The Relics of Jesus: The Case of the Titulus Crucis
How could actually anyone be serious about this relic!
See Also: Restless Bones, Where Was Peter Buried?
Look Who’s Talking
Mandatory Celibacy of Priests: A Fertile Source of Impurity
The Turin Shroud and Easter Stories
Observations on the "Jonah" Iconography on the Ossuary of Talpiot B Tomb
Why Do Some Christians Need Material Evidence?
Relics and Their Supernatural Powers
Church History and the Art of Forgery
By Antonio Lombatti
Stephen Pfann of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem wrote to me in 2008: How could actually anyone be serious about this relic! He was right. There’s agreement, at least in the academic community, that the Passion relic known as the Titulus Crucis cannot be the real thing. Today, it’s kept and shown in Rome, in the Basilica di Santa Croce di Gerusalemme. However, there are a couple of books out there, some documentaries and millions of websites and Internet articles claiming this piece of wood to be the true tablet put on Jesus’ cross by the Romans. Historical errors and philological inaccuracies have been repeated on and on for years and when these ingredients are mixed with some propaganda, voilà, the chips are laid down: it might also be a true relic from the time of Jesus. This is what we get when scholars don’t take these views seriously, but by ignoring them, we allow the people out there to buy into a fantasy.
So, once again, let’s repeat some basics of the scientific analysis of relics. First of all, any biblical object to be studied should come from a controlled excavation. This means that it cannot be bought on the antiquities market, or have an unknown origin. For example, many Medieval stories tell us that relics have been brought from East to West by crusaders, or that they popped up somewhere in a church by means of a miracle. Even funnier, we are told that Jesus’ home in Nazareth was brought to Italy, to Loreto, by angels in the XII century, despite the fact that no one noticed its disappearance in Galilee. Second, the relic must have an unbroken chain of authentic documents from the time of its discovery. And this is also a very relevant issue in studying Christian relics. Only if we have these two prerequisites can we proceed with the examination of the artifact.
As you can understand, only very few of the so called biblical relics can really be studied. Moreover, if we add the fact that the most famous Christian relics--such as the Shroud of Turin, the Oviedo Sudarium, the Argenteuil Tunic and also the Titulus Crucis--have all been carbon dated to the Middle Ages, every reasonable person would not consider them genuine. But this doesn’t happen. Why? I believe it mainly depends on the fact--as I suggested above--that scholars rarely tackle silly claims. So, let’s briefly sum up what we know about the Titulus Crucis.
Our earliest source of the Titulus is a letter written by Leonardo Sarzanese in 1492. Yes, you read that correctly: nothing is recorded at all from the supposed discovery by Constantine’s mother, Helena, in 325 in Jerusalem, to its finding in a lead box in 1492 in a Rome church. This would suffice to put the Titulus in the realm of fairy tales. There was a seal of a certain Gerardus cardinalis S. Crucis--later identified with the future pope Lucius II (1144-1145)--who could have placed the wooden relic in the box. However, if this were true, there is not a single source of its existence, display or worship in Rome until 1492. A century later, in 1593, another cardinal, Bernardino Carvajal, adds that the Titulus had been brought to Rome by Helena.
What about its discovery in Jerusalem? Our earliest source among the daily records written by pilgrims, known as itinera sacra, is an anonymous man from Bordeaux, France. He went to Jerusalem around 333. The pilgrim left a detailed description of the relics that had been unearthed and displayed in the Land of the Bible. However, he doesn’t mention either the Cross or the Titulus. Eusebius of Cesarea is also silent about the discovery of the Cross and its Titulus. It is surely beyond question that Eusebius, in his glorification of the Constantinian Empire, could not have failed to exploit the appearance of these sacred relics as an unsolicited affirmation of God’s favor. It’s only by the end of the 340s that Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem, mentions the presence of the “lignum crucis” in the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. However, the Titulus wasn’t there yet. We have to wait until 383 when a Spanish pilgrim named Egeria narrates the fact that he has seen “in mensa tam lignum crucis quam titulus”. The first Church Father to connect the discovery of the Cross with Helena was Ambrose, bishop of Milan in 395.
So, even if cardinal Carvajal faked Church records by saying that the Titulus had been brought to Rome by Helena, we know for sure that it was still in Jerusalem in 383, that is, about 50 years after her death. Moreover, we’re told by another pilgrim coming from Piacenza, Italy, who visited Jerusalem in 570, that he held in his hands, kissed and saw the Titulus in a “cubiculum” under the Golgotha basilica. It might also be that by this time some people forged more than one Titulus since we know that there were tens of burial shrouds of Jesus, innumerable cross nails, 18 bodies of the 12 apostles, 4 heads of John the Baptist, and multiple relics inspired by apocryphal gospels.
What is even more striking is that at the time of the presumed first display of the Titulus in Rome in the XII century, another ecclesiastical source tells us that a priest of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, some years after the death of saint Louis king of France, saw the Titulus among many other Passion relics in that church. So, as Jan Willem Drijvers wrote in his masterpiece on Helena Augusta, the whole story of the finding of the True Cross is a pious late legend not based on contemporary historical evidence. Therefore, we’re left with another edition to the legend, written in 1593, describing the finding of the lead box brought to Rome by Helena herself.
Finally, carbon dating of a very small fragment of the Titulus performed in 2002 gave a 1020 AD date as the origin of the wood. However, legends are rarely willing to die. So, you can also find on the web some “scientific” theories about Jesus emanating some sort of unknown energy when he was alive and during his resurrection as an explanation for the carbon datings miscalculations.
What do professional epigraphers say about the inscription? Here are just two opinions to give you an idea. Stephen Pfann writes:
This relic is intended to represent the plaque placed on the cross mentioned in John 19:19. There the inscription reads:
IHCOYC O NAZWPAIOC O BACILEYC TWN IOYDAIWN
NAZWPAIOC (nom. sing. of the same) "Nazarene"
NAZAPHNOY (gen. sing. of NAZAPHNOC) is found for "Nazarene" in Mark 14:61.
The inscription on the relic has "NAZARENOYC"
The OY ligature, commonplace in Byzantine inscriptions, is also out of place in first century inscriptions.
E is used instead of H (unusual)
The -OYC ending does not fit here since it is an accusative plural ending (when applied to second declension mascline nouns).
IC is the nomina sacra for IHCOYC but not in the 1st century.
Another renowned epigrapher, Émile Puech, adds (translation mine):
LATIN: I’m not aware of any retrograde Latin inscription from Roman Palestine. This writing would be very curious if by a servant of Pilate (Jn 19, 19) unless a local Jewish worker did it. But this is even odder since Latin was meant to be read by Romans.
GREEK: I know but only one retrograde name written on an ossuary NADYOI (=IOYDAN) and it’s an inscription carved by a Jew and meant to be read by very few Jews.
SEMITIC: I cannot identify with certainty even a single letter.
Conclusion: my impression is that we’re dealing with an artifact of Byzantine origin at the earliest, forged to create a relic or to justify the cult of the Holy Cross in Rome. The forger probably thought that Greek and Latin were written from right to left to give the impression of authenticity, but this demonstrates total ignorance of the art of writing inscriptions in the first century. [...] In the end, I wonder if isn’t a parallel story to the Shroud of Turin, whose medieval origin has been scientifically proved.
I have other relevant opinions; from the late Hanan Eshel and Levy Rahmani, who, after having written to me and asking if I were actually kidding about the authenticity of the Titulus, clearly explained that not only the relic was an evident hoax, but that it was a terrible one. It is also clear that a wooden tablet, buried for 300 years in the humid earth of Jerusalem, would have completely rotted after such a long period.
Maria-Luisa Rigato, one of the very few supporters of the Titulus Crucis, as I wrote on my website some years ago, wasn’t happy with the carbon dating and with Puech’s opinion. She accepted the verdict by saying that the relic then had to be “a faithful copy of the original”. I agree with her, but there was malice in faking relics in the Middle Ages. So, I’d say it’s “a faithful forgery of the original”.
J.W. Drijvers, Helena Augusta (Brill: Leiden, 1992)
J. Geiger, “Titulus Crucis”, Scripta Classica Israelica 15 (1996): 202-207
M. Hesemann, Die Jesus-Tafel (Herder: Freiburg, 1999)
E.D. Hunt, Holy Land Pilgrimage in the Later Roman Empire, AD 312-460 (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1984)
A. Lombatti, Il culto delle reliquie. Storia, leggende, devozione (Sugarco: Milan, 2007)
P.L. Maier, “The inscription of the Cross of Jesus of Nazareth”, Hermes 124 (1996): 58-75
M.-L. Rigato, Il titolo della croce di Gesù (Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana: Rome, 2005)
J. Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims Before the Crusades (Aris & Philipps: Oxford, 2002)