Science Sheds Light on Christianity's Biggest Mysteries

National Geographic program uses science to explore religious controversies.

March 29, 2010, 7:14 AM

March 29, 2010— -- Could science finally settle some of Christianity's greatest mysteries?

In "Touched by Jesus?" airing tonight, the National Geographic Channel uses forensic technology and dating methods to explore some of religion's most contested claims.

For the Doubting Thomas' among us, the network probes the deepest controversies of Christianity, with the help of carbon dating, fiber analysis and laboratory tests.

Can believers replicate the wounds of Jesus' crucifixion with spontaneous bleeding, or stigmata? Did the Shroud of Turin actually wrap the dead body of Jesus Christ? Did Jesus marry Mary Magdalene and have children?

Here is a taste of what the program has to offer:

Since the Middle Ages, there have been about 300 reports from all over the world of people claiming that, spontaneously, the wounds of Jesus Christ appear on their hands, feet and head. About 20 percent have been canonized by the Catholic Church, National Geographic said.

One minute they may be fine, the next, they say they feel the pain of Christ's crucifixion and manifest the corresponding markings

St. Francis of Assisi was not only the first and most famous stigmatic, but the only one to have been officially sanctioned by the Church with a paper declaration of authenticity.

While skeptics may find that suspicious, the Church has another explanation.

"That doesn't mean we haven't had other cases of stigmata, it means that it is really very difficult. So if there is no real need for a declaration of authenticity, the Church will not go into it," Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Holy See in Vatican City, says in the National Geographic program. "In cases where the person is still alive, the instinctive reaction of the Church is to hide the phenomenon is to suggest silence, modesty and also to leave it to its natural course."

Still, skeptics maintain that the stigmatics are pulling the wool over onlookers' eyes.

"The whole concept of stigmata is interesting if we just step back and look at the broad picture. It looks more like a magic trick or some cheap demonstration. Some pseudo show-bizzy miracle that's just not convincing," says Joe Nickell, a paranormal investigator for the Skeptical Inquirer Magazine.

Psychologist Investigates Claims of Stigmata

But others argue that science still has not fully explained the phenomenon.

"It defies science," Mario Martinez, a church-approved clinical psychologist, told National Geographic. He has studied several stigmata cases and uses a series of blood tests and mental examinations to try to authenticate them.

After meeting with the alleged stigmatic, Martinez takes a blood sample and sends it to a lab for testing. At the lab, the liquid is tested to make sure that it is indeed blood and that it is the alleged stigmatic's blood. The tests can also indicate if there are elevated stress levels or immune cells.

"An authentic stigmatic is one who has the wounds that cannot be explained biologically," he said.

Skeptics, however, question why the bodies of dead stigmatics never show the wounds that they claimed to have lived with.

And they question the motivation. Some, they say, use their "gift" to make money, while others may see it as a way to renew faith among onlookers.

Skeptics also point out that experiments have shown that it's easy enough to self-inflict with razors or even chemicals that leave a wound-like marking on the skin or produce a blood-like liquid.

One of the most controversial Christian artifacts, the so-called Shroud of Turin, is believed by many to have wrapped the body of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion.

The 14-foot-long, 3.5-foot wide cloth is marred with burn and water marks, holes, patches and, some say, blood stains. But the shroud also displays the shadowy image of a man, which some say is clearer in a photonegative than in person.

While some believe the cloth is the burial cloth of Jesus, others argue that it is a forgery.

"Every responsible and legitimate scientist who knows anything about the shroud accepts it as an artistic representation made during the 14th century," says Steven Schafersman, administrator of the Skeptical Shroud of Turin Web site.

But other experts say if it's art, it isn't consistent with other art created at that time.

"It is just out of character with any art that one finds from the Middle Ages, Renaissance," says Ian Wilson, author of "The Blood and the Shroud."

The first reports of the shroud date back to the 14th century, when a French crusader who had just visited the Holy Land brought it home, according to National Geographic. The crusader gave it to a church in Lirey, France and Christians from all over the area came to gaze at the artifact.

Later, the shroud moved to Turin, Italy, where it still protected in the Cathedral of St. John.

While the Church guards it as an important Christian artifact, scientists still debate its authenticity.

Tests completed in 1988 determined that the cloth dates back to the 13 or 14 century, far too late to actually be the burial cloth of Jesus.

But in 2004, Raymond Rogers, a scientist with the Los Alamos National Laboratory said the threads that were actually tested came from patches used later to repair the shroud after a fire. He said the shroud could indeed date from Jesus' era but he died soon after publishing his findings.

Did Jesus Leave Behind a Bloodline?

It's the underlying premise of one of the most popular religious thrillers of all time.

In Dan Brown's best-seller, "The DaVinci Code," the protagonist uncovers a secret society called the Priory of Sion, created to protect Christianity's deepest secret: Jesus married Mary Magdalene and fathered a child.

"Jesus and Mary Magdalene were not only an item, but also she was actually his successor," said Lynn Picknettt, co-author of "The Templar Revolution."

Though the four gospels of the New Testament describe Jesus as unmarried, Picknett and others say competing gospels discovered in Egypt in 1945 tell a different story.

Those "Gnostic gospels," they say, contain evidence that Jesus and Mary Magdalene might have been married – possibly, with children.

"The DaVinci Code" also cited another source: Documents discovered in a French library in 1975 detailing members of the Priory of Sion and its purpose.

Later, however, these documents were exposed as fake, when it was learned that the man who "discovered" them created them and planted them in the library.

"There is absolutely no proof that there was any Priory of Sion or any secret society that was founded to protect a secret about the bloodline of Jesus Christ," said Sharan Newman, author of "The Real History Behind the DaVinci Code."

National Geographic Channel's "Touched by Jesus?" premieres Monday, March 29, 2010 at 8 p.m. ET/PT. For more information, click here.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events