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New Church Site Discovered with Mosaics

January 27, 2014

This last week brought reports of archaeologists discovering the remains of an early church site in southern Israel.  There are reports (with photos) on the NBC online news here, and in Yahoo News here.

The remains are dated to the Byzantine period, later than what I usually survey as part of “Christian origins”; but one thing in the news reports moves me to comment.  The Yahoo News report cites one of the archaeologists, Davida Eisenberg Degen, as referring to  mosaic containing “a Christogram, or a ‘type of monogram of the name of Jesus’.”  But, if you look carefully at the photo of the mosaic in question (the photo on the NBC news site shows it better), it’s clear that it is a stylized tau-rho, or what is often called a “staurogram”.

As indicated in several publications (by me and prior scholars), the earliest Christian usage of the tau-rho didn’t originate as a reference to the name “Jesus”, but was initially used by Christians as a scribal device in special, abbreviated forms of the words for “cross” and “crucify”.  As such, the device seems to have been intended as a simple, pictographic reference to the crucified figure of Jesus (the rho superimposed on the vertical stroke of the tau, the loop of the rho apparently serving to depict the head of a crucified figure).  The earliest examples are in manuscripts palaeographically dated to the early 3rd century CE.  (For full discussion, see my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins, pp. 135-54.)

Subsequently, perhaps by the 4th century, the device came to be used as a “free-standing” emblem of Christian faith, referring generally to Jesus (and perhaps not so specifically to the crucified Jesus), as seems to be the function in the mosaic in question (and also on numerous other Christian items from this period).  But, to correct the comment cited, the tau-rho doesn’t use the letters from Jesus’ name and isn’t a really reference to the name.  By contrast, the familiar chi-rho uses the first two letters of the Greek word “christos” (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ), the less-familiar iota-chi (which in simple forms can look like a six-point star device) uses the initial letters of the Greek for “Jesus Christ” (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ), and the iota-eta uses the initial two letters of the Greek “Jesus” (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ).

The tau-rho, however, isn’t really a “monogram,” in that it doesn’t use letters that correspond to the name “Jesus” or any of Christological titles applied to him.  Its origin seems, instead, to lie in early Christians seeing in this device an early and simple way of referring visually to the crucified Jesus.

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  1. Donald Jacobs permalink

    It does look awfully like an ankh doesn’t it? And the early manuscripts containing it did come from Egypt, so you can’t blame people for putting two and two together…

    I notice on page 144 of ECA you say that any theory on the origin of the staurogram should be based on evidence. In fact you say: “It is always better to develop a theory that is shaped by the evidence!”

    That sounds like basic common sense, who is going to argue with that? Well sometimes a good theory should trump the evidence, especially where there is no reason to suppose the extant evidence is in any way representative of the total material data that once existed in relation to the topic. Nietzsche observed that there are no facts only interpretations. We could paraphrase: there is no such thing as pure evidence, only theories that make sense of disparate data in more or less imaginative and convincing ways.

    In relation to the identity of staurogram I am reminded of Grouch Marx quip, again to paraphrase: it might look like an ankh, and act like an ankh, but don’t let that fool you it really is an ankh!

    • Donald: No. It doesn’t actually look like an ankh. The ankh is a T-shaped device with an evenly shaped loop at the top of the vertical bar. This one is a stylized tau-rho, the “hook” on the top to one side, reflecting the rho. If you’re not familiar with things (as I take you aren’t) you can make such a mistake. But it is one . . . a mistake, Donald.
      Oh, and the red-herring reference to “evidence” and Nietzsche . . . it’s called a red-herring. Irrelevant. Again. We’re done. No comeback needed.

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