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The Cross Before Constantine: The Early Life of a Christian Symbol Paperback – August 1, 2015
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"Longenecker lays down an effective barrage on the insufficiently-examined position that the cross was not a Christian symbol prior to Constantine. There may well be objections to his proposals on some specific artifacts, but the sheer weight and diversity of the evidence that he gathers here cannot be denied by anyone ready to consider the matter fairly. With this richly documented work, we have the basis of a new and more evidence-based understanding of how the cross functioned in pre-Constantinian Christianity." --L.W. Hurtado, Emeritus, University of Edinburgh
"It has long been thought that the Christians only began to use the symbol of the cross when Constantine made it his imperial sign. In Bruce Longenecker's careful and wonderfully detailed survey, this is shown up as a modern myth. Though there is no uniform pattern, the cross was known and used as a Christian symbol from at least the 70s of the first century. This is revisionist historiography at its best." --Professor N. T. Wright, University of St. Andrews
"This compelling study brings fresh insight to a thorny problem in the history of Christianity: the origins of the cross as a symbol in the early Church. Against the long-held view that cross-symbolism of any kind was avoided prior to the fourth century, Longenecker demonstrates not only the presence of the symbol in the material record of early Christianity, but its role as a symbol of power. Such a thorough and insightful analysis of both the material and literary evidence on this problem has been long overdue; and the findings demand attention from scholars and general readers alike." --Felicity Harley-McGowan, Yale Divinity School
From the Author
See also this book's sibling, The Crosses of Pompeii: Jesus-Devotion in a Vesuvian Town (2016).
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The cross was not the primary sign in this early period, nor did it have the prominence it did after Constantine, nor was it overly prominent in architecture. Nevertheless, early use of the cross as a religious symbol paved the way for its rise to prominence by Constantine and after.
Longenecker makes these claims with substantial and fascinating evidence. It's worth paging through this book simply to review the illustrations.
The most interesting insight, however, is the evidence that shows the cross having an apotropaic function. It was used as a symbol that sent a message to superhuman entities "that to mess with people associated with the cross is to mess with a supreme power--a power that even the forces of death cannot conquer" (187).
In other words, the cross did not have a liturgical or architectural significance... it was instead a sign of personal identity, and functioned as a ward.
Constantine's innovation was to harvest this apotropaic function for political purposes.
Bruce Longenecker devastates this long held belief with incredible evidence and argumentation, along the way exploring the history of the cross as a symbol of the Christian faith, and looking at pre-Christian symbols that influenced the cross as a Christian symbol, such as the Egyptian Ankh. However most fascinating here is his argumentation of the cross in equilateral form as a Jewish mark for eschatological protection based on the text of Ezekiel and later picked up and reworked in the Book of Revelation. A mark found on Jewish ossuaries. This shows that the cross as a Christian symbol was not necessarily as conspicuous a sign as one might think, and marking the bearer as bait for persecution. Christians might see in this pre-Christian use of the symbol by Jews, yet another instance of typological interpretation of Christ being foreshadowed in the Old Testament.
The real meat of the book is found in the last few chapters, where Bruce shines the light on a treasure horde of archeological evidence in the form of, not only literary renditions of the cross in early Christian literature, but material crosses found in rings, burial chambers and places of worship dating anywhere from mid second century to late third century. Some of these crosses and depictions of the crucifixion were earlier discarded because of their syncretistic use as amulets and so forth. However, Bruce is right to point out that in the age of Antiquity, perhaps not all were as scrupulous about their incorporation of Christian beliefs into their own religion. Whether one wants to consider these people as Christians or not, it seems they were at least borrowing the cross from Christians and using it to their own purposes. This would explain the cross being found in a Pompeiian Bakery dating to the first century when it was covered in ash by Mount Vesuvius.
The evidence then clearly shows that though the cross may not have been the most popular of Christian symbols before Constantine, it was certainly a well-known symbol of the Christian faith before him. It also shows that in antiquity it was rightly seen as a symbol of God’s power, and not a symbol of weakness, in that there it was known God overcame death. The cross as a symbol of God’s power over death was then even attributed by non-Christians with magical abilities to ward off evil. It certainly would not have been a symbol that brought shame for those otherwise willing to die for the faith.
Longenecker digs into the facts, and he overthrows this old viewpoint easily. And his book is chock full of pictures, so you can examine the evidence for yourself.
Before Christianity, Second Temple Jews used the tou staurou, which is a cross, as a sign or mark that you were saved. Later, the early Christians made the sign of the cross on their foreheads, according to Tertullian.
The Aurelii sepulcher, which has been dated to 282 AD, has a painting of man whose "right hand points directly to a body cross...a clear indication of Christianity" (p 76). Another tomb in the oldest part of the Callistus catacomb also portrays a cross "dated to the second half of the second century" (p 83).
Yet one more example in the area of the Saint Sebastian catacomb - this time dated to the year 200 AD - "showed the word ichthys...a cross in combination with the ichthys acrostic" (p 84).
The cross appears also to have been used by the Gnostics, used in this case as a "means to protect the gnostic soul in its journeys" (p 97). One Gnostic apparently used the bloodstone gem apotropaion as a magical amulet, for on it was depicted Jesus on a cross as well as many Egyptian magical words.
There is also a fascinating chapter on the cross in the bakery in Pompeii. After Longenecker finished this book he wrote a second one on the number of crosses found in Pompeii, before the famous volcanic eruption ended in covering the city under a layer of ash, titled "The Crosses of Pompeii". I highly recommend that book as well.