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The Cross as Early Christian Symbol

August 17, 2015

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.

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  1. It might be argued that the Romans developed the cross as a symbol of say suffering, long before. Since their whole purpose in having crosses, was to provide a very public and memorable and durable thing, to remind others of the suffering one undergoes when one rulers, the Romans. To be sure, Christianity turned that around, into a symbol of heroic martyrdom. But part of the message – a suffering intended as an object lesson – had been earlier established.

    • GG: No. There is no evidence of the use of a cross-symbol by the Romans.

      • It is indeed 1) unlikely that Romans did carry small crosses with them as symbols of much of anything, long before Jesus. But what I mean here is that 2) don’t forget that the actual, full-size actual crucifixion crosses themselves, were used by the Romans – because these full size objects had symbolic value, as a semiotician would say. The Romans used crosses to crucify dissidents; and to symbolize Roman power. To dramatize the penalties and suffering one incurs, when one resisted their new rulers, the Romans.

        So from my Art History/semiotician’s standpoint, don’t forget that the actual, real crucifixion crosses themselves had symbolic value attached to them; they were often left up by the Romans to teach a lesson relating to suffering. And because of that, in effect, the actual crosses themselves became highly symbolic. From that point on, it was not such a very, very large and incomprehensible step, to a semiotician, that someone would picture such an event – and even carry around a picture of it, as a reminder of say, suffering in general; or say, punishment. To be sure of course, it seems it did not occur to many people to carry around such a symbol – until not just the Stoics, but particularly the Christians, raised the whole notion of suffering to a central concept in their religion.

        So to be sure it was not until suffering on a cross, became not just a symbol of suffering in genera or punishment, but more specifically, of the notion of triumphing through suffering – learning to bear the slings and arrows and injustices and sufferings of life, redemption through martyrdom – that the cross suddenly acquired enough symbolic import, that some people would want to carry around small statues of them.

        To be sure therefore, Romans did not initially carry around small crosses. Nor did they associate them with the sufferings of the unjustly accused. But note this: they had just made the actual cross itself a highly invested, very, very symbolic object. Symbolizing in part, suffering. From there, it was not such a very large step to those who now saw suffering as redemptive, as the core of their religion, to want to … carry around a small piece of a cross, or a bit of metal or wood shaped like one.

        What we are talking about here might be called say, “symbolic momentum,” to coin a phrase. We define it here as the process by which say 1) first an actual real object first acquires symbolic meaning and importance; and 2) then therefore, people are motivated to carry around a small version of it, as a reminder of that. (Cf. Momenti Mori). The Romans had already made the cross in effect, a cultural meme. Even before Christianity.

        In part ironically then, the Romans were partially responsible for the new importance of the cross. Though Christians of course, flipped or reversed its meaning – suggesting suffering was redemptive – much of the symbolic cash flow value or symbolic currency of a cross had already been established. By the Romans. In effect therefore, the symbolism of the cross began significantly before Christianity appeared. (In particular, historically by the way, it would have been increased exponentially by say the nearby crucifixion of 2,000 people by the Roman ally Varus, c. 4 BC).

      • I appreciate your theoretical background, but you need to get “down and dirty” with the actual historical data. E.g., in the pre-Constantinian centuries people didn’t carry around little crosses. And, I repeat, there is no evidence that the Roman practice of crucifixion made the cross some kind of symbol in the art or symbology of the time. You might start with Martin Hengel’s excellent little book, Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977). I think we’re finished on this issue.

  2. ounbbl permalink

    It is well known for long. How come he did effectively demolished, I wonder. May be the book is more about proto-Christianity (Hellenic) history, before being effectively replaced by Constantine Catholic Christianity, which is the mother of most of modern Christian religions.

    • Uh, yes. I did make it clear that Longenecker’s book is about the Christian use of the cross-symbol BEFORE Constantine.

  3. Kevin Conway permalink

    Thanks very much for this! So, just how early is the evidence for the cross being a symbol of Christianity (and when did it become common/widespread)?

    • Kevin: Read Longenecker’s book, if you want the evidence. Christians are using the Greek letter T as a symbol of Jesus’ cross by the mid-2nd century or earlier, and are making the sign of the cross at that point, and are praying with outstretched hands in the form of a cross, etc., etc.

  4. Thank you for pointing out this book. After reading your comments above I immediately thought of Brent Nongbri’s article “The Limits of Palaeographic Dating of Literary Papyri” where he wrote that the staurogram of P66 was “less out of place” in the fourth century (MH 71, p. 33). I will be interested to read if Longnecker mentions the staurogram.

    • Timothy: Nongbri’s article is a good probing of warrants for dating P66, but, even if you accept them for P66, his arguments don’t apply straight across to, e.g., P75 or P45. So, we still have the earliest uses of the staurogram in manuscripts, where it functions as part of an abbreviated way of writing “stauros/stauroo”. Only later does it become a free-standing “christogram”.

      • Thank you Dr. Hurtado. I was only mentioning Nongbri’s article because he made a comment in the footnote of his article on P66 that the use of the staurogram in P45 gives warrant for placing it in the 4th century rather than in the first half of the third.

      • Yes, and my point is that the 4th century is when we see “free-standing” use of the device, whereas the use of it in these abbreviations of the words “stauros/stauroo” seems to be earlier, and then cease.

  5. This finding of course would not invalidate the observations that there were crosses in many cultures before Jesus?

    • There have been X or T shaped marks on various object since . . . perhaps the dawn of humankind. The point of my posting was that Christians used the symbol of the cross earlier than often assumed, and specifically to refer to Jesus’ crucifixion. Like words, symbols can be used for various meanings. It’s the meanings that count. You have to read symbols in context, just as words.

  6. Christian Publishing House permalink

    As far as I am concerned the book (The Cross Before Constantine: The Early Life of a Christian Symbol) will stay sitting, collecting dust. I will not pay $25.00 for a 244-page paperback, nor $23.75 for an eBook. Being a publishing house, we are quite aware of how much it costs to publish a paperback book.

    For a 6×9, 244-page paperback, it costs $3.77 each.

    The problem with these academic books, they can be written with the churchgoer in mind, not the Bible scholar only. This is not saying you have to dumb the book down, but rather bring the churchgoer up to the book, by way of parentheticals, footnotes and the like, not assuming that they are aware of the technical aspects.

    If agnostic Bible scholar Bart D. Ehrman can do this with Misquoting Jesus and it become a New York Times Bestseller. If Timothy Paul Jones can do this with Misquoting Truth; then, most authors and publishers can do the same.

    Misquoting Jesus at 242 pages sells for 15.99 / The eBook is $2.99
    Misquoting Truth at 172 pages sells for 15.00


    OVERCOMING BIBLE DIFFICULTIES at 298 pages sells at
    Print List Price: $14.95
    CPH Price: $8.95
    Save $6.00 (40%)
    eBook is $7.95

    • I think the thing you (curiously for a publisher) don’t recognize is that price is a factor of estimated sales. Ehrman is predictable as a NYTimes best-seller, so the recovery-margin can be very slim and the publisher can still predict a good return. To some degree, yes, a lower price can also help sales. In any case, Longenecker’s book is a one-of-its-kind as to data and import, and is worth the price.

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