At this stage of his papacy, a Francis photo going viral is almost banal. But there was something different about the “Holy Selfie” of Francis that commandeered our Instagram feeds this past week. In the image, posted on an unofficial Vatican account, Francis smiles broadly as he captures his “first selfie” for the masses. It seemed, for a media minute, as if Francis had embraced the technological world’s most narcissistic pleasure. The image made the New York Daily News, Yahoo, and CNN. But, as we quickly discovered, the picture is a fake. And in this respect it’s just one in a long line of religious forgeries designed to bring fame and fortune to their creators.
Every religious group is susceptible to forgers. Whenever you have something of value—be it designer purses or actual currency—you have those who will dedicate time and effort to forging it. And artifacts relating to religious leaders—Jesus, saints, the Prophet Mohammed, or the Buddha—are in particularly high demand.
The technology used to create these forgeries varies from the kind of thing your 6-year-old could do on the living room floor (any piece of old looking wood could come from the true cross) to cutting-edge science (the Turin Shroud still defies efforts to explain how, if it is a forgery, it was made).
Many are housed in museums. A thumb-sized artifact dubbed the “Ivory Pomegranate” (even though it is made of hippopotamus bone) and bearing a paleo-Hebrew inscription was bought by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 1988. At the time, it was believed to have adorned the High Priest’s scepter in Solomon’s Temple and was, thus, the most important artifact in the museum’s collection.
Then, on Christmas Eve, 2004, the Israel Museum announced that the pomegranate was a modern forgery. Those who were believed to be responsible were, in fact, indicted by the police and the Israel Antiquities Authority, though there are some who continue to advocate for the authenticity of the artifact.
The truth is that forgery is an ancient phenomenon and that doubts hang over the authenticity of everything from bones of John the Baptist to stone-encased footprints of Mohammed. The reasons for producing religious forgeries are simple: power, money, attention, influence, and entertainment. There are some who believe that Columbia scholar Morton Smith forged the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark (so secret that no one but Morton Smith has ever seen it) as a joke on the academy.
So far as the Francis selfie goes, the cost to the consumer is relatively low. It’s somewhat embarrassing to share a fake news item, but you’re hardly alone. In other cases, however, fake relics cost the believer a great deal more.
In 2005, more than 60,000 donors poured $45 million and 270kg of gold into the construction of a Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown in Singapore. A relic as precious as a tooth of the Buddha himself demanded lavish accommodations, and people were eager to contribute. According to the official website, the tooth was found by a Buddhist monk in 1980 when he was repairing the remains of a collapsed shrine in Myanmar.
But almost immediately after the temple complex opened in 2007, people began to ask questions. In a series of articles, Lianhe Zaobao pointed out that historical records suggest that there were only two extant teeth of the Buddha and both of those are already accounted for. Moreover, why had no one heard of this discovery?
More worrying, however, was the appearance of the tooth. Dr. Pamela Craig, a senior lecturer at the School of Dental Science at the University of Melbourne who was interviewed by The Straits Times, remarked that “there’s absolutely no possibility that it is a human tooth.” Every single dental expert who was consulted by newspapers and media outlets agreed that the tooth belongs to a herbivorous animal, likely of the bos species. Write your own joke about vegetarians turning bovine.
In response to the accusations and letters from angry donors, the temple took out advertisements in major news outlets in Singapore telling people, “We should stand firm on our own faith towards the sacred relics.”
Defenders of ambiguous relics often point out is that what is important is belief, not authenticity. Some of the Catholic Church’s language about controversial religious artifacts like the Shroud of Turin underscores this point. If people believe in relics, and if those relics are focal points for religious devotion, then perhaps we can leave it there. But tell that to the thousands who donated to the temple in Singapore.