Monday, March 26, 2018

Jesus and the Cross - How the cross became Christianity’s most popular symbol

Earlier today, the Biblical Archaeology Society published an article in their 'Bible History Daily' section that caught my eye:

Jesus and the Cross - How the cross became Christianity’s most popular symbol

From the second paragraph of the contribution we read:

Scholars believe that the first surviving public image of Jesus's crucifixion was on the fifth-century wooden doors of the Basilica of Santa Sabina, which is located on the Aventine Hill in Rome. Since it took approximately 400 years for Jesus’s crucifixion to become an acceptable public image, scholars have traditionally believed that this means the cross did not originally function as a symbol for Christians.

Grace and peace,



Rory said...


I have been to Santa Sabina but did not know about the door. It is a beautifully situated Dominican church. They have some nice gardens that one can walk and a view overlooking Rome where one can spot many of the taller churches and landmarks of the Eternal City.

Are these scholars critical of the use of crosses/crucifixes because the use of them is a later development? There are many practices and devotions that grow out of pious reflections on truths that are definitely apostolic. I can give a short list of practices that I approve and now have the sanction of ancient custom, but which I would doubt were taught or practised by the Apostles.

1) Genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament, when it is unexposed.
2) Genuflecting on both knees when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed.
3) The sign of the cross. (Early though)
4) Friday penance
5) The church calendar
6) Much of the Eucharistic liturgies in all approved rites certainly developed over time from apostolic ceremonies that benefitted from additions borne out of the piety of the faithful.
7) Communion on the tongue

Nobody who is correctly informed believes that the apostles insisted that these practices be observed. You would be interested Dave, in what Cardinal Newman wrote while still an Anglican regarding practices of the faithful we know appeared after long reflection, often generations after the days of the Apostles: "Granting that the forms are not immediately from God, still long use has made them divine to us; for the spirit of religion has so penetrated and quickened the, that to destroy them is, in respect of the multitude of men, to unsettle and dislodge the religious principle itself..."---J.H. Newman, "Ceremonies of the Church, Newman Against the Liberals, 25 Classic Sermons by John Henry Newman (Roman Catholic Books, Harrison NY, p. 147)

The church has always opposed antiquarianism. The Body of Christ was not born fully developed, and healthy growth is to be expected. The Church is tasked with the obligation to retain every teaching of the Apostles while allowing the expression of worship and devotion, to have room to blossom as succeeding generations reflect more and more deeply on the truths that are proposed to them.


David Waltz said...

Hi Rory,

Thanks much for taking the time to share some of your thoughts and questions concerning the Biblical Archaeology Society article that I quoted from, and linked to. You asked:

== Are these scholars critical of the use of crosses/crucifixes because the use of them is a later development?==

I don't think so. In the section "Christians and the Cross in the First Century" we read:

>> Although the very word “cross” was so repulsive that Cicero and other Roman elites wanted nothing to do with it, each of the Gospel writers recounts Jesus’s crucifixion with astonishing detail. Jesus’s death on the cross, according to Mark, is not only necessary but an example of the service required for true discipleship (8:34–38). Similarly, Jesus’s death on the cross is not portrayed as being shameful or humiliating in John’s Gospel; there Jesus’s crucifixion is envisioned as a saving event foreshadowed by Moses when he lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (John 3:14).

Despite its negative connotation to Jews, Greeks, and Romans, Paul repeatedly uses the word “cross” in his letters when responding to the conflicts created by his opponents (e.g., Galatians 2:18–20). Interestingly, Paul may have deliberately focused on the modality of Jesus’s death on the cross for at least two reasons. First, Paul most likely knew that, although his message about the cross was not going to easily appeal to his Jewish and Greco-Roman audiences, still it would certainly attract their attention. And second, the Jewish and Gentile criticism of Jesus’s crucifixion may have encouraged Paul to focus even more of his attention on this gruesome subject since he believed Jesus demonstrated his selflessness, humility, and abundant love for humanity by suffering on the cross.

By the end of the first century, some Christians already may have viewed the cross as a significant symbol. For example, in the last decade of the first century, the author of the Book of Revelation may have referred to the mark of the cross in the seal that the servants of God receive on their foreheads (Revelation 7:2–3). Thus, the Book of Revelation possibly refers to the cross as a Christological identity marker.>> (Bold emphasis mine.)

Much of the rest of the article points to the reticence that early Christians had concerning the use of physical representations—for the symbols and truths of Scripture—in devotions, practices and worship. That Christians eventually did so makes sense to me. As for Newman's assessment, I completely concur.

Grace and peace,


JimSpace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JimSpace said...

(I felt the need to fix some typos.)

The Biblical Archaeology Society website is a gold mine of intellectual stimulation and information. I too enjoyed this article, and I am currently reading some of the authorities referenced in that article: Bruce W. Longenecker, The Cross Before Constantine and John Granger Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World. The later gentleman in a true authority on the matter and has written papers on this subject too that offer much needed clarity, even showing where Gunnar Samuelsson has erred. The BDAG lexicon entry for stauros is illuminating too.

With that said, I have two slight corrections for this BAS article:

(1) It was not an ankle bone but a heel bone, the calcaneus, that was found impaled with a Roman nail. (I frequently find this error of anatomical imprecision when this artifact is discussed.) Ankles and heels are in close proximity but refer to different parts of the foot.
(2) The crucifixion image in Puteoli, Italy shows a woman, not a man, by the name of Alkimila. This name was drawn above the crucified person’s left shoulder and is understood to be identifying her.

I believe that it is an important aspect of godly devotion to objectively reconstruct what Jesus experienced using all the tools and resources at our disposal. We now live in a golden age of accessible scholarship, and I strive to make good use of it.

David Waltz said...

Hi Jim,

Good to see you back. The two books you (and Steven Shisley) mentioned sound interesting. The following concerns Longenecker's book, and is from Google Books:

==Upending a longstanding consensus, Bruce W. Longenecker presents a wide variety of material artifacts to illustrate that Christians made use of the cross as a visual symbol of their faith long before Constantine appropriated it to consolidate his power in the fourth century. Constantine did not invent the cross as a symbol of Christian faith; for an impressive number of Christians before Constantine’s reign, the cross served as a visual symbol of commitment to a living deity in a dangerous world.== (The Cross Before Constantine)

Once you have finished reading the book, I would be interested in your assessment/s—especially if it is worth purchasing.

Have you read the following contribution:

The Non-Christian Cross by John Denham Parsons

Though perhaps a bit dated, it raises some very interesting questions.

Grace and peace,


JimSpace said...

Hi David, thanks.

I have finished Longenecker’s book, and note that Cook has a review of it:

His book is very good, but he makes a bloated case for a cruciform object in a bakery in Pompeii being a Christian cross. (I concur with Cook on this, that it’s probably a baker’s tool.) He also discusses the fascinating cruciform impression in a house in Herculaneum, but this too can be discounted as being Christian, as Cook has also shown. As Cook concludes in his review: “While some of the conclusions are questionable, the images alone make the book worth buying and reading.” I must agree!

Regarding Parsons’s book, yes I have it but have only referenced it. My approach to reconstructing what Jesus experienced is to give primacy to the Romans, as they managed such executions. So while pagans used cruciform objects, that to me is not as important as how the grisly Romans carried out executions. I want to know how they did it and how compatible to the Gospels it is. Dr. John Granger Cook has been most helpful in this regard.