Jefferson Bass: Forensic Science & a Religious Icon

Jefferson Bass, The Inquisitor's Key

Jefferson Bass is known for “his” crime thrillers centered around the Body Farm, an anthropology research facility where forensic techniques are used to unlock the secrets a corpse contains about… well, how it became a corpse. I say “his” because, in reality, the novels are co-written by Dr. Bill Bass, the founder of the real life Body Farm, and Jon Jefferson, a journalist and novelist. Their latest collaboration, The Inquisitor’s Key, is quite a change of pace—oh, there’s still plenty of forensic science, but this time it’s being used to determine whether an skeleton uncovered in a former papal estate might be Jesus. (Actually, some alternative theories come up early in the game, especially interesting if you know your 14th-century theological history…) Though the skeleton is fictional, the novel does connect it to a real religious relic—at the very least, “real” in the sense that, whatever you think about its origins or properties, it’s a thing that exists. And Jon Jefferson kindly elaborates on its role in the story…

I write forensic fiction—crime novels that revolve around high-tech forensic science (especially forensic anthropology—the stuff of the hit TV show Bones). While researching and writing The Inquisitor’s Key, which is set in Avignon, France—the home of the popes for most of the 14th century—I found myself peering through the lens of science at the world’s most famous religious relic: the Shroud of Turin. The Shroud is a 14-foot strip of ivory-colored linen imprinted with a faint, reddish-brown image that appears to be the bloodstained form of a crucified man. Revered by millions as the burial cloth of Jesus, the Shroud thickens the novel’s plot when it’s linked to a mysterious skeleton, one that our 21st-century anthropologists unearth in Avignon’s 14th-century Palace of the Popes.

The Shroud of Turin made its first indisputable appearance in 1357—not in Turin, Italy, but in Lirey, France, a town due north of Avignon. It’s Christendom’s most famous relic, but it’s far from the only one. The Middle Ages were the heyday of religious relics: artifacts (often human bones and body parts) intended to inspire devotion—and to draw pilgrims to the churches that possessed them. The relics trade was brisk and bogus-laden. A very incomplete list of medieval relics includes two heads of John the Baptist; three corpses of Mary Magdalene; six (count ’em, six) foreskins from the circumcised penis of the baby Jesus; vials of Jesus’s tears (and Mary’s breast milk!); 30 “holy nails” used in the crucifixion; and enough wood from the True Cross to build a small armada.

Unique among relics, the Shroud seems unfazed by modern skepticism and science; in fact, it actually seems to thrive on them. This “odd couple”—relic and science—first met in 1898, when a photographic negative of the Shroud revealed an eerie black-and-white face. The negative was far more dramatic and lifelike than the faint image on the cloth itself, and that raises an interesting question: Was that 1898 negative high-tech proof of an age-old miracle? Or was it a primitive precursor to Photoshop: an image-processing tool that had retouched reality in a powerful way?

The Shroud is no newcomer to controversy. In the 14th century, a French bishop wrote the pope in Avignon to warn him that the relic was a cunning fake. And the Vatican itself has carefully sidestepped the question of the Shroud’s authenticity. But ever since that first photographic negative, believers (including some scientists) have sought more high-tech proof of the Shroud’s miraculous nature.

The Inquisitor’s Key (including the part about a link between the Shroud and a skeleton in Avignon) is fiction. But the book does recap the real-life science that’s been applied to the Shroud, including a compelling hypothesis by forensic anthropologist Dr. Emily Craig (which she discusses in an article available as a PDF).

I don’t expect the novel to settle the centuries-old debate about the Shroud’s authenticity. And maybe that’s just as well. Maybe, by provoking thought and discussion about faith and science—about the miraculous and the mundane—the Shroud is doing exactly what its creator intended.

20 May 2012 | guest authors |