is the Shroud of Turin, long ago debunked but still defended by Quixotic “sindonologists” who will brook no interference from pesky laws of physics. In The Relics of the Christ Joe Nickell reenters the lists, staking the vampire Shroud image yet again, refuting the latest, even more ludicrous pseudo-scientific claims made on its behalf by the desperate, who do not seem to realize that what they thought was a weapon for the defense of the resurrection is now itself in need of at least as much defense. The even more recent Ossuary of James, which some hawked as proof at least of an historical Jesus, is more than a (supposed) historical artifact. It would actually function as a relic anchoring more conservative views of Christian Origins. It, too, has been debunked, as one may read in these pages, but it still has its unbowed defenders engaged in acrobatic maneuvers of cognitive dissonance reduction.

As a New Testament critic, I recognize that what Joe Nickell is doing in this book is closely parallel to the work we are doing in the Jesus Project and the Jesus Seminar. For you see, the many sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels were ascribed to him precisely to provide more authority than that carried by their real and anonymous authors. In short, the gospel “Jesus” sayings are already relics vying with one another (and with the sayings of lesser mortals) for authority, to be listened to and obeyed by more Christians. As Bultmann and his successors exploded bogus claims of dominical authority for the sake of which millions of clergy had always quoted these sayings, so does Joe Nickell debunk the claims of those who would wield solid, three-dimensional relics for the same purpose.



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