The Staurogram

The earliest images of Jesus on the cross

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in March 2013. It has been updated.—Ed.


The staurogram combines the Greek letters tau-rho to stand in for parts of the Greek words for “cross” (stauros) and “crucify” (stauroō) in Bodmer papyrus P75. Staurograms serve as the earliest images of Jesus on the cross, predating other Christian crucifixion imagery by 200 years. Photo: Foundation Martin Bodmer.

How and when did Christians start to depict images of Jesus on the cross? Some believe the early church avoided images of Jesus on the cross until the fourth or fifth century. In “The Staurogram: Earliest Depiction of Jesus’ Crucifixion” in the March/April 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Larry Hurtado highlights an early Christian crucifixion symbol that sets the date back by 150–200 years.

Larry Hurtado describes how a symbol known as a staurogram is created out of the Greek letters tau-rho: “In Greek, the language of the early church, the capital tau, or T, looks pretty much like our T. The capital rho, or R, however, is written like our P. If you superimpose the two letters, it looks something like this: . The earliest Christian uses of this tau-rho combination make up what is known as a staurogram. In Greek the verb to ‘crucify’ is stauroō; a ‘cross’ is a stauros … [these letters produce] a pictographic representation of a crucified figure hanging on a cross—used in the Greek words for ‘crucify’ and ‘cross.’”

The tau-rho staurogram is one of several christograms, or monogram-like devices used by ancient Christians, to refer to Jesus. However, Larry Hurtado points out that the staurogram only refers to the crucifixion, unlike others, which mention Jesus’ other characteristics. Also, the staurogram is visual—the tau-rho combinations create images of Jesus on the cross, making the staurogram the earliest Christian images of Jesus on the cross.

In our free eBook Easter: Exploring the Resurrection of Jesus, expert Bible scholars and archaeologists offer in-depth research and reflections on this important event. Discover what they say about the story of the resurrection, the location of Biblical Emmaus, Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, the ancient Jewish roots of bodily resurrection, and the possible endings of the Gospel of Mark.

The tau-rho staurogram, like other christograms, was originally a pre-Christian symbol. A Herodian coin featuring the Staurogram predates the crucifixion. Soon after, Christian adoption of staurogram symbols served as the first visual images of Jesus on the cross.

Larry Hurtado writes: “In time christograms came to be used not only in texts but as free-standing symbols of Christ or Christian faith, for example on liturgical vestments and church utensils. This was probably also true of the staurogram, tau-rho; where it would represent simply an independent symbol of Christ or Christian faith. But the earliest use of the tau-rho was as a visual reference to Jesus’ crucifixion. As such, it is the earliest surviving depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion.”

BAS Library Members: For more about the earliest Christian images of Jesus on the cross, read the full article “The Staurogram: Earliest Depiction of Jesus’ Crucifixion” by Larry Hurtado as it appears in the March/April 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Sign up today.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Archaeological Quest for the Earliest Christians: Part 1 and Part 2 by Douglas Boin

Roman Crucifixion Methods Reveal the History of Crucifixion

Borrowing from the Neighbors

The Origin of Christianity

The Enduring Symbolism of Doves


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  1. Chris says

    One interesting coincidence which I’m sure could lead to lots of unfounded speculation is that the tau-rho also looks remarkably like the Egyptian ankh. Seen out of context, of perhaps in the context of Coptic script, it would be hard to tell the difference.

  2. JAllan says

    Given the prevalence of Egyptian religious ideas, as well as various mystery religions, among the intelligentsia of the time, the ANKH would be as well known as some of the symbols and words from the Indian religions are known among American intellectuals today. So this may be an early instance of Christians “fitting in to take over” various pagan practices. The epistles and Acts portray some others, such as Paul’s speech on the Areopagus in Athens, the miracles about the birth of Jesus in Luke (giving Jesus signs of divinity akin to Greek heroes such as Heracles and Perseus). And of course, the Christianization of Europe, Latin America and the African slaves in Latin America involved taking over pagan festivals, re-attributing them to events in Christian history, and renaming pagan deities as saints of Christ (one reason there are so MANY saints). The Queen of Heaven, or Artemis of Ephesus, became the Virgin Mary in Greek folklore, and Hagia Sophia could mean EITHER “Holy Wisdom”, a personification of Wisdom as a metaphorical “goddess”, OR a female human saint named Sophia (the famous Byzantine cathedral is sometimes called Saint Sophia; Hagios/Hagia in Greek became Sanctus/Sancta in Latin, with the well known Romance derivatives leading to Norman French and then English “Saint”; I am not sure whether the purer Germanic tongues stick to their native word Heilig as the equivalent title).

    So the use of the staurogram because it looked like an ANKH, possibly leading to questions about it, giving missionaries the chance to explain its NEW meaning, is certainly plausible. I am curious when the Chi-Rho symbol appeared to replace it.

  3. Bob says

    Since the ankh symbolized to the ancient Egyptians the key to “eternal life”, it may be that first century Christians, whose ancient forefathers came out of Egypt, latched on to it because of the obvious connection to Jesus dying for our sins and being the “key” to our eternal life. One other purely speculative idea would be that since Abraham lived in Egypt for awhile, and being a “friend of God”, it may also have been revealed to Abraham (as God did regarding Sodom, Gen. 18:16-19) that a Messiah would come in the distant future, and die by crucifixtion for our sins. Was Abraham a “Gospel” witness for the one true God, and the potential for eternal life, to the ancient Egyptians? Perhaps, but like most nations who have been given the “Plan of God,” or the “Gospel of Truth,” it became corrupted over time. Yet, their are ancient Coptic writings that Egyptian Christians follow.

  4. donald says

    It seems to me there’s nothing special about Christograms. More often than not they were merely “borrowed” from non-Christians to serve their own religious purposes. This sort of thing happened so often and for such and extended period of time that people came to believe they originated with Christianity when, in point of fact, they did not.

  5. Phil says

    I’m disappointed that the article does not touch on the actual usage of the symbol. I doubt I’m the only reader who would like to know whether the symbol was used (1) in place of tau, (2) in place of rho, (3) when tau and rho occurred together, (4) in place of Christ, (5) in place of Jesus, (1) in place of crucified, (6) as a stand-alone symbol, or what other purpose inclined the scribe to take the time to inscribe it. I’m surprised the writer didn’t think that was important.

  6. Charles says

    Phil, you might want to check out Prof. Hurtado’s blog for articles and other publications that go into this in great detail:

  7. Ric says

    “Larry Hurtado describes how a symbol known as a staurogram is created out of the Greek letters tau-rho: “In Greek, the language of the early church, the capital tau, or T, looks pretty much like our T. The capital rho, or R, however, is written like our P. If you superimpose the two letters, it looks something like this….”

    It, as others have mentioned, this staurogram, looks like the ancient ankh of Egypt that meant life. While Christ himself stood for the promise of eternal life. Since, Alexandria Egypt was a Greek speaking world of learning in the 1st century A.D. I don’t why Greek letters weren’t the norm since the Christian church in the early days was greatest in both Alexandria and Antioch another Greek speaking center. This does not mean that the Staurogram is in fact, a created out of superimposing two Greek letters instead of the using the Ankh.

    In fact, upon considering the love of Greek thinkers to think, I bet they caught the fact that two Greek letters could represent the Ankh, meaning Life first if combined. Instead of looking for zebra’s, horses should be looked at first. Then a wide base of knowledge is needed not specialization.

  8. Kurt says


    In the literal sense, the fastening of a victim either dead or alive to a stake, or pole. The execution of Jesus Christ is the best-known case. (Lu 24:20; Joh 19:14-16; Ac 2:23, 36) Impalements by nations in ancient times were carried out in a variety of ways.

  9. Kara says

    The chi rho symbol long predates Christianity. It’s yet another symbol/icon/idea adopted into Christianity from pre-Christian paganism. Practically all of the rest of Christianity is “borrrowed” in the same way.

    It’s myth, not history.

  10. Joe says

    The ankh and tau-rho are one and the same. Isis and Maria are one and the same. The ankh used by Isis and the rosary with cross are one and the same and they are both queen of heaven. Isis, Al-Uzza, Asteroth, Ashtarte, Black Madonna, Maria, Shakinah and the Holy Spirit of the trinity are one and the same.

  11. salvatore says

    The Bible’s answer
    Many view the cross as the most common symbol of Christianity. However, the Bible does not describe the instrument of Jesus’ death, so no one can know its shape with absolute certainty. Still, the Bible provides evidence that Jesus died, not on a cross, but on an upright stake.

    The Bible generally uses the Greek word stau·ros′ when referring to the instrument of Jesus’ execution. (Matthew 27:40; John 19:17) Although translations often render this word “cross,” many scholars agree that its basic meaning is actually “upright stake.” * According to A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament, stau·ros′ “never means two pieces of wood joining each other at any angle.”

    The Bible also uses the Greek word xy′lon as a synonym for stau·ros′. (Acts 5:30; 1 Peter 2:24) This word means “wood,” “timber,” “stake,” or “tree.” * The Companion Bible thus concludes: “There is nothing in the Greek of the N[ew] T[estament] even to imply two pieces of timber.”

    Is using the cross in worship acceptable to God?

    A crux simplex—the Latin term for a single stake used for impalement of a criminal

    Regardless of the shape of the instrument on which Jesus died, the following facts and Bible verses indicate that we should not use the cross in worship.

    God rejects worship that uses images or symbols, including the cross. God commanded the Israelites not to use “the form of any symbol” in their worship, and Christians are likewise told to “flee from idolatry.”—⁠Deuteronomy 4:15-19; 1 Corinthians 10:14.
    First-century Christians did not use the cross in worship. * The teachings and example of the apostles set a pattern that all Christians should adhere to.—⁠2 Thessalonians 2:15.
    Use of the cross in worship has a pagan origin. * Hundreds of years after the death of Jesus, when the churches had deviated from his teachings, new church members “were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols,” including the cross. (The Expanded Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words) However, the Bible does not condone adopting pagan symbols to help make new converts.—⁠2 Corinthians 6:17.

  12. Kurt says

    Jesus did not die on cross, says scholar
    Jesus may not have died nailed to the cross because there is no evidence that the Romans crucified prisoners two thousand years ago, a scholar has claimed.
    Crucifixion in Antiquity: An Inquiry into the Background of the New Testament Terminology of Crucifixion.

  13. John says

    I’m afraid I have nothing scholarly to contribute but I do remember reading speculations that the Romans sometimes used an X-shaped cross, nailing hands and feet to the four ends. This is also the first Greek letter in Christos.

  14. Jonathan says

    Chris, I was thinking EXACTLY the same thing. I groaned when I thought it.

  15. Jennifa says

    A Cross is a Cross.. As it says in the Word.. His blood was shed and Grace was given .. The End

  16. Loy says

    Any visual image cannot be considered Christian as images in Christian religious activities is against God’s very first commandment.

    Whoever or whatever group introduced and propagated the belief the cross is the symbol of Christianity had committed a grave error. Consider for a moment if Jesus lived years later when musketry was the common way of implementing a death sentence. The Christian symbol would have been a rifle. I could not imagine if Jesus lived years later when a convict was executed by electric chair.

  17. James says

    Writing has a pagan origin. Greek has a pagan origin. Jerusalem – according to the OT – was “taken over” from the Jebusites. The argument that “X or Y or Z has a pagan origin” was possible to make only because the Protestant controversialists against Catholicism who used the argument began to use it in the 18th century when next to nothing was nothing was known about Ancient Babylonia, Egypt, and the other ancient cultures of the Biblical world.

    Semi-Fundamentalist controversialists like the JWs who make that argument have widened it, to condemn Protestants as well as Catholics – but they are using arguments that have not been modified to keep up with the great increase in knowledge of the Biblical world that has taken place since 1800 or so. As a result, the “objection from paganism” strikes as heavily against the Bible as against Catholicism or Protestantism. The very word “Biblion” that is behind the Latin “Biblia”, “Bible”, is taken from the Greek name for the port of Byblos or Gubla. Which was a cult-centre of the goddess Isis. By the logic of the “objection from guilt by even remote association” that is used against the Cross, the Bible itself is tainted with associations of Isis-worship.

    To avoid associations with paganism, the Church would have to be taken out of the world – Jesus sends it into the world, to change the world not by shunning non-Christians, but by living among them as a leaven. The totally paganism-free world that some people want is not an option. Instead, Christ has taken pagan, unclean things – & made them clean, & given them new & Christian meaning. The “pagan” Cross, with all its horrors, has been made the means by which God has become the Saviour of mankind – Christ did not dodge it: “He set His face to go to Jerusalem” to be crucified. If that was good enough for Him, it’s good enough for everyone else. As for the first commandment – it’s fulfilled by love of God & of neighbour. The law of Moses was not given to Christians, & has no authority for Christians. It is any case dead, finished, fulfilled by Christ.

  18. ROBERT says

    Years ago while making arrests of drug dealers I observed persons calling themselves Catholics who were Santaria worshipers. In their homes they had shrines comprised of all sorts of junk that they thought would protect them from harm. I asked most of them if they believed in the Catholic religion. The answer was not really. They used statutes of saints, mary and jesus to represent the GODS they really believed in. Trying to connect symbols to things they are not connected to serves no purpose. Trying to push back Christian history is foolish. I once visited a Baptist church where the pastor stated the first true christians were Baptists who lived about 5000 years ago.

  19. Jack says

    None of this is relevant to the crucifixion it was not a cross he was crucified on a tree. The symbol of the cross is another pagan symbol just as all pictures of Jesus with long hair are.

  20. GENE says

    To James: That is an old argument, namely, that (apostate) Christianity can take pagan religious objects and somehow cleanse them for Christian use. This is entirely in conflict with the Scriptures. Ezekiel, in the book of Ezekiel Chapter 8, was given a vision of God’s temple in Jerusalem where he observed the priests and others had introduced pagan religious objects and practices into the temple of Jehovah. Ezekiel was told by Yahweh(verse 9,10): in the Catholic Jerusalem Bible:” ‘Go in and look at the filthy things they are doing inside,’ I went in and looked: all sorts of images of snakes and repulsive animals and all the idols of the House of Israel, drawn on the wall all around. Seventy elders of the House of Israel were standing in front of the idols.” Verse 14 continues” He next took me to the entrance of the north gate of the temple of Yahweh where women were sitting, weeping for Tammuz.” The chapter concludes with Yahweh(Jehovah) promising to destroy Israel for introducing such symbols,idols and practices into the worship of God. The ancient god Tammuz with the first letter or ‘Tau’ is thought by many scholars to be the origin of the cross. God never said it was acceptable to have these disgusting things “cleansed”. Note also 2 Cor. 6:16: “What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God.” Verse 17 says,”Therefore come out and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.”(New International Version.) Clearly, there is a danger of losing our relationship with God, thus losing his favor and prospect of everlasting life.

  21. mike says

    When people were crucified was it a T type cross or an X type cross? I was watching a program that was telling of the x format. As the wood was reused and so were the spikes. Does anyone know the name of the program. I got sleepy and the rest is lost. Mike

  22. Ernest says

    The fact you say stauros means a cross is pretty much a blatant misleading lie… It meant stake and nothing else. An upright pole. Truly disgusting that your articles are mentioned here. Some people will do anything to believe a lie they’ve always been told.

  23. Rolf says

    Jesus was crucified in the Passover week. He was according to John the Baptist: “the lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world”. The Israelites in Egypt, according to Exodus 12, were saved by the applying of the blood of a lamb on their two door posts, and on the top part of their doorframes. Three applications in a cross-shaped pattern. This was the first Passover, which later became our Easter. To me it is logical to believe that almighty God led the events in the fulfilment of his salvation plan with the human race to copy this blood stained doorframe pattern in the execution of his redemptatory “lamb”.

  24. Alice says

    The T is an archaic solar symbol and the sun was the emblem of the Creator, whose son was Horus. The Horites were devotees of Ra, Horus and Hathor. The R is also an ancient sign or mark and can represent a priest or a deified ruler.

  25. Eric says

    The argument made by Jehovah’s Witnesses is based on pseudo-scholarship. On any topic there are going to be a few individuals who stand out to disagree, but what one needs to focus on are the arguments and evidence they present. In the case of the cross implement those who disagree and claim it was of a different form do not have any evidence to present. What’s more there are evidences of the cross symbol appearing in ancient Jewish festivals which are usually interpreted by Christians as foreshadowing the crucifixion. For example, the High Priest when going into the Holy of Holies would splash the blood before and on the mercy seat in the shape of a cross. According to first century Jewish writings the lambs on passover at that time were roasted on two wooden spits in the shape of a cross. Moses while in the wilderness placed a serpent on a cross. In writings of early Christians like Justin and Tertullian we find references to Jesus being executed on a cross-shaped implement and even taking analogies from Roman life to demonstrate how the shape of a cross is present in many things which they then argued prefigured Christ. There are also two archaeological sites from the first and second century which have crosses used in contexts that related to Jesus and early Christianity: a cross pressed into a wall behind a picture in Pompei, and the Alexamenos graffito. The evidence that Jesus was executed on a cross with the shape we’re familiar with today is overwhelming.

  26. GENE says

    When true Christians worship God, they do not use the cross. Why not?
     The cross has been used in false religion for a long time. In ancient times it was used in nature worship and in pagan sex rites. During the first 300 years after Jesus’ death, Christians did not use the cross in their worship. Much later, Roman Emperor Constantine made the cross a symbol of Christianity. The symbol was used to try to make Christianity more popular. But the cross had nothing to do with Jesus Christ. The New Catholic Encyclopedia explains: “The cross is found in both pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures.”
     Jesus did not die on a cross. The Greek words translated “cross” basically mean “an upright stake,” “a timber,” or “a tree.” The Companion Bible explains: “There is nothing in the Greek of the [New Testament] even to imply two pieces of timber.” Jesus died on an upright stake.
     Jehovah does not want us to use images or symbols in our worship.—Exodus 20:4, 5; 1 Corinthians 10:14.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Anti-Catholic Bias in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Mistranslation of the Bible | Soul Device linked to this post on October 1, 2014

    […] is also unusual biblical evidence for the traditional cross. A staurogram made of a ligature (a “double character”consisting of two or more letters) from the […]

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