23 October 2017

The Sign and the Shroud: Part One: The Hypothesis

I'm reading the book "The Sign" by Thomas de Wesselow, and man this guy is a teenage edgelord douchebag, isn't he? He has to attack Christians and Christianity on every single page. I dare him to make a book mocking Islam.

I have a tendency to skip ahead, to read the author's conclusion first so I know what I'm getting into. Just like I don't like to pay to see a movie until after it's released and people on the Internet reveal the ending, because I'm not going to pay to see a movie with an ending I hate.

This guy writes a near 500 page book about the Shroud of Turin and the resurrection, so naturally I figure about 200 of those pages are filler and another 200 are details, so if I skim just 100 pages I'll get all the relevant details. It saves a lot of time reading multiple books. Here's his conclusions, that could have been shortened to a 20 page paper, not a 500 page book:

*The Shroud of Turin is the authentic burial shroud of Jesus. We can accurately trace its provenance back to AD 600, well before anyone had the technology or the know-how to make a forgery, so that means it's highly probable that the shroud is authentic.

*The Shroud was created by a Maillard reaction (the way bread browns when you bake it) caused by the unusually rapid decomposition of Jesus' body. We know this because the only other possible explanation is a miracle, and fuck off miracles, we're all atheists now.

*The image on the Shroud is the resurrection, even though you can't see it in normal light, and you don't notice that there's a face unless you're standing at least ten feet away from it, and the huge smoking gun of the still rotting body inside the tomb! All the "appearances" of Jesus after the "resurrection" were public displays of the Shroud.

*First century Jews had a different understanding of life after death and resurrection than we do today. They didn't believe in such childish notions, they were atheists too. They knew dead is dead, but seeing that image gave them courage to go to spread the Gospel and to face without fear the most horrific deaths anyone has had to suffer in human history.

That's his hypothesis. And except for the first part, the part actually based on history, it's total horseshit.

And if we remove the childish invective and the second half of the book that's a retelling of the New Testament with the Shroud inserted into the place of Jesus, we can trim this down to a nice scientific paper and submit it for peer review. But it's not. He has to go on and on and on for 470 more pages (the pictures are all beautiful, but as the citation page in the front of the book attests, none of them are the author's own work).

I tried to read the first page and it took about 30 minutes because every other sentence I had to stop to write a refutation, not of the author's opinions on religion, he can believe what he wants, but the blatant historical lies he tells. On the very first page, in one sentence, he tells two blatant lies about early Christianity:

*The author states that Constantine made Christianity the state religion of Rome in 325. That's false. Theodosius made Christianity the state religion of Rome in 380, 43 years after Constantine had died. Theodosius also never made it state policy to destroy pagan temples, although he didn't stop anyone who did destroy them.

*The author states that a Christian mob burnt down the Library of Alexandria because it was pagan, condemning the West to centuries of ignorance. That's not even false, that's a lie. The Library of Alexandria burnt down centuries before the reign of Theodosius (or Constantine, who the author conflates with Theodosius), possibly by Julius Caesar in 48 BC. Under the reign of Theodosius the Serapeum of Alexandria, a temple that had a collection of books, as temples often do, was burnt down by a political mob, that just so happened to be composed mostly of Christians, for political reasons. Alexandria was a hotbed of mob violence. Two political factions were going at it, the losing side sought refuge in the Serapeum, and the winning side burnt it down because it was a convenient way to eliminate their rivals.

This man has a PhD in art history, mind you. One would think (hope) that such a degree would require passing at least one actual history course. Anyone who has taken an introductory course in the late Roman Empire or early modern Europe knows these statements are false, so the only way a PhD history scholar could get these facts wrong is by deliberately telling lies.

Two pages later the author has to take yet another shot at Christianity and all other forms of belief other than atheistic materialism:
"The traditional notion of a flesh-and-blood resurrection remained unquestioned in Christendom for more than a millennium and a half. In retrospect, it is rather astonishing that such an improbable dogma could have dominated the minds of so many for such a long time. It stands as testimony to the imperialistic power of the Church and its sustained stranglehold on intellectual endeavor, a grip that only began to loosen during the period of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Even then, it was another 200 years before religious skeptics began to challenge the very basis of Christian faith, reviving voices that had been silenced since antiquity." (pages 5-6)
Here's an accurate artistic depiction of the author:


The author, a couple paragraphs later, talks about how the works of Celsus and Porphyry were destroyed in great book burnings by evil Christians who did things for the evulz.

No. Pretend to be the historian your degree says you are. Books are made of paper, papyrus, parchment, and other perishable materials. 99% of everything that has ever been written has rotted away to dust and is lost. Some roving mob of evil Christians didn't have to go around burning books, those books are lost all on their own because of the ravages of time. We don't have any first hand accounts of the life of Alexander the Great, only third hand commentaries by people living 400 years later, not because someone was trying to erase him from history, but because books rot. If you want a book to survive it has to consistently be a best seller (or its pre-modern equivalent) for millennia. The only way books survive is because enough people thought they were interesting or significant enough to make copies, and then generations later people made copies of the copies, and that's why we have the works of Aristotle and Homer and the Gospels, because enough people thought they were interesting or important enough to preserve. Most books were not copied down because most books are crap to begin with. If, in 1,000 years, Thomas de Edgelord's masterpiece has been lost to history it's not because evil Christians burnt all his books, it's because his books are just crap and no one saw it necessary to print new copies. It's as simple as that. There's no need to resort to malice as an explanation when laziness will suffice.

De Wesslow's treatment of the Shroud from an artistic point of view is tremendous. He points out why the image on the Shroud is inartistic. No artist would have made an image like the image on the Shroud, putting the blood on the cloth first and then putting the image on top, using multiple different perspectives on the front and the back, depicting anatomy the way it would have been totally unknown by medieval and Renaissance artists, creating an image so faint that no one can see it up close in normal lighting and that only takes on its true greatness in photographic negative. The Shroud betrays itself as anything other than an artistic work. Pointing out why the Shroud cannot be a forgery de Wesslow's work is very good. The problem comes when he tries to mischaracterise Christianity. It's just like Richard Dawkins. Dawkins might be a brilliant biologist, but he's a piss-poor philosopher who does nothing but rehash arguments that have been refuted millennia ago.

I've written about this before when talking about the religious views of ancient people. Ancient people were not stupid. Ancient people were not stupid. Did the Greeks really believe the gods were people who sat on Mount Olympos doing all the crazy stuff in the myths? Probably very few did, but most were smart enough to see the truth of the stories. They were written as a way to get a point across about very complicated subjects in way that was easy to assimilate and remember. The gods are so obviously anthropomorphized versions of abstract qualities. Aries is unchecked rage and Athena is the rational mind that takes over in warfare, the two primary ways in which people fight. These are psychological qualities that are represented as people as a form of shorthand.

Ancient people knew a dead body is dead. They knew that better than we do, isolated as we are from the reality of death. First century Jews would not see a stain on a cloth and believe that the rotting dead body right next to that stain had miraculously risen and was immortal, and believe it so strongly that they were willing to be crucified, beheaded, tortured, burnt alive. No one is so stupid to believe in a risen Christ when they can see the rotting corpse just because they found a stain on a cloth.

And the author arrives at this conclusion by cherry picking the Gospels, which he will decry as unhistorical in one breath and then a sentence later quote mine for his retelling of history. Which is it? Are the Gospels unreliable or are they the very corner stone of his thesis? Both can't be true. De Wesslow spends two thirds of the book rewriting the Gospels in contortionist fashion to insert the Shroud in the place of the risen Christ, because we're all atheists now, we know miracles are fake.

Coming soon: Part Two: The Science