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The cross and the crown

April 2015 | by Julian Evans

While writing the book God’s trees — trees, forests and wood in the Bible, I was often asked about the crown of thorns and especially what wood was used for the cross. We can’t be certain about either, but Christ’s suffering is too central a part of our faith to ignore these questions. 

So, as we approach Easter, what little we can say may help us understand a bit more of our Saviour’s humiliation and the lengths he went to for us.

Crown of thorns based on Christ thorn foliageCrown of thorns

We do not know from which species of thorny shrub or tree the soldiers hastily tore twigs to fashion a crown — a crown to hurt and to mock his title ‘King of the Jews’. The relics don’t help us; they are all of dubious authenticity, including the famous one held in Notre-Dame, with a provenance dating back to the early fourth century AD. 

This relic is of Palestine buckthorn (Rhamnus palaestinus), which has long, fearsome thorns and is a common shrub of wilderness. In the Middle Ages, a few individual thorns were detached from it and given as gifts by the king of France. 

One of these is the Crown of Thorns Reliquary in the British Museum. It is set in an exquisite, priceless work of solid gold and jewels that depicts the day of judgement. The problem with such relics is that Christ was repeatedly beaten around the head while wearing the crown of thorns (Mark 15:19), so the original thorns would be broken and stained, not intact.

A more likely candidate for the original crown is another buckthorn, the Jerusalem thorn (Paliurus spina-Christi). Also known as the European Christ-thorn, it is still found in northern Israel. In New Testament times, it could well have been in and around Jerusalem amongst the scrubby oak of the Judean hills. 

Other suggestions include boxthorn (Lycium), the common thorny burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum) and even the idea that spines from the base of date palm fronds were used. 

Christ thorn tree at Korazin. Credit M. Glass

The latter were readily available in Jerusalem and could have been woven around a headband to mock Christ’s divinity and as well as his kingship, though they would not have been an instrument of torture.

The most plausible candidate remains ‘Christ-thorn’ itself (Ziziphus spina-Christi). This is illustrated in the accompanying picture, with its mix of upright thorns and recursive, bent-back ones. 

Christ-thorn can be found today around Jerusalem, as well as throughout Galilee. It may be the tree in Jotham’s parable, as the most likely meaning of the Hebrew ‘atad’ in Judges 9:14-15. If it is this plant the soldiers twisted to inflict pain and bleeding, then we have a twist indeed. 

Did the Romans collude with the Jews so that the only earthly crown Jesus wore was the very symbol of bad kingship in Judges? And was that yet another humiliation and insult heaped on Christ? Jesus the carpenter and country preacher would know the tree well.

Crucifixion

We can only guess concerning the wood of the cross. Crucifixion was the Roman’s principal means of execution for all but their own citizens. Classical literature records countless examples, some of which I cite in God’s trees, such as the thousand Jewish men crucified on the orders of Janneus, 100 years before Jesus’ birth.

Despite the frequency and number of crucifixions, there is limited archaeological evidence because wood decays. Wooden artefacts only survive in conditions that are exceptionally dry — such as in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, in the Egyptian desert — or anaerobic (where oxygen is excluded). 

Charcoal from wood survives well and, of course, post holes are common enough, the disturbed soil profile revealing where something wooden had once been.

If archaeological artefacts of crucifixion are limited, those of victims were even more so, until 1968, when an accidental discovery of a burial cave at Giv’at ha’Mivtar, just north of Jerusalem, revealed the remains of a male crucified during the Roman period. 

This was widely reported, including how crucifixion was probably carried out, in this instance a nail pinning both ankles together to the cross. 

A reappraisal of the original research (Zias, J. and Sekeles, E., ‘The crucified man from Giv’at ha-Mitvar: a reappraisal’, Israel Exploration Journal, 35(1). 22-27) suggested that each ankle was nailed separately, one to each side laterally of the upright, and the arms had been tied. 

Tiny fragments of wood were found at each end of the ankle nail, the larger of which could be positively identified botanically as olive. 

So the suggestion was made that the upright of the cross was of olive wood, but this too was challenged in the reappraisal, given the short stature and great value of olive trees, and because the fragment of olive came from next to the head of the nail not the pointed end. That appeared rather to be a washer, to enlarge the nail’s head to prevent the victim working the foot loose and, maybe, even more cruelly, to staunch the flow of blood.

Slow death

The Romans intended crucifixion to be a slow death; they did not want their victims to die quickly from bleeding. They wanted them to die from excruciatingly painful suffocation, heat stroke or thirst. 

Although all this has been learned, every detail cannot apply to the crucifixion of Christ. We know Jesus showed his wounds to the disciples — ‘Look at my hands and my feet’ (Luke 24:39) — indicating that all four limbs had been nailed, as well as the spear thrust into his side.

The authors of the reappraisal make a further interesting point: ‘Ancient historical sources indicate that the condemned victim never carried the complete cross, as is commonly believed; instead the cross-bar was carried, while the upright was set in a permanent place where it was used for subsequent executions. 

‘Furthermore, we know from Josephus that, during the first century AD, wood was so scarce in Jerusalem that the Romans were forced to travel ten miles to secure their siege machinery’.

The point about the cross-bar (Latin, patibulum) shows that even this less cumbersome cross-member was too much for the beaten, scourged and weakened Jesus, and Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry it. 

Cypress trees near Hierapolis necropolisWhich wood?

The point about timber shortage brings us back to the question, of what wood was the cross made? 

With the large number of crucifixions, even assuming continual reuse at least of the uprights (reuse of the means of execution is common; in Britain, gibbets were continually reused and stood as a warning), what was the most likely wood available in Jerusalem? 

The answer is probably cypress, although we can’t rule out a half dozen other possibilities, including cedar and pine. Indeed, was it simply what was most readily to hand?

A case can also be made that the upright was actually a living tree, to which the crossbar was affixed, but the tradition of a cross is very strong and it is what the Bible plainly asserts. Perhaps we shouldn’t press for other details that are no more than speculation.

Wishful thinking and make-believe accumulated in the Dark Ages. Revealing too is that most supposed ‘relics’ of the cross turn out to be pine or oak, probably because they’re the most widely occurring of trees across Europe.

John Evelyn, in his famous Silva of 1664, cites the Venerable Bede that the cross was made of cypress, cedar, pine and box; and Evelyn himself quotes an old verse:

‘Nailed were his feet to cedar, to palm his hands,
Cypress his body bore, title on olive stands.’

Other tradition holds that wood for the tree of the cross came from the Tree of Life, at least symbolically. 

If cypress wood is correct, its Latin name of Cupressus sempervirens (the ever-living cypress) would fit as well as any. Cypresses were widely planted around graveyards and cemeteries. One tradition of possible substance suggests that the wood came from trees on the site now occupied by the fortified, eleventh-century Monastery of the Cross, near today’s Israeli Knesset. All in all, cypress is probably the safest guess, but only a guess.

Another narrative

Far more important than the wood is another narrative. Because John Evelyn, the father of forestry in Britain, expressed it so elegantly 350 years ago, I conclude by quoting again from his Silva:

‘In a word, and to speak a bold and noble truth, trees and woods have twice saved the whole world; first by the ark, then by the cross; making full amends for the evil fruit of the tree in paradise, by that which was born on the tree in Golgotha.’

Professor Evans OBE is a forest scientist and currently President of the Institute of Chartered Foresters. He has written many books on forestry, but recently Day One (Leominster) have published his God’s trees — trees, forests and wood in the Bible, in coffee-table format.