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The “Staurogram”: Newly published article

February 15, 2013

I’ve learned from a reader that my short article, “The Staurogram:  Earliest Depiction of Jesus’ Crucifixion,” has appeared in the March-April 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.  The piece is a digest-for-general-readership version of an emphasis that I’ve made in several publications over the last decade or so, echoing and supporting observations made many years ago by, e.g., Kurt Aland and Erik Dinkler, that the curious scribal device in question is likely the earliest extant visual reference to the crucified Jesus.

I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ve treated it more extensively in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 135-54.  Essentially, the device involves a monogram-like combination of the Greek letters tau and rho that is used in abbreviated forms of the Greek words for “cross” (σταυρος) and “crucify” (σταυροω), the vertical stroke of the rho superimposed on the vertical stroke of the tau, the result being that the loop of the rho can be taken as the head of a crucified figure on a T-shaped cross.

As I’ve repeatedly noted, the device itself is pre-Christian, used for more mundane purposes, e.g., as an abbreviation for “three/thirty”.   Early on (likely sometime in the second century), Christians appropriated the device and invested it with a new function and meaning all their own.  The earliest Christian uses extant are in NT manuscripts:  P75, P66 and P45, which are typically dated to the early 3rd century CE.  As Robin Jensen has observed, in these cases the staurogram likely served as a pictographic reference to the crucified Jesus.

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11 Comments
  1. Thank you for this blog post. It was posted on the day of my grandfather’s passing away. His tombstone has a staurogram on it, the first I’ve ever seen. Thus, my research and discovery of your blog and expertise. I have two questions. First, about your reference to “three/thirty” – what exactly does the term “three/thirty” mean or refer to, and why would it need to be abbreviated? Or are you saying it could refer either the number three or thirty? Second, are their any particular religious sects still using the staurogram? Why would he have it on his tombstone? It seems less common and quite mysterious. thank you.

    • Luke: The tau-rho device appears on coins and inscriptions, for example, where it serves as an abbreviation for the Greek words for “three” or “thirty”. In the latest issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, in my article on the staurogram, there is a picture of a coin of Herod the Great with the device apparently referring to the third year of his reign (Greek trias = “three). Earliest Christian usage was as indicated as part of a special way of writing the words “cross” and “crucify”, but by ca. 4th century it had come also to be used as a free-standing device, simply one of several “christograms”, devices that signalled Christ or Christian faith. The chi-rho is the most well known of these, and from the first of its Christian usage was a free-standing emblem. I’d guess that whoever ordered the tombstone had seen the tau-rho used (e.g., in church vestments or furniture or on icons), and thought it simply a suitable marker of Christian faith.

      • luke permalink

        Thank you for the reply. I’m honored to be able to access your wealth of knowledge. I have a follow up question. I read The Staurogram chapter of The Earliest Christian Artifacts and it left me wondering if there wasn’t something to be gained by analyzing the staurogram using the literal translation of “stauros” meaning stake, rather than cross or crucify, as you treat it. I grew up in a Jehovah’s Witness faith, which reads from the New World Translation, which correctly uses “stake” rather than cross, and while I do not practice nor defend their dogma, I do feel as though I have discovered in the staurogram a sort of missing link that explains how the word for stake evolved in to the symbol of the cross (simply by virtue of the tau looking like a cross and the rho representing Jesus). Am I wildly mistaken? Is there a reason you choose to translate stauros as cross?

      • Luke: There’s nothing peculiar in my rendering “stauros” as “cross”, as it’s the common way the term is rendered by scholars. As to what shape a “stauros” could take, there were various, as we know from ancient references. See, esp. Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), who gathers a rich body of ancient references to the practice. But our earliest Christian references are to a T-shaped device used. E.g., the Epistle of Barnabas specifically links Jesus’ cross with the Greek letter “tau” (T) in 9:7-9, and in 12:1-4 cites Moses’ outstretched hands in the OT battle scene (Exod 17:8-13) as foreshadowing Jesus’ crucifixion. In short, we have no reason in any early Christian sources for any other view of the matter. In any case, I don’t get the point of the JWs making such a fuss about the matter. (But please, let’s not get into this matter here!)

  2. Thank you for your work! Just one thing — did the staurogram *all by itself* substitute for the word “cross,” or was it written embedded with other letters to make an abbreviation? I’m a little confused because there’s no “tr” or “rt” in “stauros,” and I couldn’t make out the Greek in the BAR article.

    -Marc

    • Marc: The Greek word “stauros” (σταυρος) has both a “tau” and a “rho”. Earliest Christian uses of the “staurogram” are in distinctive abbreviated forms of the words “stauros” (“cross”) and “stauroo” (“crucify”), the first and final letters retained and the T and P written in the device in question. So, we have abbreviated (“nomina sacra”) forms of the Greek words for “cross” and/or “crucify” in which the tau-rho is used.

  3. Timothy M. permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,
    I just finished reading your “Earliest Christian Artifacts” last month and I really enjoyed it. I have also been a longtime subscriber to BAR. When I picked up the latest issue (March/April 2013) I quickly glanced in the table of contents, my eyes only noticed part of the title of an article; “Earliest Depiction of Jesus’ Crucifixion.” I immediately formed thoughts of how wrong the article was most likely going to be, probably referring to some 4th century painting (after being only recently enlightened by your book on the staurogram). I already started thinking how I was going to write the editor referencing the “Earliest Christian Artifacts” and talk about how the staurogram was the earliest depiction. When I flipped to the article and noticed your name–and that the article was about the staurogram—I laughed to myself sheepishly! There is a lesson for me to learn here. Make sure I understand what I am reading before jumping to conclusions! haha
    I enjoyed your article in BAR. You should consider writing another article for BAR on the Nomina Sacra.

    • Timothy: I’m pleased at your kind words. I’ve got a rather full slate of writing/speaking commitments at present, but maybe down the road a popular-level piece on the “nomina sacra”.

  4. crerar1 permalink

    Congratulations, Larry! I was wondering how that was going to go! I have had a great deal of positive reaction to your Artefacts book up here, as many are still looking for evidence that is not just another textual argument or unhistoriographic “reconstruction”. Your book certainly forces the drive-by-critic to settle down, get out a pencil and paper, a couple of lexicons and study! Well done!

  5. “Early on (likely sometime in the second century), Christians appropriated the device and invested it with a new function and meaning all their own. The earliest Christian uses extant are in NT manuscripts: P75, P66 and P45, which are typically dated to the early 3rd century CE. ” – these dates are not reliable, and as ‘Christ’ is never mentioned, you don’t know they are Christian.
    “As Robin Jensen has observed, in these cases the staurogram likely served as a pictographic reference to the crucified Jesus.” – pure guesswork.

    • “John”: Wrong on both counts. The MSS I listed all refer quite specifically to Jesus. They are copies of the Gospels!
      Second, as indicated, in these MSS the device is used as part of the abbreviated (“nomen sacrum”) treatment of the words “cross” and “crucify” and in references to Jesus’ crucifixion (and calls for followers to emulate him). It’s not “pure guesswork”, but instead a scholarly inference from the data. Just what scientists all over the world regularly do. You may need to debunk your attitude.

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