28th October 312. The Cross: Symbol of Life and Death.
It was on the way from Gaul that Constantine is said to have observed a ‘cross in the sky’, one of four equal arms, symbol of the sun god, the giver of life, and seen as a token of the conquest of Rome.
The omen proved correct as Today in 312 at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, north of Rome, Constantine defeated Maxentius thus becoming Emperor; he was eventually to die at York.
The cross, a symbol from antiquity, was thus accepted by Constantine as a sign of success in war, not of peace or veneration, a powerful symbol which on his conversion he was to use as a unifying force to control a faltering Empire.
In early Christianity with its ban on pagan images, there is no cross and only appears as the age of the Apostles and Biblical purity declined, when the religion had become respectable, established and institutionalised. This was given extra credence by Constantine’s mother Helen, who in 326 had ‘discovered’ relics of the ‘true cross’ in Jerusalem.
The earliest depiction of a cross we have is in the graffito of the 1st to 3rd AD, discovered in 1857 on the Palatine Hill, Rome, at domus Gelotiana and known as the Alexamenis Graffito.
The use of the ass’s head (above) could refer to a calumny against the Jews, that they worshipped an ass (onolatry); early Christianity was perceived as a variant of Judaism as described in the 2nd century by Tertullian who represented their worship as a donkey.
The symbol of the cross is as old as antiquity-Diana is portrayed with one above her head in mythology-and in many religions the cross was a symbol of life, not death, as in the initiation into the Babylonian mysteries, when the Tau of the Chaldeans was marked on the forehead, later adopted in Christianity.
Thus in antiquity the Cross is not associated with crucifixion. However the Greek word Staurus acquired a new meaning and consistently occurs as standardised abbreviation for ‘Cross’ in Greek manuscripts of the New Testament when certain words were ‘nominum sacra’, sacred names.
So the Tau (T) was superimposed on Rho (P) in the shape of the cross, with the curved shape of Rho symbolising Christ and visually confirms the shape of the cross traditionally associated with the Crucifixion. (3)
One thing is certain, despite confusion of translation and lack of specific data in the New Testament, the symbol of the cross has been a powerful force in Christianity since its spread down the arterial roads of the Roman Empire to eventually reach these Islands.
When the ancients in the use of Stauros, as referenced in the Iliad or Odyssey,(1) it signified an ordinary pole or stake, an ordinary piece of wood, not a cross. Thus a single piece of wood is used in Greek classics. (2)
In the Middle Ages the ‘Stauros’ appears to be principally a straight piece of wood with the Greek lexicographer Suidas stating: ‘stauros, ortha xula perpegota’, which translates from Greek, ‘into a straight piece of wood’. Greek Xulon translates as tree.
(1) eg Iliad xxiv 453 Odyssey xiv II.
(2) Thuc iv 90 Xen An v 2,21.
(3) The Greek word in the Latin version of the New Testament was translated as Crux (Old English ‘Crossi’).
Lucian, confusedly, referring to Jesus alludes to ‘that sophist of theirs which was fastened to a ‘skolops’ which word signifies a single piece of wood.
Gal iii 13; I Peter II 24; Acts v 30; Acts x 39; Acts xiii 29.
cogwriter.com/Pic of Coin.
D. Whitehouse. BBC News Science Ed/vision of Constantine. Mon 23 June 2003.
John Denham Parsons: The Non-Christian Cross.
telegraph.co.uk/article. 23.10.2010. Samuelsson. Gothenburg Uni.
penelope.uchicago.edu/encyclopedia/Pic of Graffito.
biblehistoryonline/Pic of stele/British Museum.