Tuesday, 24 December 2019

The Christianization of a Pagan Symbol

Long before it became a gold-plated religious ornament, the cross was an abhorrent symbol of brutality and death. Especially during the Roman Empire’s oppressive regime, one of the harshest insults a person could hurl at another was, “Be fixed to a cross!”1

Some form of punitive suspension can be traced as far back as the 6th-century BC in Carthage, Macedonia, and Persia. While the Romans may have borrowed this mode of execution from the Carthaginians, they perfected it as a means of humiliation and torture intended as a deterrent to insurrection. They reportedly crucified tens of thousands of people, aiming to inflict maximum suffering through a slow, agonizing death.2

Mainly intended for the lower classes, rebellious slaves, tomb defilers, and criminals, the Romans were much less concerned about the shape of the torture device as many are today. In fact, Seneca the Younger (ca. 4 BC–AD 65) notes at least three different forms and positions, although suspension with outstretched arms is often assumed.3 Early patristic authors, writing about the apparatus upon which Jesus died, unanimously describe it as having a crossbeam (e.g. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 15; cf. Epistle of Barnabas 9.7-8). 

Conventional Perception Before Christ’s Death

Early in his ministry Jesus advised his immediate disciples: “And he who is not taking his cross and following after me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:38).4 This was before he had revealed that he would be “killed” (Matt. 16:21), much less “crucified” (Matt. 20:19; 26:2), so what would these words have meant to those to whom he spoke? What connotation did the “cross” carry at this time? On other occasions, employing comparable terminology presumably familiar to his listening audience,5 with what frame of reference were they to interpret such a disturbing admonition? 

First-century Palestinian Jews were very much aware of the cross as an instrument of suffering and death. As far back as the second century BC, Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes crucified Jews resisting his oppressive decrees (Josephus, Ant. 12.5.4). The Romans, who occupied the Jewish homeland throughout Jesus’ entire earthly life, were notorious for this brutal form of capital punishment. The imagery of a “cross” had absolutely no religious significance at the time, particularly in a pre-Christian Jewish context.

When discussing crucifixion, the Greek noun stauró(rendered “cross” in most English versions) is the term attributed to Jesus in the Synoptics, and employed in all four Gospels to describe the torturous gibbet upon which he died. Josephus also reported that Pilate condemned Jesus to a staurós (Ant. 18.3.3). The corresponding verbal is stauróō (“crucify”), and sometimes xúlon (“tree”) is used as a metonymy.6 All of these usages are clearly associated with shame, agony, and death.

A Change in Perspective

The killing of Jesus and the particular means of his execution were not unexpected,7 which the Lord willingly endured for the redemption of broken humanity.8 In the context of the first-century Mediterranean world, with the prevailing “honor vs. shame” mentality, the ignominy of crucifixion rendered the message of the cross offensive and foolish.9 Nevertheless, by the second century the cross was recognized as a uniquely Christian symbol.10 Having been commissioned to proclaim “good news” to the world, Christ’s atoning death by way of crucifixion was at the heart of the message his followers preached.11

From the heavenly perspective the cross was no longer a sign of defeat but a necessary prelude to the Lord’s victorious resurrection. It was the instrument of God’s grace, the devil’s demise, and deliverance from the shackles of sin.12 The cross was the means through which the new covenant of Jesus Christ was inaugurated (Col. 2:14; Heb. 9:15), making available forgiveness (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14), reconciliation (Rom. 5:6-11), and peace (Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20).

Jerry Sumney comments: “Crucifixion almost universally signaled defeat and humiliation. But the early church radically reinterpreted it so that it came to symbolize the way God relates to the world …. In the cross, thus, God not only forgives sins but also defeats all forces of evil that oppose God by trying to separate God from God’s people.”13


The question is often asked, “Why does God allow human suffering?” While philosophers and theologians have struggled over the centuries to come up with a reasonable answer, perhaps we need to look no further than the cross. This is where Almighty God joins in our suffering to bring light out of darkness, life out of death, and hope out of despair. Maybe we should be asking, how did a barbaric Roman torture device become the most recognizable symbol of the Christian faith? 

Apparently what something meant in the distant past does not dictate what it currently means (see addendum below). As Peter Wehner observes, “the crucifixion — an emblem of agony and one of the cruelest methods of execution ever practiced — became a historical pivot point and eventually the most compelling symbol of the most popular faith on earth.”14

The iconography of the cross is not enhanced by precious metals and jewels and elaborate ornamentation. It is of far greater value. “But may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).

--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Pompeii Graffito, CIL IV, 2082: graffiti, dated between the first century BC and AD 79, discovered at Pompeii, wherein “there is clearly an invective here that derisively invokes the cross upon the reader” (David W. Chapman and Eckhard J. Schnabel, The Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus: Texts and Commentary, WUNT 344 [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2015]: 753).
     2 “Is there such a thing as a person who would actually prefer wasting away in pain on a cross—dying limb by limb one drop of blood at a time—rather than dying quickly? Would any human being willingly choose to be fastened to that cursed tree, especially after the beating that left him deathly weak, deformed, swelling with vicious welts on shoulders and chest, and struggling to draw every last, agonizing breath? Anyone facing such a death would plead to die rather than mount the cross” (Seneca the Younger, Epistulae morales 101.14).
     3 Seneca the Younger, Ad Marciam De consolatione 20.3; David W. Chapman, “Perceptions of Crucifixion: Evidence from Ancient Inscriptions and Graffiti,” ETS Annual Meeting, 21 Nov. 2019. In Classical Greek (until the early 4th century BC), the term stauróreferred to an upright stake for impaling (H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, Greek-English Lexicon 595), but in Koinē Greek it denoted the wooden object upon which the Romans executed criminals. There are basically four popular representations of the cross: the traditional crux immissa (Latin cross), with a longer base (); the crux quadrata (Greek cross), with four equal appendages (+); the crux commissa, the shape of the Greek letter tau (T); the crux decussata, in the form of the Roman numeral ten (X). Seeing that there is no clear description in the NT of the particular shape of the gibbet upon which Jesus was executed, idolizing it as an iconographic ornament was apparently not the Lord’s intent.
     4 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     5 Luke 9:23 (par. Matt. 16:24/Mark 8:34); Luke 14:27; also Mark 10:21 (N/KJV). The metaphor draws meaning from the practice of the condemned forced to carry the implement upon which he would die to the place of execution (Plutarch, De sera 554; Titus Maccius Plautus, Miles gloriosus 358-360; Mostellaria 56-57). Cf. Sverre Bøe, Cross-Bearing in Luke WUNT 278 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010): 63-71. Seeing that an entire Roman cross could weigh over 135 kg (300 lb.), it was the crossbeam, weighing approximately 35-60 kg (75-125 lb.), that was typically carried. 
     6 The noun staurós is translated from Jesus’ Aramaic speech (Matt. 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23), and used in descriptions of his execution (Matt. 27:32, 40, 42; Mark 15:21, 30, 32; Luke 14:27; 23:26; John 19:17-31). The verbal stauróō is employed congruently (Matt. 20:19; 23:34; 26:2; 27:22-44; 28:5; Mark 15:13-32; 16:6; Luke 23:21, 23, 33; 24:7, 20; John 19:6-41; Acts 2:23, 36; 4:10), along with xúlon as a metonymy (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24).
     7 Psa. 22:16; Isa. 53:8-9; Matt. 20:19; 26:2; Acts 2:23. See also Matt. 16:21; 17:12, 22-23; 20:18-19; 21:37-39; 26:2; John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32-33; Acts 3:18; 4:27-28; et al.
     8 Mark 10:45; 1 Cor. 1:13; Gal. 1:4; 2:20; Eph. 5:25; 1 Tim. 2:6; Tit. 2:14; Heb. 12:2; 1 Pet. 2:24.
     9 1 Cor. 1:18-29; Gal. 3:13; 5:11; 6:12; Phil. 2:18; Heb. 6:6. See Sociocultural Context (Part 2): Honor and Shame.
     10 Justin Martyr, Apologia 1.5-60 and Dialogue with Trypho 85-97; Epistle of Barnabas 11-12; Tertullian, Apologia 12, 17; Apostolic Constitutions 3.17.
     11 Acts 2:23, 36; 4:10; 1 Cor. 1:17; 2:2; 15:1-4; Gal. 3:1.
     12 Heb. 2:9-17; 12:2; see also 2 Cor. 13:4; Phil. 2:8-9.
     13 Jerry L. Sumney, Colossians: A Commentary (Louisville, London: Westminster John Knox, 2003): 146.
     14 Peter Wehner, “What It Means to Worship a Man Crucified as a Criminal: A God who allows suffering is a mystery, but so is a God who suffered,” New York Times (19 April 2019), <Link>.


What something meant in the past does not necessarily determine what it currently means. Consider, for example, the statement: “Sunday is a special day of worship.” In the context of ancient Greco-Roman astrology, this would have reference to the day on which the sun (or sun god) is venerated. However, the word “Sunday” no longer carries this meaning in a modern-day westernized culture. The same is true for how the other days of the week are designated: Monday (day of the Moon), Tuesday (day of the Norse god Tiw), Wednesday (day of the Anglo-Saxon god Woden), Thursday (day of the Norse god Thor), Friday (day of Freya, the Norse queen of the gods), and Saturday (day of Saturn). Using these common monikers, irrespective of etymology, is in no way an endorsement of polytheism.  

Initially circumcision signified a covenantal relationship with God (Gen. 17:10-11), but it has not borne this significance since the third decade of the first century AD (Gal. 5:6), orthodox Judaism notwithstanding. The swastika () was originally a Buddhist symbol of luck and prosperity, but since the early twentieth century, thanks to German Nazism, it has conveyed a very different meaning.

Christmas, as a celebration of Christ’s birth, was not observed for the first three centuries of the Christian era. Many, therefore, do not regard it as a religious holy day in view of its initial connection to the pagan celebration of birthdays, the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar (Dec. 25th), the innovation of Roman Catholic traditions (“Christ’s mass”), and the absence of biblical authorization. Regardless of what the festival and any of its symbolism may have meant in the past, both Christians and non-Christians can celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday for family gatherings and gift-giving, without any inherent pagan or religious connotations. In this sense, Christ cannot be removed from Christmas any more than he can be removed from Christopher Columbus Day. A man-made holiday is not necessary to remember Christ on any day of the year.

The same can be said about any number of other festivities (Easter, birthdays, Halloween, etc.), symbols, flags, and customs. What something means is not necessarily dictated by what it meant. Moreover, what something represents to me may not be what it conveys to you. Is it that difficult to be neither hyper-sensitive, hyper-offensive, nor hyper-critical? Can we not extend to each other empathy, understanding, and grace?

Related PostsK. L. Moore, “Cross-bearing: the Cost of Discipleship,” Moore Perspective (12 August 2012), <Link>.

Related articles: Wes McAdams, “Is it Wrong?” Radically Christian (24 April 2019), <Link>; Neal Pollard, “A Passage I’ve Neglected,” PreacherPollard (17 Dec. 2019), <Link>.

Image credit: Nicholas Grundy Photography, “Celtic Cross,” Inis Mor, Aran Islands, <https://www.facebook.com/NicholasGrundyPhotography/photos/a.489662601046278/1368603503152179/?type=1&theater>

1 comment:

  1. Very informative. Appreciate the research. Merry Christmas