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.”

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


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


Posted in Crucifixion.

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  • John says

    Here I was thinking: “Boy these archaeologists are clever people, really smart!!!
    Sorry, not really, when you cannot even translate the extant manuscripts correctly.
    We know that in the Bible the two words, stau·rosʹ, and xyʹlon, are when talking of the instrument of Jesus death……..and neither of the mean a cross, or anything that resembles a cross.
    It did not come into ‘Christian’ (and I use the word very loosely) until Constantine, and what an advert he was for Christianity…..NOT.

    • John says

      1. stau·rosʹ, and xyʹlon, are when talking………I missed ‘used’ between are and
      2. neither of the mean a cross,……..should have ‘them’ instead of ‘the’
      3. into ‘Christian’ (and I use the word very loosely) until Constantine,…….. I omitted
      the word ‘use’ after the bracket
      Sorry about that.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • John says

      Eric, you seem rather verbose in your remarks concerning Jehovah’s Witnesses, and yet, I do not see a single scripture from God’s Word to back any of your statements up! Perhaps you would be so kind as mention at least two or three scriptures to back yourself up. Perhaps you tell us all that the Greek word “stau·rosʹ” means cross????
      That Greek word that is used to represent the instrument of Jesus death………the Bible also uses the word “xyʹlon.’……….this means timber, wood, tree.
      At Acts 5:30 when Peter, and the other apostles answered the Sanhedrin, he said
      that God raised Jesus up after they (the Jews), had put him to death on a tree.
      Perhaps you could also explain why the cross did not become a symbol of ‘Christianity’ until over 300 years after Jesus death?
      Just in case you have forgotten, does the name Constantine ring a bell?
      But, Eric we would all like to know where these scriptural references are, that is apart from where translators have ‘corrupted’ the true translations of the original Hebrew, Greek or Latin words. I look forward to your answers, backed up of course, by God’s Word.

      • John says

        One would have also thought that the first century Christians “worshipped the cross” if that was of necessity to gain life………I mean if it was that important in pure worship, the Bible writers, particularly Paul, would have encouraged the fledgling Christian congregations to adore the cross in their worship.
        Perhaps I missed when reading the Christian Greek scriptures.

        • John says

          Eric, I will help you with a scripture if you like.
          Eric says: ” Moses while in the wilderness placed a serpent on a cross.” I guess the scripture you are looking for there is Numbers 21:8, 9. Well in the American Standard version it says that the serpent was placed on a standard, and in the King James Version it says the serpent was placed on a pole.
          Funnily enough that is exactly what the new World Translation says….pole.

          Eric says: “……..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.”
          Please quote the Bible book, chapter and verse where tis is found. Thanks.

          At 1 Corinthians 10:14 Paul warns Christians to flee from idolatry and a similar, but more emphatic warning is given in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18.
          Galatians 3:13 says: “accursed is every man hung upon a tree” and Deuteronomy 21:23 translates the word ‘xyʹlon’ as tree.

          • John says

            I found a little something else for you to consider Eric, I feel sure that you will appreciate it, so I copied it”
            “The book The Non-Christian Cross, by J. D. Parsons (London, 1896), says: “There is not a single sentence in any of the numerous writings forming the New Testament, which, in the original Greek, bears even indirect evidence to the effect that the stauros used in the case of Jesus was other than an ordinary stauros; much less to the effect that it consisted, not of one piece of timber, but of two pieces nailed together in the form of a cross. . . . It is not a little misleading upon the part of our teachers to translate the word stauros as ‘cross’ when rendering the Greek documents of the Church into our native tongue, and to support that action by putting ‘cross’ in our lexicons as the meaning of stauros without carefully explaining that that was at any rate not the primary meaning of the word in the days of the Apostles, did not become its primary signification till long afterwards, and became so then, if at all, only because, despite the absence of corroborative evidence, it was for some reason or other assumed that the particular stauros upon which Jesus was executed had that particular shape.”—Pp. 23, 24; see also The Companion Bible (London, 1885), Appendix No. 162”.

  • 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.

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