July 17, 2008
Thanks to this blog, I keep learning interesting new stuff. You may recall that I expressed bewilderment at the possibility that any adult could possibly believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which asserts that when the priest during the communion service consecrates the bread and wine, the bread becomes the actual body of Jesus and the wine becomes his actual blood.
In response to my posting on the fuss over a college student taking home a consecrated wafer, a commenter Timothy said that the desecration of the wafer was indeed much worse than murder, genocide, etc, if you believed that the wafer was the body of Jesus-god. As evidence that it was, he provided a link to an event that supposedly occurred in the Italian city of Lanciano around 700 CE.
This was news to me. According to that article, a monk who doubted the doctrine of transubstantiation was astounded when the 'host' (i.e. the wafer/bread) physically changed into human flesh, and the wine changed into globules of actual blood, causing a sensation amongst the people in the church.
The article says that, "Various ecclesiastical investigation ("Recognitions") were conducted since 1574" and that the flesh and blood remained remarkably well preserved over the centuries, despite being exposed to the environment.
We are also told that "In 1970-'71 and taken up again partly in 1981 there took place a scientific investigation by the most illustrious scientist Prof. Odoardo Linoli, eminent Professor in Anatomy and Pathological Histology and in Chemistry and Clinical Microscopy. He was assisted by Prof. Ruggero Bertelli of the University of Siena." What these people found was that the flesh was real flesh from a human heart and the blood was human blood, with the blood in both being of the AB type, supposedly the same as found in the Shroud of Turin.
(For more detailed accounts, see here and here. One report even says that "in 1973, the chief Advisory Board of the World Health Organization appointed a scientific commission to corroborate Linoli’s findings. Their work lasted 15 months and included 500 tests. It was verified that the fragments taken from Lanciano could in no way be likened to embalmed tissue.")
That is pretty impressive, spectacularly so, if taken at face value. In fact, it is amazing that the Catholic Church does not make it a centerpiece of its message to its followers, or use it for its public relations, and that the items themselves are not a magnet for the faithful to go and see. It definitely puts other pilgrimage sites like Lourdes to shame.
But as another commenter Greg pointed out in response, all reports on this phenomenon seem to be from Catholic sources and that information is scarce about Professors Linoli and Bertelli. I too found (admittedly after just a Google search, nothing deeper) that references to this event seem to have very similar wording, suggesting a common source document, and all references to Linoli are with reference to this one event.
As Greg points out in his comment, the most likely explanation is that the original claim of a miraculous transformation of bread and wine was a hoax based on a simple sleight-of-hand substitution, to convince doubters in the church at that time that the doctrine was not nonsense. After all, all that we have now is this flesh and blood. There is no evidence that any transformation took place at all to convert bread and wine into them, except for the claims of the monk who says he observed it happening, and he is hardly an impartial source.
But suppose we set aside skepticism and take the story at face value and follow its implications. The first problem is that much of the religious apologetics concerning transubstantiation is designed to explain why the wafer and wine look just like ordinary wafers and wine, and even have the same physical properties of ordinary wafers and wine, even though it has been transformed into the flesh and blood of Jesus. So why in this particular case did it physically change into actual flesh and blood? What could be the point of such a one-off event? To convince a single skeptical monk 1,300 years ago?
The really interesting thing about taking this story at face value is that since we now have the actual flesh and blood of Jesus, we can now obtain the actual DNA of god. Knowledge of the DNA may enable us to answer the very puzzling question of whether Jesus really was blonde and blue-eyed, even though he was a Middle Easterner.
The whole virgin birth thing has also been a bit of a problem genetically and the availability of Jesus's DNA would enable us to solve the following puzzle: Since each human gets half his or her genes from each parent, a male like Jesus would get his X-chromosome from his mother and the Y-chromosome from his father. The baffling question is if, how, and from where Jesus would get his Y-chromosome, if he had a virgin birth. There seem to me to be four options, and DNA studies could resolve which one is correct.
If Jesus only got one set genes from his mother, then he would have only half the genetic make up of a normal human and he would not really be human, which upsets the doctrine that Jesus lived among us as a human. It also means that the normal means by which the DNA and cells divide and multiply could not work. A whole new mechanism would be needed for Jesus to physically grow, both in the womb and after birth.
If he got both sets chromosomes from his mother, that would make him an XX and thus female. The idea that Jesus was a woman in drag would boggle the mind of a believer. Also, if the two sets of chromosomes were identical, he would be susceptible to any of the ailments present in all the harmful recessive genes in Mary since there would be no dominant healthy genes from the father to shield him. All of us have many deleterious genes that we inherit from each parent but fortunately most of them are recessive and their effects are not manifested because of the dominant 'good' genes from the other parent.
A third possibility is that god somehow inserted his own set of genes (and the Y-chromosome) into Mary's egg so that Jesus did have the full set of genes that a normal man would have and this would also justify the claim that Jesus was god's son. This would be pretty conclusive evidence that god is also of the male gender and we can dispense with all the efforts to use cumbersome gender-neutral language when talking about god.
But all these three options have the problem that at least half of Jesus's DNA comes from Mary, a human, so Jesus cannot be fully god as well. The fourth possibility is that god inserted his own entire DNA into Mary's egg and that fertilized egg eventually became the flesh-and-blood Jesus, with Mary as simply the conduit, a surrogate mother to use the current terminology. Thus Jesus is both god (since his DNA is entirely god's) and human (since he has a full set of human chromosomes), Mary is his mother (since he gestated in and emerged from her womb), it was a virgin birth, and god is his father, thus solving almost of the theological problems of Christianity rather neatly.
We can also now map Jesus's DNA completely and thus know what god's DNA is. Presumably that would be the perfect DNA, having none of the disorders associated with ordinary human DNA. Right now, the Human Genome Project maps out a kind of 'average' DNA. We would now have a perfect standard to compare it to.
There would still be some interpretive problems. Since a person's DNA can be used to trace their matriarchal and patriarchal lines of ancestors, we could trace the DNA back through the ancestral lines and see the geographical distribution of its origins. But what would that mean for god, since he has no ancestors?
But those are mere technicalities. The really exciting possibility is this: As I have written about before, the latest techniques of genetic engineering enable us to take the nucleus of a cell from any piece of tissue from any part of a body and use it to clone a new being, someone with the same DNA as was contained in that nucleus.
So if the Lanciano story is true and we have the actual tissues of Jesus, we are now able to clone god!
Looking back over this post, I see that not only has it has provided answers to all the major difficult issues of Christian theology, it has also proposed the most important scientific experiment in human history.
I think I need to go and lie down and rest.
POST SCRIPT: Missed opportunity
In a new book, While America Aged: How Pension Debts Ruined General Motors, Stopped the NYC Subways, Bankrupted San Diego, and Loom as the Next Financial Crisis , Roger Lowenstein looks at how pension and health care obligations to workers became the responsibility of employers and not the government, and what is happening now as the bills come due.
In the 1950s, the United Auto Workers won generous pension and health care benefits from General Motors, even to the extent of securing medical coverage for retirees. The union leader Walter Reuther, while getting these benefits for his members, felt that such benefits should be extended to all workers everywhere and to all Americans in general. He also had the foresight to realize that the benefits he was obtaining were unsustainable for the company over the long run. He suggested to GM management that together they lobby the government to put pensions and health care under federal administration, basically creating a single-payer universal health care and pension system, as exists now in many countries, and which I have long advocated.
But GM, powerful and profitable then, wanted to have nothing to do with what seemed to smack of socialism. Now, GM and other US automakers are in deep financial trouble and teetering on bankruptcy because they still pay for pensions and health care while Japanese automakers do not, thus giving the latter a huge advantage in pricing. It is claimed that health care costs alone add about $1,500 to the cost of each car produced by a US automaker.
You can listen to an NPR interview with Loewenstein here.