Science and archaeology offer insights into ancient artifacts that could be linked to Jesus Christ. “Finding Jesus,” broadcasts Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CNN.
Religion professor Candida Moss appears in each episode of the program
I’m Candida Moss, and I am professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. I was an adviser on the “True Cross” episode and served as one of the many on-camera experts in CNN’s “Finding Jesus” series, which airs on Sundays.
Viewers were invited during the show to tweet and post their questions on the “Finding Jesus” Facebook page. Below are some of the more interesting questions and my answers to them. They have been edited for style and clarity for this article.
Lynn Santos: Where might there be other pieces of the “true cross”? Is anyone attempting to carbon date these relics ?
Moss: There are churches all over the world that claim to have fragments or splinters of the true cross. These aren’t being carbon dated and there are a few reasons why. First, carbon dating is expensive, and your average church doesn’t have the funds for this kind of endeavor. Second, carbon dating is seen as intrusive and a little destructive. Even if only about 10 milligrams of wood are needed, you’re still chipping away at a holy object. This isn’t something that churches like to do, especially as – and this leads me to my third point – almost all carbon dating tests end up discrediting the relics that are being tested. So, it’s not in the best interest of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches that claim to possess relics to have them tested.
Matt Marino: Are you able to tell what type of wood the cross was built from?
Moss: Unless we know with complete certainty that we have a fragment of the true cross, then we won’t be able to assert what kind of wood was used. Nonetheless, we can make some best guesses. A number of scholars have thought that the cross was made of cedar because cedar is a sturdy wood found in the region.
There is also evidence from the crucifixion of other criminals. In 1968, the remains of a crucified man named Yehohanan ben Hagkol were found during excavations in northern Jerusalem. We know he was crucified because there was a spike embedded in his ankle bone. The Department of Botany at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem concluded that the wood underneath the nail was olive wood. So perhaps that’s a possibility.
Daniel Pronych: How can we be certain the Romans didn’t reuse Jesus’ cross?
Moss: This is a great question. Hewn wood and nails were more valuable in the ancient world than they are today. There are examples of the Romans discarding tools and other implements (for instance after the battle of Masada, when they left behind pottery vessels rather than haul them away), but this usually took place in situations where carrying these tools was more effort than it was worth.
The Romans were efficient and would likely have reused the instruments of torture if they could. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that wood was scarce around Jerusalem in the first century A.D. and that the Romans had to travel 10 miles to secure timber for the siege of Jerusalem (Jewish War 5.522-23). Josephus was writing about a period of war some 40 years later but, all the same, we can imagine that the Romans wanted to conserve the wood that they had.
In other words, you’re absolutely right: We can’t be sure the cross upon which Jesus was crucified wasn’t reused in the execution of other criminals or in some other kind of construction.
James Faubel: If the crucifixion of Christ was so important to Christians, why are there no images of Christ on the cross in Christian art until about the seventh century A.D.? Prior to that time, the depictions are usually of a lamb on the cross.
Moss: It is certainly true that early on (first-third century) Christians did not use the image of the cross in their art. This in part seems to have been because crucifixion was so shameful and humiliating. Depicting a cross would be akin to using an image of an electric chair or a hangman’s noose. So, early on, Christians used images of Daniel in the lion’s den, Jonah and the whale and the three young men in the fiery furnace in the funeral art as symbols of resurrection and conquest of death.
Beginning in the fourth century, things began to change. Constantine’s vision was really instrumental in this process. The cross began to be retrieved as a symbol of power, so that instead of being a symbol of shameful death it became an emblem of victory over death. There are a lot of really interesting studies of the emergence of the cross in early Christian art; I’d recommend Robin Jensen’s “Understanding Early Christian Art” as a great place to start.