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Church History and the Art of Forgery

Forgeries in church history is the main theme of Antonio Lombatti's forthcoming book I Templari e le reliqui (Accademia Vis Vitalis: Turin, 2010)

By Antonio Lombatti
Deputazione di Storia Patria
Parma, Italia
May 2010

Forging is an art. For historians, forged documents or artifacts pose two fundamental questions. Firstly, once the forgery has been detected, what remains of its value as a historical source? Hence the need, succintly expressed in the axiom of the Bollandist Daniel Papenbroeck, to distinguish the true from the false contained in historical documents: "Veri ac falsi discrimen in vetustis monumentis.” The second question followed on from, yet problematic, the first. The nature of many ancient, medieval, and contemporary forgeries suggest that they were written or made with the evident intention of deception.

In church history, there are plenty of examples. In our days, the most famous ones are the presumed First Temple ivory pomegranate, the James ossuary and the Shroud of Turin. Less known but probably even more important is the Donation of Constantine, a forged document that became the legal basis for over a millennium of papal rule. It is a document supposedly written by emperor Constantine (285-337 A.D.) granting the Catholic Church ownership of vast territories within the western Roman Empire. The document stated that he made this generous gift out of gratitude to Pope Sylvester I who had converted him to Christianity and had cured him of leprosy. For centuries the Donation legitimized the Church's possession of the papal lands in Italy. Unfortunately, the Donation was entirely fake, as even the Church eventually acknowledged. The Catholic priest Lorenzo Valla proved the forgery with certainty in his De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamatio in 1440, but the world had to wait for a Protestant publisher to know about this fake in 1517.

Taken as a whole, medieval monks and clerics were probably the most prolific forgers of all time. For centuries they controlled access to official documents, placing them in a perfect position to alter or forge those documents, should they so desire. And judging by the volume of their output, they evidently did so desire. What’s more, their superiors could be counted on to overlook, or even approve, any textual inventions that benefitted the Church.

Papal bulls were a frequent object of forgery. In one notorious case, a count of Armagnac bribed a papal official to produce a fake papal bull allowing him to marry his sister. Letters, church histories, lives of saints, and deeds to land were other common creations of clerical forgers. Hundreds of years earlier, the textual manipulation of the New Testament manuscripts, as Origen wrote, brought copyists to alter the original words of the gospels three or four or several times over so that they can change its character to enable them to deny difficulties in the face of criticism.

The art of forgery has reached its highest level with the fabrication of biblical relics and in particular the relics of Jesus. Historical investigation has shown that not a single reliably authenticated relic of Jesus exists. The profoundness of this lack is matched by the astonishing number of relics attributed to him. They range from his milk teeth and foreskin to countless Passion artifacts: True Cross portions, nails, thorns from the crown of thorns, lance of Longinus, titulus crucis, sponge, seamless tunic, and burial cloths of all kinds.

Many of these relics have been carbon 14 dated: the Turin Shroud, the Oviedo cloth, the Titulus Crucis, the Argenteuil tunic and other less famous. All of them come from the middle ages, when the art of forgery tried to impress the faithful and fool the gullible. The pattern is always the same: a sensational item found by an extraordinary discovery, attended by a dubious provenance and questionable features, succumbs to academic investigation. Yet, die-hard advocates continue to reject the evidence engaging in pseudoscience and "fantarchaeology."

Some of today's defenders of fake relics can be sincere, but they invariably begin with the desired answer and work backwards to the evidence. Others misrepresent it believing that the end justifies the means. Often, texts are manipulated and meaningless legends are presented as if they were historical chronicles. Last but not least, the Templars have somehow had a role in the secret relic trade.

That there is no authenticated physical relic of Jesus does not mean that he never existed or that he was a purely mythologcal figure. It simply means that these traces are not part of the evidence. So, the Turin Shroud is not the material evidence of Jesus' resurrection; the James ossuary does not bear Jesus' name written on stone; the ivory pomegranate is not an authentic item belonging to the First Temple. Some answers must be sought in one's heart and not in dubious artifacts.

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