Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Cross Before Constantine

By Bruce Longenecker
The cross as a symbol of the Christian faith has fallen out of favor over the last decades, and is seen as offensive even among many so-called Christian circles. It is often noted upon visiting a non-denominational church that there is no cross in the sanctuary or elsewhere to be found on the” campus.” There are some who argue the cross wasn’t used by the Early Church, and only became a symbol of the faith after the conversion of Constantine, and so perhaps should not be used today. This idea even became dogma amongst archeologists, despite the peculiarity of the claim. It would be odd that an event so central to the faith according to Paul, who tells the Corinthians that the word of the cross is the power of salvation to those who believe, and that he knew nothing among them but Christ and him crucified, would fail depiction among the many early Christian symbols. Indeed, one wonders how a symbol, supposedly absent among Christians, would then communicate the Lord of that faith To Constantine on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge? The Chi Rho, an early superimposition of Greek letters meant to depict Christ on the cross must have had some popularity amongst Christians if it brought to mind the Christian faith for Constantine. However, the archeological evidence was sparse, and until recently the Alexemenos Graffito (c. 200 A.D) was thought to be the earliest depiction of the crucifixion, or even the cross.
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.  

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