What Happened to the Cross Jesus Died On?

For 2,000 years, Christians have sought a piece of the cross Jesus died on—and some have been willing to use their teeth.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Last week, Christians around the world celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. An integral part of this, the foundational moment in Christian history, is that three days earlier Jesus was hung on a wooden cross in a humiliating and agonizing death. By the Middle Ages the True Cross (as the cross of Jesus is known) would become the most significant relic in the Christian world. To this day, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem claims to possess pieces of it. But they aren’t the only ones. Fragments of the True Cross are said to reside in churches and basilicas all over Europe. Is it possible that any of them are the real deal? Whatever happened to the scaffolding for the most important event in Christianity?

At first blush it seems unlikely that any given European relic of the cross would be authentic. In the first place there are just so many. By the end of the medieval period, every royal, high ranking noble, and semi-large was claiming to house important relics of one kind or another. In a satirical piece on pilgrimage, the world-renowned sixteenth century humanist Erasmus wrote, “So they say of the cross of Our Lord, which is shown publicly and privately in so many places, that, if all the fragments were collected together, they would appear to form a fair cargo for a merchant ship.” Clearly not every one could be authentic.

As it turns out, Erasmus was being hyperbolic. A survey of extant pieces of the cross, published in 1870 by de Fleury, concluded that actually the volume of fragments in circulation was not even enough to reconstruct a cross, much less build a boat. So far, so good, but are they real?

Jesus was executed in Jerusalem. Early reports suggest that the cross was then broken up and dispersed to major centers of Christianity. An inscription found in North Africa, dating to 359, makes reference to the cross, and Cyril of Jerusalem wrote in 348 that the “whole world” was full of relics of the cross, a statement that suggests the deliberate distribution of relics. In certain cases it seems that the distribution of relics was official and politically motivated: bishops in Jerusalem dispatched pieces to the Pope and the Pope shared them with powerful monarchs. Gifting relics was a way to curry favor with one’s allies.

In other cases people stole relics on the sly. In her late fourth century travel journal, a wealthy pilgrim named Egeria reports that when pieces of the cross were venerated during the Good Friday service in Jerusalem, deacons would be stationed nearby to ensure that people didn’t bite pieces off. This had apparently happened in the past and seems to have continued at least as late as the medieval period. According to the 12th century History of the Counts of Anjou, Fulk Nerra of Anjou bit off a piece of the cross relic when he was in Jerusalem on a pilgrimage in the early 11th century. He then returned it to France where, according to tradition, they were entrusted to the monks at the abbey of Beaulieu.

Theoretically, therefore, it’s possible for some of these relics to have been carved from (or nibbled off of) the original cross. The key question, then, is how do we know that the cross venerated in the fourth century was the actual cross on which Jesus was crucified?

Part of the problem is that the followers of Jesus and the first Christians weren’t all that interested in the physical remains of the the True Cross, because crucifixion was a humiliating form of death reserved for criminals and slaves.

As prominent art historian Robin Jensen shows in her recently published book The Cross: History, Art and Controversy, second century Christians wrestled with the scandal of the cross and disagreed about how to interpret it. Unlike today, when crucifixes and crosses adorn churches and necks, early Christians did not incorporate the symbol of the cross into their liturgy, dress, or art. They were not ducking the crucifixion, she told me, but were trying to make sense of it. That process of making sense however does not appear to have included the artistic depiction of crosses or an interest in finding the True Cross itself.

For some of these reasons it was not until the fourth century that Christians even went looking for the True Cross. And this is where things start to get complicated. In her remarkable book, A Heritage of Holy Wood, Barbara Baert traces the origins of the legends associated with the discovery of the True Cross. According to the popular medieval legend, which reappears in retellings to this day, the cross was discovered by Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine. In her youth, before she met Constantine’s father, Helena had been a “tavern girl” (a status that was in many parts of the empire equivalent to a prostitute). She took to the highly political world of the imperial empire and even seems to have engineered the execution of Constantine’s wife Fausta. The details of Fausta’s death are unclear but one version suggests that she suffocated in a bathhouse. In the waning years of her life she undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where she commissioned the building of important churches and attempted to retrace the steps of Jesus. It was during the demolition of the Temple of Venus in preparation for the construction of what would be the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that the crosses were discovered. Excavators discovered three crosses buried together, but Helena could not tell which was which. The identity of the True Cross was confirmed by means of a miracle, and, in 335, Helena placed part of it in the newly-constructed Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and sent another fragment to her son the emperor in Constantinople.

These fragments had a somewhat illustrious history. John Eldevik, a professor of medieval history at Hamilton College, told The Daily Beast that “[The]Jerusalem cross was carried into battle by the Christian forces against Saladin at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 and was supposedly taken as booty by the victorious Muslims. Later Crusaders, including Richard Lionheart and Louis IX, believed that Saladin or his successors still held it somewhere and attempted to recover it or ransom it.” Most cross wood relics in Europe, he added, traced their origins to the Constantinople fragment.

All roads, it seems, lead back to Helena’s discovery of the cross in Jerusalem. The problem is that our earliest sources for the “finding of the cross” story don’t mention Helena at all. Eusebius, who reports that Constantine asked the Bishop of Jerusalem to construct the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at the site of the Temple of Venus, never tells us anything about crosses. When Cyril of Jerusalem, our earliest source for references to the True Cross, refers to its discovery during the time of Constantine, he makes no reference to Helena. John Chrysostom, the bishop of Constantinople in the late fifth century, describes the discovery of three crosses in a homily in 390 C.E. He writes that the middle cross was identified as Jesus’ by the titulus (headboard) identifying Jesus as king of the Jews. But, again, he never mentions Helena.

The first mention of Constantine’s mother is found in a funeral oration that Ambrose of Milan delivered for the Emperor Theodosius in February 395. According to Ambrose, Helena needed the help of the Holy Spirit to discern which was Christ’s Cross and that she, additionally, discovered the nails used to crucify Jesus. Helena also appears in a Church History written in 403 by Rufinus, who includes a story of a miraculous healing as the spiritual test by which the authentic cross was identified. Paulinus of Nola, an ascetic, also includes a version of the story that includes Helena and a miracle story (although they differ, in one version an invalid woman is healed, in another a man is brought back to life from the dead).

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What do we make of these different versions? Rufinus, Ambrose, and Paulinus share a common core, but differ on many details including the involvement of the Bishop of Jerusalem in the discovery of the cross. Earlier but roughly contemporaneous references by John Chrysostom and Cyril of Jerusalem are really quite different.

Baert identifies Gelasius, the bishop of Caesarea in 367 and nephew of Cyril of Jerusalem, as Rufinus’ source and the origins of the legend about Helena’s involvement. She tentatively suggests that Gelasius included Helena and the miracle story in his version of events as part of his theopolitical agenda: he was a great admirer of Helena and Constantine and the story endeared him to their imperial heirs. Drawing on the work of continental European scholars Drijvers and Heid, she concludes that the construction of the Church of Holy Sepulcher on the site of Jesus’ tomb, the discovery of the cross, and the role of Helena are three stages in the evolution of the legend.

What all of this means is that we don’t know exactly how the True Cross was rediscovered. Nor do we have any plausible explanation for why it was that these particular crosses came to be interred intact, while the crosses on which ordinary criminals hung were repurposed. Eldevik told me, “While we know that people in Roman times sometimes scavenged nails and other remains from crucifixions for use as magic talismans, Jews would not have done this, and the cross itself was likely either destroyed or simply reused for other executions.”

If you’re a person of faith, the preservation of the True Cross can easily be explained as an act of divine protection. Historians would disagree, Eldevik said that it’s “quite unlikely” that any of the fragments are authentic. What we know for certain, though, is that Christians were so passionate about it that they would chew through wood to get a piece.