I thought about the cross on which Jesus died. It has become the major symbol of the Christian faith, embraced by two billion people in many lands and a wide array of denominations, topping off church steeples, worn on necklaces, clutched by dying martyrs.
I wondered about its backstory. Maybe because of my interest in the biological sciences, my curiosity focused on what species of tree the wood of the cross came from. The question seemed simple enough, but when I began my online research, I was quickly overwhelmed with all kinds of theories, legends and superstitions. I had been somewhat aware of the “relics of the True Cross” that were objects of veneration among Medieval Christians, but I had no idea how extensive this was, how many of these little pieces of wood were circulating around, and how much controversy there was about which ones were genuine and who were the rightful owners. Occasionally, wars were fought over the possession of these True Cross relics.
Even the question of what species of tree was the likely source of the wood in the cross was the subject of a lot of creative speculation. A very popular legend was that Adam sent his son Seth back to the Garden of Eden to get a branch from the Tree of Life (whatever species that was) for its healing powers, and this had been miraculously preserved until it was used to build Jesus’ cross. There was another notion that the tree was of three species, cedar, pine and cypress, mysteriously combined to illustrate the Trinity. In another, four species were involved, each one, of course, having special symbolic meaning; one for the upright, a second for the cross beam, a third bearing the caption “King of the Jews” and a fourth for the footrest.
In some cultures, there was an idea that an elder tree was used for the cross; people in those societies were careful not to burn elder wood in their fireplace to avoid a curse. Speaking of curses, there’s the legend that mistletoe was once a tall tree, but after its trunk was used to make the cross, it was destined from then on to be a parasitic plant. I especially like the idea that the reason why aspen leaves shudder in the slightest breeze is that they are still experiencing the horror of being the species used for Jesus’ cross.
Personally, after all my reading, I think it’s most likely that the wood for the cross came from an olive tree. They were plentiful in the area and probably would be pretty affordable.
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There’s another aspect to the backstory of the cross. It has to do with the craftsman who constructed it. Most buildings at the time were made mostly of stone bricks and adobe, but carpenters were involved in constructing and installing sound roof beams and in finish work around windows and doors. They also were important to the farm industry, fashioning wagons, yokes and plows. Carpentry was a skill that would be passed on from father to son.
Jesus came to his home town and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power?
Is not this the carpenter’s son?’ (Matthew 13:54-55)
Yes, the boyhood of our Savior was not spent on book larnin’, but on shaping things in his father’s shop; things like yokes for the oxen, wheels for farm wagons, and maybe even crosses for the Roman oppressors to use in executing his countrymen who were suspected of inciting rebellion.
Was there a day when the boy Jesus was fashioning a cross from an olive trunk, and he pictured himself on it? As he drove in a nail, did he imagine for a moment what it would feel like if the nail was tearing through his flesh before it started penetrating the wood?
— Pastor George Van Alstine