The Cross as Early Christian Symbol
One of the long-standing presumptions often presented as established fact is that the cross wasn’t a Christian symbol until Constantine adopted Christianity (early 4th century AD). Bruce Longenecker’s new book, The Cross Before Constantine: The Early Life of a Christian Symbol (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015) now effectively demolishes any such presumption. The publisher’s online catalogue description here.
Marshalling a massive amount of data, Longenecker shows that visual reference to Jesus’ cross was “there” in the pre-Constantinian period without question. Some years back, I tried to reinforce a similar observation made earlier by Erich Dinkler and Kurt Aland in particular, with reference to the so-called “staurogram,” a pictographic visual reference to the crucified Jesus that we find in early NT manuscripts (P66, P75, P45) commonly dated to the early 3rd century AD. (See my chapter on “The Staurogram,” pp. 135-54, in my book The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins, Eerdmans, 2006.) And so I greet Longenecker’s book as a more programmatic assault on the tired and ill-informed notion that the cross-symbol came with Constantine.
I’ve endorsed the book as “an effective barrage on the insufficiently-examined position that the cross was not a Christian symbol prior to Constantine.” I’m pleased to note that the respected historian of early Christianity, William Tabernee, endorses it also, urging “If you only read one book on early Christianity this year, The Cross before Constantine has to be that book!” High praise, indeed!
Longenecker shows that there are still things to learn, and sometimes even widely-shared views that can be shown to be incorrect, in favour of a much better grasp of the fascinating pre-Constantinian period of early Christianity.