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Earliest Christian Symbols: Corrections

April 6, 2012

I’ve mentioned before that the Internet is great for some things, but that also there are sites (often set up by well-meaning people) that publish out of date and inaccurate information.  Many are the posts that could be written giving examples, but one will serve.

If you go to this site, for example, you will find information given on “monograms”, including particularly a (very dated) discussion of the “chi-rho”:  A few corrections based on my own research published in several books over the last decade or so:

  • The chi-rho is not the earliest “monogram” type device to refer to Jesus.  Instead, the earliest attested such device is the tau-rho.  (For further discussion, see, e.g., my essay “the Staurogram” on the “Essays, etc.” page of this site.)
  • The site to which I refer mixes chi-rho and tau-rho devices, assuming that the latter are curious forms of the former.  They aren’t.  As I (and others) have shown, the earliest uses of the tau-rho are in NT manuscripts as part of an abbreviation of the Greek words for “cross” and “crucify”, and it seems that the device was initially a kind of pictogram representing the crucified Jesus.  So (unlike the chi-rho), the tau-rho isn’t really a monogram, for it isn’t the initials of a name or title.
  • The site also erroneously proposes that the iota that sometimes is included with the chi-rho might derive from the third letter of the Greek word for “Christ”.  It doesn’t.  The iota (which can also be combined with the chi to form what can look like a six-point star device) is from the initial letter of the Greek word for “Jesus” (Iesous).  So, e.g., the combination of the iota and the chi  forms a monogram for “Jesus Christ”.

I don’t mean to pick on this one site or its (obviously sincere and dedicated creator), only to illustrate the need to judge and compare carefully the opinions and information proffered on web sites.

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  1. a_ntv permalink

    Thank you for the post !
    I’ve updated the Wiki page ( to include the staurogram and more correct info, based on your text and Bagatti’s one.

  2. John Inglis permalink

    “So (unlike the chi-rho), the tau-rho isn’t really a monogram, for it isn’t the initials of a name or title.”

    Logic issue: if tau-rho isn’t really a monogram, then doesn’t that conclusion make the chi-rho the first real monogram? In which case the website is correct on at least that issue. I realize you use “monogram type device” in your first bullet, but there seems to be at least some equivocation because you then drop that qualifier in refering to tau-rho, and don’t clearly indicate whether the poorly informed website was refering to “monograms” per se, or to “monogram type devices”. Also, the website seems to combine all three (tau, rho, chi), so is that the issue? (i.e., were the 3 never combined? or at least that the chi-rho preceded the triple combination?). I get that you are correct, it’s just that it’s not clear how wrong the other site was, and for what reasons it was wrong.

    Anyway, I always find your blog enjoyable and informative.


    • Sorry for any confusion, as I thought I’d itemized the errors. The site mistakenly takes tau-rho as a funny kind of chi-rho, when it fact the two are quite distinct in origin and earliest usage. The site thus also errs in taking the chi-rho as the earliest such device. It isn’t. The earliest attested letter-combination device, of all those which served as “christograms” (i.e., monogram-type devices to refer to Jesus in some way), was the tau-rho. And my further point about which you seem a bit uncertain was that, unlike all the other christogram devices, the letters tau and rho don’t refer to any name or title of Jesus. Instead, again unlike the other devices, the tau-rho in earliest usage forms part of the “nomina sacra” spelling of the Greek words stauros (cross) and/or stauroo (crucify). So in these earliest uses the tau-rho seems to be actually a pictogram of the crucified Jesus. It subsequently gets used as a “free-standing” device, along with the chi-rho and others. I’ve already referred to my essay on the “staurogram” (the tau-rho), available in pre-publication form on the “Essays, etc” page of this blog site. For a further discussion, see the chapter “The Staurogram” in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (pp. 135-54).

  3. Bruce permalink

    Thanks for that helpful post, Larry. Do you know anything about the proposed CHI RHO lamp from Pompeii (so, obviously, prior to 79 CE, if authentic and if it has Christian significance)? One or two websites (uh oh) refer to it, but I haven’t been able to track down any scholarly discussion about it. Here’s what one rather dubious website says, while posting a drawing of the artifact from an unmentioned book:

    “Among the unearthed archaeological artifacts discovered near the shoreline of the Bay of Naples in the city of Pompeii is a curious clay lamp of a distinctive design… This beautiful print from an old book dating before 1921 [see the website] depicts an ancient-style pottery oil-burning lamp with the PAX CHI RHO insignia on the handle. In Latin the P and the X are read as “PAX” – “Peace”, the design also contains the Greek Alpha and Omega at the sides of the X. Chi and Rho (X and P) are the first two letters in the Greek spelling of “Christ”. They were used as the sign of the early church along with the very early symbol of the fish before the use of the Latin cross became the standard… The Pompeii CHI RHO lamp is a much earlier use of the design. Does the evidence of this lamp in Pompeii denote the presence of a Christian group in the doomed city?”

    Here’s the website:

    If you or any of your readers have any further (and more reliable) information on this, I’d be very curious.

    Thanks for your very helpful blog.


    • I’ve never seen any reference to this item in the various works of earliest Christian art I’ve studied. Nor have I seen it referred to by scholars such as Robin Margaret Jensen. The web site gives no indication of where the item supposedly is kept. In any case, the style of art and the use of Latin all suggest a date in the 4th century or later, and that it could not have come from pre-eruption Pompeii.

  4. John Stackhouse permalink

    Bravo! I now pronounce this article–as restaurant servers now routinely pronounce everything I order–“perfect”!

    (Goofiness aside, Larry, I am very glad you’ve taken to blogging. You have so much knowledge at your wise disposal that you help a wide range of people on a wide range of subjects. Thanks for this generous service.)

    • And thank you for your kudos and your noticing my stupid error. I am not worthy 🙂

  5. John Stackhouse permalink

    This is the kind of sloppy, slip-shod shilly-shallying for which Hurtado is justly vilified, scorned, mocked, and, yes, derided in all the better pubs. For in his penultimate paragraph he speaks of “iota” as being the “second letter of the Greek word for ‘Christ.'” Not the third letter, after the “chi” and the “rho” he’s been going on and on about, but the second.

    I don’t mean to pick on this one site or its obviously sincere and dedicated creator–oh, wait! Yes, I do! Shape up, LWH, or I will not read your blogs as carefully–nay, pedantically–as I have this one. And then where would you be? Incontinently making gross mistakes like this one all over the place, that’s where.

    • Suitably and soundly chastised, I gratefully acknowledge my grievous error, and have now made the appropriate correction!

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