Mike Aquilina

Cross Currents

Saturday January 26th 2008, 9:01 pm

Picked up some kind of bug and have been feeling (in the words of my 4yo daughter Treesie) “Gwoss.” Even with such minor discomfort, a Christian’s thoughts naturally turn to the cross. And it seems more and more likely that it’s always been that way. Consider the recent discoveries:

* In Syria, archeologists have found two cruciform cemeteries from the third century (here and here).

* In the Basque region, archeologists unearthed a town that had been covered by a third-century landslide; and in one home they found a crudely drawn crucifix, complete with corpus.

* Scholars have begun to reconsider the dating of some gems engraved with the crucifix, placing them, too, in the third century.

* Larry Hurtado has catalogued the occurrences of staurograms and other crypto-crosses in manuscripts as far back as the early second century. He says that the staurogram — usually an embellished rendering of the Greek letters tau or chi or the Coptic ankh — “obviously refers to the crucifixion/cross of Jesus, and so (along with the abundant textual evidence) reflects an importance given to Jesus’ crucifixion in Christian faith/piety, from at least as early as the late second century.”

All this, of course, runs counter to what I learned in school, and probably to what most people learn in school today. It has, for generations, been commonplace to say that there were no crosses before Constantine. The standard current textbook in Christian archeology states flatly that there was “no place in the third century for a crucified Christ, or a symbol of divine death.”

If cruciform figures appeared in digs, they were dismissed as random scratches, mere geometric ornamentation, or later “contaminations” in early strata. The argument followed a circular logic:

1. We know there were no crosses before 300 because we’ve never found any.

2. When we seem to find crosses, we know they’re late or not really crosses, because of course there WERE no crosses before 300.

3. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Hurtado points out that preachers and letter-writers in those early years often refer to the cross of Christ. Other scholars point to this very early anti-Christian graffito, which portrays a donkey hanging on a cross. It’s unlikely that bigots would seize upon that symbol unless it had already been widely used and cherished by the Christians.

My money’s with the vanguard in this controversy. It seems that when we suffer and we survey that wondrous cross, we’re very likely doing what the earliest Christians did.