A Brief History
On March 21, 630, Emperor Heraclius of the Byzantine Empire returned what he believed to be the “True Cross” (the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified) to Jerusalem to its current place in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.
According to legend (or history), the mother of Emperor Constantine went on a holy mission to the Middle East, establishing Christian churches and aid stations for the poor along the way, searching for the Holy Sepulchre, the tomb of Jesus Christ and the True Cross. Coincidentally, in the immediate vicinity of the Holy Sepulchre is the spot where Christ and 2 other men were crucified (Golgotha Hill, Calvary) and the remains of those 3 crosses were said to have been buried there for safe keeping. On that spot a temple to Venus was built, and it was here that Empress Helena found both the sepulcher and the 3 crosses. A miracle allegedly revealed to Helena which of the 3 crosses was that of Christ, which was kept in a reliquary in the newly established Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.
As is still the case, the Holy Lands were the scene of turmoil, especially between Muslim, Christian, and Jewish populations, and in 614 a Sassinid Emperor, Khosrau II conquered Jerusalem and took the reliquary as a prize. Heraclius defeated Khosrau II in 628 and recovered the True Cross, first taking it to Constantinople and then returning it to Jerusalem to reside in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, safely sealed in a silver case. This sealed case has led some skeptics to believe the alleged relic is a fake, a hoax perpetrated by Heraclius for his own purposes.
Fragments of the True Cross were broken off and transported to various churches and other special destinations, to the ridiculous point of probably consisting of tons and tons of wood allegedly taken from the True Cross of Jesus Christ. Obviously, even people of faith that believe fragments of the True Cross exist today must realize most of the so called fragments are fakes. Analysis of some of them have revealed the wood to be from Olive trees, while the True Cross is supposed to made from wood other than Olive. A fragment is on display at the Holy Sepulchre under the auspices of the Greek Orthodox Church. For hundreds of years, unscrupulous vendors have sold “a splinter of the True Cross” to Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. I myself have seen one such example, encased in a vacuum sealed glass vial embedded in the back of a nice (meaning expensive) crucifix that was a present to a Catholic priest from his mother.
The origin of the wood of the True Cross is variously described as having come from 3 trees that were planted by seed in the mouth of Adam after he died. Another story is that the wood is from the Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden, while others claim 3 trees grew together as one to produce the wood. The Eastern Orthodox Church says the wood of the True Cross is of Pine, Cedar and Cypress. Another story, one that I was told as a lad, was that the True Cross was made from wood of a Dogwood Tree, a mighty, sturdy and tall tree back in those days. Today, the Dogwood is a smaller and lighter tree, supposedly out of shame for its role in the Crucifixion of Christ, ashamed to grow tall and strong. Other sources claim Pine and still others claim Aspen as the tree from which the True Cross was made.
Question for students (and subscribers): Does the True Cross reside as advertised at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre at Golgotha in Jerusalem? Are there really any fragments of the True Cross still in existence? Let us know what you think about this subject, and whether or not you have additional information about the True Cross and what exactly the type of wood it was made from, in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
D’Ancona, Matthew and Carsten Peter Thiede. The Quest for the True Cross. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.