"History is a department of human delusion." - Fort (Books, p172) on mysterious ancient coffins and other strange relics.
In FT146:48 Nick Warren asks: "What became of the cross on which Christ was crucified?"
But: How did Helena know the cross she found in Jerusalem in 326 was the right one? Assuming it was she. No Christian writer credits the former barmaid with this stunning discovery until St Ambrose (On the Death of Theodosius, ch43) in 395. Fifth-century Byzantine church historians got their version from Bishop Gelasius of Palestinian Caesarea, dead this same year, probable inventor of the tradition. Constantine first popularised the Cross as a symbol; crediting his `Queen Mum' with its discovery was a suitable concoction.
In Gibbon's unimprovable words, Helena "united the credulity of age [in her 70s - BB] with the warm feelings of a recent conversion." Her exploit belongs more to Evelyn Waugh's fictional Helena than to history. According to Christian legend, Helena found three crosses, Christ's and those of the two `thieves' (probably anti-Roman Zealots), the True one being revealed by a miracle.
But, what about the 'Titulus', its walnut headboard with Pilate's trilingual INRI inscription? A supposed piece of this has long been on display in Santa Croce in the Roman suburb of Gerusalemme. In The Quest for the True Cross (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2000), Matthew D'Ancona & Peter Theide, serious rather than sensationalist writers, are prepared to accept its authenticity. The Pope's agreement (Times, 10 Nov 2000) to dendrochronological and pollen tests will only (as with the Shroud of Turin) exacerbate debate.
Headboard and cross were of no interest to the Roman soldier-crucifiers. Maybe some Christian(s) filched them on or after Good Friday? What happened to used crosses? Thrown away? Superstitiously burned? Re-cycled for future executions? Ancient texts don't say, nor are these mundane but crucial questions tackled in Tubingen theologian Martin Hengel's Crucifixion in the Ancient World (SCM Press, London, 1977).
The Cross is now nowhere because it was soon everywhere. Helena supposedly bisected it, one piece staying in Jerusalem, the other sent to Constantinople. A text of 359 (Corpus of Latin Inscriptions, supplementary vol3, no.20600) locates a particle in Mauretania. Captured by the Persians in 614, the Jerusalem part was recovered by emperor Heraclius who sent it to Constantinople for safe-keeping. Around 1100, Crusader historian Raymond of Aguilers claimed it was still buried in Jerusalem; a 14th-century Russian pilgrim said it reposed in Constantinople.
Cyril of Jerusalem's (Gelasius' uncle) Letter to Constantius II says "the world is filled with the Cross' wood," implying dismemberment. Gibbon gibed: "The merit of the true cross was somewhat impaired by its frequent division." Procopius (Histories, bk2 chl 1, parasl420) and Evagrius (Church History, bk4 ch26) say a piece taken to Syrian Apamea miraculously saved that city from Persian assault. Another was secreted in Constantinople's Forum for similar apotropaic purposes. Pious pilgrims often nicked bits. High-ranking religious institutions and individuals were rewarded with splinters; lay persons wore them as good-luck charms.
No wonder Christian legend claimed the Cross's miraculous powers of vegetation regenerated the severed pieces which - mocked Calvin (Tracts, voll, p301) - "if collected, would form a good shipload, though the Gospel testifies a single individual could carry it."
See further A Frolow, La relique de la Vraie Croix (Archives de l'Orient, vo17, Paris, 1961).
(reprinted with permission of the Author; blame any typically graphic transcription errors on dm)