Plumbing the myths surrounding the True Cross


The Quest for the True Cross, by Carsten Peter Thiede & Matthew d'Ancona. Palgrave. 205 pages. $26.95.

Relics, the sacred remnants of those considered to have led saintly lives, have an ambivalent history in the annals of Christianity.

For many, they provide a tangible link to evidence of the holy and the divine in the world.

The dark side of the relic business is that it became a business. The demand so outstripped supply, especially for the relics of key saints, that at first things like bone fragments were split into ever smaller slivers, and then all pretensions were cast aside and many relic traffickers engaged in unabashed fraud.

The relic par excellence was the True Cross, which according to tradition was discovered by Helena, mother of Constantine, the emperor of Rome who embraced Christianity and transformed it from a persecuted sect into a world religion. According to tradition, Helena journeyed on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where she discovered the True Cross and brought a fragment of it back to her palace in Rome, now a church called the Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.

It is a story that scholars almost universally believe has little or no historical basis.

In The Quest for the True Cross, Carsten Peter Thiede, a Swiss authority on early Christian manuscripts, and Matthew d'Ancona, a British journalist, take on that scholarly dismissal in a work that is one part highly readable historical speculation and another part mind-numbing philological analysis.

Thiede, who calls himself a papyrologist, uses his expertise to examine the inscription on the surviving remnant of the cross, called the Titulus, which was the plate affixed to the instrument of execution that explained Jesus' crime.

According to the analysis, the order of the three languages on the Titulus prove that it can't be a 4th century forgery, as held by the scholarly consensus. Two Gospels, widely in circulation at the time of Helena's discovery, mention that the Titulus was written in three languages: Luke lists the order as Greek, Latin and Hebrew; John lists them as Hebrew, Latin and Greek. In fact, the Titulus at Santa Croce is written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. If it were a forgery, the authors conclude, it would have followed one of the extant Gospels.

Much of their argument consists in laying out scenarios that might make it possible that Helena's discovery could be authentic. For example, how is it possible that the wood of the cross could be discovered 300 years after Jesus' death? The authors note that, wood being scarce, the upright beams were most likely permanently erected at the execution site, just outside the Jerusalem walls.

In 41-42 C.E., the walls of Jerusalem were extended, and because tradition held executions were conducted outside the city precincts, the old execution ground was abandoned. The upright beams were cast into a cistern, where Helena's excavators "presumably" found them three centuries later.

Although intriguing, the work is ultimately unconvincing. As the authors readily admit, they never really prove their case. They merely show that the authenticity of the True Cross is not totally implausible. That makes for interesting speculation -- good for a Discovery television special. In fact, The Quest for the True Cross has been turned into one. But this work isn't likely to turn the academy on its head.

John Rivera has been the religion reporter for The Sun since April 1997. He covered Pope John Paul II during his visit to Baltimore in 1995 and on his trip to Cuba. He earned a master's degree in theology at Washington Theological Union.

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