The Aunslev Cross
On 17 March, 2016, the Ladby Viking Museum released a statement that the oldest known crucifix in Denmark had been found (Vikingemuseet Ladby, 2016). A local villager by the name of Dennis Fabricius Holm found the gold crucifix on 11 March after searching some ploughed soil with a metal detector. Archaeologist Malene Refshauge Beck with the Østfyns Museum examined the artifact and tentatively dated it to the first half of the tenth century.
At roughly 4.1 cm tall, the cross is a magnificent artifact depicting a crucified Jesus. Probably belonging to a Viking woman, the Aunslev cross was likely an amulet designed to be worn around the neck. A strikingly similar cross was discovered in a Viking woman’s grave in Birka, Sweden in 1879.
Until the discovery of the Aunslev cross, the oldest depiction of a crucified Jesus in Denmark was thought to be on one of the Jelling Stones, massive runestones located in the town of Jelling. Erected by the Danish king Harald Bluetooth in c. 965, it bears the following inscription: “King Harald commanded this monument to be made in memory of Gorm his father, and in memory of Thyre, his mother – that Harald who won the whole of Denmark for himself, and Norway, and made the Danes Christian” (O’Donoghue 2004, p. 15).
It has been suggested that the depiction of Christ at Jelling was intended to demonstrate that Jesus had replaced the Norse god Odin (Kure 2006, p. 70). The Danes’ conversion to Christianity has been dated to the latter half of the tenth century. The Aunslev cross seems to indicate at least some of the Danes had converted earlier, in the early 900s.
The early lack of success by missionaries in Northern Europe may have been because Scandinavians saw Christ’s crucifixion as a defeat. In order to counter the cultural challenges they faced, missionaries probably preached a message of a victorious Christ that appealed to the early Scandinavian warrior mentality (see Sanmark 2004, p. 97-99).
The difficulty of seeing victory in the cross can be found in the earliest days of the church. Many Jews no doubt saw Jesus as a false messiah, especially in light of passages such as Deuteronomy 21:23, which states, “a hanged man is cursed by God” (ESV). For this reason, the apostle Paul states that Christ’s crucifixion was a “stumbling block” to some of his fellow Jews (1 Cor. 1:23). Paul provides a correction to this misunderstanding in Galatians 3:13, in which he cites Deuteronomy and states specifically that the curse borne by Christ was for humanity instead of himself.
The successful evangelism of diverse areas such as Europe, Greece, Egypt, and the Middle East attest to the cross-cultural appeal of Christianity. Every other major world religion is indelibly marked by the culture in which it was born. Hinduism will always draw adherents to Indian culture. Islam does much the same, as a genuine Muslim must adhere to Islamic law and read the Qur’an in the original Arabic. Christianity appeals to all people regardless of time and place with no need to supplant the existing culture. From the ancient Greeks, to the warrior culture of Scandinavia, to the modern world, Christianity is truly the faith delivered once and for all to the saints (Jude 3).
Kure, Henning (2006). “Hanging on the World Tree; Man and Cosmos in Old Norse Mythic Poetry.” Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes, and Interactions: An International Conference in Lund, Sweden, June 3-7, 2004. Anders Andrén, Kristina Jennbert, and Catharina Raudvere, eds. Lund: Nordic Academic Press.
O’Donoghue, Heather (2004). Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Sanmark, Alexandra (2004). Power and Conversion: A Comparative Study of Christianization in Scandinavia. Occasional Papers in Archaeology 34. Uppsala: Uppsala University.
“Extraordinary Find: Denmark’s Oldest Crucifix” (2016). Online: URL: http://en.vikingemuseetladby.dk/about-the-museum/news/extraordinary-find-denmarks-oldest-crucifix/.