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The “Staurogram”: Correcting Errors

October 13, 2011

In a very influential article published in 1925, Max Sulzberger contended that the earliest “christogram” was the chi-rho device, and that other “christograms” (devices comprised of two Greek letters and expressive of early Christian faith in Jesus) derived from it.  (Max Sulzberger, “Le symbole de la croix et les monograms de Jesus chez les premiers chretiens,” Byzantion  2 [1925], 337-448.) This further meant that all christograms were directly or indirectly simply allusions to the Greek word “christos.”  So, e.g., see the comments on some early coins this numismatic site:

But it appears that neither epigraphers nor historians of early Christian art (with a very few exceptions) have been alerted to the important historical evidence found in early Christian manuscripts.  This is all laid out in the chapter on “the Staurogram” in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), 135-54.   But it seems that the over-specialization of academics means that people don’t often enough look “sideways” for collateral evidence.  So, some brief corrections:

1) The “Staurogram” (the combination of the Greek letters tau and rho) did not derive from the chi-rho.  We have instances of the Christian use of the tau-rho considerably earlier than any instances of the chi-rho. These earliest uses of the tau-rho are in Christian manuscripts palaeographically dated ca. 200-250 CE.

2) Unlike the chi-rho, which is used purely as a free-standing symbol, the earliest uses of the tau-rho are not as such free-standing symbols, but form part of a special way of writing the Greek words for “cross” (stauros) and “crucify” (stauro-o), in NT texts which refer to the crucifixion of Jesus.

3) The tau-rho is not an allusion to the word “christos“.  Indeed, the letters have no relation to any terms in early Christian vocabulary.  Instead, the device (adapted from pre-Christian usage) seems to have served originally as a kind of pictographic representation of the crucified Jesus, the loop of the rho superimposed on the tau serving to depict the head of a figure on a cross.

4) So, contra the common assumption taught in art history courses, the earliest visual reference to the crucified Jesus isn’t 5th century intaglia, but this scribal device employed by ca. 200 CE.  This amounts to a major shift

We all could benefit from reading more outside our narrow specialities.  Otherwise, we draw sweeping conclusions on too narrow a body of data, and we perpetuate outdated conclusions.

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  1. polymetis permalink

    ” So, contra the common assumption taught in art history courses, the earliest visual reference to the crucified Jesus isn’t 5th century intaglia, but this scribal device employed by ca. 200 CE. ”

    There is also an engraved gem in the late second century with a crucifixion. A photo:

    Picturing the Bible: the earliest Christian art / Jeffrey Spier ; with contributions by Mary Charles-Murray … [et al.] New Haven [etc.] : Yale university press ; Fort Worth : Kimbell art museum, [2007], pp. 228-229.

    • The accurate dating of this item is . . . difficult. The dating given in the Spier volume you cite is “late 2nd–3rd century”. I’m not competent myself in dating intaglia and gems. But I also note that on p. 233 of the same volume, the following: “The earliest attempt at a pictorial reference to the cross was the staurogram, a liteary monogram used by Christian scribes around the year 200 as a scred image for the word stauros, ‘cross’.”

  2. John Moles. permalink

    I agree with this, and it’s particularly important for two reasons:

    (1) There was an ‘on the street’ level of Christian missioning (it wasn’t just house churches; Luke’s representation of Paul in Acts 17, while it may be fictional in the particular case, nevertheless attests one form of Christian missioning).

    (2) Consequently, ‘street level’ pagan knowledge of this particular aspect of Christian missioning is early, as is in fact proved by one category of the capital punishment of Christians in 64 in Rome: in which they weren’t actually crucified, but there was obvious visual reference to crucifixion as poetically appropriate to them.

  3. I was wondering if you could advise where to find more detailed information concerning this subject along with the nomina sacra. I already own your book mentioned above along with your JBL paper on the nomina sacra. I also have Traube’s book, but with emphasis on some of your earlier posts, I can not read it as it is in German. I have translated some parts of it, but the typical online translators are not really trustworthy when dealing with subjects like this where they have specific terminology that should not be translated. Are you aware of an English version? I have also been examining some patristic manuscripts to see if they used nomina sacra as well, and the ones I seen do use it. Are you aware if the fathers use any of these other symbols? Thanks for any help.

    • If you follow up the items in my footnotes in the Nomina Sacra chapter of my Artifacts book and in the JBL article, you’ll have pretty much everything of significance, in any of the main languages. Nomina sacra are used in a number of languages of Christian texts, and in “documentary” (e.g., letters) texts as well as literary (e.g., scripture) texts by Christians. They also appear in icons, and inscriptions of churches. But they seem to have been peculiar to Christians.

  4. Actually, one of the very earliest pictures of Jesus we have is a satirical piece of graffiti depicting a man worshipping the crucified Christ (though Christ is portrayed with a donkey’s head):

    It’s thought to date from somewhere between the first to third century, and includes the caption “Alexamenos worships God.”

    • Yes, although it isn’t a representation by a Christian, but by a pagan mocker. But I think it certainly suggests that Christians referred to Jesus’ crucifixion “on the street”, and that (contra some assertions) it was a part of popular-level Christian discourse and devotional practice, such that the anonymous pagan who drew this graffito knew of the centrality of Jesus’ crucifixion for Christians.

      • I agree. The “artist” obviously sees the crucifixion as the iconic, immediately recognizable image of Christianity.

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