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Cloning Jesus

By Andrew George.

Department of Immunology, Division of Medicine,

Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College London

In the Cathedral of Oviedo in Northern Spain, there is a cloth (the Sudarium) that contains blood stains that are said to have got there when the cloth was used to cover and clean the face of Jesus after the crucifixtion. The blood has been typed (AB). There are other relics of Jesus, including the Turin Shroud, that might contain some samples of his blood. Perhaps most bizarrely, there were in the Middle Ages more than a dozen examples of Jesus' foreskin recovered following his circumcision. One of these was venerated in Italy as late as until it was stolen in the 1980s.

Of course the sceptic will say that many of these relics are false. But I want to consider the possibilities which would exist if any of them were true, and did indeed originate from Jesus. What could we do if we did have a sample of Jesus' blood or tissue here on the earth? Indeed, some might argue that, as the bread and wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Jesus, we might need look no further than a local church for these samples.

One thing that would be contained in the blood and tissue of Jesus would be his DNA. DNA sits in the nucleus of the cells in the body, and forms the genes that direct many aspects of the physical and mental make up of individuals. We are what we are to a large extent because of the genes that are made up from the sequence of our DNA molecules. Unless we have an identical twin, our DNA sequence is unique to us. So if we were allowed to extract the DNA from the relics, we would have a handle on what made Jesus unique, we would be able to sequence Jesus' genome.

We might even be able to go a stage further. If the DNA was in good condition we might be able to clone Jesus. Reproductive cloning technology was first developed for sheep, with the famous case of Dolly. The nucleus containing the DNA from an animal is injected into the egg of another animal (whose DNA has been removed). The egg is then placed in the womb of an animal, where it develops into a foetus and is eventually born - genetically identical to the animal which was the source of the DNA. This technology has been applied to a wide range of animals. At present, while there have been unsubstantiated reports from maverick groups, to our knowledge this has not been attempted in humans. The first stage in the process - cloning of human cells - has been successful. Such cloned cells (as opposed to whole organisms) have a number of potential applications for medicine.

If we went ahead and took the DNA of Jesus and cloned it, what would the consequences be? What would the child that was born as a result be like? What does this tell us about us and our identity? The aim of this article is to explore some of these themes, and follow the implications of this thought experiment1.

Who will the cloned Jesus be?

If a cloned version of Jesus was born, who would he be? What would be his relationship with Jesus of Nazareth? The easiest thing to say is what he would not be. This person would not be Jesus of Nazareth; he would be a separate individual with his own identity. We know this because of the existence of identical twins. Identical twins share the same DNA sequence; they are natural clones of each other. Yet, while we recognise similarities between identical twins, we do not regard them as the same person.

Would the cloned Jesus be an identical twin of the original Jesus? At one level, yes. He would share similar physical characteristics and so would look very similar. However, would he share the same mental characteristics? Would he have a similar personality? Would he even have common aspects to his spiritual experiences?

These questions are more difficult to answer. We know that many aspects of our personality and mind have genetic components (and I see no reason why the same should not be true for spiritual aspects as well). We acknowledge that genes have a part to play in intelligence, in the way in which people interact with others and also in sexuality. We know this in part because identical twins are more similar in these aspects than non identical twins. However, we also know that genetics is not the total answer. What we are is the result of a complex interaction between our genes and environment. This interaction is complex because it is not a simple mathematical addition (intelligence is 60% genetic and 40% environmental), but involves an interaction between the two. I may have the right genes to become an opera singer, but if I was never exposed to music as a child, it is highly unlikely that the potential of those genes will be fulfilled. Equally, I might have been taken to all the music classes in the world, but without the right genetic component encoding the right sort of voice box, then I would never become a great singer (being male I certainly lack the genetic complement to be a great diva!).

Jesus of Nazareth was born in a different age, to a different culture than our putative clone. He was educated in a different belief structure and subject to different influences. These would impose enormous differences. His environment was that of a Jew in occupied territory. He had been a refugee as a child. The fastest he would have travelled would have been on a horse. All these things would have shaped him, and made him different from the cloned Jesus who would be able to look out of a window and see aeroplanes flying around the world, who would be bought up in a very materialistic, but probably democratic, country. Indeed, the cloned Jesus would be brought up in an environment that was profoundly influenced by the original Jesus of Nazareth!

So would there be similarities? I think that there probably would be, but they would be limited. If we could take just one characteristic of Jesus of Nazareth, let us say his altruism. We can probably agree that Jesus was an altruistic person. Would the cloned Jesus be altruistic? That depends on how genetics influences altruism. Aspects of altruism are determined genetically (in part because of the survival advantage for genes that make people altruistic to their relatives), so one might expect the cloned Jesus to be altruistic. But it depends on external influences. Was there an event or something in his background that interacted with Jesus' genes to make him altruistic? Would an alternative experience trigger the same response in the cloned Jesus? We cannot of course tell, but there is the possibility that the cloned Jesus would turn out to be a selfish individual who would not lift a finger to help anyone else. Because of the genetic identity with Jesus of Nazareth, it might be less likely that the cloned Jesus would be selfish, but we cannot tell.

Another less controversial example would be the physical similarities between the cloned Jesus and Jesus of Nazareth. We know that identical twins are very similar, so, as indicated above, we would expect the clone to be similar to the original. However, the two individuals would have been bought up on a very different diet - indeed their mothers would have been eating different things during their pregnancy - so it is possible that the height as well as weight might be different. Even things that have strong genetic components are influenced by the environment.

Understanding Jesus' genes

From all that I have said above, it might be considered that we would learn very little about Jesus by cloning him. But there are still interesting questions that can be asked about the nature of Jesus and the relationship with his genes.

The first question concerns where Jesus got his genes from. We all have inherited half our genes from our mother and half from our father. Jesus must have done the same. The question is, of course, who the father of Jesus is - a human or God. Who supplied half of Jesus' DNA?

Given that nearly everything that we are is influenced by our genes, then the DNA that we contain is intimately bound up with our humanity. If you could read the DNA in your cells, then you would read a book that not only is of vital importance in your make up, but also tells the story of your ancestors. Your DNA will be typical of the lineage that you come from, and will have been shaped by their experiences of disease, of food, of environment. It will also have been determined by countless random events, both the random distribution of genes from parents to offspring which is like the shuffling and dealing of a pack of cards, and also the introduction of mutations - errors in the genes that in most cases cause problems, but in some offer new opportunities for evolution. To take an extreme example, a proportion of black people carry a mutation in the gene encoding for the haemoglobin molecule that is responsible for carrying oxygen in red blood cells. That mutation must have arisen as a random event at some time in the past. It was preserved because the mutation protects from malaria, and so was of benefit to people at risk of malaria. However, it also causes sickle cell anaemia, a disease where the red blood cells change shape and are rapidly destroyed. So by looking at that one mutation you can see something of the history of the people, their life in malaria endemic regions, as well as the cost of protecting themselves from malaria. There are many similar situations, where there are particular genes in our DNA that cause us problems, but in some circumstances are of benefit.

It could therefore be argued that, if Jesus was fully human, his DNA should reflect his roots. It should also tell the story of his ancestors. It should carry genes that cause and protect from disease. It should also have a random component to it - we are also what we are because of the shuffling and dealing of our parental genes. This brings up novel combinations, which make us unique. If Jesus' father were not human, then the DNA would miss all that. It would have to have been designed by God, and unless God modelled the sequence on that of a human (a type of cloning!), then how could it incorporate the random, the contingent and the historical elements of the genome?

However, whatever we think about the source of Jesus' paternal genes, there are other aspects of his genetic makeup that need consideration. As is made clear from the above, Jesus' DNA (at least that inherited from his mother!) would be shaped and influenced by his lineage. He was a Jew living in Palestine in the first century AD, and his genes would have reflected that. I could therefore differentiate him from me, a Caucasian living in the 21st century in the United Kingdom. People have talked about first century Palestine as being a suitable environment for the emergence of a Messiah - it may be that it also contained the right genetic complement!

But there are other things that we can also say about Jesus' genes. We know that Jesus must have had certain human characteristics to have a successful ministry. He must have been charismatic, intelligent, empathic and so forth. These characteristics are genetic, to an extent. Jesus must have had the right genes to be able to have his ministry. To take an extreme and rather negative slant on this issue, if Jesus had genes that had meant that he had severe learning difficulties (for example if he had Down's syndrome), then it would not have been possible for him to have the ministry that he did. If he had cystic fibrosis, a genetically determined disease, then he would not have lived long enough to have a ministry2. So we know that there were certain genes or DNA sequences that Jesus did not have, and equally we can assume that he would have had the genes that would enable him to have the relevant gifts for that ministry.

This raises questions about the incarnation. If God decided that he would become incarnate just once, then he was taking an awfully big gamble. What would happen if the incarnate Jesus did not have the necessary genes for the job? What if Jesus was born with cystic fibrosis and a very short life expectancy, or with Down's syndrome, and so would not have the intellectual faculties needed for preaching and arguing in the temple? What if he did not have the charisma and intellect needed to do the job? There are, of course, several solutions to this. God may have 'fixed the genes', made sure that Jesus got suitable ones - a sort of divine pre-implantation diagnosis. This would raise questions about the incarnation and Jesus' humanity: if he was a unique and deliberate construction of God then does that diminish his humanity?3 It also allows one to ask why similar intervention could not be used to prevent genetic defects in others.

An alternative would be to argue that Jesus of Nazareth had the particular ministry that he did have because, in part, of his genetic make up. If he had had a different make up, he would have had a different ministry that would have been equally valid and worthwhile. There is a lot to commend this. There is no reason why someone with learning difficulties or a medical condition cannot have a positive influence on the world, and there are many examples of when they do. But one is in danger of being disingenuous here, and escaping from the hard reality. While we can celebrate the diversity of ministries that are possible, it is unlikely that Jesus would have had such a widespread influence if he had not been the man that he was, with the ability to gather a band of followers and influence them and the others in such a radical manner.

It is possible that the incarnation did not happen until the appropriate person was born with the correct genes creating the appropriate gifts and talents (in effect that God waited for a suitable person to emerge by natural, random, processes and then chose him). Alternatively, there may be many incarnations, in each of which people work out their ministries according to their talents (influenced of course by their genes), but only some of which have as worldwide an influence as Jesus managed to do.

Lessons for us

It is also important to look at ourselves, and to see how our knowledge of genetics influences how we understand ourselves. What we are is influenced by our genes, and in some ways we are constrained by them. I never will be a world champion 100 metre sprinter; I have the wrong physique for that, which is due to the wrong genes. I am a successful scientist, because the combination of my genetic make up and my environment have come together to give me the necessary skills and opportunities. However, it is also important to remember that while we might be constrained and influenced by our genes, we are not predestined by them. As discussed above, what we are is due to the interaction of genes, of environment and of events, in a complex synergistic manner. While we may have no control over what is in our DNA, we do have influence over our environment and our events, and so can modify ourselves and what we are and what we do. When we understand the important role that his genes had in the ministry of Jesus, we also need to understand how he transcended them and also his environment to such startling effect.

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You are reading Cloning Jesus by Andrew George, part of Issue 31 of Ministry Today, published in June 2004.

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