In Christianity the cross is everywhere, no matter whether in the Russian form or Latin form or other forms.  It seems very odd, then, that in the archeological evidence it is virtually absent from early Christian art until about the 4th and 5th centuries.  Many opine that even though the cross — because of the Crucifixion — was  a central part of Christian teaching, Christians were not in favor of advertising it visually because it was an instrument of shame and execution to ordinary Romans, a sign of criminals.  In fact one of the earliest depictions considered to be of the Crucifixion is a wall graffito apparently making fun of a Christian named Alexamenos, showing him worshiping a God who is crucified.  The graffito, found near the Palatine hill in Rome,  gives Jesus the head of an ass.  It may date to the beginning of the 3rd century.


There has been some talk that the earliest Christian representation of the Crucifixion is not found in graffiti or carvings or paintings, but rather in early Christian papyrus manuscripts of the Gospels.  Why do some think that? 

It is because of an abbreviation for the word cross (Greek stauros) found in some such early papyri.  Instead of writing the word out as CΤΑΥΡΟC, they instead abbreviate it as CTPON, but combine the letters T (tau) and P (rho). so that the circle of the rho is placed atop the tau.

There is speculation that this may have been done to represent the body of Jesus on the cross, the circle of the rho forming his head.  You can see what it looks like in this photo of Bodmer Papyrus 75, in the line giving “Luke” 14:27, where “cross” is found in the grammatical form CTAΥΡΟΗ/STAURON

ὅστις οὐ βαστάζει τὸν σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἔρχεται ὀπίσω μου, οὐ δύναται εἶναί μου μαθητής.
Hostis ou bastazei ton stauron autou kai erkhetai opiso mou, ou dunatai einai mou mathetes.

“Whoever does not carry his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”


These early papyri, however, were discovered in Egypt, which has soil dry enough to preserve ancient papyrus documents. That gives a possible alternate reason for the “crucified man” appearance of the so-called Staurogram abbreviation.

The monuments of ancient Egypt — which have lasted even to our own time — are filled with hieroglyphic symbols, and one of the most prominent of these is the ankh. “Ankh” in ancient Egyptian signified “to live” — life.

It is found in the common ancient Egyptian phrase Ankh em Pet — “Live in Heaven,” i.e. “Live forever.”

In the image below, for example, we see the Goddess Isis giving life to the nostrils of Queen Nefertari — one of the wives of Pharaoh Rameses the Great — through the symbol of the ankh:

The ankh — the “cross before the cross” — would have been a familiar symbol to early Egyptian Christians, who may have simply transferred the “life-giving” notion of the ankh from the ancient Egyptian religion to the written Gospel manuscript abbreviation for the cross. Whether the staurogram also was a kind of “stick figure” image of the crucified Jesus is open to question, but in the absence of clear evidence we are free to keep an open mind.

It is possible also that the papyri with the staurogram are not as early as previously thought. There is some speculation that instead of dating from 175-225 c.e., Papyrus 75 may be as late as the 4th century, because of its similarity of text to Codex Vaticanus, which would put the presence of the Staurogram in the same period as the known appearance of the cross in Christian art — but that too is speculation.


Do you remember when we looked at this multiple icon?

(Courtesy of Maryhill Museum)

The five main icon types on it were explained in this previous posting:


Today, however, I want to discuss an odd little sidelight on the imagery of the central Crucifixion, specifically the image of the sun:


You will remember that in icons of the Crucifixion, it is very common to depict the sun dark and the moon red.

The sun is represented as darkened in keeping with the Synoptic Gospel accounts — but as we often find, they contain some surprises.

Scholars generally hold that Matthew and Luke are simply expanded and edited versions of the Gospel called “of Mark.” So here is what we find in the Synoptics regarding the darkened sun at the Crucifixion:

Mark 15:33
And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.

Matthew 27:45:

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour.

And if we look at “Luke,” we find this in 23:44-45:

And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst.

So basically they all say much the same regarding the darkened sun. So what is the issue?

Well, it is this. The “earliest and best” manuscripts of “Luke” do not say “And the sun was darkened.” Instead, they say τοῦ ἡλίου ἐκλιπόντος / tou heliou eklipontons — “the sun was eclipsed

So why do later versions of Luke say καὶ ἐσκοτίσθη ὁ ἥλιος / kai eskotisthe ho helios — “and the sun was darkened“?

It is because the eclipse mentioned at the Crucifixion in the “oldest and best” Greek manuscripts was an embarrassment to educated Christians. It was an obvious error. First, an eclipse of the sun does not last three hours. It lasts only a few minutes. Second, the Crucifixion supposedly took place at the time of Passover, when the moon is full. An eclipse happens on a new moon, not the full moon.

This reading of “Luke” so bothered the 3rd century theologian Origin that he asserted it was likely put into Luke by “secret enemies of the Church of Christ.”

We say then that Matthew and Mark have not stated that an eclipse occurred at
that time. Neither did Luke according to very many copies, which have, And it
was about the sixth hour, and a darkness came over the whole land until the ninth
hour; and the sun was darkened. In some copies however the words, And the sun
was darkened, do not occur, but, There was darkness over all the land, the sun
being eclipsed. Possibly some one in the desire to make the statement more plain
made bold to place, The sun being eclipsed, in the place of, And the sun was
darkened, believing that the darkness could not have happened except by reason
of an eclipse. Yet I rather believe that the secret enemies of the Church of Christ
have altered this phrase, making the darkness occur by reason of the sun being
‘eclipsed‘, so that the Gospels might be attacked with some show of reason,
through the devices of those who wished to attack them

Of course there is no evidence to support that supposition. It is quite obvious from the manuscript evidence that “the sun was eclipsed” was the earlier reading of that part of “Luke.”

Because it was an embarrassment, copyists began dropping the earlier reading, instead changing the words to kαὶ ἐσκοτίσθη ὁ ἥλιος / kai eskotisthe ho helios — “and the sun was darkened.” That change put Luke into harmony with the accounts in Mark and Matthew, which say nothing of an eclipse.

Most modern translations simply ignore the earlier reading and follow the altered text to keep it in harmony with “Mark” and “Matthew,” or else they translate the word that should be understood to signify “eclipse” simply as “for the sun stopped shining,” as the NIV does, to avoid the issue of the mistaken eclipse.

As for the Gospel called “of John,” it omits the matter entirely. In John there is no darkness over the land at the Crucifixion, no eclipse, no earthquake, no rending of the veil in the Temple.

Mention of an eclipse at the Crucifixion is also found in the Acts of Pilate (Gospel of Nicodemus):

And the centurion reported what had happened to the procurator. And when the procurator and his wife heard it, they were exceedingly grieved, and neither ate nor drank that day. And Pilate sent for the Jews, and said to them: Have you seen what has happened? And they say: There has been an eclipse of the sun in the usual way.”

In the apocryphal Letters of the 5th or 6th century writer pretending to be Dionysios the Areopagite, the writer claims he was a witness to the eclipse at the Crucifixion:

Say to him however, “What do you affirm concerning the eclipse, which took place at the time of the saving Cross?” For both of us at that time, at Heliopolis, being present, and standing together, saw the moon approaching the sun, to our surprise (for it was not appointed time for conjunction); and again, from the ninth hour to the evening, supernaturally placed back again into a line opposite the sun. And remind him also of something further. For he knows that we saw, to our surprise, the contact itself beginning from the East, and going towards the edge of the sun’s disc, then receding back, and again, both the contact and the re-clearing, not taking place from the same point, but from that diametrically opposite. So great are the supernatural things of that appointed time, and possible to Christ alone, the Cause of all, Who does great things and marvelous, of which there is not number.”

To the uneducated among classical Greeks and Romans, an eclipse was a dangerous omen. Richard C. Carrier writes:

“The majority of lunar and solar eclipses mentioned in ancient works are presented as
coinciding with wars, battles, or the deaths of prominent persons, and these
coincidences are by and large invented without reference to astronomical fact.” (Cultural History of the Lunar and Solar Eclipse in the Early Roman Empire)

The Greek historian Plutarch (c. AD 46 – after AD 119 ) wrote that “men regard [the eclipse] as monstrous and as a sign sent from God portending some great misfortunes.”

That was not, however, the view of educated Romans, who regarded an eclipse as a natural phenomenon, not as a dangerous omen.

It is not surprising then that the anonymous writers of the Synoptic Gospels used both a long darkness and an eclipse to signify the world shaken by a cosmic event. In short, both were literary fictions designed for a specific purpose, not things that actually happened. It troubled later Christians greatly that there was no record of them outside the Gospels — but that is the nature of the Gospels. They are not to be taken as factual history any more than Tolstoy’s War and Peace, though it mentions verifiable historical persons and events, is to be mistaken for recording actual history. That was not the purpose of Tolstoy, nor was it the purpose of the Gospels.