Saturday, August 3, 2013

Just What Could You Build With All The Fragments Of The True Cross?

Archaeologists excavating a 7th-century church in Turkey have found a reliquary with a piece of the True Cross in it.

John Calvin, the loveable, cuddly 16th-century founder of Calvinism, is quoted as saying that the pieces of the True Cross added up to a large ship-load of wood, while Charles Rohault de Fleury, a 19th century archaeologist, said that they added up to about 1/3 of a cross the size of one Jesus might have been crucified on. Was Calvin really in a position to judge how much wood was in all the fragments of the True Cross? I really doubt it. Was he fervently opposed to Catholic practices such as the veneration of relics? Oh yes. (To this day Calvinist churches are notable for Minimalist decor.) Was Charles Rohault de Fleury an expert archaeologist who wouldn't make a statement like that about True Cross fragments without basing it on reliable data? I don't know. Was he a fervent defender of the Catholic Church? I don't know that either.

Was Fleury counting differently than Calvin, excluding many pieces of True Cross which Calvin included? Again, I don't know. Do many people today repeat Calvin's line, or something similar ("If you put all the pieces of the True Cross together you could build an Ark," for example), not based on any clear idea at all about the number and size of Cross relics, but because they are grinding an anti-Catholic ax? (Or an anti-Orthodox ax. Let's not forget that although in the 7th century the split between Catholic and Orthodox still far from complete, "Orthodox" is a far more accurate term to describe a 7th-century church in Turkey than "Catholic.") I have absolutely no doubt about that, nor do I doubt that many Catholic apologists would gladly quote Fleury's remark without having any more idea about Fleury's competence and possible bias than I do -- that is to say, no idea whatsoever.

Once again, I feel I am on the sidelines, on neither of the two sides bickering over the theological significance of some archaeological find. The theological debate doesn't particularly interest me, and the historical significance of the find, which interests me, doesn't seem to interest very many others.

Do I think that any of the relics venerated as pieces of the True Cross really once were pieces of the cross on which Jesus was crucified? Well, I'm not convinced that Jesus existed. If He did, and if He was crucified, wearing a crown of thorns, and stabbed in the side with a lance by a Roman soldier while He was on the Cross, then it seems to me that it is possible that the wood and thorns and iron venerated by some Christians as pieces of the True Cross and of the Crown of Thorn and of the Holy Lance are actually objects which touched Jesus -- possible, but extremely unlikely, because I know of no reports of anyone preserving relics thought to have been associated with Jesus earlier than Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. And also because it would have been unusual for the Romans to have allowed Jesus' followers to have preserved the Cross or a part of it. (But it would have been unusual for them to have allowed Jesus' followers to remove his body from the Cross. Leaving the body there to rot away was a significant part of the horror and insult of that form of punishment. "Golgotha" means "place of skulls" because the remains of the victims of crucifixion were left there. And that is one of the many reasons why I have trouble believing the New Testament stories of Jesus.)

Nevertheless, a 7th-century artifact is interesting to me purely by virtue of its being as old as the 7th century. In this case, I would most likely find the reliquary much more interesting than the piece of wood within. Unless, that is, they date the piece of wood and it actually turns out to have come from a tree felled in the 1st century or earlier. (Did the Romans reuse one cross over and over?)

If they do actually date the wood, then as far as I know, that in itself would be newsworthy. As far as I know, Orthodox and Catholic authorities have allowed very few relics to be scientifically tested. The most famous exception has been the Shroud of Turin. That was subjected to carbon-14 dating and found to have been made in the 13th or 14th century. And ever since, the Catholic Church along with various crackpots and huckster authors and makers of silly documentaries and the so-called "History Channel" have being doing all they can to distract people from those carbon-14 test results and to discredit the scientists who performed those tests.

If traces of human blood are found on this wood, this 7th-century-or-older artifact found in Turkey, that in itself would not be significant in the search for the historical Jesus, because, sadly, crucifixions were still quite common in the 7th century.

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