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Ancient Christian Symbols and the Sign of the Cross

Today, the Cross is the most recognized symbol of the Christian Faith, but this wasn’t always the case. The use of the cross symbol predates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Many pagan religions used crosses to represent their deities. To ignore the pagan roots of the cross symbol is to ignore the central message of the Cross. What Jesus Christ accomplished through His death on a cross was much more than a person’s ticket to heaven when they died. Since the fall of Adam and Eve, mankind and the cosmos have been enslaved through sin and death to the fallen angels (otherwise known as “the gods” or demons). The Cross overturned the dominion these fallen angels had over mankind by overcoming sin and death in the flesh, allowing mankind to be restored through repentance to their original God given purpose as vessels of the Holy Spirit and participants in the restoration of the cosmos. The Cross, which was originally a symbol of the gods, became the sign of their defeat. [15]


Persecuted Christians during the 1st - 4th centuries AD used symbols other than the cross to identify as Christians, or followers of The Way. Early Christians were hesitant to use the symbol of the Cross since they were still being martyred by crucifixion and it was viewed as a shameful symbol in Roman society. [7] The earliest Christian symbols were the fish and dove.


Wooden olive wood fish in white water
ICHTHYS Fish, Jesus Fish, Sign of the Fish

Ichthys Fish – The Greek word for fish, “ICHTHYS,” is an acronym for “Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter” or “Jesus (I) Christ (CH), Son (Y) of God (TH), Savior (S).” The ichthys fish is also known as the “Sign of the Fish” or the “Jesus Fish.” It is one of the most ancient symbols of the Christian faith used by persecuted Christians in the 1st century to identify genuine believers from those wishing them harm. The first written reference to the use of the fish symbol was by Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD), who suggested that Christians should have their seals engraved with a dove or fish. The Jesus Fish regained popularity again in the 1970’s during the same time as the Jesus Movement and is commonly seen today as a car bumper sticker or worn as jewelry. The fish symbol is repeated throughout the New Testament scriptures including the miracle of Jesus feeding the 5,000 with the 2 fish and 5 loaves (Matt 14:13-21), Jesus eating fish and honeycomb after His resurrection (Luke 24:41-43), and Jesus telling Andrew and Peter that they would become fishers of men (Mark 1:16-18). [1]


Olive Wood Dove descending into baptismal waters
Holy Spirit Dove, Dove Descending, Dove Symbol

Dove – The dove is the universal sign of peace. It is the earliest symbol in scripture used to represent the presence of God the Holy Spirit or peace. The Holy Spirit Dove is depicted as a dove descending. The dove is mentioned after the flood of Noah (Gen 8:6-12), as a sacrifice for atonement for the poor in substitute of a lamb (Lev 14:30-31), and at the baptism of Jesus (Matt 3:13-17). Early Christians used the dove symbol for both baptism and burial. Since ancient times a dove was hung above or placed upon baptismal fonts. In connection with burial, the dove symbolizes hope of the resurrection and the peace of the departed. The Holy Spirit Dove is also a symbol of the Eucharist. At every Mass or Divine Liturgy, the priest prays that the Holy Spirit will descend upon the offerings, transforming the bread and wine into the immaculate Body and precious Blood of Christ. [2, 3]


Though a cross was not the primary identifying symbol of Christians in the first centuries, the Cross was still the central message of the apostles’ gospel (1 Cor 1:23) and was always venerated since it was the instrument of Christ’s Passion. Though various cross signs were used by different cultures before Christianity, the first Christian use of a cross sign were monograms and the Greek Tau.


Hebrew Taw or Greek Tau Cross from the Old Testament prophecy
Tau Cross, Old Testament Cross, Ancient Cross

Tau Cross – The Tau Cross is shaped like the capital letter (T) and is the ancient prophetic sign foreshadowing Christ’s victory on the Cross in the Old Testament. The Tau Cross is one of the earliest cross symbols adopted by Christians who were Jewish and would have been familiar with its prophetic meaning. The Taw is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet indicating completion and the Last Day of Christ’s return, like the Greek Omega. Torah also begins with the letter Taw, so it symbolizes those who keep God’s commandments. The LORD instructed the prophet Ezekiel to, “Go through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry over all the abominations that are done within it” (Ezekiel 9:4). The word “Taw” in the Hebrew text is translated into English as “a mark.” This is the first instance in scripture of the “sign of the cross” being made over a person as an indication of their salvation. Prior to this, the Tau Cross sign was made over the doorposts with the blood of the Passover lamb to save the whole household from the destroying angel (Exodus 12:13). Because of its ancient prophetic significance, the Tau Cross was adopted by Saint Francis of Assisi. St. Francis used this symbol on all his letters as a sign of his conviction of the saving power of the Cross and has since become the emblem of the Franciscan order. [6]

Tau Rho symbol on beach at sunset, Alpha Omega
Tau Rho Christogram, Staurogram, Pictogram of Christ on Cross

Tau Rho – The Tau-Rho and Chi-Rho are both ancient christograms that early Christians used to represent the Cross and Christ. The Tau-Rho is a monogrammatic cross formed by stacking the Greek letters tau (T) and Rho (P) that visually represents Christ on the Cross. The Tau-Rho was used as the abbreviated Greek word for cross, stauros, in the earliest New Testament manuscripts dated around 200 AD. The use of the Tau-Rho as a Christian symbol is mentioned by Saint Ephraim the Syrian who lived during the 4th century AD.


Chi Rho Christogram, Sign of Constantine, Greek letters for Christ
Chi Rho Symbol, Under This Sign You Will Conquer

Chi Rho - The Chi-Rho symbol also came into use during this time when Emperor Constantine had a vision and heard, “under this sign you will conquer.” The Chi-Rho is an abbreviation for the Greek word for Christ and is made by superimposing the first two letters Chi (X) and Rho (P). [8]


After Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and outlawed Christian executions in 313 AD, the Cross began to be adopted as the primary symbol of the Christian faith and as a sign of victory. It wasn’t until the 5th century AD that the Greek cross (+) and the Latin cross (t) began to be used [11].


Rugged wooden cross on the mountain top
Latin Cross, Cross of Christendom, Christian Cross

Latin Cross – The Latin Cross has three shorter bars of equal length with a longer, fourth bottom bar. The Latin cross is the most recognizable symbol of Christianity in the West today. The Latin Cross was the first realistic representation of the cross Christ would have been crucified upon. To portray this instrument of shame and execution as a sign of glorious victory and life, crosses were originally ornate as opposed to plain styles seen today [12]. When the Latin Cross is upside down, it is called a St. Peter’s Cross, since the disciple requested this form of martyrdom not accounting himself worthy to suffer like Christ.


Jesus on the Cross is salvation for the entire cosmos John 3:16
Crucifix Cross, Jesus on the Cross,

Crucifix Cross – At first, there was opposition to depicting the body of Christ on the cross, but by the 6th century AD it became more acceptable [11,12]. When the crucified Christ is on the Cross it is called a Crucifix. A Crucifix usually has the letters “INRI” above Jesus’ head, which is the Latin abbreviation for Pilate’s proclamation, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19). The crucifix cross stresses the humanity of Christ and His victory over the devil and sin, whereas a plain cross emphasizes His divinity and His victory over death in the resurrection. Some Christians may wear a crucifix cross during Lent and a plain cross after Easter as a reminder of both the death and resurrection of Christ. [7]


The Greek Cross with Eucharist Grapes
Greek Cross, Cross of the Church, Ancient Cross

Greek Cross – The Greek Cross has four arms of equal length that form a square shaped cross. The Greek Cross was used by the early Church and is used primarily by the Eastern Orthodox Church today. The use of this style cross predates Christianity and was used by the Egyptians as an ornamental pattern and by the Greek followers of Pythagoras for whom it symbolized the 4 elements: air, earth, fire, and water. Unlike the Latin cross, the Greek cross is not meant to symbolize Christ’s crucifixion but rather the Church itself. The four bars of the Greek cross represent the four corners of the earth to which the Church would take the gospel.


As the cross became the dominant symbol of Christianity, other stylized versions began to emerge over the centuries. The crosses described below are commonly depicted in the Holy Land olive wood carvings and Bethlehem olive wood crafts.


Budded cross with flower blossoms for Aaron's budded staff
Budded Cross, Trefoil Cross, Apostles Cross, Byzantine Cross

Budded Cross – The Budded Cross has 3 buds decorating the four ends of a cross. The buds have a few symbolic meanings. The buds refer to the budding of Aaron’s staff as a sign of being chosen by God for the priesthood. Similarly, the buds which are 12 in number, symbolize the 12 apostles who were chosen by Christ to lead and build His Church. The three buds can also represent the Holy Trinity or the greatest charismatic gifts of faith, hope, and love. The Budded Cross may also be called a Byzantine Cross, Apostle’s Cross, or Trefoil Cross. [9]


Jerusalem Cross in the blood of the martyrs
Jerusalem Cross, Crusader Cross, Great Commission

Jerusalem Cross – The Jerusalem Cross has four equal length bars, like a Greek Cross, with four smaller square crosses in the four quadrants. The Jerusalem Cross is also called a Crusader Cross because it originated in 1099 after crusaders recaptured Jerusalem from the Muslims. Like the Greek Cross, the Jerusalem Cross is a symbol of the Church and its evangelical mission. The meaning of the Jerusalem Cross comes from the Great Commission (Matt 28:19, Mark 16:15) when Jesus commanded His disciples to take the gospel of the Kingdom to all the nations saying, “You will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The largest cross is seen to symbolize Jerusalem. The four quadrants represent the four corners of the earth or all nations. Lastly, the four smaller crosses in the quadrants represent the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Though the Jerusalem Cross is commonly displayed in the Holy Land but less recognized in the West, it is a meaningful cross for all Christians as a reminder to live out their faith as a witness to the world. [10]


St Patrick introduced this cross in his 5th century missions to Ireland
Celtic Cross, Irish Cross, High Cross

Celtic Cross – The Celtic Cross, also called a High Cross, consists of a Latin style cross with a circle (or nimbus) surrounding the crossbars. The earliest artifacts of a Celtic Cross are carved into stone and dated to 650 AD. The earliest free standing Celtic Crosses are dated to the 8th or 9th century and are found on the island of Iona and Ahenny in Ireland. However, no one knows when the Celtic Cross originated. Like the Ankh, it may have been a symbol used by pagan groups to represent the moon god (circle) or the sun god (circle with an interior cross). Some historians believe that St. Patrick may have used these pre-existing pagan signs to relate the gospel of Jesus Christ using familiar symbols and concepts. The Christian explanation of the Celtic Cross is that the cross represents Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, and the circle represents that salvation is for the entire cosmos. [13]


Ankh Cross was a pagan hieroglyphic redefined by the early Egyptian Christians
Ankh Cross, Tree of Life Cross, Key of Life, Coptic Church Cross

Ankh Cross – The ankh cross is shaped like a T with a loop at the top. It is also called the “key of life.” The Ankh motif was common in Egyptian hieroglyphics dated thousands of years before Christ. It is usually depicted in the hand of a deity such as Osiris, Isis, and Ra as an indication of their power over the afterlife. This Egyptian symbol was “sanctified” by the early Egyptian Christians who understood Christ as the only Door to eternal life and His final victory over the deities and death. As such, the Ankh Cross was repurposed and redefined by the Coptic Christian Church to represent the Tree of Life, the resurrection of the dead and the life in the world to come. [14]


Beginning with Constantine's victory after the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD, ornate jeweled crosses, called crux gemmata, were made of precious metals and jems to elevate the cross as a sign of life and victory instead of execution and shame. [12] Crosses are made of many types of materials, but a wooden cross is especially symbolic. When Adam and Eve sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, they were separated from God, unable to fulfill their created purpose, and the entire cosmos was subjected to corruption. Jesus Christ’s victory on a wood cross transformed a tree of death into a Tree of Life. A wood cross not only represents victory over sin and death but also the restoration and salvation of the entire cosmos.

Olive trees, olive branches and olive oil are spiritually symbolic
Ancient Olive Tree representing the Tree of Life

Olive Tree – Since the 4th century AD, Christians in the Holy Land have been carving crosses and other religious objects out of olive wood, which holds special significance throughout the scriptures. In the Christian tradition, the olive tree or more specifically the olive branch is a symbol of peace and reconciliation between God and Man that was first represented by the dove returning to Noah with an olive branch after the flood had subsided (Gen 8:11). The olive tree also symbolizes ancient Israel in the Old Covenant and later the Church in the New Covenant (Zech 4:3-11; Rev 11:4) [4] which Gentile believers were grafted into (Rom 11:24). The olive tree provided olive oil for the lampstands in the temple and for anointing priest (Ex 40:15), prophets (1Kg 19:15), and kings (1Sm 9:16). God gave specific instructions to Moses to make a holy anointing oil from olive oil (Ex 30:22-25) which is still used within the Church today during baptism, confirmation, ordination, and prayers for the sick and dying [5].


Making the sign of the cross is part of ancient apostolic tradition and has been a common practice since the beginning of the Church. Early Church father, Tertullian recorded in 250 AD that making the sign of the cross on the forehead was a common practice among Christians. The sign of the cross was made not only during prayers but also continually throughout the day, even before beginning daily tasks, to consecrate the whole day to the Lord and to pray without ceasing. [16] The Cross is also powerful for spiritual warfare. When battling thoughts in the mind or temptations of the flesh, the sign of the cross is made while invoking the name of the Holy Trinity or saying the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” (Luke 18:13,38). With faithful perseverance, this simple method is a way to personally live out Christ’s victory on the Cross to overcome sin, demonic influence, and temptations of the flesh, helping one draw near to God and be united with His divine nature.


In the modern day, a Christian cross or symbol may just seem like a brand logo or another marketing gimmick to catch our eye and our money. Yet, the Cross is much more than an image representing a concept or even a particular church. The name of Jesus and the Cross are sacramental, having real power to impart the grace of God.


Christine Qumsiyeh

June 16, 2023

 

Sources:

1. Hassett, Maurice. "Symbolism of the Fish." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 30 May 2023 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06083a.htm>.

2. Barnes, Arthur. "Dove." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 30 May 2023 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05144b.htm>.

3. “The Eucharist & the Dove.” St Gregory Orthodox Church. Maryland. May 30 2023 https://www.stgregoryoc.org/the-eucharist-the-dove/.

4. St. Athanasus Academy of Orthodox Theology. The Orthodox Study Bible. Thomas Nelson, 2008. Pg 1043.

5. LA Catholics. “The Oil That Makes You a Christian.” LA Catholics. Los Angeles, 2020. 6 June 2023. https://lacatholics.org/2020/04/05/chrism-mass.

6. O’Conner, Fr. John. “The Tau Cross.” St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church. From the Pastor, Parish Blog. Triangle, Virginia, 2021. 5 June 2023 <https://stfrncis.org/the-tau-cross>.

7. “A Cross and a Crucifix: Is One Better Than the Other.” Diocesan. 2016. 5 June 2023. < https://diocesan.com/cross-crucifix-similar-different>.

8. Wikipedia. “Staurogram” and “Chi-Rho.” Wikipedia. 2022. 5 June 2023. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chi_Rho>.

9. Leary, Janatius. “Meaning & Symbolism of Crosses.” Orthodox Book Rebinding. 7 June 2023 < https://orthodoxbookrebinding.com/meaning-symbolism-of-crosses/>.

10. Daily Bread. “The History and Significance of the Jerusalem Cross.” Catholic Faith Store. 2016. 7 June 2023. < https://www.catholicfaithstore.com/daily-bread/history-significance-jerusalem-cross/>.

11. A Monk of St Tikhon's Monastery. “The Truths We Hold: The Cross.” Holy Cross Monastery. Castro Valley, 6 April 2023. 12 June 2023 < http://www.holycrossmonastery.org/orthodox-symbolism.html>.

12. Eduard Syndicus. “Early Christian Art,” Burns & Oates, London, 1962. 12 June 2023 <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crux_gemmata>.

13. Celtic Cross. “Celtic Cross Meaning.” Celtic Cross Online Blog, Dublin, 2023. 14 June 2023 < https://www.celticcrossonline.com/celtic-cross-meaning/>.

14. Kosloski, Philip. “Wait, why is there an Egyptian ankh in a Catholic church?” Aleteia, 17 July 2017. 14 June 2023 < https://aleteia.org/2017/07/07/wait-why-is-there-an-egyptian-ankh-in-a-catholic-church/>.

15. Damick, Andrew. “Arise O God: The Gospel of Christ’s Defeat of Demons, Sin, and Death.” Ancient Faith Publishing, Chesterton, 2021. <https://www.amazon.com/Arise-God-Gospel-Christs-Defeat-ebook/dp/B099TQVMDT>.

16. Saunders, Ph.D Rev. William. "What is the origin of the sign of the cross?" Catholic Straight Answers, 1998. 16 June 2023 <https://catholicstraightanswers.com/what-is-the-origin-of-the-sign-of-the-cross/>.

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