This article originally appeared on Beliefnet in October 2000.
UFOs might really be out there, so we can't entirely debunk the claim they exist. International bankers might be plotting to control the world, too, though why they would conspire to cause regular bouts of global financial problems has never really been clear. You can't dismiss such things as impossible.
But you can dismiss this as impossible: cloning Jesus.
Word has been spreading on the web and elsewhere that a California organization has the technology and intent to clone the Redeemer from Galilee. By all appearances, the group's project is a fundraising hoax, yet its claims are being taken seriously by a few hopeful Christians and have received at least bemused coverage in some regular media. Sci-fi novels such as "The Genesis Code" have also tried to create plausible savior-cloning scenarios. But any science-literate or even theology-literate person will pretty quickly conclude that Jesus-cloning experiments simply won't work. Let's take the California group's ludicrous "Second Coming Project" as a model.
Here's what the project claims: It will recover a bit of DNA from a relic, such as the Shroud of Turin, that may have touched Jesus; then, "utilizing techniques pioneered at the Roslin Institute in Scotland," the laboratory that produced Dolly the cloned sheep, it will implant Jesus' genome into an unfertilized human egg cell; the result will be implanted into the womb of a young virgin volunteer, who would then bear a child while she is still a virgin; her child would be Jesus, arriving for the Second Coming; and, to top it all off, this can be timed so that the birth occurs on December 25, 2001, ushering in a new millennium.
As a Christian, I'd love to see Jesus return to right the wrongs of the world. I'd give pretty much anything to touch his robe. But genetic engineering is not going to accomplish the happy event. Whoever produced the "Second Coming Project" materials has copied down some fancy techno-terms like "oocyte," but clearly has no idea what he or she is talking about.
Here are just a few reasons why this Jesus-cloning project won't work:
Even assuming a DNA sample from Jesus could be found on the Shroud or some other relic, it would almost certainly be worthless for genetic engineering. Jesus died 2,000 years ago; his DNA, in the unlikely event any still exists in the world, would now be degraded. Genes slowly break down if a living body does not preserve them. The "genetic fingerprint" tests that courts are beginning to use to assess guilt or innocence--tests that look only for a short "genetic marker," a much less daunting task than recovery of the genome itself--generally don't work on DNA more than 10 years old. Degraded DNA can be scanned for some kinds of molecular information, but no technology present or anticipated can make it usable again.
Suppose, through some fluke or miracle, you did find a well-preserved DNA sample on the Shroud or other relic. How would you know it came from Jesus? Most likely, hundreds of people have handled the Shroud. Unless Jesus' chromosomes glow or sparkle or are in some other way structurally distinctive--we won't rule that out since we don't know what a supernatural genome might be like, but then again we also don't know anything about what the science of a supernatural genome might be like--finding DNA on a holy relic would be meaningless.
The technology used for Dolly, and in similar mammal-cloning experiments, requires live cells taken from a living adult. This fundamental requirement most likely means that if human cloning is possible, only living adults--not Jesus or Einstein or anyone else from the past--could be cloned.
The cloning-Jesus crowd betrays itself by saying it would not mind if the new Jesus was born female. This would be impossible through cloning. What happens in cloning is that a child genetically identical to the parent is born, and of course that means the same gender. Even if usable genetic material from Jesus could be found, the only way Jesus' male genome (with mixed X-Y chromosomes) could become a female genome (with double-X structure) is if the DNA came apart, reshuffled, and recombined. There is no technology that can do this artificially. Even if there were, what you'd get in the end would be an all-new person who is not Jesus in any sense. At most, the child would be Jesus' niece. (Not even necessarily his first niece, but we'll skip the Mendelian reasoning on that point.)
Another giveaway is the preposterous idea of timing the birth exactly to December 25. Not only is gestational nature unlikely to cooperate, but December 25 has only a 1 in 365 chance of being the real Jesus' birthday. We have no idea on what day Jesus was born; the Bible and early church tradition are silent on that point. December 25 is believed to have been picked, in the early Middle Ages, because it was a winter feasting day. But it's got nothing to do with the reality of the Redeemer--and neither does cloning.
Even if, through magic or miracle, you could overcome the scientific barriers and reproduce a baby with an exact duplicate of Jesus' genetic structure, you still would not have Jesus. All you'd have is a physical lookalike. What a person is--personality, character, and perhaps in this case, divine office--does not come from genetic structure; it comes from experience and environment, learning, culture, and in this case perhaps from God. A genetic duplicate of Jesus, born today, might still grow into a prophet or leader. But that's a total guess; the child would be shaped by his own experiences and have no mystic knowledge of the real Jesus. He'd just read about Jesus in the Bible like everyone else does.
Yet another website--perhaps a spoof--says, "We should clone a Jesus for anyone who wants one" and "Imagine a world with a Jesus in every household." This, at least, is theologically more sound than the California group's plan, because Christianity teaches that all who want to can already have Jesus, in their hearts.