The Staurogram

The earliest images of Jesus on the cross

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.

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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.”

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Subscribers: 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.

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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.

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
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in March 2013.
 


 

Posted in Crucifixion.

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  • Dale says

    Why do you translate stauros as “crux “ “crucify “ when the root meaning is pole , tree? Please reference these scriptures acts 5:30, acts13:29 ,acts 10:39 ,Joshua 8:29, exodus 20:4,5,Deuteronomy 4:15-18

  • Wes says

    Wound intermittently with the staurogram discussion thread is the one regarding the nature of the word “stauros”, submitted by the usual advocates. This is as much an issue of semantics as anything else, but it does cause one to go back to a Greek text, Concordance and lines that are fundamental to our perceptions of faith.

    In Strong’s, stauros is #4716 identified as cross. In the NT it is the word to which the 4 Gospels and several epistles use to describe where Jesus Christ was nailed. And there have been all manner of reconstruction debates about its shape.

    What’s more. It’s not simply an issue of Greek translation, but also of Latin, since this execution was a matter of Roman law. Accounts of Roman crucifixions come to us in Greek in the case of Spartacus, but also in Latin from Caesar’s commentaries.

    But there are also the related statements of Christ in the 3 Canonical Gospels ( Mark, Matthew and Luke) in response to the rich man “to come take up the cross and follow me”, Mark 8:34, Matt 10:38, Luke 9:23. The incident described precedes the crucifixion – and yet is colored in the writers’ minds very much by the event.

    It is not some sort of distortion of the Gospel that transforms the cross into a religious icon, but the texts themselves. The authors quote Jesus prior to the crucifixion. The readers for centuries have wondered how they can take up a burden and follow Christ.

    How the advocates wish to re-translate these texts in their editions of the Gospels is their problem.

  • DOROTHY says

    As far as I know, crucifixion was used extensively, in public, to show what would happen if citizens were to rebel against the ruling class. It was not an equilateral cross, but one with the center beam moved up to hold the arms and head as the person died. I would think that the followers of Jesus would have embraced the cross (as a symbol) Jesus died on fairly soon after his death.
    Prior mythologies (Greek, for example) would have the souls of the dead going downward into a land of the shades, or something like that, which was not very promising. Jesus myth has him ascending. This marked a monumental change for the traditional, rather dismal, afterlife, for one of eternal spring.

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