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.)