Quest for the True Cross (2002)


Quest For the True Cross is the somewhat misleading name of a recent bestselling book coauthored by scholar Carsten Peter Thiede and of this companion documentary produced by Mel Gibson’s Icon Films for the Discovery Channel. Theide, who previously made waves with a book arguing for a much earlier dating of the gospels than is common in academic circles, now challenges the academic community’s knee-jerk dismissal of ancient Christian relics as medieval forgeries.

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Directed by Justin Cartright. Carsten Peter Thiede, Matthew D’Ancona. Documentary. Artisan.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value

+1 / -1

Age Appropriateness

Teens & Up

MPAA Rating


Caveat Spectator

Secular historiographical perspectives.

In particular, his investigation focuses, not on any of the relics of the True Cross itself, but on a wooden relic purported to be a fragment of the titulus crucis — the placard placed over the head of the crucified man bearing the charge against him, in this case "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." For centuries this relic has been housed at the Santa Croce Church in Rome, where tradition holds it was brought by the mother of Constantine, St. Helena, following her pilgrimage to the Holy Land in search of Christian artifacts. However, these claims had not been critically investigated prior to Thiede’s research.

Theide marshals a number of interesting textual arguments against the titulus being a medieval forgery. For example, the charge appears in the three language stipulated in the gospel accounts — Latin, Greek, and Hebrew — but not in the same order that they are mentioned in the gospels, which is not what one would expect from a forger. More strikingly, the Greek and Latin lines as well as the Hebrew are written right to left — an abberation that could conceivably be the work of a first-century Jewish scribe or a Roman writing for Jewish readers, but is scarcely imaginable in a medieval Christian artifact.

There are also more esoteric arguments based on the style of the letter-forms themselves. There is no information on the dating of the wood itself, such research not having been permitted to date (though a postscript announces that the Vatican has recently authorized dating tests on the wood of the titulus).

A popular critical documentary with no religious viewpoint, Quest for the True Cross requires critical viewing. Different scholarly views are presented; one scholar refers dismissively to the Shroud of Turin, and historical interpretations of Helena demythologize the saint, focusing on political rather than religious motives. Still, as a challenge to secular skepticism regarding Christian relics and an apologetic for what would be the most direct archaological evidence to date of Jesus’ life and death, Quest For the True Cross makes worthwhile viewing.

Documentary, Religious Themes