Early Christian Symbols

Here is a nice reminder from my friend Larry Hurtado that early Christian symbols and talismans are not ink blots into which we can read just anything. — BW3

Earliest Christian Symbols: Corrections
by larryhurtado

I’ve mentioned before that the Internet is great for some things, but that also there are sites (often set up by well-meaning people) that publish out of date and inaccurate information. Many are the posts that could be written giving examples, but one will serve.

If you go to this site, for example, you will find information given on “monograms”, including particularly a (very dated) discussion of the “chi-rho”: http://www.christiansymbols.net/monograms_2.php. A few corrections based on my own research published in several books over the last decade or so:

The chi-rho is not the earliest “monogram” type device to refer to Jesus. Instead, the earliest attested such device is the tau-rho. (For further discussion, see, e.g., my essay “the Staurogram” on the “Essays, etc.” page of this site.)

The site to which I refer mixes chi-rho and tau-rho devices, assuming that the latter are curious forms of the former. They aren’t. As I (and others) have shown, the earliest uses of the tau-rho are in NT manuscripts as part of an abbreviation of the Greek words for “cross” and “crucify”, and it seems that the device was initially a kind of pictogram representing the crucified Jesus. So (unlike the chi-rho), the tau-rho isn’t really a monogram, for it isn’t the initials of a name or title.
The site also erroneously proposes that the iota that sometimes is included with the chi-rho might derive from the second letter of the Greek word for “Christ”. It doesn’t. The iota (which can also be combined with the chi to form what can look like a six-point star device) is from the initial letter of the Greek word for “Jesus” (Iesous). So, e.g., the combination of the iota and the chi forms a monogram for “Jesus Christ”.

I don’t mean to pick on this one site or its (obviously sincere and dedicated creator), only to illustrate the need to judge and compare carefully the opinions and information proffered on web sites.

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