Michael Hesemann, Historiker und Autor
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Titulus Crucis -

    The title of the cross of Jesus Christ?
                                                                                  By Michael Hesemann

Probably the most remarkable of the relics preserved in the venerable Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome, is the relic of the "titulus Christi", the alleged Title of the Holy Cross of Our Savior. According to the tradition, it was brought to Rome by the Emperess Helena in 326 AD, after it was discovered, together with the relics of the True Cross and three holy nails, during the construction of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Although it is easy to consider it a pious forgery in reference to the Helena-legend, a careful palaeographic evaluation found serious indications that the "titulus" is indeed from the time of Christ.


The Helena Legend

According to several Church historians of the 4th and 5th century, the "titulus" was discovered, together with the "true cross" itself and three nails, in a former cistern during the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, according to Christian tradition both the site of Jesus´ crucifixion and resurrection, since he was buried "nearby" (John 19,42) Calvary. The church was built by order of the roman Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337) who sent his mother Helena, a pious Christian, for the arrangements to Jerusalem in 325 AD. Helena, as it is stated, divided the precious relics into three parts, left one in Jerusalem, sent the other to her son in Constantinople and took the third to Rome, into the private Chapel of her palace, together with some earth from Calvary. Over the centuries this private chapel was enlarged and became the "Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme" (Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem) since the Middle Ages one of the seven "main Basilicas" of the City of the Popes. Until today, the Basilica is in the possession of one of the three nails, a fragment of the cross and the Titulus, which was immured in the walls of its Helena Chapel until 1492, when, for the first time, it was
publicly displayed.

The “Titulus Crucis”

The titulus is 25x14 cm in size, 2.6 cm thick and has a weight of 687 g. It is inscribed on one side with three lines, of which the first one is mostly destroyed. The second line is written in Greek letters and reversed script, the third in Latin letters, also with reversed script. We can read the words
Read from right to left, obviously in imitation of the Jewish way of writing, we can read: I. NAZARINUS RE, obviously a part of the inscription of the cross, as quoted in the Latin translation of the Gospel according to St. John (19,19) as "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum". Interestingly enough, the Greek line is a mere Greek transcription of the Latin line rather than a translation, in contrast to the original Greek quote of the Gospel according to St. John as "Ihsous Nazoraios Basileus ton Ioudaion". The variations from the version of St. John are:
1.      The order of the lines (St. John: Hebrew, Latin, Greek; titulus: Hebrew, Greek, Latin)
2.      The reverse writing, not mentioned by St. John
3.      The Initials "JS" and "I." instead of the full name "Iesous/Iesus".
4.      The use of the Latin "Nazarinus/Nazarenous" instead of the Greek "Nazoraios", even in the Greek line.

Two scholars, Prof. Carsten Peter Thiede of the Unbiversities of Basel and Beer-Sheva and Prof. Israel Roll of the University of Tel Aviv, consider this a major indication of the authenticity of the titulus. First of all, a variation of Joh. 19,19 is a freedom no forger would ever risk. But it makes sense, since Pontius Pilatus, who, according to the gospels, dictated the inscription, was a Roman magistrate and used, especially for official documents, the official language Latin. It was up to the writer to create a version in the other two languages, and therefore it was rather unlikely that he transferred the term "Nazarinus" in the correct Greek form. The abbreviation of the name "Iesous/Iesus" as "I." is typical for Roman Latin inscriptions. Since "Yeshu/Yehoshua" was a common name during the 1st century -Flavius Josephus mentions 16 persons with this name-, the unique "Nazarinus" rather pointed to the Savior from a small village in Galilee, at least for a Roman magistrate, although such an abbreviation in contrast to John 19,19 would be unthinkable for a Christian forger. It is furthermore significant that the writer used the Latin NazarInus instead of the later Christian NazarEnus. Indeed, NazarInus is closer to the Hebrew NozerY/NazarY and seems to be the original form. Both indicates an early, even contemporary origin.

Palaeographic dating

In 1997, the German historian Michael Hesemann decided to put it under scientific scrutiny. With the kind permission of the Abbot of the Monastery of S. Croce, Don Luigi Rottini, and the Undersekretäry of State of the Holy See,  Archbishop Giovanni Battista Re, Hesemann presented the inscription of the title, which -obviously cut by Helena- still bears the words "I.NAZARINUS R..." in reverse writing -obviously in imitation of the semitic way- in three languages -Hebrew, Greek and Latin- to seven internationally respected experts on Hebrew, Greek and Latin palaeography. Palaeography is a scientific method to date an inscription by comparison with dated inscriptions from the same region. In the past this method proved to be the most accurate and precise method to date inscriptions, since the style of writing always changed over the centuries. It is therefore safer than the Radiocarbon (14C) method, which can easily deliver erroneous data in the case of a contamination of the object, which is very well possible if it was
handled over the centuries. On the other hand, in the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, their palaeographic dating was in 1992 confirmed exactly by a Carbondating at the Zurich Technical University.
The seven experts Hesemann consulted were Dr. Gabriel Barkay of the Israel Antiquity Authority, Prof. Dr. Hanan Eshel, Prof. Dr. Ester Eshel and Dr. Leah Di Segni of the Hebrew University Jerusalem, Prof. Dr. Israel Roll and Prof. Dr. Ben Isaac of the University of Tel Aviv and Prof. Carsten Peter Thiede of Paderborn/Germany and the University of Beer Sheva, Israel. Three of these experts -the noted scholar couple Hanan and Ester Eshel and Prof. Thiede- worked on the palaeographic dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Dr. Di Segni is considered the
leading expert on Greek inscriptions in the Holy Land.
The remains of the first line can be identified as Jewish script. Readable are only the letters Heh, Nun and Tzadi, which very well might have been parts of the Hebrew text of the inscription

(Yeshu H´Nozery Melek H´Yehudim)

Unfortunately this line is in such a bad and withered condition that one expert could not draw a definite conclusion on the palaeographic findings at all. Still, with different arguments, two of the three consulted experts for Jewish palaeography found obvious characteristics typical for the timeframe between the 1st and early 4th century AD. Both experts remarked the cursive style of writing and the long "tails" of the letters. Dr. Barkay identifies them als "palaeo-Hebrew", Dr. Eshel for "Jewish cursive writing", both typical for the end of the "2nd temple period", the 1st century AD, but also used in the following two centuries. Dr. Gabriel Barkay was sure that the writer was inexperienced and most probably not a Jew.
The edges of the titulus show a strong withering. The right edge is severely decayed, a part of the upper edge is broken off, on the lower edge the letters I and ARIN are difficult to see. Only the left edge is undamaged..

Obviously here the wood was cut at a later date and from this moment on preserved safely. This condition of the title seems to confirm the tradition according to which the title was hidden for 295 years in an old cistern close to the Calvary, bevor it was discovered and obviously cut into two pieces by St. Helena who brought one half to Rome. The division is indicated by the clean cut on the left side and the missing part of the inscription. If this indeed was, as John (19,19) and the Church historians (with the exemption of Sokrates Scholasticus who obviously got his information from Jerusalem, referring to the relic preserved there), IESUS NAZARENUS REX IUDAEORUM, we can reconstruct the inscription of the other half, remaining in Jerusalem, as

miduhyh kl(m)

Especially in the middle of the title chalky-greyish remains of color are still visible, furthermore traces of black color in some of the letters. This is characteristical for the Roman way to write the "titulus damnationis", as the archaeologists and historians Maria Siliato and Werner Eck stressed: First of all the wood was painted with white chalk, than the exactor painted the reason for the punishment on it with black or red letters. That the letters were also carved was rather an exemption. Although Eck states that there indeed were wood tablets with carved inscriptions, painted over with chalk, the letters painted out, these were rather common for public buildings or as tituli sepulcrales. A titulus damnationis, he thinks, would rather be reused. On the other hand it is rather questionable if tituli were in common use for provincial executions at all.

Furthermore we have to ask if Pilate, who arrived with his Kohort in Jerusalem to guarantee a quiet Pesach, indeed took a whole staff of provincial officials wih him. The titulus rather was a form of "special treatment", of mocking of the "King of the Jews", ordered by Pilate and probably written by an officer who was able to write, maybe a Centurio. The relic rather allows the conclusion that it was written by an untrained writer, maybe a Levantine, inexperienced in other languages, writing by dictate. A reuse can be excluded since there were no regular trials in Jerusalem - they took place in the provincial capital of Caesarea Maritima.
Only for the major Tempel Holidays the prafectus iudaeae came to Jerusalem to guarantee the public order. Only during this time he sat in judgement over imminent cases. Since everything which came in contact with the deceased was considered "unclean" by the Jewish Law (4 Mos 19,13-16), victims of executions had to be buried on the very same day (5 Mos 21, 22-23) and actually Jews removed the traces of the execution, it can be excluded that the titulus Crucis or any other remain of a public execution was eher brought back in the city to be reused.
Only one expert, Prof. Eck of Cologne, refused any palaeographic dating because of the lack of comparative examples on the same medium, contemporary wood inscriptions.

CONCLUSION: None of the consulted experts for Hebrew, Greek and Latin Palaeography found any indication ofa mediaeval or late antique forgery. Instead, they all dated it in the timeframe between the 1st and the 3./4thcentury AD, with a majority of experts preferring and none of them excluding the 1st century. Therefore it is very well possible that the "Titulus Crucis" is indeed the title of the cross of Our Lord.

1.The authenticity of the titulus indicates, that indeed the Fourth Gospel was written by an eyewitness, confirming the tradition of the Holy Church. John alone quotes the title literal, not just its content, as the other three evangelists. Since in our age the authenticity of the Gospel according to John was often enough doubted because of its "advanced Christology", this discovery might cause a paradigm change in modern theology: John stood indeed beneath the cross, developed his high theology based on his intimacy with Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Furthermore John is the only source we have for the "stabat mater dolorosa", the presence of the most holy Virgin under the cross. If we confirm John as an eyewitness, there cannot be any doubt that indeed he, together with the Mother of God, listened to the words of Our Lord on the Cross.

2.The titulus is the only remaining juridical document -a "titulus damnationis"- of the courtcase of Our Lord and therefore a unique document of both, history and "Heilsgeschichte". Its way from Jerusalem to Rome symbolizes the way of the early church. In Jerusalem the sign of salvation, after the years of persecution, was retrieved, from Rome it went around the world. Therefore the Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, the Roman Jerusalem, is an important symbol for the Holy Year 2000, which, according to His Holiness, Pope John Paul II., is to be celebrated "in Rome and Jerusalem".

Am 17. Dezember 1998 überreichte Michael Hesemann Seiner Heiligkeit, Papst Johannes Paul II., seinen Bericht über den Titulus Crucis