The question as to "the true cross" upon which our Savior suffered has been much agitated, especially among Protestants, for the relies shown as such are generally credited among Romanists. (See the controversy revived in modern times by Mr. Williams, in favor of the tradition, Holy City, 2:123; and against it, by Dr. Robinson, Bibl. Res. 2:12 sq.) True, on this subject exact information ought to be accessible, since four ecclesiastical historians (Socrates, 1:13; Sozomen, 2:1; Rufinus, 1:7; Theodoret, 1:18) concur in stating that the cross was found by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. This event is assigned to the year of our Lord 326. Eusebius is silent on the discovery. The other writers state that Helena, when seventy-nine years of age, was induced by the warmth of her piety to visit the places which the Savior had rendered sacred by his presence and sufferings. The hatred of the heathen had led them to obliterate as much as possible all traces of the memorable events which the life and death of Jesus had hallowed, and to cover Mount Calvary with stones and earth, and raise thereon a temple to the goddess Venus. A Jew, however, had treasured up what traditions he could gather, and was thus enabled to point out to Helena the spot where our Lord had been buried. The place Being excavated, three crosses were found, and the title which that of Jesus bore was also found lying apart by itself. The question arose how the cross of Christ was to be distinguished from the other two. Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem, suggested that their respective efficacy should be tried as to the working of miracles. Sick persons were brought forward and touched by each separately. One only wrought the desired cures, and was- accordingly acknowledged to be the true cross. A full view of all the authorities on this matter may be seen in Tillemont (Mem. Eccl. chapter on Helena). Having built a church over the sacred spot, Helena deposited within it the chief part of the real cross. The remainder she conveyed to Constantinople, a part of which Constantine inserted in the head of a statue of himself, and the other part was sent to Rome and placed in the church of Sta. Croce in Gerusalemme, which was built expressly to receive the precious relic. When, subsequently, a festival to commemorate the discovery had been established, the bishop of Jerusalem, on Easter Sunday, exhibited to the grateful eyes of eager pilgrims the object to see which they had traveled so far and endured so much. Those who were persons of substance were farther gratified by obtaining, at their full price, small pieces of the crossses in gold and gems; and, that wonder might not pass into incredulity, the proper authorities gave the world an assurance that the holy wood possessed the power of self-multiplication, and, notwithstanding the innumerable pieces which had been taken from it for the pleasure and service of the faithful, remained intact and entire as at the first (Paulinus, Ep. 11 ad Sev.). The capture of Jerusalem by the Persians, A.D. 614, placed the remains of the cross in the hands of Chosroes II, who mockingly conveyed them to his capital. Fourteen years afterwards Heraclius recovered them, and had them carried first to Constantinople, and then to Jerusalem, in such pomp that, on his arrival before the latter city, he found the gate barred and entrance forbidden. Instructed as to the cause of this hindrance, the emperor laid aside the trappings of his greatness, and, barefooted, bore on his own shoulders the sacred relic up to the gate, which then opened of itself, and allowed him to enter, and thus place his charge beneath the dome of the sepulcher. SEE CALVARY. From. this time no more is heard in history of the true cross, which the advocates of its genuineness claim may have been destroyed by the Saracens on their conquest of Jerusalem, A.D. 637. Fragments only of it are now exhibited in various parts of Europe. (See below.) The whole story is justly regarded by Protestants as containing unmistakable evidence of being at best a pious fraud on the part of Helena, or a trick on the part of her guides. SEE HELENA. But, even if the story were not so intrinsically absurd (for, among other reasons, it was a law among the Jews that the cross was to be burned; Othonis, Lex. Rab. s.v. Supplicium), it would require far more probable evidence to outweigh the silence of Eusebius. It clearly was to the interest of the Church of Rome to maintain the belief and invent the story of its miraculous; multiplication, because the sale of the relics was extremely profitable. To this day the supposed title, or rather fragments of it, are shown to the people once a year in the church of Sta. Croce in Gerusalemme at Rome. On the capture of the true cross by Chosroes II, and its rescue by Heraclius, with even the seals of the case unbroken, and the subsequent sale of a large fragment to Louis IX, see Gibbon, 4:326; 6:66. Those sufficiently interested in the annals of such imposture may see farther accounts in Baronius (Ann. Ecc. A. D. 326, No. 42-50), Jortin, and Schmidt (Problem. de Crucis Dominicae Inventione, Helmst. 1724); and on the fate of the true cross, a paper read by Lord Mahon before the Society of Antiquaries, Feb. 1831.
According to Ambrosius (Oratio de Obitu Theodor. p. 498), the piece which bore the title stood on the top of the cross of our Lord (Joh 19:19-22, ἐπὶ τοῦ σταυροῦ; comp. Mt 27:37; Mr 15:26; Lu 18:18): the form then would be somewhat thus, This fact would lead to the expectation of more accurate information from those who are said to have found the cross. But the conduct of Helena in dividing the cross, setting aside one part for Jerusalem, another for Constantinople, and another as a phylacterion for her son, and the subdivisions thereof which subsequently took place, rendered it impossible to ascertain in any satisfactory manner not only whether the alleged was the real cross, but also of what wood and in what shape it had been made. This only, then, as to the shape of the Savior's cross, can be determined, that the prevalent form was that of the crux capitata, and that this form is generally found on coins and in the so-called monogram (Munter's Sinnbilder, 1. 4). The wooden title, however, is said to be still preserved in Rome — not entire, indeed, for only fragments remain of the Hebrew letters, so that they are illegible. The Greek and Latin, except the letter z, are both written after the Eastern manner, from right to left. This is said to have happened either because they were written by a Jew, following a national custom, or from a desire on the part of the writer, if a Roman, to accommodate himself to what was usual among the Jews. Nicetus (Titulus sanct. Crucis) holds that it is not all the work of one hand, since the Roman letters are firmly and distinctly cut, but the Greek letters very badly. He thinks that a Jew cut the Hebrew (or Aramaean) and Greek, and a Roman the Latin. All that remains of the Greek is Ναζαρενους β - [i.e. Ναζαρηνός βασιλεύς], of the Latin Nazarenus Re [Rex], i.e. "Nazarene, King." This tablet is said to have been sent by Constantine to Rome, and there deposited in a leaden chest, above the vaulted dome of the church of Sta. Croce, in a little window, and then bricked into the wall, its position being recorded by a Mosaic inscription without. Time rendered the inscription almost illegible; and the window, owing to the carelessness of workmen engaged in repairing the church, was accidentally broken open, when the relic was discovered. A bull was issued by pope Alexander III commemorating the discovery and authenticating the title. The whole story is evidently of a piece with the foregoing. Monographs on the subject and relic in question have been written in Latin by Alberti (Lips. 1690; Jen. 1748), Altmann (Bern. 1739), Felter (Lips. 1725), Freiesleben (Lips. 1664), Hanke (Jen. 1672), Hiller (Tubing. 1696), Nicqueti (Antw. 1770), Reichmann (Viteb. 1655), Reyper (Kilon. 1694; also in Menthenii Diss. 2:241 sq.), Weselius (L. B. 1712). SEE TITLE.
Much time and trouble have been wasted in disputing as to whether three or four nails were used in fastening the Lord to his cross. (See above.) Nonnus affirms that three only were used, in which he is followed by Gregory Nazianzen. The more general belief gives four nails, an opinion which is supported at much length and by curious arguments by Curtius (De Clavis Dominics). Others have carried the number of nails as high as fourteen. Of the four original nails, the empress Helena is reported (Theodoret, Hist. Eccl. 1:17) to have thrown one into the Adriatic when furiously raging, thereby producing an instant calm. The second is said to have been put by Constantine into either his helmet or crown, or (as Zonaras says) on the head of the statue which he intended to be the palladium of Constantinople, and which the people used to surround with lighted torches (Mosheim, Eccl. Hist. 2:1, 3, and notes). This nail, however, was afterwards to be found in a mutilated state in the church of Sta. Croce. In the Duomo of Milan is a third nail, which Eutropius affirms was driven through one of Jesus's hands, and which Constantine used as a bit, intending thereby to verify the prophecy of Zechariah (14:20): "In that day shall be upon the bells (margin, bridles) of the horses, Holiness unto the Lord." Treves possesses the fourth nail, which is alleged to have been driven through the sufferer's right foot (Lipsius, De Cruce, 2:9). Those who maintain the number of nails to have been more than four have had no difficulty in finding as many nails as their hypothesis in each case needed, and as many sacred places for their safe keeping. There are monographs on this subject, in Latin, by Fontanus (Amst. 1643), Frischmuth (Jen. 1663), Semler (Dresd. 1741), Winer (Lips. 1845), Curtius (Monaci. 1622; Antw. 1670; also in the Symb. litt. Brem. 3, 309); in German, by Bahr (in Heydenreich's Zeitschr. 2:309), Paulus (Memorabil. 4:3664). SEE NAIL.
Another dispute has been agitated relative to the existence of a hypopodium or tablet whereon the feet were supported. Gregory of Tours, who had seen the alleged true cross, affirms that it had such a footstool; but his dictum has been called in question. It is, however, doubted whether the hands alone, without a prop beneath, could sustain the weight of the body and some have supposed that a kind of seat was placed, on which the sufferer may be said to have in some way sat. The controversy is treated at length in the first of the four Hypomnemata de Cruce of Bartholinus (Hafn. 1651, Anmst. 1670, L. B. 1695).
A common tradition assigns the perpetual shiver of the aspen to the fact of the cross having been formed of its wood. Lipsius, however (De Cruce, 3, 13), thinks it was of oak, which was strong enough, and common in Judaea. Few will attach any consequence to his other reason, that the relics appear to be of oak. The legend to which he alludes,
"Pes crucis est cedrus, corpus tenet alta cupressus, Palma manus retinet, titulo laetatur olive"
(The foot is cedar, cypress forms the shaft, The arms are palm, the title olive bears),
hardly needs refutation. It must not be overlooked that crosses must have been of the meanest and readiest materials, because they were used in such marvelous numbers. Thus we are told that Alexander Jannaeus crucified 800 Jews (Josephus, Ant. 13:14, 2), and Varus 2000 (ib. 17:10, 10), and Hadrian 500 a day; and Titus so many that "room failed for the crosses, and crosses for the bodies" (Josephus, War, 6:28, where Reland rightly notices the strange retribution, "so that they who had nothing but 'crucify' in their mouth were therewith paid home in their own bodies," Sir T. Browne, Vulg. Err. 5. 21). In Sicily, Augustus crucified 600 (Orosius, 6:18). SEE CRUCIFIXION.