There has been much speculation over the centuries about what type of tree was used for the cross on which Jesus was crucified. This is an important question for Christians, as the cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith. Knowing what type of tree was used can provide insight into the historical and symbolic significance of the crucifixion. In this article, we will examine the evidence for the different types of trees proposed as being the tree of the cross, and try to draw a conclusion about which type of tree is the most likely candidate.
The Significance of the Cross
To understand why the type of tree is important, we first need to consider the great significance of the cross in Christianity. The cross is the most recognizable symbol of the Christian religion. It reminds us that Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, paving the way for forgiveness and eternal life. The cross represents the bridge between divinity and humanity, between heaven and earth. It is a symbol of the love of God, that He would send His only Son to suffer and die in our place.
Knowing what type of tree was used for this sacred instrument helps us feel more connected to the historicity of the events. It also enables us to visualize and imagine the scene on Calvary more concretely. The type of tree has symbolic meaning as well. In the Bible, trees are often used metaphorically to represent life, strength, wisdom, and the blessing of God. The particular tree used for the cross would have additional layers of meaning for the early Christians.
The Biblical Accounts
The Bible itself does not specify what type of tree was used in the crucifixion of Jesus. The Gospel accounts simply refer to a “cross” or “tree.” For example:
“Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). Here they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.” (John 19:17-18)
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole [tree].” (Galatians 3:13)
These passages describe Jesus carrying the cross to Golgotha and being hung or crucified on a “tree.” The use of the word “tree” implies a wooden instrument, but does not indicate the specific species.
Historical Records About the Cross
Beyond the biblical accounts, we have limited historical records that provide clues about the type of wood used for crucifixion crosses in early 1st century Judea.
Roman historian Tacitus described crucifixion practices around the time of Jesus, but did not specify the type of trees used. From Tacitus’ writings, we know that the upright pole was permanently fixed in the ground at the site of crucifixion, while the transverse beam was carried by the condemned person to the location.
The 2nd century Greek writer Lucian of Samosata made a possible reference to a crucifixion cross being made of oak. This matches traditions that Christ’s cross was made of oak. However, Lucian was writing about a crucifixion in Gaul about 100 years after the death of Jesus, so the evidence is not conclusive.
Other sources make general references to crosses being made of wood, pine, or oak, but none directly relate to the specific cross Jesus bore.
Based on this historical evidence, experts believe the Romans generally used strong, hard woods that could handle the weight of a human body for crucifixion crosses. Trees like oak, maple, and tamarisk are likely candidates. But we have no conclusive written records about the exact type used during Jesus’ crucifixion.
Traditions About the Wood of the Cross
In the absence of clear biblical or historical evidence, traditions arose in Christendom about the type of wood used for the cross:
Oak: As noted above, the 2nd century writer Lucian made a possible reference to a crucifixion cross being oak. This led to widespread belief that the true cross was made of oak. The strength and durability of oak made it a natural traditional choice.
Cedar: Some early Christian writers linked the wood of the cross to the “incorruptible wood” described in the Old Testament (Wisdom 2:12, Isaiah 37:24). The ark of the covenant and temple were made with cedar, so some believe cedar was the wood of the cross.
Cypress: The apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus identified the type of wood as a cypress tree. Cypress was commonly used in antiquity for carved idols, linking the cross to existing tradition. The fragrant aroma of cypress was also thought to symbolize the aroma of Christ spreading over the world.
Cedar of Lebanon: Based on its height and strong branches, traditions specifically identified the Cedar of Lebanon as the source of wood for the cross. Pilgrims to the Holy Land would often seek out these majestic trees.
Palm: Folk tradition in some parts of Europe claimed palm wood was used for the cross. This comes from linking the cross to Palm Sunday traditions, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem and people laid down palm branches.
Aspen: Medieval legends, especially in Russia, promoted claims that aspen was the wood of the cross. Aspen has smooth white bark and trembling leaves, which were viewed as symbols of the cross.
This shows the wide range of traditions that emerged about types of wood, often based on symbolic meanings. But there is no definitive historical evidence pinpointing the exact species of tree.
The variability of climate and vegetation in ancient Judea opens up possibilities for many species of trees large enough to construct a cross. Based on the wood available at the time, here are a few likely candidates:
Olivewood – The olive tree was widespread in Judea and a well-known symbol of Israel. Olivewood was a common source of lumber for carpentry and construction. The strength and longevity of olivewood fits with its ability to support a human body on a cross.
Cedar – Several species of cedar grow natively in the Middle East. As mentioned above, cedar was culturally linked to religion and temple construction in the Old Testament. The rot-resistance and fragrance of cedar were positive attributes.
Tamarisk – Also called saltcedar, the Tamarix genus of trees is found across the Levant. Tamarisk is very hardy, strong, and drought resistant. It was used for wakes and funeral pyres, so was readily available.
Oak – Several species of oak were present in Judea, including the Kermes oak. As an extremely strong hardwood, oak is naturally suited for structural applications like crosses.
Cypress – Cypress trees were native to Persia and Syria, within the range of Judea. The wood was aromatic and rot-resistant, positive traits. Alexander the Great made the cypress his emblem.
Palm – Date palms were commonplace in Judea, but the soft, non-structural wood is unsuitable for a cross. However, some scholars suggest palm fronds or branches were used in conjunction with a sturdier wood.
A tantalizing piece of archaeological evidence came to light in the 1960s. Excavations in the vicinity of Jerusalem uncovered the ossuary (burial box) of a man named Yehohanan, dated to the 1st century AD. A heel bone was attached to one of the nails from the crucifixion, indicating that the man had been crucified.
Botanists examined the wood fragments from the Yehohanan crucifixion nails and identified the wood as cedar of the Cedrus genus. Does this mean Yehohanan – and by extension Jesus – were crucified on cedar crosses? Not necessarily. But it demonstrates that cedar from that region was indeed used for at least some crucifixions around that time period. Cedar remains a good candidate for the cross of Christ based on this archaeological evidence.
Many alleged fragments of the true cross have been discovered and reported throughout history. However, these have no reliable provenance or connection to the actual crucifixion. Their authenticity is rejected by most mainstream Christian denominations.
Symbolic Significance of the Wood
Though we do not have definitive evidence of the specific species of tree used in Jesus’ crucifixion, the symbolic meanings attached to certain woods by tradition and scripture give insight into their spiritual significance.
Olivewood – Represents Israel, peace, the Garden of Gethsemane
Cedar – Represents purification, nobility, fragility of life
Cypress – Represents hope, vitality, regeneration
Oak – Represents strength, endurance, righteousness
Tamarisk – Represents sacrifice and suffering
So while the exact species of tree cannot be established, we can meditate on the deep symbolic meanings of these various woods described in the Bible. The tree as the instrument of salvation reminds us of the paradoxes involved – life coming out of death, redemption through sacrifice, glory through suffering. As the Apostle Paul wrote: “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).
The precise botanical makeup of the tree is not the point. The theological meaning of the cross and God’s act of love for humanity is what matters. The cross as the axis between heaven and earth remains central in Christian faith.
Possible Species of the Cross
Based on this survey of the evidence, here are the most plausible candidates for the tree of Jesus’ crucifixion cross:
Oak – Prominent in tradition, known for strength
Cedar of Lebanon – Archaeological evidence, sacred associations
Olivewood – Abundant material, symbolic meaning
Tamarisk – Historical use, ability to support weight
Cypress – Link to tradition, aromatic properties
These types of wood correspond with the climate and vegetation of early 1st century Judea. They represent trees that grew locally and match known uses in construction at the time. Their merits are attested through Christian tradition over the centuries and symbolic resonance with scripture. With the limited definitive evidence available, we can endorse these species as the most likely contenders for the wood of the cross Jesus bore.
What type of tree was Jesus crucified on? We may never know the exact species. The Gospels do not specify, and historical records are inconclusive. Nonetheless, based on Botanical evidence, archaeological findings, symbolic meanings, and the persistence of tradition, certain woods like oak, cedar, olive, cypress, and tamarisk emerge as the most plausible. While intriguing, the ultimate purpose is not to pinpoint the precise tree, but to consider the spiritual meaning of the cross within God’s redemptive plan. The instrument of execution became the instrument of salvation. This “tree” that bore the battered body of Jesus supported the weight of humanity’s sin and bridged heaven and earth through God’s selfless love. Whether cypress, oak, palm or tamarisk, the true cross is the et
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