The True Cross
The True Cross is the name given to all physical and literary records claiming to be evidence of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. According to accounts provided by some early Christian writers, the cross was miraculously discovered by the Empress Helena – mother of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor – on her missionary tour of the Holy Land after 312 B.C.E. To what degree this and the contemporary churches’ claims of housing remnants of the True Cross are true is still a point of contention for many, including some Christians.
The True Cross & the Golden Legend
According to the pre-Christian tale of the “Golden Legend,” the cross itself was born out of a seed from the Tree of Life, which grew in the Garden of Eden. The tale tells of how this tree became the cross to crucify the founder of Christianity. To begin, the tree itself was a result of Adam’s dying wish, in which he begs his son Seth to go to the Archangel Michael and ask for a seed from the Tree of Life, to be placed in his mouth and thus grow from his body.
After Adam’s tree had grown for many centuries, it was cut down and the wood was used to build a bridge, which after sometime was crossed over by the Queen of Sheba on her way to meet King Solomon. Overcome by an omen emanating from the bridge, we are told that the Queen dropped to her knees to worship it. Upon meeting King Solomon, she informed him that this wood would inspire the replacement of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. Intimidated by this premonition, Solomon had the wood buried. In spite of this, some fourteen generations later, the wood would become the famous cross of Jesus’ crucifixion.
In the historical accounts of Eusebius, a bishop of Caesarea in Palaestina, we learn of how the Christian site of the Holy Sepulchre was buried and built over. It was not until the Roman Emperor Constantine – the first Emperor to convert to Christianity – came to power that the site was uncovered in 325, at which point Eusebius makes no mention of the True Cross.
Socrates Scholasticus, however, does relay the story of Helena’s discovery. According to Socrates, in order to verify which of the three crosses found actually belonged to Jesus, Macarius had them placed on a woman who was very ill. When the woman was miraculously healed after being touched by the third cross, this was taken as a sign that this was indeed the True Cross. The nails were sent to Constantine to be incorporated into his helmet.
A very similar story is told by Sozomen, although it would be Theodoret’s version that would become the most widely accepted:
When the empress beheld the place where the Saviour suffered, she immediately ordered the idolatrous temple, which had been there erected, to be destroyed, and the very earth on which it stood to be removed. When the tomb, which had been so long concealed, was discovered, three crosses were seen buried near the Lord's sepulchre. All held it as certain that one of these crosses was that of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that the other two were those of the thieves who were crucified with Him. Yet they could not discern to which of the three the Body of the Lord had been brought nigh, and which had received the outpouring of His precious Blood. But the wise and holy Macarius, the president of the city, resolved this question in the following manner. He caused a lady of rank, who had been long suffering from disease, to be touched by each of the crosses, with earnest prayer, and thus discerned the virtue residing in that of the Saviour. For the instant this cross was brought near the lady, it expelled the sore disease, and made her whole.
What happened to the cross after that, however, remains somewhat of a mystery. Some accounts state that after Helena’s return, it was kept in the Chuch of the Holy Sepulchre until 614 when Crosroes II of Persia moved it to his homeland after capturing Jerusalem. Thirteen years later it was reclaimed by the Roman Emperor Heraclius and eventually taken to Jerusalem. It was then reportedly hidden by the Christians in 1009 for some 90 years before being reproduced during the First Crusade. However, it was again captured by the Moslems in 1187, and only remnants were eventually returned to Europe.