What Is the Staurogram From Early Church History? (c. 150-200 C.E.)

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The staurogram (plural staurograms) is a ligature, ⳨, of the Greek letters τ and ρ or Coptic letters ⲧ and ⲣ, later used as a symbol of the cross in early Christianity and remaining in use as a ligature in abbreviations of the words σταυρός and σταυρόω.

P._Bodmer_XIV-XV,_staurogram
A staurogram used as τρ-ligature part of the spelling of the word σταυρον (as Ϲ⳨ΟΝ) in Luke 14:27 (Papyrus Bodmer XIV, 2nd century). “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Photo: Foundation Martin Bodmer.

Abbreviation for Stauros

The staurogram was first used to abbreviate stauros (σταυρός), the Greek word for cross, in very early New Testament manuscripts such as P66, P45 and P75, almost like a nomen sacrum, and may visually have represented Jesus on the cross.[1]

Chi-Rho-Coin Staurogram
Early Christian coin of Emperor Magnentius (350-353 AD) with a large Chi-Rho

Monogram of Christ

The Tau-Rho as a Christian symbol outside its function as nomen sacrum in biblical manuscripts appears from c. the 4th century, used as a monogramma Christi alongside the Chi-Rho and other variants, spreading to Western Europe in the 5th and 6th centuries.[2]

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The so-called ‘staurogram’ is a device that likewise seems to have been deployed in early Christian manuscripts as an expression of Christian faith.[3] The device involves the superimposing of the majuscule letter rho on the majuscule tau. The bare device itself can be traced in various non/pre-Christian utilitarian uses (e.g. as a symbol for ‘3’ or ‘30’), but it was adopted in some early Christian manuscripts and deployed in a uniquely Christian manner and with a distinctively Christian meaning. Specifically, the earliest Christian uses of the device are as part of the way that the words σταυρος (‘cross’) and σταυροω (‘crucify’) are written in some early manuscripts containing NT texts. In these cases, the words are abbreviated, that is, treated as nomina sacra (so with a horizontal line over the abbreviated form), the abbreviation including the first and final letter(s), and including also the tau and the rho of these words combined to form the ‘staurogram’ device. That the earliest extant Christian use of the device is in these manuscripts and solely as part of the words ‘cross’ and ‘crucify’ has led a number of scholars to judge that the Christian purpose was to allude visually to the crucified Jesus, the loop of the rho intended as a pictographic reference to the head of a crucified figure on a cross (represented by the tau).[4] If this is correct (and I think it is), these instances of the ‘staurogram’ comprise our earliest visual references to the crucified Jesus, earlier by some 150 years than what are usually taken by historians of Christian art as the initial examples.[5]

In any case, the nomina sacra and the staurogram represent efforts to mark early Christian manuscripts visually as Christian. These scribal devices were not utilitarian in purpose. The nomina sacra were not intended really as abbreviations in the ordinary sense of that word; they did not function to save space. Nor did they have some pedestrian function, such as orientation points for readers on a codex page.[6] They originated and developed as visual expressions of Christian piety, especially in the case of the four earliest words so treated, which have been referred to more specifically as nomina divina.[7] The earliest Christian use of the tau-rho device, the ‘staurogram’, is even more obviously a visual expression of Christian devotion. The earliest Christian manuscripts are not often calligraphic or luxurious, and as we have noted reflect an impressively conscious turn from the literary bookroll toward the codex, which in the general culture of the time was regarded as less elegant or appropriate for literary texts. But the nomina sacra and the staurogram, in particular, show a concern for imprinting a distinctive semiotic quality on early Christian manuscripts, identifying them specifically as Christian items.[8]

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In combination with Alpha and Omega

Ephrem the Syrian (4th century) discusses a Christian symbol, apparently combining the Tau-Rho with Alpha and Omega placed under the left and right horizontal arms of the Tau. Ephrem says that the Tau represents the cross of Jesus (prefigured by the outstretched hands of Moses in Exodus 17:11), the Alpha and Omega signify that the crucified Christ is “the beginning and end”, and the Rho, finally, signifies “Help” (βοήθια [sic]; classical spelling: βοήθεια), because of the numerological value of the Greek word being 100, represented by Rho as a Greek numeral.[9]

Staurogram-3

Tau and Rho Separately

The two letters tau and rho can be found separately (not in ligature) as symbols already on early Christian ossuaries.[5] Tertullian (Contra Marcionem 3.22) explains the Tau as a symbol of salvation by identification with the sign which in Ezekiel 9:4 was marked on the forehead of the saved ones.[2] The rho by itself can refer to Christ as Messiah because Abraham, taken as a symbol of the Messiah, generated Isaac according to a promise made by God when he was one hundred years old, and 100 is the value of rho.[10]

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS

Coptic Unicode Block

The staurogram is encoded by Unicode in the Coptic block, at U+2CE8 ⳨ COPTIC SYMBOL TAU RO, and as of Unicode 7.0 (2014) also in the Ancient Symbols block, at U+101A0 𐆠 GREEK SYMBOL TAU RHO. The Coptic block has a ligature of the full word σταυρός, where the τρ is represented by the staurogram, and two lunate sigmas are attached to either side of the tau’s horizontal bar, at U+2CE7 ⳧ COPTIC SYMBOL STAUROS.

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS
Larry Hurtado

The “Staurogram”: Correcting Errors

October 13, 2011

In a very influential article published in 1925, Max Sulzberger contended that the earliest “christogram” was the chi-rho device and that other “christograms” (devices comprised of two Greek letters and expressive of early Christian faith in Jesus) derived from it.  (Max Sulzberger, “Le symbole de la croix et les monograms de Jesus chez les premiers chretiens,” Byzantion  2 [1925], 337-448.) This further meant that all christograms were directly or indirectly simply allusions to the Greek word “christos.”  So, e.g., see the comments on some early coins on this numismatic site:

http://www.forumancientcoins.com/numiswiki/view.asp?key=Staurogram

But it appears that neither epigraphers nor historians of early Christian art (with a very few exceptions) have been alerted to the important historical evidence found in early Christian manuscripts.  This is all laid out in the chapter on “the Staurogram” in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), 135-54.   But it seems that the over-specialization of academics means that people don’t often enough look “sideways” for collateral evidence.  So, some brief corrections:

1) The “Staurogram” (the combination of the Greek letters tau and rho) did not derive from the chi-rho.  We have instances of the Christian use of the tau-rho considerably earlier than any instances of the chi-rho. These earliest uses of the tau-rho are in Christian manuscripts palaeographically dated ca. 200-250 CE.

2) Unlike the chi-rho, which is used purely as a free-standing symbol, the earliest uses of the tau-rho are not as such free-standing symbols but form part of a special way of writing the Greek words for “cross” (stauros) and “crucify” (stauro-o), in NT texts which refer to the crucifixion of Jesus.

3) The tau-rho is not an allusion to the word “christos.”  Indeed, the letters have no relation to any terms in early Christian vocabulary.  Instead, the device (adapted from pre-Christian usage) seems to have served originally as a kind of pictographic representation of the crucified Jesus, the loop of the rho superimposed on the tau serving to depict the head of a figure on a cross.

4) So, contra the common assumption taught in art history courses, the earliest visual reference to the crucified Jesus isn’t 5th-century intaglia, but this scribal device employed by ca. 200 CE.  This amounts to a major shift

We all could benefit from reading more outside our narrow specialties.  Otherwise, we draw sweeping conclusions on too narrow a body of data, and we perpetuate outdated conclusions.

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[1] Hurtado, Larry (2006). “The Staurogram in Early Christian Manuscripts: the earliest visual reference to the crucified Jesus?”. In Kraus, Thomas (ed.). New Testament Manuscripts. Leiden: Brill. pp. 207–26

[2] Redknap, Mark (1991). The Christian Celts: treasures of late Celtic Wales. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales. p. 61.

[3] In addition to my discussion in The Earliest Christian Artifacts, 135–54, see also my essay, ‘The Staurogram in Early Christian Manuscripts: The Earliest Visual Reference to the Crucified Jesus?’ in Thomas J. Kraus and Tobias Nicklas, eds., New Testament Manuscripts: Their Text and Their World (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 207–26.

[4] e.g. Kurt Aland, ‘Bemerkungen zum Alter und Entstehung des Christogramms anhand von Beobachtungen bei P66 und P75’, Studien zur Überlieferung des Neuen Testaments und seines Textes (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1967), 173–9; Erika Dinkler-von Schubert, ‘ΣΤΑΥΡΟΣ: Vom “Wort vom Kreuz” (1 Kor. 1,18) zum Kreuz-Symbol’, in Doula Mouriki et al., eds., Byzantine East, Latin West: Art-Historical Studies in Honor of Kurt Weitzmann (Princeton: Dept of Art and Archaeology, 1995), 29–39.

[5] Two Christian gems dated to the 4th cent. and a 5th-cent. seal in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City are frequently cited as earliest visual depictions of the crucified Jesus. But cf. now Robin Margaret Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art (London: Routledge, 2000), 131–41, who has recognized the ‘staurogram’ as likely an earlier pictographic reference to the crucified figure of Jesus.

[6] Contra Tuckett, ‘“Nomina Sacra”: Yes and No?’

[7] Schuyler Brown, ‘Concerning the Origin of the Nomina Sacra’, SPap 9 (1970): 7–19.

[8] The Early Text of the New Testament. Oxford. Kindle Edition.

[9] Hurtado (2006), citing F. J. Dölger, Sol Salutis (1920), p. 61 (note 2). Ephraem in sanctam Parasceven, Ephraem Syri opera omnia quae extant graece — syriace — latine Tom. III Romae 1746, p. 477.

[10] Bagatti, Bellarmino, “The Church from the Circumcision: history and archaeology of the Judaeo-Christians”, Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, Collectio Minor n. 2, Jerusalem (1984).

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