The real meaning of Easter – and how best to see it than a visit to the church of Bom Jesus in northern Portugal. I was there in August last year to look at the life-sized depictions of the Passion of Christ. Each station of the cross has its own little chapel up a steep hillside just beyond the city of Braga. And it’s well worth the trip!
The church of Bom Jesus covers a hillside and more than likely was the site of a pagan temple – especially as Braga was the Roman city of Bracara Augusta. A Christian church was there in the Middle Ages but the baroque pile that confronts you today dates back to around 1722. Last year, UNESCO listed it as a world heritage site – and about time too!
It’s incredible and you’ll be glad to know that I got my iPhone out and filmed this for you. Here is the Easter message in beautiful 18th century sculpture. Visiting it now will be difficult with the wretched Coronavirus restricting all our movements around the world.
So, enjoy the Passion of Christ this Easter with my little video.
Eight years ago I was at the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem and queued to see the site where Jesus was crucified. This huge medieval place of worship encompasses both Calvary and the tomb of Jesus. Or so it’s been claimed since the time of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century after Christ.
The Holy Sepulchre is divided between different Christian faiths – Catholic, Orthodox, Syriac, Ethiopians, etc. And they’re not beyond fighting each other in turf wars within the church walls. Anyway, back to the place where Christ was crucified. As I queued in 2012, some Russian nuns in front of me where in quite an ecstatic state as my video shows. Apologies for the quality of digital cameras in those days!
For centuries the debate has raged – is The Shroud of Turin the real burial cloth in which the crucified body of Jesus was wrapped or is it a forgery?
What is the Turin Shroud?
In the cathedral church of Saint John the Baptist in the Italian city of Turin, you’ll find a long linen cloth with the imprint of a dead man. His hands and feet bear signs of having been nailed to a cross and there are blood stains along the folds of the cloth. The body has a ghostly appearance with a mournful bearded face that any Christian would identify as Jesus. This is the Turin Shroud.
But is it Christ? Science and faith have been at loggerheads over this in recent years.
Just when you think the Turin Shroud has been carbon dated and definitely proven to be a medieval fake, along comes another scientist or expert of some description to claim it could still be the real deal. Though I must say at this point that the overwhelming majority of scientists would be on the fake side of the argument – but not 100% of them.
Let’s start by taking a good look at the Turin Shroud – and by all means pull up the many images you can Google to see it in more detail. Remember, the view of those who believe is that this imprint was somehow made on the linen after Jesus had died on the cross.
A 3D image of Jesus as he may have looked like has even been produced using the Turin Shroud as this YouTube video shows. We’ll look at the evidence further below.
The Catholic church has always sat on the fence a bit when it comes to the shroud. You may have got the impression that the Vatican is totally on board with its authenticity as a literal representation of Jesus. But you’d be wrong. Read the small print. The church has authorised it as a devotional item – but not a bona fide relic of Jesus Christ.
The historian Charles Freeman thinks the Catholic church has boxed itself in over a piece of cloth that nobody believed was truly the shroud of Jesus when it was most likely created in the 14th century – a thousand years after the crucifixion. Freeman thinks the Turin Shroud was used as a theatrical prop in religious plays put on for simple folk at Easter time.
Intriguingly, some images of the Turin Shroud from five hundred years ago shows that the cloth had a lot more blood and gore on it. There was apparently quite a fashion for blood-splattered religious relics from the 14th century onwards. Pilgrims liked to see the Messiah had suffered – I dare say Mel Gibson would approve having watched his horrific depiction of Christ’s death.
Scientists testing small samples from the cloth have dated it to the 14th century. However, there was one high-profile dissenting voice from one of the scientific investigations conducted in the 1970s. Barrie Schwortz was the official photographer on the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) in 1978. In his own words, even though he is Jewish – he’s convinced to this day that the shroud he photographed is the genuine article.
A fascinating Bloodstain Pattern Analysis was conducted on the shroud by two scientists in 2018 – Matteo Borrini and Luigi Garlaschelli – concluding that the flow of blood on the front of the body didn’t match the flow of blood on the back. More bluntly, the rivulets of blood on the front of the arms suggested a crucifixion at an angle of 80 to 100 degrees – so arms raised very high. While on the back it pointed to a 45 degree angle. In other words, the front and back of the shroud don’t agree with each other.
Another scientist is more optimistic about the veracity of the shroud. Stephen Mattingly at the University of Texas thinks the image was caused by decaying bacteria from the body of a man who had died very slowly. Or how about the theory that a kind of thermo-nuclear flash caused by the Resurrection of Jesus burnt his image into the shroud.
Others trying to prove its authenticity have argued that the weave of the material corresponds to cloth from the biblical period while pollen on the Turin Shroud has been traced to the Middle East.
Then we go to the really far out theories. I’ve heard it claimed that the Turin Shroud is actually the face of Jacques de Molay – the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar. Or a more popular assertion is that Leonardo da Vinci had a hand in its creation. Possible he used primitive photographic techniques to capture a human image.
An article in the New York Times in April 2019 made the entirely valid point that Jesus was unlikely to have been blonde and blue-eyed. It’s not impossible, but the balance of probability suggests not.
The author was stating something I’ve heard many times from black friends who grew up in Christian households that while their families were deeply religious, there was always a picture of the son of God on the hallway wall looking way too Aryan!
The article suggested that as a “Palestinian” he was unlikely to resemble a German or Swede – as he often does in popular depictions. Jesus would have been darker skinned, brown eyed with brown or black hair. In other words, he would have looked Middle Eastern.
But this passing reference to the Messiah being Palestinian caused a furore on Twitter with demands for the New York Times to remove that word – which I believe they subsequently did for the digital article.
The argument ran that Jesus was from Judaea, not Palestine – and that he was Jewish and not an Arab. I should say that the person who led the Twitter storm agreed with the point about Jesus being way too blonde and blue eyed but just found the reference to Palestinian inappropriate.
This was Jeremy Burton of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston who remarked that the term “Palestine” was something the Romans imposed on Judaea and that Jesus would have resented this reference being a Jewish man suffering under the yoke of Caesar.
I wouldn’t dispute that Jesus was Jewish and that Christians in the centuries after his death tried to remove his Jewish identity as his worship spread among gentiles. We can see how Jesus transforms from the earliest gospel of Mark – where he is more human and respectful of the law of Moses – to John, where he becomes a more other-worldly and non-Jewish entity.
It’s also fascinating to see how a character like the Roman governor Pontius Pilate develops from a disinterested bureaucrat who executes Jesus without a second thought in Mark – to a merciful figure in later gospels who tries to get Jesus freed. Pilate’s rehabilitation was very much linked to Christianity’s outreach to upper crust pagan Romans!
The Judaism of Jesus is of course complicated by his claim to be the son of God. This was unacceptable to most of his community. And the man who shaped his legacy the most after his crucifixion – Saint Paul – was a Romanised Jew who poured scorn on the idea of observing the Jewish laws (like circumcision and dietary requirements).
This argument risks projecting current political battles and identities back on to ancient history. We have no idea what Jesus – assuming he ever existed – called himself. One anti-Christian treatise from the Emperor Julian in the 4th century CE refers to him as a “Galilean”. That’s a very localised identity and in a hyper-local world, I think that’s how Jesus would have seen himself – the boy from Galilee who didn’t much like the Romans or those snooty priests in Jerusalem.
In the Middle East today, on all sides, inventing history seems to be a compulsive pastime. Figures like Jesus have become pawns in modern geopolitical rows and as a result the real history is twisted into something completely anachronistic.
I’ve bottled this up for a couple of months but goddam I’ve now got to let it out – the History channel’s big budget Templar drama Knightfall needs to pack a bigger punch in season 2. So, may I be so bold as to suggest where it could be a whole lot better?
Petty quibble at the outset. King Philip of France resembles Lord Farquaad in Shrek. It’s offputting. Possibly a costume change and rethink on the hair could improve matters. The flustering temper tantrums might have to be rethought. Other reviewers have likened Knightfall to Game of Thrones – but Shrek kept coming to my mind. Not just Philip but one of the female characters as well – but I’m too gallant and polite to mention who.
Please scuff up the king’s castle and the Paris temple! Everything is way too neat. It’s reminiscent of all medieval cartoons Disney churned out. Idealised castles with pointy towers and pristine stonework. Not a rat or a cockroach in sight. Where’s the hay on the floor and the dung in the stables?
De Nogaret could be a great villain – so why not give him some clever lines? Baddies always get the smart dialogue but I’d be hard pressed to remember a single bon mot that De Nogaret has delivered. That said, I quite liked “Good Christians are spies you don’t have to pay”. But I searched for it on a quotes website to use in this blog post. For some reason, the few good lines De Nogaret gets aren’t registering.
Pope Boniface is the leader of medieval Christendom. In one scene, he wanders into a banquet at the palace and nobody acknowledges or genuflects to him. There is little sense of the pontiff as all-powerful medieval prelate. He just seems to drift around. Plus – that white mitre looks way too 20th century for my liking. Have a word with the costume department.
The plot twists are workmanlike. There’s no element of surprise or shock as Pope Boniface does a 180 degree about turn with regards to Landry in the final two episodes. We don’t know why – and to be honest, I’m not sure we care that much. Season one often felt very rushed and anxious to please. So much so that plot twists were chucked at us with such rapidity that they lacked credibility and authenticity. Just take the frenetic pace of plotting down a notch.
Does the Holy Grail always have to be left around screaming “steal me” in every episode? And let’s be honest – this dusty goblet is a little underwhelming as cosmically significant sacred relics go. I know it’s supposed to be a modest vessel. But where’s the sense of awe? Just a weather beaten old beaker from where I’m sitting.
Queen Joan – gosh, glad she’s gone. Those endless grimaces! Please don’t use the Grail to bring Parsifal back to life. He’s not missed. However, I look forward to Mark Hamill entering the fray in season 2.
I want Knightfall to work – I really do. But friends must speak plainly and it just needs some tightening up. Please. I beg you!
This month, I appear in the new season of Forbidden History presented by Jamie Theakston. You can view it online or download from Sky. So, what can you expect to see me talking about?
The historical Jesus. Who was the real Jesus Christ? Forbidden History journeys through the Holy Land to find whether the Messiah really existed and the exact spot where he was crucified
The East German Stasi. How did communist East Germany create a ruthless secret police that got one in six of the population spying on everybody else? A fascinating trip back to the Cold War
Nazi Art Theft. The astonishing robbery of billions of dollars worth of art by Hitler stashed away in salt mines and other hiding places. And the brave efforts of the Monuments Men to trace priceless paintings and sculptures
The real James Bond. Forbidden History asks which actor in the Bond movies comes closest to the real thing? An investigation into what inspired the creation of this compelling character
Dead Sea Scrolls. The most incredible biblical discovery in centuries. Parchments written by a fanatical Jewish sect, the Essenes, that could have proven or disproven the existence of Christ. Yet these massively important documents were hidden from public view for decades.
Secret societies. All your favourite clandestine organisations under the microscope from Opus Dei to the Illuminati. Who and what are these organisations and do they really control the world?
Make sure not to miss Forbidden History broadcasting on the Yesterday channel, part of UKTV.
Is the bloodline of Jesus a myth? Did Jesus have a real flesh and blood family and therefore descendants?
It’s surprising how long this debate has been going for. Right back in to the early persecuted church during the Roman Empire. Possibly as far back as the first generation of Christians – especially those who did not fall in to line with Paul.
So, did Jesus have a bloodline?
From the early years, there was a split between Christians who saw the new religion as an extension or fulfilment of Jewish scripture and those who saw it as something distinct from Judaism and universal in application.
The former group, that included sects like the Ebionites, saw Jesus as a Jewish messiah and tended to conceptualize him in human terms. The latter group, that included groups like the Marcionites, took the view that Christianity could be spread to the gentiles and saw Jesus as a more spiritual, almost disembodied entity. The latter group even rejected the wrath filled and very Jewish god of the Old Testament.
The former strand of Christianity was capable of holding the notion of a bloodline – indeed, Jesus was believed to have come from a royal Jewish bloodline and his descendants were very real and amongst us. This was anathema to what became the Catholic church. Why? Well, think about it – who’s the real vicar of Christ on earth, the pope in Saint Peter’s or the bodily descendant of the messiah?
Jesus deprived of his bloodline and humanity
Paul wrenched Christianity away from its Jewish roots, though a Jew himself, and took it to the Greeks and Romans. He set in train a process whereby Christianity was adopted by the very people who had crucified the messiah.
Paul hated any whiff of competition from those in Palestine who had known Jesus – which Paul hadn’t. So he emphasized the godly and spiritual nature of Jesus, a nature that he could know more about than those pesky disciples in Palestine who had walked with the man himself. He could even know more about Jesus than the messiah’s very own brother – James – who we believe became a leader of the new sect in Jerusalem after the crucifixion.
Jesus did have brothers and sisters, mentioned in the gospels, but the church soon found a way of downgrading their importance. Without any grounding in scripture, they inferred through various dogmas and doctrinal statements that these siblings were in fact the children of Joseph and an earlier wife – not the by now virginal Mary. They might even be cousins, some suggested.
Mary as a perpetual virgin was key to removing the Desposyni – descendants of Jesus – from the Christian equation. In spite of reports that two Desposyni were brought before the Roman emperor Domitian, the bloodline of Jesus was swept under the theological carpet.