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Christian Religious Symbolism: The Cross

The cross is the most widely recognized religious symbol of Christianity and represents one of the most significant events in the Bible, namely the crucifixion of Jesus. The cross is commonly used to symbolize the method in which Jesus was put to death. However, historians believe that the Roman or Latin cross that is generally depicted as the Christian cross was not used during the crucifixion. This is based on the fact that a stake or T-shaped device was a more common form of crucifixion during the time in which Jesus lived. The absence of any Christian depictions of crosses prior to the third century also leads to the question: where did this symbol come from?

Origins of The Cross

During the first three centuries of Christianity, depictions of the cross as a Christian symbol were extremely rare. In many cases, use of the cross was condemned by early Church Fathers as a symbol of paganism. Instead, early Christians used the fish or "Ichthys" to identify each other.

The Christian cross can be traced back to the Tao cross, which resembled the Greek letter "tao", or the English "T." This symbol has been attributed to many pre-Christian cultures, and is one of the most established of ancient symbols.

The Tao has also been connected to the Pagan Druids, who fashioned crosses in this shape from oak trees to represent the god Thau. The Tao cross was furthermore a Roman and Greek symbol of the gods Mithras and Attis, whose predecessor was the Sumerian solar deity Tammuz worshipped in Babylon.

The ritual of marking a cross on the forehead with ash used in Ash Wednesday celebrations dates back to celebrations of the shepherd-god Tammuz. Tammuz, like Jesus, was associated with fishing and shepherding, and his believers commemorated his resurrection every spring.

It is believed that the cross first became a prominent Christian symbol in third century Egypt. Ancient Egyptians had previously celebrated the mystic Tao of Tammuz, but adopted the symbol upon their conversion to Christianity.

Emperor Constantine: The First Christian Cross

The Roman Emperor Constantine adopted what many consider the first Christian cross. Constantine adopted the Chi-Rho emblem. This pre-Christian symbol originally represented Chronos, the Roman god of time, as well as other solar deities, and was considered a symbol of good fortune.

According to Church Father Eusebius, the symbol appeared to the Emperor in a dream on the eve of a battle, inscribed with the fortune: "By this sign you shall conquer." It became the standard symbol of Constantine’s army and represented the first two letters of the name of Christ: "Chi" and "Rho." Previously, these letters had been associated with Chronus.

The Greek letter Chi has the appearance of the letter X. The original Greek cross, or the Christian cross, was shaped like an X to represent an abbreviation of the name "Christ" and not to symbolize the crucifixion. This representation developed from Constantine’s Chi-Rho, which also had the appearance of an X. The Latin cross as we know it today first came into favor when the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, claimed to have discovered the true cross in Jerusalem during the fourth century.

The Cross After Constantine

The earliest depiction of the cross in Christian art did not appear until the mid-fifth century. The first crucifixion scene depicted in Christian art dates to the seventh century.

The cross was the first Christian symbol revered in the form of a relic. Following Empress Helena’s findings of the true cross in Jerusalem, objects such as holy nails and pieces of the cross of Jesus’ crucifixion began to circulate amongst Christian communities. Places containing remnants of these objects, such as monasteries in Spain, have become religious sites of pilgrimage for Christians.

The cross is often used to represent Christ’s triumph over death through his resurrection. It is an important Roman Catholic sign that is gestured across the chest during the celebration of mass.

Jesus of Nazareth Mary Magdalene: Mariamne Early Christianity
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