Let it not be said, this Easter, that the BBC has neglected Christianity. Over the past week they've treated us to three solid hours of a block-busting, expensive-looking, and largely reverential Passion. BBC4 (admittedly something of a ghetto) has begun a major new series about sacred choral music. And on Saturday, BBC2 transmitted what it claimed was an important new investigation into that well-known piece of medieval flim-flam, the Shroud of Turin. Presented by the foreign correspondent Rageh Omaar (who really should get back to covering wars) the film, Material Evidence, set out (according to a Beeb press release) "to discover exactly what it is about the image on the Shroud that has defied imitation and explore new evidence that may challenge the Carbon 14 verdict."
One would have expected, given the corporation's international reputation and much-vaunted objectivity, that any speculations in the film would be subjected to careful scrutiny, and that both sceptics and believers would be allowed their say. Instead, we were presented with one of the most egregious examples of special pleading, distortion, tendentious reporting and sensationalism I've ever had the misfortune to sit through. It was dire. Crude religious propaganda masquerading as science. Maverick enthusiasts presented as serious researchers. Misrepresentations of evidence, inconvenient facts passed over, ridiculous suppositions put forward as established fact.
There was even a "dramatic reconstruction" of events inside the tomb of Christ, with the body first wrapped in the shroud, then disappearing in the fashion of magician David Copperfield.
According to Rageh Omaar's accompanying piece on the BBC's website, many people had assumed that after three separate laboratories determined that it was a forgery the relic would be forgotten. "But the amazing story of the Shroud of Turin has simply refused to fade into obscurity and die, for the simple reason that a conflict of evidence has emerged which is about the re-ignite the debate around this compelling religious artefact."
Er, no, Rageh. The reason the story has refused to fade into obscurity is that there's a well-funded and persistent coterie of believers who refuse to face facts. They depend on the Shroud's "mystery", if not for a livelihood, then at the very least for psychological sustenance. They're like the CIA, confronted with the lack of evidence for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, who told inspectors to go back and look again. They are simply in denial. And some of the most deluded and obstinate would seem to have been largely responsible last night's farrago.
The film's director, David Rolfe, is a well-known Shroud enthusiast. Indeed, it wouldn't be too much to say that he owes his whole career to the Shroud. His 1978 film, The Silent Witness and the Shroud, (which he made in collaboration with author Ian Wilson, who has also made a career out of plugging the shroud) put forward many of the pro-authenticity arguments advanced in this latest film, and looked forward to the final confirmation that would come when, or if, radiocarbon tests were allowed. Despite the setback of the 1988 tests, which dated the Shroud to 1350 or thereabouts, he was soon back on the case. In 2000 he announced plans for a Jurassic Park-style fantasy in which "blood" taken from the Shroud would be cloned. This latest documentary would seem to be in large part an attempt to revisit former glories.
Also much in evidence was the American researcher Dr John Jackson, a physicist by training, who has been "studying" the shroud for more than thirty years. While Rolfe and Omaar presented him as an independent expert, Jackson is in fact a long-standing member of the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) a religiously-motivated group that has never, so far as I have been able to establish, acknowledged a single piece of evidence questioning the authenticity of the Shroud. Together with his wife, Jackson now heads the equally biased Turin Shroud Center of Colorado.
In a recent interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jackson was quoted as follows:
If the Shroud of Turin is authentic and it did wrap what we Christians believe is the Resurrection event itself, then we are dealing with an image that has radical characteristics... I'm Catholic, and the center of my faith is the holy Eucharist.
I'm not saying that devout Catholics can't make objective scientists or honest researchers. Many do. But Jackson and his fellow STURP enthusiasts were not experts in the field. As the sceptical investigator Joe Nickell put it, "having this group investigate the Shroud was a little bit like having the Flat Earth Society investigate the curvature of the Earth."
The fingerprints of STURP were certainly all over this "documentary". No sceptics were given the opportunity to contest Jackson's evidence or put forward alternative theories. Outrageous claims were treated as fact. For example, it was asserted that "bloodstains" on the shroud had been analysed as type AB, and that the cloth bore evidence of both pre-death and after-death bloodflow. It was also claimed that the blood matched that on another relic, the "sudarium" of Orvieto which was said to date to, at latest, the 4th century. The "only explanation", we were told, was that the two cloths had been in contact with the same body. We were left to draw the conclusion that the body must have been that of Jesus.
The sudarium was identified with the "face cloth" mentioned in the Gospel of John as having been found in the empty tomb along with the other "cloths" (plural, notice). Even on its own terms, this makes no sense. If the sudarium had wrapped the face of Jesus, why was the image not imprinted on it, rather than on the Shroud? If it had been taken off before the body was wrapped in a shroud, why does the gospel-writer mention its presence in the tomb? Why was the blood-flow from the head, which the cloth was supposed to have soaked up, also found on the Shroud?
In fact, there is no proof of blood on the shroud, type AB or otherwise. Tests carried out by many years ago by Walter McCrone concluded that the blood-like stains were in fact a mixture of iron-oxide, vermillion and red ochre pigment. While the oxide traces could conceivably be formed by blood, the presence of vermillion is only explicable, thought McCrone, as an artist's pigment. Needless to say, this fact wasn't mentioned last night.
Another example: the film claimed that microscopic examination of the fibres had yielded no evidence of tempora or other fixative agents that would be required to if the image had been painted. Yet such agents were, in fact, revealed by McCrone's earlier tests.
If the science was dodgy, the history was, if anything, even worse. Omaar stated, correctly, that the Shroud's first confirmed location was in Lirey, France, in 1355. He then made much of the fact that the shroud's supposed owner, Geoffrey de Charney, was descended from one of the knights who ransacked Constantinople during the 4th Crusade in 1204. This was sufficient, apparently, to identify it with another relic, showing the face of Christ, that was formerly exhibited in a church in the Byzantine capital. The assumption being, of course, that Geoffrey's ancestor nabbed it. The commentary failed to explain why it then disappeared for 150 years, while most of the other plunder from the crusade was proudly displayed (at St Mark's in Venice, among other places). It also failed to mention that, when the Shroud was first exhibited, it was as part of a money-raising scam by Geoffrey's impecunious widow, that it was denounced as a fraud by the local bishop and that it was withdrawn from public view after a forger admitted to having created it.
Omaar even claimed that, by normal standards of historical evidence, the ancient provenance of the Shroud was well-attested, and were it not for those pesky Carbon 14 results no-one would doubt its authenticity. Such a statement reveals a Dan Brown-style approach to historiography, the kind of thing associated with pseudo-historical conspiracy theories where the game is to throw a lot of "what ifs" and "supposedlies" and "if true, this could only means" into a big pot and come up with the plot of a sexy thriller. What the authors of the notorious potboiler The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail memorably called "the need to synthesise".
Important questions went unasked. Like how a piece of linen, kept under non-ideal conditions, managed to survive more-or-less intact for two thousand years: almost as fantastical a notion, surely, as that it bears the imprint of the Resurrection. Or who was looking after it in all the centuries when it was lost to history. Or why the image on the cloth accords so closely with late medieval representations of Christ, but is nothing at all like the earliest images as seen, for example, in the Roman catacombs. Or why Constantine's mother St Helena, who went around Palestine collecting fragments of the True Cross, never got hold of it. And so on.
Instead, we got the usual onus-shifting and presumptions of mystery. Rageh Omaar's commentary actually used the word "miraculous" to describe the formation of the Shroud image. "If it is a medieval forgery, then how was this image made?" asks Omaar on the website. "So far, no one has been able to explain it."
So what? There are lots of theories, some more convincing that others, about how it was done. But the fact that something is unexplained doesn't make it miraculous. There are many ancient artistic and engineering techniques that are now lost. No-one is entirely sure how the pyramids were built, or the ancient Chinese achieved some of their glazes, or even how the Vikings navigated to America. Technologies have often been forgotten when they ceased to be useful or relevant. It's a fascinating puzzle, nothing more.
The centrepiece of the documentary was to have been a new test examining Jackson's latest hypothesis that the carbon 14 results could have been distorted by atmospheric conditions. No doubt the programme makers were hoping for a dramatic confirmation of their beliefs. In fact, the experiment, carried out by Oxford professor Christopher Ramsey, produced no such vindication: there was nothing to suggest that the 1988 tests needed to be repeated. Of course, in mystery-speak this merely means that they were inconclusive. More research needed to be done to be sure, said Ramsey, who may now regret sounding so open-minded.
What is going on here? Does the BBC now see its role as propagating and sustaining fantasy? Perhaps it's the corporation's strange interpretation of "balance". Perhaps they feel they have to answer criticisms that they have given Christianity a tougher time than Islam, and so have to set things right by spending public money on some unsubstantiated bilge with an apparently Christian theme. Would they give equally unquestioning coverage to sightings of Bigfoot or David Icke's reptilian conspiracy theories? They might as well, given that the Shroud has been conclusively debunked on many occasions, not just in the famous 1988 tests. Or perhaps they are now so dependent on funding from American production partners that they don't any longer care about the quality of their output, so long as it's guaranteed a good audience share. And pseudo-history of this nature is nothing if not crowd-pleasing.