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The “Staurogram”

July 12, 2010

In comments last week about what “cross” and “crucifixion” involved in the Roman world, I mentioned briefly earliest references to the shape of Jesus’ cross, which use the Greek letter “tau” (like the Latin T) as a symbol of it.  There’s more to say.

One of the common assumptions among art-historians is that visual reference to Jesus’ crucifixion commenced only in the 4th-5th centuries CE.  But art-historians typically fail to consider an intriguing Christian scribal device found in several NT manuscripts datable to ca. 200 CE (i.e., 150-200 years earlier).  This is the so-called “staurogram”, which is a device formed by superimposing the Greek capital-letter “rho” over the Greek capital-letter “tau”.  (The rough result can be achieved if you superimpose our capital “P” on top of our capital “T”.)

The device wasn’t invented by Christians, for there are lots of examples of its use earlier.  But the Christians adopt the device and give it their own distinctive meaning/function.  In all the earliest uses, the device appears in these texts as part of the way the Greek words “cross” (“stauros”) and “crucify” (“stauro-o”) are written.  The proposal that I support is that the device is intended as a pictographic representation of the crucified Jesus (the loop of the rho a pictographic depiction of the head of a figure on a T-shaped cross).  This is not a new suggestion, but hasn’t been noticed adequately heretofore.

(Oh, and before anyone mentions it, the device isn’t the Egyptian “ankh”.  There is no Christian use of the “ankh” till considerably later than the appropriation of the tau-rho device, and the Christian use of the ankh carries a quite diferent meaning.  And the ankh is used as a free-standing device, whereas these earliest Christian uses of the tau-rho are all as part of a writing of the words for “cross” and “crucify” in texts.)

On the “Essay, etc.” section, I’ve now put the manuscript of my own discussion of the matter (which is now, I believe, the fullest discussion available).  The essay in question was published:

Larry W. Hurtado, “The Staurogram in Early Christian Manuscripts: The Earliest Visual Reference to the Crucified Jesus?,” in New Testament Manuscripts: Their Texts and Their World, ed. Thomas J. Kraus and Tobias Nicklas (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 207-26.

(In response to one plea from a reader, I’ve now added a list of so-called “nomina sacra”, which includes a depiction of the “staurogram” at the bottom, on the “Essay, etc.” page.)

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  1. Thanks for the post and essay. It answered a lot of questions for me.

    I had read an article on the ABC news website last week about Gunnar Samuelsson’s claims about the origin’s of the crucifix in Christianity, and although I pretty much dismissed the article as “bunk”, I still had a few questions.

    Your post and essay are much appreciated.

  2. Thanks to Jonathan Robinson for providing the link to his stylized (but useful) repesentation of the “tau-rho”, and also to Mike Grondin for his link to the photo of the device in the Nag Hammadi copy of GThomas. I have photos of the earliest uses, which appear in P75 and a couple of other NT mss from ca. 200-250CE (the Nag Hammadi mss are dated mid/late-4th century CE), but am concerned about legal rights to “publish” them online.

    I have photos of the staurogram in P75, along with photos of some other manuscripts in my book, “The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins” (Eerdmans, 2006), used with permission (and payment of fee!). I must recommend serious readers to my book, as it’s the most complete discussion of various physical/visual features of earliest Christian manuscripts (and it’s not expensive, thanks to Eerdmans).

    As for the historical relationship of the staurogram to the chi-rho and other “christograms”, see my staurogram essay posted on the “Essays, etc.” section of this site.

  3. Hi Larry,
    As you know, but others may not, the staurogram appears in the Coptic ms of the Gospel of Thomas, in saying 55. I don’t know what to make of the fact that the word isn’t overstroked, but for those who want to see it, I’ve long had an image on my Thomas site at
    -Mike Grondin

  4. I certainly did not know this; what a delightful discovery. Thanks!

    I take it then that the symbol is not related to Constantine’s symbol (rho/chi), or did Constantine adopt or modify this older symbol?


    P.S. a note below says XHTML allowed. Can I post images this way?

  5. picture of staurogram provided here

    or you could just google it 🙂

  6. phil_style permalink

    Dr Hurtardo, all you need now is some pictures in your blogs 😉 In spite your simple/clear text instructions, I still confused myself trying to draw a “Staurogram” .

  7. Thanks so much for your help with this, Dr. Hurtado.

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