Theology in 3D

The Symbol of the Cross

Greg Stiekes | June 23, 2018
New Testament

While visiting the ancient city of Sardis (cf. Rev 3:1–6) several years ago I noticed this strange symbol that had been chiseled into the floor of what was once a pagan temple, but afterward turned into a Jewish synagogue. Later I learned that this is an authentic Christian symbol of the ichthys (pronounced “ikthūs”). Of course, ichthys is not only the Greek word for “fish,” but it is also the Greek acronym created by the title, Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr or “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” The symbol that looks like a wheel with eight spokes is created when the first capital letter of each name is superimposed on top of the other. Try this yourself by using Ι Χ Θ Υ Σ (or C in place of the Σ, which was more common at the time).

Many Christians assume that those who first followed Christ boldly displayed the sign of the cross. After all, the apostle Paul proclaimed, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14a). The atoning work of Christ upon a cross transformed this shameful instrument of death into a glorious emblem of redemption.

Nevertheless, there is much evidence to suggest that though the early believers may have witnessed to their neighbors, gathered in their assemblies, and even suffered torture and death in the name of Christ, it was close to three centuries after Jesus’s death that the earliest followers of Christ openly displayed the cross. For the cross was not considered a symbol one would display in polite society. To the uninitiated masses at that time, the cross was a symbol of shame and disgust, and to display such a sign was to invite negative public reaction and misunderstanding. Paul reflects this common sentiment in 1 Cor 1:23when he explains that the Jews considered a crucified Messiah a “stumbling block” (skandalon), while the Gentiles considered the same idea as simply foolish (mōros). In fact, Cicero denounced crucifixion (Against Verres 2.5.165; In Defense of Rabirius 5.16). And one of the earliest examples of cruciform symbolism is the Grafitto Blasfemo, a crude drawing in plaster of a crucified man with the head of an ass being honored by another man with arms raised, and underneath the mocking words scrawled in Greek, Alexamenos sebete theon, “Alexamenos worships [his] god.”

To the Jews, moreover, the idea that a crucified man could be their God-sent Messiah was especially ludicrous. The Mosaic Law taught that anyone who meets death by hanging on a tree is under God’s curse (Deut 21:23). The Jews also considered the display of symbols to be idolatrous according to the second commandment. Furthermore, there is the possibility that because the cross was an ancient symbol which had been associated with pagan religions for thousands of years, the first believers worried that their beloved cross would be profaned by those who did not know their Savior.

For these reasons, during the first Christian centuries believers were furtive in displaying honor for the symbol of their salvation. For example, the earliest Christian symbols, such as those discovered in the Roman catacombs, included such figures as the anchor (perhaps an allusion to Heb 6:19), in which the cross is hidden in the design, or a boat with its mast and yard in the form of a cross. Other common early symbols were used as substitutes for the cross such as the Chi-Rho, the cross-like monogram comprised of the first two letters of the Greek word Christos (Christ), chi (Χ) and rho (Ρ).

So why does the ichthys, this worn, wheel-like symbol secretly displaying the name of Christ appear in the ancient building in Sardis? We cannot be certain when it was chiseled into the marble floor, quite possibly under cover of darkness, an early example of Christian graffiti. But it is quite possible that the symbol was meant to signal, “Christians gather here.” Even if the ichthys appeared after the building had been retrofitted for use as a Jewish synagogue, it is unlikely that the symbol would have been regarded as suspicious by non-Christians, given that it may have blended in with the other pagan symbolism that still marks the structure here and there.

How ironic, however, that we still pay little attention to the symbol of the cross today, at least in the West wherever Christianity has pervaded. In our part of the world, the symbol of the cross is ubiquitous, so common that we see it but we don’t see it. The cross virtually hides in plain sight, like an Exit sign or the American flag or the McDonald’s golden arches. The cross may even appear on the front wall of our local church building or over the baptistery in the sanctuary where we worship week after week but we seldom notice it. On the one hand, the lack of conscious attention we give to the symbol of the cross should make us thankful. We live in a time and place where Christianity has shaped our culture to the extent that the cross has become, for the most part, an accepted and unoffensive symbol and to display the cross does not normally invite persecution. But on the other hand, I wonder if our familiarity with the form of the cross means that we no longer revere the sign of the cross with the same profoundness as believers in the first Christian centuries.

2 responses to “The Symbol of the Cross”

  1. Great reminder, Greg. The ubiquity of the cross numbs us to its significance so that we barely notice it and rarely reflect on it when we see it. It seems odd, though—a little friendly sparring here—that the early Christians would avoid the symbol of the cross when they so unflinchingly proclaimed the fact of it. It’s purposefully woven into the message of the NT. You cite a couple of those passages; I cite several others in my related post (see “Not a Tame Tree: Middle Earth Meets Narnia”). However offensive the concept of a crucified Savior and Messiah was in the ancient world, the cross itself was the crux of the earliest gospel proclamations. So why forego the symbolism? Surely it had to be something other than mere fear of offense, since the offense is already inherent to the message itself. Maybe to protect Christian graves from desecration, or to enable clandestine Christian meetings?

  2. Greg Stiekes says:

    What you say about the message of the cross already being an offense is true. But perhaps cruciform was cryptic or nonexistent in the first three centuries because by itself the form of a cross would breed confusion, the same way that the silhouette of a hangman’s noose as a symbol for a religion would seem odd today and invite ridicule before the meaning could be explained. I like your other explanations also, however. The reticence was probably due to a combination of reasons. All we can say for sure is that there is no evidence that the early Christians openly displayed the cross as they did after the early fourth century. Christians would often make the sign of the cross in prayer and at baptisms (see Tertullian, De Corona ch. 3), and pray with outstretched arms as if they were on a cross, and suggest the cross in drawings of common objects such as the weft and warf of a loom, a plow, and even the shape of a face. But the first time the cross was openly displayed was when Constantine supposedly saw the sign of the cross (probably the Chi-Rho) in the sky, along with the message, “Conquer by this.” And he ordered all of his soldiers to display that sign as they went into battle. After that, Christians were emboldened to display the cross openly and it became the universal symbol for the “church triumphant.”

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