- Alejandro Millán Valencia
- BBC World News
3 hours ago
According to Christian belief, Jesus of Nazareth died crucified by order of the then Roman mayor in Judea, Pontius Pilate, and his journey to his ordeal – a series of episodes known as the Passion – is one of the central elements celebrated in Holy Week.
Crucifixion was so important in the history of Christianity that the cross ended up becoming the symbol of religions that profess devotion to the figure of Jesus Christ.
But what happened to the cross on which Jesus died?
Dozens of monasteries and churches around the world claim to have at least one piece of the so-called “Vera Cruz (True Cross)” on their altars, to the praise of their faithful.
And many of them base the veracity of the origin of their relics on texts from the 3rd and 4th centuries, which narrate the discovery in Jerusalem of the exact piece of wood on which Jesus Christ was executed by the Romans.
“This story, which includes the Roman emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena, was the initiator of this story of the cross of Christ, which has survived until today”, explains Professor Candida Moss, from the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham (England) ), BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish news service. Moss is a New Testament scholar and historian of Christianity.
She explains that the story of the cross of Christ is based on the writings of ancient historians, such as Gelasius of Caesarea or James of Voragine. But for many historians today, they do not determine the authenticity of the pieces of wood that we currently see in various temples around the world – nor can they serve as confirmation of their origin.
“This piece of wood is probably not the cross on which Jesus was crucified, because many things could have happened to it. For example, that the Romans reused it for another crucifixion, elsewhere and with other people,” says Moss.
But then, why did the “Vera Cruz” story come about and why are there so many pieces that are supposed to be part of the “main tree”?
“(Because of) the desire to be physically close to something we believe in,” says Mark Goodacre, a historian and New Testament expert at Duke University (United States), to BBC News World.
“Christian relics are more a wish than something true,” he adds.
In the Gospel narrative, after Jesus’ death on the cross, his body was taken to a tomb in what is now the Old City of Jerusalem.
And for almost 300 years there was no mention in the Christian account of that piece of wood.
It was around the 4th century that the bishop and historian Gelásio de Caesaréia is believed to have published an account in his book “The history of the Church” about the discovery in Jerusalem of the “Vera Cruz” by Helena, a saint of the Catholic Church and also the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, who imposed Christianity as the official religion of the empire.
The story, alluded to by other historians and writers like Tiago de Voragine in her 8th century book “Golden Legend”, indicates that Helena, sent by her son to find the cross of Christ, is taken to a place near Mount Golgotha, where Jesus is said to have been crucified, and there he finds three crosses.
Some versions indicate that Helena, doubting which one would be the real one, placed a sick woman on each of the crosses and the one who finally healed her was considered authentic.
Other historians claim that Helena recognized her as the only one of the three who showed signs of having been used for crucifixion with nails, since, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus was the only one who was crucified with that method that day.
“This whole story is part of the desire for relics that began to take place in Christianity during the 3rd and 4th centuries,” says Goodacre.
The academic points out that the early Christians were not focused on seeking or preserving these types of objects as a source of their devotion.
“No Christian in the 1st century set out to collect relics of Jesus,” he says.
“As time went by and Christianity spreading around the world at that time, these believers began to create ways to have some physical connection with who they consider to be their savior,” adds Goodacre.
The origin of the search for these relics has a lot to do with the martyrs.
According to historians, the cult of saints began to be a trend within the Church and, for example, it was established from an early age that the bones of martyrs were evidence of the “power of God at work in the world”, producing miracles and other “proving” deeds the effectiveness of faith.
And since Jesus was resurrected, it was not possible to find his bones: according to the Bible, after three days in the tomb, his return to life and the subsequent “ascension to heaven” was corporal. Thus, only objects like the cross and the crown of thorns linked to it remained.
“This period, almost three centuries after Jesus’ death, is what makes it unlikely that the objects found in Jerusalem, such as the cross on which he died or the crown of thorns, are the real ones,” observes Goodacre.
“If this had been done by the first Christians, who had a closer contact with what actually happened, we could talk about the possibility that they were real, but that was not the case.”
Part of the cross granted to Helena’s mission was taken to Rome (the other remained in Jerusalem) and, according to tradition, a large part of the remains are preserved in the Basilica of Santa Cruz in the Italian capital.
With the “discovery”, the expansion of Christianity in Europe during the Middle Ages and the cross that became the universal symbol of this religion, also began to multiply the fragments that went to other temples.
These fragments are known as “lignum crucis” (wood of the cross, in Latin).
In addition to the Basilica of the Holy Cross, the cathedrals of Cosenza, Naples and Genoa, Italy; the monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana (which has the largest piece), Santa Maria dels Turers and the basilica of Vera Cruz, among others, in Spain, claim to have a fragment of the cross on which Jesus Christ was executed.
The Abbey of Heiligenkreuz, Austria, also keeps a piece and another very important segment is in the Church of the Holy Cross, in Jerusalem.
Along with physical evidence, the councils of Nicaea in the 4th century and Trent in the 16th century gave spiritual validity to the devotion of these relics, so much so that they were recorded in the catechism:
“The religious sense of the Christian people has, at all times, found its expression in various forms of piety around the sacramental life of the Church: like the veneration of relics”, can be read in article 1674 of this treatise that establishes the doctrine of the Catholic Church.
But it also indicates that the relics themselves are not “objects of salvation”, but it does mean to achieve intercession and “benefits to Jesus Christ his Son, our Lord, who is only our redeemer and savior.”
Likewise, the multiplicity of fragments was questioned in his day by several thinkers.
French theologian João Calvino (1509-1564) pointed out in the 16th century, in the midst of a boom in the relics trade in which the pieces of the so-called “Vera Cruz” distributed by churches and monasteries multiplied, that “if we collected everything that was found (from the cross), there would be enough to transport a large ship. “
However, this claim was later refuted by various theologians and scientists throughout history.
Recently, Pierluigi Baima Bollone, professor emeritus at the University of Turin (Italy), pointed out in a study that if all the fragments that claim to be part of the cross of Christ were collected “we would reach only 50% of the main trunk”.
“It is very likely that Helena found a tree, but what is also very likely is that someone put it in that place to give an idea that this was the cross on which Jesus died,” says Moss.
The expert indicates that there is another difficulty in proving whether these pieces really belonged, at least, to a crucifixion that occurred at the time of Christ.
“For example, dating by carbon-14, which would be one of the first things to do, is expensive and the church does not have the resources for this type of work”, he says.
And while it was possible to obtain funds to finance such a study, the investigation could affect the integrity of the relic.
“Add to this that carbon dating is considered invasive and a bit destructive. Even if you only need about 10 milligrams of wood, it still involves cutting a sacred object,” notes Moss.
In 2010, American researcher Joe Kickell, a member of the Committee for Skeptical Research, an organization based in New York (United States), carried out a study to determine the origin of the pieces that were considered part of the “Vera Cruz”.
“There is not a single piece of evidence that holds that the cross found by Helena in Jerusalem, or by anyone else, is the true cross on which Jesus died. The history of provenance is ridiculous. And its miraculous character, too,” wrote Kickell in an article.
For Moss and Goodacre, the chance of finding the true cross of Christ is very remote.
“It would be necessary to do archaeological work, not theological work. Even so, it would be very unlikely to find the tree from more than two millennia ago,” says Goodacre.
In this sense, for Moss, the difficulties come even from the object that we would be looking for.
“The word cross in both Greek and Latin referred to a vertical tree or stick on which torture was practiced”, explains the historian.
“In other words, we are possibly talking about a single tree or stake, not the symbol we know today.”
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