The “Staurogram”: Correcting Errors
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 , 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.