The Gospel Coalition

The Story: Archaeologists working at an ancient church in Turkey believe they have unearthed a piece of the cross used to crucify Jesus.

The Background: "We have found a holy thing in a chest; it's a piece of a cross," said one of the archaeologists. The piece of wood was discovered in a stone chest on the site of a church in Turkey, built in 660 A.D.

According to CBS News, researchers aren't sure who owned the chest, but it was probably a religious person of some importance, and that person apparently believed the cross relic was the real deal. The recent discovery was sent to a lab for testing.

Best case scenario, say researchers, it could be traced to the year of the Crucifixion, but we would not know if the wood is from the cross of Jesus.




What It Means: Imagine I offered you $20 to try on a freshly laundered sweater. As you're putting the sweater on, though, I inform you that the clothing was once owned and worn by Adolf Hitler. How would you react?

Although the sweater has nothing to do with Hitler anymore, most people, as psychologist Paul Rozin found when he performed this experiment, would be disgusted by coming into contact with an object once worn by the mass murderer. Rozin noticed there was a link between disgust, essentialism (the idea that we attribute a soul-like 'essence' to certain objects), and sympathetic magic (the idea that this essence is transferable from person to object and vice versa).

Psychologists label this the contagion heuristic, a general rule in which people avoid contact with people or objects viewed as "contaminated" by previous contact with someone or something viewed as bad—or, less often, to seek contact with objects that have been in contact with people or things considered good.

Christians may think we are above such "magical thinking" but the issue of holy relics tends to betray our true feelings. Most people, of course, would be skeptical that the piece of cross recently found in Turkey is the cross. But what if it were? Would we feel that touching the object would bring us closer to Jesus?

Aside from the natural curiosity we would have about such an object, would we be warranted into treating it with veneration?

Why would we feel there is more "essence" of Christ left behind on a piece of his cross? Why would we be more awed by a single piece of wood that God has touched than we are by the millions of trees he created?

Christians don't need dead relics, because we have a living Savior. We don't need to touch holy relics, because we have the indwelling of his Holy Spirit. We don't need mementos to bring us in contact with God, because he has never left us.


Comments:

Clay

August 9, 2013 at 10:21 AM

Relics properly understood point to Jesus. Relics serve as a signpost of sorts pointing to the renewal of the entire cosmos in Christ, when Christ is all and in all. And regarding Mary, I don't know of any church that teaches that Mary is a deity, so no need for concern there either.

Mike

August 9, 2013 at 09:23 AM

While in practice, it could certainly be the case that relics distract from Christ, official teaching would disagree. They see relics a gifts of Christ which testify to a number of crucial doctrines on faith, the resurrection, the communion of saints, and ultimately the "love and mercy of the Almighty." Faith in Christ, the resurrection of Christ, the body of Christ. Seems very Christocentric.

From http://catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0331.html

To venerate the relics of the saints is a profession of belief in several doctrines of the Catholic faith: (1) the belief in everlasting life for those who have obediently witnessed to Christ and His Holy Gospel here on earth; (2) the truth of the resurrection of the body for all persons on the last day; (3) the doctrine of the splendor of the human body and the respect which all should show toward the bodies of both the living and the deceased; (4) the belief in the special intercessory power which the saints enjoy in heaven because of their intimate relationship with Christ the King; and (5) the truth of our closeness to the saints because of our connection in the communion of saints — we as members of the Church militant or pilgrim Church, they as members of the Church triumphant.

The relics of the saints and their veneration is just another in the long line of treasures which Jesus Christ has given to His chaste bride, the Church. These relics summon us to appreciate more profoundly not only the heroic men and women, boys and girls who have served the Master so selflessly and generously, but especially the love and mercy of the Almighty who called these His followers to the bliss of unending life in His eternal kingdom

Mel

August 9, 2013 at 06:02 PM

The evidence of Him is everywhere around us. The evidence of Him is there when we look in the mirror. The cross is a manmade torture device made out of something beautiful that God created.

Timothy

August 9, 2013 at 04:31 PM

"We don't need mementos to bring us in contact with God, because he has never left us."

But we DO need mementos! That's why we have the Lord's Supper. We don't even have to get into if or how Jesus is or is not uniquely present in the meal to all agree that we "DO this in REMEMBRANCE of me." Jesus gave us something physical, material by which remember him. (And in the OT the Passover served a very similar purpose--a physical meal to remind the Hebrew people of the first Passover.)

Do we *need* a piece of the Holy Cross to remember or worship Jesus? Of course not. But, if we have one (perhaps even whether demonstrably authentic or not), could it serve as a physical means whereby we are caused to remember Christ and his Passion and therefore be drawn into a greater love and worship of our Lord? It seems highly likely.

Dane

August 9, 2013 at 01:11 AM

Relics are so dumb! All they do is distract from Jesus - the Main Event! However, I would say that the quasi-deification of Mary is a far greater issue and distraction from Christ than any relic currently is. But, the real comfort is that Nothing will be able to ultimately diminish His Glory, though mankind may try!

Clay

August 7, 2013 at 11:15 AM

No one claims the disciples saved the cross after Jesus died on it. Tradition says that Saint Helena miraculously discovered the True Cross in 326 during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The Christian practice of honoring Holy relics is very old, going back to the first generation after the apostles - read the Martyrdom of Polycarp.

Chancellor Roberts

August 7, 2013 at 11:03 AM

Relics? We don't need no stinkin' relics!

Crosses were often reused; so, the likelihood that anyone would have a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified is extremely slim.

Intelligence is not a Sin!

August 7, 2013 at 11:00 AM

[...] Posted by Chancellor C. Roberts, II on August 7, 2013 http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2013/08/06/have-archaeologists-found-a-piece-of-jesus-cross/ [...]

Mel

August 7, 2013 at 10:18 AM

The disciples wouldn't have saved it because it was a cursed tree that killed their Lord.
Once they realized that He had risen and was not dead they wouldn't have cared about that stupid cross. They would have been dealing with the excitement of the new realizations of what it all meant.
Once He had departed for heaven they started looking for His mentioned return. They expected it to be soon. Why would they go back and get a piece of the cursed tree then? How many weeks had gone by at that point? How would they track down that exact one?

Some people need tangible things to believe. Some need to get all sentimental over physical objects to help their faith. What does the scripture say about that? That we are to help the weak (1 Thessalonians 5) and to instruct those that hope to be wise (Proverbs 9-10). That is what Joe Carter was doing.

David

August 7, 2013 at 09:18 AM

Out of the millions of crosses used in those days by the Romans, how would anyone ever determine that Jesus died on that one? How would the disciples have gotten a hold of it and hidden it? Why all these arguments on a "what if"? Can't we spend our time on something else?

Ian Hugh Clary

August 7, 2013 at 08:17 AM

Sorry to nit-pick, but Hitler's first name was spelled "Adolf." Not that I want to defend Hitler or anything---I'm not feeling that heuristic thing you were talking about! :)

Charles

August 6, 2013 at 12:53 PM

Don't forget about 2 Kings 13:21: "Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet." The bones of Elisha apparently had power, unless, of course, Scripture is mistaken.

Jeremy Lee

August 6, 2013 at 12:52 PM

These were my thoughts exactly.. the 'magic relic' didn't even dawn on me.. but I think the historical significance would be interesting.

Joe Carter

August 6, 2013 at 12:20 PM

Luke says that God was doing "extraordinary miracles." While it might be reading too much into it, I would say the modifier "extraordinary" is significant (most miracles are, by definition, extra-ordinary). Since we never hear of such miracles occurring anywhere else in the NT, I don't think it's too much to assume that it was unique to Ephesus.

casey

August 6, 2013 at 12:00 PM

That interpretation seems to be pretty speculative on Sproul's part. Luke doesn't seem to portray it that way. I would say its possible but not necessarily likely.

[...] Have Archaeologists Found a Piece of Jesus’ Cross? – The Gospel Coalition Blog. [...]

Joe Carter

August 6, 2013 at 11:37 AM

***How do we view these passages in light of the above exhortation to steer clear of relics?***

That's an excellent question. I would first separate the two passages, since I don't think they are equivalent. Jesus obviously had the power of healing and it was faith in him -- not in the essence of his power in a material object -- that healed the sick. So I don't think that is akin to relics.

The passage about Paul, though, is quite different. I agree with R.C. Sproul who said, "This was not Paul’s doing; because of their pagan religious background, the Ephesians were used to employing superstitious means (v.19). God accommodated His gracious work to their ignorance” (Reformation Study Bible).

God accommodates our ignorance too, likely in ways that we will never know. But that does not mean that we should expect God to continue using methods for Christians that would be suitable for pagans.

Could the Holy Spirit use relics if he wanted? Certainly. But as I ask in the article, when we have direct access to the living Spirit why would we even bother with trying to gain indirect access through inanimate objects?

Mel

August 6, 2013 at 11:31 AM

Lots of people were touching Him but only one with the faith that He had the power to heal her in that extraordinary way. That is why Peter thought the question ridiculous. She knew that He was referring to her also. It was a very personal moment.

As for Acts, many miracles happened at the beginning that do not happen now. Peter and Paul were quick to tell people that they were mere men.

Lets not forget that God destroyed the bronze snake on the pole too. That had saving powers but people being idolaters worshipped it.

Aaron

August 6, 2013 at 11:08 AM

Ok, fine, we don't need magic relics, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't be really cool if it could be authenticated. I have a feeling that the same people who poohpooh this sort of thing would be thrilled to death if they found an original copy of Calvin's institutes or some such thing. we don't have to be afraid of something just because it smacks of catholicism

Thomas Hyde

August 6, 2013 at 10:47 AM

When I first heard this story, my first impression wasn't to go down the "magical powers in a dead relic" path. I viewed it more as a possibility to shed historical light on crucifixions in the first century. Not that we need proof or credibility of Jesus' crucifixion - the Bible and testimony of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers is enough - but it would still be neat to have physical evidence. Personally, I doubt it is or can be attributed to Jesus' cross, but from a historical, archaeological standpoint it is intriguing. Think about all of the archaeological discoveries over the years that have lent to the credibility of the Bible. This is my train of thought on this matter.

Mike

August 6, 2013 at 10:29 AM

Joe,

Apparently this sort of "magical thinking" has a long track record in Christian circles.

Acts 19:11-12:
And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.

Luke 8:45-47
And Jesus said, "Who was it that touched me?" When all denied it, Peter said, "Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you!" But Jesus said, "Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me." And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed.

How do we view these passages in light of the above exhortation to steer clear of relics?

the Old Adam

August 6, 2013 at 10:26 PM

From the latest “Luther” movie that came out in 2003


Martin Luther: [giving a lecture] When I became a monk I believed the monk’s cowl would make me holy. Was I an arrogant fool?
Now they have made me a doctor of divinity and I am tempted to believe that this scholar’s robe will make me wise.
[laughter]

Martin Luther: Well, God once spoke through the mouth of an ass, and…
[laughter]

Martin Luther: Perhaps he is about to do so again. But…
[leaves his rostrum and starts walking around in the classroom. The students follow him very interested with their eyes]
Martin Luther: I will tell you straight what I think. Who here has been to Rome?
[a student raises his hand]
Martin Luther: Did you buy an indulgence?
Student: No.
Martin Luther: I did. For a silver florin, I freed my grandfather from Purgatory. For twice that I could have sprung grandmother and uncle mothers too, but…
[laughter]
Martin Luther: I didn’t have the funds, so they had to stay in the hot place. As for myself, the priests assured me that by gazing at sacred relics, I could cut down my time in purgatory. Luckily for me, Rome has enough nails from the holy cross to shoe every horse in Saxony.
[laughter]

Martin Luther: But there are relics elsewhere in Christendom. Eighteen out of twelve apostles are buried in Spain.
[laughter]

Martin Luther: And yet here in Wittenberg we have the pick on the crown. Bread from the last supper, milk from the virgins breast, a thorn that pierced Christ’s brow on calvery and nineteen thousand other bits of sacred bone.
[laughter]

Martin Luther: All authentic, ancient, sacred relics. Even Johann Tetzel himself, inquisitor of Poland and Saxony, seller of indulgences extraordinary, connoisseur of relics, envies our collection.
[laughter]
Martin Luther: To posses them for a single night he would willingly surrender five years of his earthly life…
[laughter, returns to his rostrum]
Martin Luther: Or five hundred years in Purgatory.
[laughter]

Jake Swink

August 6, 2013 at 09:38 AM

Amen! I completely agree. This is a problem that plagues our nation! The shroud of turin, places like the "Holy Land", et cetera.

Andrew Smith

August 6, 2013 at 08:58 PM

Never forget being in the museum at the Aachen cathedral and seeing displayed within a wheel shaped golden frame 'the sponge from which Jesus drank while on the cross'... no disclaimer of any kind, it was the real deal. I wanted to dip it in some wine-vinegar.

John Dunn

August 6, 2013 at 04:59 PM

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 2 Cor 5:16

Clay

August 6, 2013 at 04:42 PM

How very iconoclastic of you.

Joe Carter

August 6, 2013 at 04:39 PM

***Are you arguing that a relic, such as a piece of the Cross on which Jesus was crucified, should not be honored as something special and holy?***

Yes.

Worthy of historical interest? Absolutely. Venerated as "special and holy?" No.

Clay

August 6, 2013 at 04:26 PM

I don't really understand the point of this post. Are you arguing that a relic, such as a piece of the Cross on which Jesus was crucified, should not be honored as something special and holy? Or is your point that they should not be held in reverence unless or until they are proved authentic?

Clay

August 6, 2013 at 04:20 PM

I never said they were equivalents, so I'm not sure what your point is. My point is that physical matter is capable of being a vehicle of God's power. To believe otherwise is to have a very gnostic/platonic, not to mention unbiblical, worldview.

Joe Carter

August 6, 2013 at 04:16 PM

No one directly, since most TGC readers would probably make that distinction. But I think many from the EO and RCC traditions would be more inclined to argue that we should give the relics the benefit of the doubt and assume they are veneration-worthy unless proven otherwise.

Chris Roberts

August 6, 2013 at 04:16 PM

Clay,

Most of those items are not equivalents. Handkerchiefs, aprons, and shadows were already addressed; Jesus' spit and the pool are unique miracles of Jesus; the bronze serpent healed no one but was an act of obedience of a sinful people turning to trust in the means God provided; and the Ark did not transmit the power and grace of God but was literally the place of God's presence, not the object of God's presence.

Clay

August 6, 2013 at 04:04 PM

Who do you see that is assuming that?

Joe Carter

August 6, 2013 at 04:01 PM

I don't disagree. My point is much more narrow: that we shouldn't assume that because an object came in contact with Jesus (or one of the apostles) that it would have some sort of miraculous power.

Clay

August 6, 2013 at 03:33 PM

"it is a mistake to assume the 'bones of Elisha' had power. God used those bones for his purposes, but that does not mean the bones had some special intrinsic power".

Well, nothing has intrinsic power. All power comes from God. The question is, are material objects capable of being vehicles, so to speak, for God's power (I prefer to word Grace here)? The answer is yes - this passage along with many others, along with the incarnation of God proves it to be so.

Clay

August 6, 2013 at 03:21 PM

"When we have direct access to the living Spirit, why would we even bother with trying to gain indirect access through inanimate objects?"

Who says there has to be a contradistinction between "direct access" to the Holy Spirit and material objects. There are many instances in the scriptures of God doing miracles through material stuff. The Ark of the Covenant, the bronze serpent, the prophet Elisha's bones, St. Peter's shadow, the aprons and handkerchiefs that touched Paul, dirt mixed with Jesus spit, the pool of Bethesda. The incarnation proves that the stuff of the material world is perfectly capable of directly transmitting the power and grace of God.

Mel

August 6, 2013 at 01:42 PM

I'm not afraid of anything. I just think it is silly to have affection for something that is just a piece of wood. How many people were crucified back then? Someone saved it means it was special to them for some reason. It's a huge leap of faith to say it should be special to us.

Copies of ancient scripture reaffirming the word of God. That would get me excited. Piece of wood that may or may not have been a torture device of our Savior, not something I would have any interest in.

People get excited over images in grilled cheese and potato chips. The fact that they resemble something someone painted but didn't even actually know Jesus or Mary, just imagined what they looked like, shows how ridiculous human beings can be.

Joe Carter

August 6, 2013 at 01:02 PM

***The bones of Elisha apparently had power, unless, of course, Scripture is mistaken.***

Scripture isn't mistaken, but I think it is mistake to assume the "bones of Elisha" had power. God used those bones for his purposes, but that does not mean the bones had some special intrinsic power.

It would be like assuming there was something special about Balaam's donkey because he talked about to his owner.

Clay

August 13, 2013 at 04:08 PM

A & S,

You make a mistake by conflating the material world with idolotry. As is seen in many places in the Old Testament, material "things" have a place in the worship of the True God.

And it is inaccurate to say that Jesus left nothing material behind, as he left us the Eucharist and Baptism.

Alien & Stranger

August 12, 2013 at 02:34 PM

With humankind's "God-shaped gap", humanity in its fallen state is inclined towards religion and idolatry. I believe that is why Jesus left nothing material behind, because of mankind's idolatrous heart. However, that didn't stop the con-artists from making a nice profit out of the trade in so-called relics. Just look at how people flock to a place where someone thinks they've seen Jesus' or Mary's face in a mirror or something, not to mention the bizarre case of an "image" on a piece of toast. That is dead religion, superstition and idolatry.

Clay

August 10, 2013 at 07:42 AM

It's a paradox. A torture device, yet an instrument of our salvation. That's why it had been such a powerful symbol of the Christian faith for 2000 years.