The heft and feel of a well-worn handle,
The sight of shavings that curl from a blade;
The logs in the wood pile, the sentiment of huge beams in an old-fashioned house;
The smell of fresh cut timber and the pungent fragrance of burning leaves;
The crackle of kindling and the hiss of burning logs.
Abundant to all the needs of man, how poor the world would be
Without wood.

Everard Hinrichs, quoted by Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holy Wood

One of my earliest memories...about 1960, standing in the second row of the Littleton Baptist Church in Littleton, Colorado..I'm about four or five years old. We're all singing

"On a hill far away, stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame..."

My dad's deep singing voice stands out in my memory for this song, because he didn't normally sing out. But he did for this one.

And I'm looking up at this dark, heavy wooden cross hanging mysteriously above the baptismal tank in the front of the church. Thinking to myself, "Why did they bring it here?"

Or something like that. It was a long time ago. But the memory lingers...

Nearly 50 years later, I found myself in Vienna, staring in disbelief at what was claimed to be a piece of THE True Cross. The cross that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on 1,978 years ago this Friday, if my math is correct.

"O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
Has a wondrous attraction for me..."

There is the artifact. The actual piece, I believe, is the sliver in the lower middle of the vertical piece of wood. I had a hard time understanding the exact representation, because the plaque at the display case is in German (the nerve of those Austrians!) But I made enough of a fool of myself to at least understand that what I was looking was indeed claimed to be a piece of the True Cross.

It may surprise you that many believe that remnants of the True Cross of Christ do still exist today. The Catholic Church recognizes many relics of the True Cross across Europe and Asia as the real deal. And these "holy relics" are venerated in the locations they appear, on several various holy days each dedicated to a particular part of the tradition.

These fragments have an interesting story. They all are claimed to have come from a beam of wood found in Jerusalem in 325 AD by Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine, who was the Emperor of Rome at the time. Wikipedia has a pretty fair summation of the main events, including the inspirational "Proof" of the True Cross that determined which of the three beams found was the True one.

"The artist depicts on the left the discovery of the three crosses in a ploughed field, outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem, while on the right, taking place in a street in the city, is the Proof of the True Cross..."
Now, for the most part, as far as I can tell, most of the world's historians who have written on this story have focused on how the cross was divvied up over the centuries, and what happened to the biggest chunk, a piece that was carried into battle by the Crusaders in 1187 and lost to the army of Saladin. Great stuff for novelists.

But here at Go Wood, we think they've missed the main story. What kind of wood was it?!

The most common story one will hear is the legend of the dogwood...that the cross was constructed from a great dogwood tree and it was cursed never again to grow to that magnificence. Great story for the kids, but not too likely. 

Another thesis is that the cross was made from acacia wood. The acacias that currently grow in the area around Jerusalem, aren't too impressive, either. There are a large number of acacia species (and false acacia species, remember our black locust?) that might have been imported by the Roman armies, especially from Africa, but that still seems like a stretch.

A theory with much stronger evidence is that the cross was made of olive. Here's a neat site where you can get a good look at olive wood produced right there in the region. The reason we have stronger support for olive is that two sources point at it. The first was the 1968 discovery of the remains of a crucified man in a cave at Giv’at ha-Mivtar in Israel, in which parts of an ankle were found nailed to remnant wood which was originally identified as olive. The articled linked above indicates that the species identification was challenged in 1973, but I haven't been able to locate that reference yet. However, you would think that anyone taking the time and risking a scientific reputation on the identification of a piece of wood would have at least some evidence of his challenge.

The second piece of evidence pointing at olive is that four cross particles from European churches were microscopically examined and all were found to be olive wood.

Now that, you might think, would seal the story for us. Olive. But not so fast, because there was this guy named Charles Rohault de Fleury who collected together "all the known relics of the cross" in order to refute common claims that there were way too many for one cross. In the midst of his calculations proving that the cubic volume of the True Cross was at least three times the volume of the known remnant pieces, he wrote in his 1871 study:
"Supposing the Cross to have been of pine-wood, as is believed by the savants who have made a special study of the subject..."1
So now we have someone who approached this with at least a bit of scientific method, albeit a long time ago. And he and his research team concluded that the remnant pieces were pine.

To me, this conclusion "feels" right for three reasons:

1) the somewhat scientific approach apparently taken by the source. It seems that the deFleury team had access to a percentage of the remnant pieces that modern scientists will never have.

 2) the fact that by far the most famous stands of timber in the region back in those days were the Cedars of Lebanon.  The "savants" could have easily mistaken cedar slivers for pine slivers, especially without microscopes.  No way, though, they could have mistaken a hardwood like olive for pine.  Alternatively, the slivers could have indeed been pine because the cedar stands in Lebanon were known to have contained a large amount of pine.

Olive timber, anyone?
3) I know if I'm a Roman centurion about to send a work crew looking for a large supply of useful timbers, I'm going to send them looking for a pine or cedar grove before they start hacking at the local olives. But hey, that's just me.

So, it was either dogwood, acacia, olive, cedar, or pine. We've got it narrowed down to about half of the wood in the world.

Now obviously, this whole thing is crying out for a modern scientific study to identify the species of the remnants, just to see if some or all are in fact of the same species, and about two thousand years old. I'd love to find a group willing to fund a year-long study in Europe do that study. But odds are pretty good that the owners of the relics wouldn't be too interested in participating.

And after all, their interest in the relics is one of faith. Can't say that I blame them for not wanting or needing scientific proof of their piece of the True Cross.

"So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown."

I hope that fifty years from now, my kids will remember their dad kindly, and recall his interest in an old piece of wood.

P.S. For those of you who really want to dig into this topic, I'd suggest you acquire of copy of The Quest for the True Cross, by C. P. Thiede and M. D'Ancona. The case they've assembled for the probable authenticity of the True Cross remnants and the even more astounding crucifixion relic, the Titulus Crucis (walnut!), is pretty convincing...but you have to immerse yourself in the logic of events to fully understand their case. I found it well worth the time.

P.P.S. And if you're interested in some of my non-wood writing on the subject, please check out these short fictional pieces on the original events. You can find the first in the series, God's Friday, at this link...


Betsy said...

I've been really interested in the strength and durability of acacia wood. I have no clue, but am interested in knowing if acacia wood is strong enough to use in an application such as this. It seems pretty lightweight. Would it be able to support a person? And would it last in the way that the many supposed pieces of the cross have?

Chuck Ray said...

Betsy, there are so many different species of acacia, it depends on which you are referring to. Some are low-density (hence your perception that it is pretty light) and some are fairly dense and make excellent lumber.

Of the species in the region around Jerusalem, the most prominent is the red acacia, Acacia seyal, which is called locally "shittim wood". This wood, especially that from Israel, is very rare and considered special as it was believed to be the species the Ark of the Covenant was built from. Could it make a functional cross? Sure, if logs of proper size could be found. That's another question.

As to its durability, that has more to do with the conditions under which it was kept. Since most of these pieces have been kept under glass for centuries, away from moisture and any potential pests, then almost any species of wood would be able to survive quite well.

sara McCracken said...

I just got back from Italy and we saw quite a few remnants of the "real" cross. these were acquired by wealthy noblemen in Siena and Florence and but they would have had no way to know if they were being ripped off or not. To be fair, they did seem to have lots of real amber, ivory and jewels
that looked authentic.

It seemed that there were quite a few pieces of "the real cross "in the small area ( central Tuscany) that we visited and we certainly doubted their authenticity!

David C Clark said...

I should imagine that the wood used for the cross was a member of the Pine family and quite possibly Aleppo Pine (Pinus halepensis). Neither Olive and Acacia trees would not provide long enough straight pieces. Lebanese Cedar (Cedrus libani) would probably been too expensive to use in what was a 'once-off' use

Anonymous said...

This is not scientific but I believe it was pine for 'classical-historic' reasons. I believe God would use the socio-religious "language" of primitive man's natural longing to spell out His truth. Ezekiel envisions this truth in 592 b.c. that answers primitive man's solstice marking of solar "death" & mourning a shepherd god Tammuze ('Sprout') dying, resurrecting, carrying a pine cross of 3 cones that conceptualizes the seeds of ever-green 'everlasting'. Ezekiel conceptualizes rather the circling cosmic chambbers as carrying a self sacrificing everflaming Being. 583 years later an earthly maiden in motherliness contemplates Ezekiel on the precise same day and yields to the Shepherd Being Who Self-conceives the Shepherd who would carry the true seeds of the Ever Green.

Anonymous said...

Oops. I should have checked my notes. I meant Ezekiel's vision is summer solstice Sabbath day 592 B.C. THEN 586! years later (not 583) another summer solstice now a first crescent (virginal) moon Monday 6 B.C.: the Shepherd is announced. The Shepherd is born 9 months later 5 B.C. equinox Passover Wednesday, Genesis Fourth-day, birth of light of the heavens.