The mystery and controversy of Christian relics

Story highlights

  • Christianity's relics range from vials of dried blood to ancient burial shrouds
  • The objects are a powerful way for Christians to connect with the history of their religion

(CNN)Remember how Hollywood portrayed the supernatural powers of the Holy Grail in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"?

Or the time-traveling adventures of Kevin and the dwarves in Terry Gilliam's "Time Bandits"?
Dr. Georges Kazan does.
Kazan, who is co-director of Oxford University's School of Archaeology relics cluster and a collegium research fellow at the University of Turku, first got hooked on the mystery and intrigue of Christian relics by watching films like that.
"Since I was a child, I've been curious about relics, physical objects believed by so many people to be imbued with holy power, offering insights into the nature of mortality and the divine," Kazan said in a recent phone interview.
From the bones of early saints to holy burial shrouds, various Christian relics are scattered across the globe. They have played a critical role in spreading Christianity, which is now practiced by 2.2 billion people.
Some relics inspire pilgrims to undertake long journeys so they can see these powerful objects, giving 21st century believers a tangible, physical connection to the origins of their deeply held faith.
Now, with the help of technology, researchers have new tools that may cut through some of the mystery surrounding relics. Given the devotion they inspire in many Christians, here's how archaeologists and scholars wade through the history, science and controversy to explore these objects of faith.

Making the past present

Though some of the world's most famous relics are venerated by Christians -- like the Shroud of Turin and the bones of Saint Peter -- Christianity is hardly the first religion in which relics are important, Kazan said.
So why have these ancient objects endured over the centuries, and why are they revered by so many?
Dr. Robert Cargill, author of "The Cities That Built the Bible," said it comes down to our fundamental need to connect with the past, a desire that isn't actually exclusive to religion.
"I can read all the books I want about the Eiffel Tower, but if I go to Paris and climb the Eiffel Tower, all of a sudden that history becomes real to me," said Cargill. "That becomes something that's going to be carved into my brain."
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Looking at the growth of Christian traditions involving relics and their spread across continents, Cargill points to the Roman Empress Helena's fourth century visit to the Holy Land as a key event.
Helena's son, the Emperor Constantine the Great, was the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity, and Helena visited Jerusalem seeking evidence to support her son's faith, Cargill said. While there, she visited places purported to be key sites in the life of Jesus, commissioning churches to be built on some and gathering a host of relics claimed to be associated with Jesus. From there, the importance and popularity of relics exploded.
"When Jesus comes on the scene, there's no evidence, but when Helena goes, you see this surge in relics," said Cargill. "Any time you have a new experience and then a new group of people who want to connect with that experience, this is when you see it," said Cargill.

Separating fact from fiction

While no two relics are the same, Kazan said he often starts his investigations by examining historical texts to build a family tree of related relics.
"What I like to do is to understand the picture of how these things came into circulation and which bits went where," said Kazan. "And to do that I like to try and find the earliest [relics] I can to try and work out where they are. Are they dating from the period we'd expect?"
Once the provenance of the relic is clear, Kazan said he looks next at the size, shape and appearance of the object. For instance, the dimensions of bones can indicate whether a fragment came from a man or a woman, an adult or a child.
"You can also see how it's been treated, if it's been cut to make other relics," said Kazan. "Have they been wrapped up in silk? Has it been taken care of in a particular way?"
But today's archaeologists have other tools available.
According to Kazan, radiocarbon dating can help archaeologists home in on the age of a relic, and DNA testing of remains can place them in genetic origin groups, revealing specific traits like eye color that a person may have had. Then there's gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, or GC-MS, which can indicate the presence of exotic oils or other substances on the surface of a relic.
With new technologies and techniques, scientists are learning more about relics today than ever.

Proceed with caution

The mystery that inspires curiosity about relics among the masses also leads many biblical scholars to avoid them.
Cargill said it's a lack of contextual evidence that often makes biblical academics skeptical of their veracity.
"If some church says, 'In this holy box, we have the toe of Saint Peter or Saint Thomas,' ... We don't know where it came from. You would have to run a DNA test but once you do, what do you compare it to?"
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And though there is more technology available than ever before to investigate relics, archaeologists and scientists must tread carefully; relics offer a powerful means for believers to connect with the history of their faith. Stories and traditions even exist of some possessing miraculous healing powers. Is it the place of scientists to interfere in these traditions?
Kazan said yes, in most cases, but with caution.
And with some churches in Europe now selling their relics collections, and shrines in other parts of the world being destroyed, there is added urgency.
"It's something that I think is worth doing, and I think many church authorities agree, as long as we proceed as sensibly as possible and according to their wishes, then it's not usually a problem," said Kazan. "I think that's the best we can do."
But will new technology and increased transparency lead Kazan and other researchers to find the actual Holy Grail? That remains to be seen.