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Are there too many supposed relics of the cross on which Jesus died?

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We’ve all heard the claim that, if all of the pieces of wood that are claimed to be a piece of the True Cross, the actual cross on which Jesus suffered and died, were genuine pieces, there would be enough wood to rebuild Noah’s ark or some other huge object. The trouble is that’s not even close to being true.

The first person to make this claim was the 16th century Dutch humanist, Erasmus. In a satire on pilgrimages he wrote, “So they say of the cross of Our Lord, which is shown publicly and privately in so many places, that, if all the fragments were collected together, they would appear to form a fair cargo for a merchant ship.”

Uh, not so much.

Enter Charles Rohault de Fleury, a French scholar who, in the last half of the 19th century, decided he would track down and measure every surviving relic of the True Cross. De Fleury assumed that Jesus carried the entire cross, upright and cross-beam, to Calvary. We now know that He only carried the cross-beam. The upright portion was kept at the execution site. However pieces of the upright would still be a part of the True Cross even if Jesus didn’t carry it.

De Fleury estimated how much weight a strong man could carry. Remember, Jesus was a carpenter and, at that time, that included working with materials other than wood as well. Jesus was likely very muscular. He estimated that a carpenter could carry 220 pounds of wood a distance of 50 yards without taking a rest. Since He was dragging the cross rather than carrying it on His shoulders, Jesus was most likely able to carry it further. However Jesus had been severely beaten and needed the help of Simon the Cyrene.

Based on this information, de Fleury estimated that the cross would measure 10,900 cubic inches. So, what total did he come up with when he added up the size of all the pieces? 20,000? 50,000? 100,000? Nope. He came up with 240 cubic inches. That’s not a typo. Even if you assumed there were ten times as many fragments that he had no access to, that would only come to 2,400 cubic inches. Far short of the size of the cross.

Sources

Craughwell, Thomas J. Catholic Education Resource Center: Taking the Measure of Relics of the True Cross

Wikipedia: True Cross

Text © 2017 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.

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Written by Gary J Sibio

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  1. There’s an awful lot of speculation here, not least the notion that – at the time of the Crucifixion – there were people who lopped pieces off the Cross to keep as souvenirs. For one thing, why do you imagine that the Roman soldiers would have allowed anyone to do so? Executions by crucifixion were commonplace, so crosses would have been reused as often as possible – they didn’t make a new one every time.

    But the point that is being made is true enough – the relics industry of medieval Europe was a money-making scam and any old piece of wood could be passed off as part of the “true cross” if the buyer was naïve enough.

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