Jesus Christ may be the most famous man who ever lived. But how do we know he did? </p><p>Most theological historians believe that Jesus really did walk the Earth. They draw that conclusion from textual evidence in the Bible, however, rather than from the odd assortment of relics parading as physical evidence in churches all over Europe. As you'll see in the following slides, none of this evidence holds up to scrutiny.
Every once in a while, someone comes forward saying they've discovered what can only be the nails that pinned Christ to the Cross. This is nothing new. In 1911, English liturgical scholar Herbert Thurston counted all the nails that were at that time believed to have been used to crucify Jesus. Though only three or four nails (the exact number is up for debate) were supposed to been used in Christ's crucifixion circa A.D. 30, in 1911, 30 holy nails were being venerated in treasuries across Europe. </p><p>Along similar lines, it is believed that enough wood chips from the "True Cross" – the cross on which Jesus was crucified – are scattered across Europe to fill a ship.
Perhaps the most famous religious relic in the world, the Shroud of Turin is believed by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus. The 14-by-4-foot linen blanket, which bears the ghostly image of a man's body, has been worshipped by millions of pilgrims in a cathedral in Turin, Italy. But scientifically speaking, the Shroud of Turin is a fake. </p><p>Radiocarbon dating of the shroud has revealed that it does not date to the time of Christ but instead to the 14th century; coincidentally, that's when it first appeared in the historical record. In a document written in 1390, Bishop Pierre d'Arcis of France claimed the image of Jesus on the cloth was "cunningly painted," a fact "attested by the artist who painted it."
A similar relic is the Sudarium of Oviedo, a blood-stained cloth that was supposedly wrapped around Christ's head when he died and which, since A.D. 718, has taken pride of place in a cathedral in Spain. Blood on the Sudarium is of type AB, common in the Middle East but not in Europe, leading many to believe it's the blood of Christ. However, according to Joe Nickell in his book "Relics of the Christ" (University Press of Kentucky, 2007) the Sudarium has been carbon dated numerous times to circa A.D. 695 – not long before it showed up in Oviedo.
Seventy metal books allegedly discovered in a cave in Jordan last year were hailed as the earliest Christian documents. Dating them to mere decades after Jesus' death, scholars called the "lead codices" (they're written in code and cast in lead) the most important discovery in archaeological history. </p><p>But the lead codices are fakes — a jumble of anachronistic dialects and borrowed images probably forged within the past 50 years. "The image they are saying is Christ is the sun god Helios from a coin that came from the island of Rhodes," said Oxford archaeologist Peter Thonemann. "There are also some nonsense inscriptions in Hebrew and Greek."
One of the most important archaeological finds that actually dates to the time of Jesus may or may not provide evidence of his existence, depending on who you ask. The Dead Sea Scrolls, a vast trove of parchment and papyrus documents found in a cave in Israel in the 1940s, were written sometime between 150 B.C. and A.D. 70. In one place, the scrolls refer to a “teacher of righteousness.” Some say that teacher is Jesus. Others argue that he could be anyone.
Before Jesus was crucified, the Gospels say, Roman soldiers placed a crown of thorns on his head in a painful mockery of his sovereignty. Many Christians believe the thorny instrument of torture still exists today, albeit in pieces scattered across Europe. One near-complete crown is housed in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The documented history of Notre Dame's Crown of Thorns goes back at least 16 centuries — an impressive provenance — but it doesn't quite trace back to A.D. 30. Furthermore, Notre Dame's crown is a circlet of brush, and is completely devoid of thorns.
The Good Book
The best argument in favor of Jesus as a once-living person is, of course, the Holy Bible itself. The Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are thought by scholars to have been written by four of Christ's disciples in the decades after his crucifixion. There are still other Gospels, never canonized but written by near-contemporaries of Jesus all the same. Many details differ between the various accounts of his life and death, but there's also a great deal of overlap, and through centuries of careful analysis biblical scholars have arrived at a general profile of Jesus, the man.</p><p>"We do know some things about the historical Jesus — less than some Christians think, but more than some skeptics think,” said Marcus Borg, a preeminent Biblical scholar, author and retired professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University. “Though a few books have recently argued that Jesus never existed, the evidence that he did is persuasive to the vast majority of scholars, whether Christian or non-Christian.”