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Question: The cross is one of the most recognized Christian symbols in the world, but where did it come from? Did Christ’s disciples use it?
Answer: While it is true that the cross has long been held as the quintessential Christian icon, the real origin of the cross has nothing to do with early Christianity. Although the common assumption is that Jesus Christ was nailed to the t-shaped cross so commonly used today, there is no real evidence of this. The Bible contains no description of the actual wooden stake to which Christ was nailed. The actual word used in the Bible is stauros (Acts 5:30; 10:39;13:28-29), which simply meant an upright pole (sometimes with a cross-bar, sometimes not), stake or even a tree. The Romans used several variants to execute the condemned.
Nowhere in the Bible do we find the cross or crucifix being described or assigned as an object to be carried, worn, worshiped, canonized or given any other kind of significant treatment by Christians or those claiming to follow Christ. History and archaeology are also largely silent on this point, with many accounts concerning the cross and its use appearing only in apocryphal writings or sources several centuries after Jesus' death.
History shows us that the symbol of the cross pre-dated Christianity, and variants of it appeared in pagan art and religion all the way back to ancient times. For example, the British museum holds an Assyrian statue of the son of King Samsi-Vul wearing a near-perfect Maltese cross. Greek gods like Diana and Bacchus appeared with crosses, and share much in common with later medieval portrayals of the Virgin Mary.
Crosses in the form of ankhs, upright crucifixes, and even swastika-like depictions have been found from Latin America to Egypt and the Orient, and one letter of the Semitic alphabet even appears as a cross dating to about 1500bc. However, because the laws of God and the teachings of Jesus Christ and His disciples flatly condemned the use of icons and graven images to represent God or Christ, faithful Christians and honest adherents to these teachings would not have used such icons for their worship.
Although there were many professing Christians throughout the first centuries ad who took the name of Christ but were in actual fact guided or became apostates by the influence of pagan religion, it is reasonable to assume that variants of the cross may have been carried in reverence to Christ, but the first official "Christian" use of the cross did not begin until 312ad, under the rule of the pagan Roman Emperor Constantine. Constantine claimed to have had a vision of some type of cross (probably the Chi Rho or similar object, consisting of a P and an X-shaped symbol merged together to stand for Christ"s name in Greek) and a command to place it upon the standards of his army so as to conquer his enemies! In what seems to be a purely politically motivated move to take control of the increasingly popular apostate system of "Christianity" in Rome at the time (Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, "Cross"), Constantine used this symbol to associate himself with divinity and to make his version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.
Even the Chi Rho cross, however, had tie-ins to ancient pagan sources, and assertions of its use by early Christians before the fourth century are not supported by concrete evidence.
With no description found in the Bible of the specific type of stauros or cross used in Christ's crucifixion, Christians today should focus on the meaning of Christ's sacrifice, what He is doing right now and why. The fact that the traditional cross came out of pagan religion should give us pause. The Bible prohibits the use of icons and images as part of our worship of God.
In Exodus 20:3-5, God specifically commands His people not to bow down before a carved image—a warning ignored by those today who genuflect before a crucifix in their religious observance. This instruction is reemphasized in the New Testament; the Apostle John exhorts Christians to "keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21).