The penultimate episode of CNN’s Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery tells the story of the discovery of the True Cross by Helena, the mother of Constantine. Through a mixture of dramatic re-enactments, scholarly commentary, and relic-hunting sleuthery, viewers learn much about the life of Helena, her son Constantine, and the Christianization of the Roman Empire. But, as in previous episodes, the sources relating to the artifacts are not treated with the kind of critical rigor that they require. There are multiple versions of the inventio crucis, the discovery of the True Cross, not all of which even feature Helena, and they contain features that are fantastic (such as the method by which Helena determines which of the three crosses is Jesus’) and disturbing (they treat the Jews in the narrative as money-hungry, obstinate enemies of the church). Yet, the narrator of Finding Jesus more often calls the sources “tradition” and “church history,” and the finding of the cross is likened (both in the dramatizations and in the scholarly commentary) to an archeological dig. A 45-minute documentary cannot hope to present all of the nuances related to this topic, or any topic for that matter, but the episode would have benefited from some finer discussion of the sources, some of which are apocryphal texts.
The legend of the True Cross belongs to a genre of literature known as the inventio, each of which tell of the finding of relics associated with Jesus and other prominent first-century church figures. More New Testament Apocrypha contributor Paul Dilley has written several articles on this literature (see particularly “The Invention of Christian Tradition: Apocrypha, Imperial Policy, and Anti-Jewish Propaganda,” GRBS 50.4 : 586-614). Some of the texts—such as the Life and Martyrdom of John the Baptist and the Acts of Cornelius—preface the story of relic invention with legends of the figure associated with the relic. The inventio crucis is the earliest known inventio text; versions appear in the early fifth century. Jan Willem Drijvers has published much on this material; see his monograph Helena Augusta: The Mother of Constantine the Great and the Legend of Her Finding of the True Cross (Leiden/New York: Brill, 1992) or more briefly, his article “Helena Augusta: Cross and Myth. Some new Reflections,” Millennium (Yearbook on the Culture and History of the First Millennium C.E.) 8 (2011): 125-174.
The earliest mention of the True Cross is Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem between 350 and 387. In a series of lectures delivered in 351 he mentions the presence of pieces of the cross in Jerusalem and elsewhere, but he does not associate its discovery with Helena. The pilgrim Egeria reports seeing it on her pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 381-384. The cross was shown to the faithful in the inner courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Good Friday and at the feast of the Encaenia (to commemorate the establishment of the church). It is not known how the cross, genuine or not, was found nor by whom but likely its existence was revealed during the building of churches in Jerusalem in the reign of Constantine. The earliest connection between Helena and the cross comes in 390 in the Church History of Gelasius of Caesarea.
There are four versions of the legend. In one, Helena finds the three crosses and is able to distinguish which one belonged to Jesus by using it to cure a deathly ill woman (the identification was made easier in one variation of this particular legend in which it is reported that the titulus was still attached to the cross). Finding Jesus mentions the three crosses, but not the titulus, nor does it mention how Helena determined which cross was that of Jesus. A second version incorporates the character of a Jew named Judas who finds the cross for Helena and later converts and becomes bishop of Jerusalem. In both of these versions, the nails are also found with the cross.
The third version is known as the Protonike legend, and is it found in the Doctrina Addai, an expansion of the Abgar Legend composed in the early fourth century. Protonike is the fictional wife of the emperor Claudius. She converts to Christianity after witnessing the signs and wonders of Simon Peter in Rome. Then she journeys to Jerusalem and meets James. She asks James to show her Golgotha, the wood of the cross, and the tomb of Jesus. James says these locations are under the control of the Jews. She demands that the Jewish leaders reveal these things to her and allow the Christians access to them. When she enters the tomb, she finds there the three crosses. Then her daughter falls to the ground dead. Her son tells her this is fortunate because now they can use the crosses to determine which one belonged to Jesus. Each of the crosses is placed on the girl, until the third one brings her back to life. Then Protonike gives the cross to James and demands that a church be built on the site. The apostle Addai is able to relate this story to King Abgar because an account of the discovery of the cross was written by James and sent to the apostles.
The final account of the finding of the cross is found in the Syriac version of the Six Books Dormition of Mary text, the earliest manuscript of which dates to ca. 500. The story is discussed by Stephen Shoemaker in “A Peculiar Version of the Inventio Crucis in the Early Syriac Dormition Traditions,” Studia Patristica 41 (2006): 75-81. In the course of the narrative, there is a debate between Jews and Christians. The Christians win the debate and demand that the Jews reveal the location of the cross, the nails, and other relics. The Roman governor asks about the location of the cross. It is revealed that it was buried by the Jews to keep it away from Christians. But people regularly go to the spot and, by touching the top of the cross through a hole in the ground, they are healed. The governor decides to leave the cross where it is to be discovered in its due time, presumably by Helena, centuries later.
There is another, curious reference to Queen Helena in the Jewish “anti-gospel” the Toledoth Yeshu. Followers of Jesus come to the Queen accusing the Jewish sages of moving Jesus’ body. She demands the body be returned to her in three days. The sages tie the body to a horse and bring it to the queen. Upon seeing it she realizes that Jesus was a false prophet and she mocks the Christians and praises the Jewish sages.
Other apocryphal texts add to the mystique of the cross with accounts of its supernatural origins. In a text known in Latin as the History of the Holy Rood-Tree (see the edition of Arthur S. Napier, EETS Old Series 103; London: Oxford University Press, 1894, p. 69) but also available in Greek, Amharic, and Arabic, the thirty silver pieces paid to Judas to betray Jesus are tied to the origin of the wood from which the True Cross was made. In the Latin version, Adam is gravely ill and entreats his son Seth to journey to Paradise and return with the Oil of Mercy. Seth is refused entry but is given seeds from the Tree of Life, which he plants over Adam’s grave. The seeds grow into three trees of trees—cypress, cedar, and pine—from which Moses crafts his staff. The staff eventually come into the hands of David and he plants it in Jerusalem, where it grows into a tree. Every year, for thirty years, David adds a silver ring to the tree; the rings expand as the tree grows. When Solomon builds the temple, a beam is needed, so the tree is cut down and the thirty silver rings are hung in the temple. Later the rings are given to Judas, and part of the tree is used for the cross of Jesus. Some aspects of this story are included in Jacobus de Voragine’s account of the finding of the cross in ch. 68 of The Golden Legend. Solomon of Basra also details the providential transmission of the staff (Book of the Bee 30). He says Phineas hid the staff in the desert until God showed it to Joseph, who used it on his journey to Egypt and the return to Nazareth. The staff was passed on to James and Judas stole it. It was then used for the crossbeam of the cross.
The legends associated with the discovery of the True Cross are many and varied. Did Helena find it in the fourth century? Or was it Protonike (or even the Roman governor of Judea) in the first? Or someone else entirely? Certainly the first-century stories are not credible, but, as Drijvers remarks, it is accepted by most scholars that Helena was not responsible for its discovery (“Helena Augusta,” p. 26). Her story makes for a good narrative, particularly when told with the details of Constantine’s murder of both his son Crispus and his wife Fausta, but it’s not good history.