big cross in meadow

By Sandy Mittelsteadt
Contributor, Valley Ag Voice


How the cross became the symbol of Christianity.


Everywhere throughout the world today, you will see crosses hanging on walls or crosses around the necks of people. In some countries, especially Egypt, Christians have a tattoo of the cross on their wrists. And, during Lent, Christians receive the sign of the cross on their foreheads in ash.

Core Points:

The Cross was Offensive

Early believers in Jesus did not use the cross as a symbol of their faith. To them, the cross represented crucifixion, which evoked a shameful death of a criminal, slave, or rebellious foreigner. Scholars believe that the first public image (which has survived) is the wooden door of the Basilica of Santa Sabina, a fifth century church in Rome

Because the cross was viewed as offensive, Romans used it to curse one another by saying, “May you be nailed to the cross.” In fact, a Roman writer, Plautus, wrote the phrase “go to an evil cross” as slang for “go to hell.” It was also used in graffiti (found in Pompeii). The cross was also seen as a deterrent to discourage the rebellious from their disobedient ways. Seeing people hanging from a cross would probably change the mind of someone planning on revolting. Crucifixion was always done outside the city wall. 

To Die on the Cross Was Very Painful

Death on a cross was a slow and tormenting experience and sometimes lasted for days as the goal was to inflict as much pain as possible while delaying death. The actual crucifixion was conducted in three different ways: outstretched arms, head down, or with private parts impaled. When not impaled, the condemned person (after being tortured) carried the horizontal beam to the place of execution in a humiliating procession The executor or a soldier would fasten ropes or nail the naked person to the vertical beam of the cross. Finally, the cross was raised high in the air, so as to allow people to see the condemned person die—even from a long distance away

Physical Evidence of Crucifixion

Proof that crucifixions existed include a second century graffiti image (in Puteoli, Italy) of a man on the cross and an ankle bone pierced with a nail found outside Jerusalem at Givat ha-Mivta. This is evidence that one nail per foot was the practice. Both of these indicate that feet were nailed separately to the vertical beam. 

How did victims die?

Most medical theories state that crucified people died from asphyxia, but recent studies assert that victims likely died due a variety of physiological factors.

The Gospel’s Account of the Crucifixion

Each of the Synoptic Gospels recount Jesus’ crucifixion with amazing detail and tell how the crowd mocked Jesus on the cross. The gospel writers write of a Savior dying on the cross, which was offensive to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. 

The Book of Mark states that the death on a cross was necessary and an example of the service required for genuine discipleship, while John writes that Jesus’ crucifixion was foreshadowed by Moses when he lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Paul uses the word “cross” over and over again, even though he knew this message would not appeal to his audience, but that it would certainly attract their attention. Paul also believed that the cross showed Jesus’ selflessness, humbleness, and profuse love for us by suffering the pain and indignity of the cross.

The Cross in the First Century

The Book of Revelation probably shows a change in the attitude toward the cross as it probably refers to the mark of the cross as the seal that the servants of God receive on their foreheads.

The Cross in the Second and Third Century

The total population of the Roman Empire acknowledged that the founder of Christianity died a shameful death and Christians were still reluctant to depict it. They were very much aware that the cross was a “stumbling block for the Jews and foolishness for Greeks and Romans. (1 Corinthians 1:23) The earliest portrayal of the cross occurred in the iconography of Christian papyrus manuscripts, specifically the Staurogram. The shape of the cross was made by overlapping the Greek letters “Rho” and “Tau.” A more obvious depiction of the cross is found in a third-century gem, which is currently housed in the British Museum. It depicts a crucified Jesus with an inscription that lists various Egyptian magical words. By the end of the third century the repulsive image of the cross was rapidly becoming the leading symbol of Christianity.

The Cross in the Fourth Century

Christian history of the church tells how Eusebius of Caesarea describes how Christian martyrs in the arena would gesture with outstretched hands, which was recognized by all as representing Jesus’ crucifixion.

The biggest development in the Fourth Century was Constantine’s adoption of the cross as a symbol on his banners before the Battle of the Melvian Bridge. Constantine adopted the cross because he saw a cross of light in the sky with the writing of “Conquer by this.” Constantine’s public acceptation of Christianity and the ratification of the cross changed its connotation from a disgusting device into an honored symbol.

The Cross in the Fifth Century

Constantine’s adoption of the cross as a sign for his empire that had converted to Christianity meant that when the artisans depicted the crucified Jesus on the wooden doors of the Basilica of Santa Sabina, the cross was no longer an offensive image but the symbol of Christianity. Soon the cross would adorn the walls of churches throughout the world.


Far from its offensive roots, the cross is now the preeminent symbol of Christianity and is proudly hung on walls and around the necks of believers all over the world.

This piece is based on an article entitled “Jesus and The Cross” by Steven Shisley.

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