|Christian symbols.The Non-Christian Cross: An Enquiry into the Origin and History of the Symbol CHAPTER III|
Author: John Denham Parsons
THE EVIDENCE OF THE OTHER FATHERS.
The works which have come down to us from the Fathers who lived before
the days of Constantine make up over ten thousand pages of closely
printed matter; and the first point which strikes those who examine
that mass of literature with a view to seeing what the Christians of
the first three centuries thought and wrote concerning the execution of
Jesus and the symbol of the cross, is that the execution of Jesus was
hardly so much as mentioned by them, and no such thing as a
representation of the instrument of execution once referred to.
Another fact worthy of special note is that, whether the Fathers wrote
in Greek and used the word _stauros_, or wrote in Latin and translated
that word as _crux_, they often seem to have had in their mind's eye a
tree; a tree which moreover was closely connected in meaning with the
forbidden tree of the Garden of Eden, an allegorical figure of
undoubtedly phallic signification which had its counterpart in the Tree
of the Hesperides, from which the Sun-God Hercules after killing the
Serpent was fabled to have picked the Golden Apples of Love, one of
which became the symbol of Venus, the Goddess of Love. Nor was this the
only such counterpart, for almost every race seems in days of old to
have had an allegorical Tree of Knowledge or Life whose fruit was Love;
the ancients perceiving that it was love which produced life, and that
but for the sexual passion and its indulgence mankind would cease to
Starting upon an examination of the early Christian writings in
question, we read in the _Gospel of Nicodemus_ that when the Chief
Priests interviewed certain men whom Jesus had raised from the dead,
those men made upon their faces "the sign of the stauros." The sign
of the cross is presumably meant; and all that need be said is that if
the men whom Jesus raised from the dead were acquainted with the sign
of the cross, it would appear that it must have been as a pre-Christian
Further on in the same Gospel, Satan is represented as being told that
"All that thou hast gained through the Tree of Knowledge, all hast thou
lost through the Tree of the Stauros."
Elsewhere we read that "The King of Glory stretched out his right hand,
and took hold of our forefather Adam, and raised him: then, turning
also to the rest, he said, 'Come with me as many as have died through
the Tree which he touched, for behold I again raise you all up through
the Tree of the Stauros.'" Some see in this peculiar pronouncement a
reference to the doctrine of re-incarnation.
In the _Acts and Martyrdom of the Holy Apostle Andrew_ we are told that
those who executed Andrew "lifted him up on the stauros," but "did not
sever his joints, having received this order from the pro-consul, for
he wished him to be in distress while hanging, and in the nighttime as
he was suspended to be eaten by dogs." There is nothing to show that
the stauros used was other than an ordinary stauros.
In the _Epistle of Barnabas_ are various references to the stauros;
mixed up with various passages from the Hebrew Scriptures,
quoted--without any justification--as referring to the initiatory rite
of baptism; a rite, be it noted, that was admittedly of Gentile rather
than Israelitish origin, and not unconnected with the Sun-God worship
of the Persians and other Orientals of non-Hebrew race.
The references in question commence with the enquiry, "Let us further
ask whether the Lord took any care to foreshadow the Water and the
Afterwards we have a quotation of _Psalm_ i. 3-6--which likens the good
man to a tree planted by the side of a river and yielding his fruit in
due season--and the pronouncement, "Mark how he has described at once
both the Water and the Stauros. For these words imply, Blessed are they
who, placing their trust in the Stauros, have gone down into the
This further reference to the non-Mosaic initiatory rite of baptism is
followed by a quotation of _Ezekiel_ xlvii. 12, which speaks of a river
by whose side grow trees those who cat the fruit of which grow for
Further on is a declaration that when Moses stretched out his hands (in
a direction not specified) that victory might rest with the forces he
commanded, he stretched them out in the figure of a stauros, as a
prophecy that Jesus "would be the author of life."
A reference is then made to the Brazen Serpent, and to the pole upon
which it was placed; and it is stated that this lifeless imitation of a
serpent was a type of Jesus.
In the _Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians_ we read that the stauros
of the Christ is indeed a stumbling block to those who do not believe.
The evidence of Irenaeus, as that of one who was through his
acquaintance with the aged Polycarp almost in touch as it were with the
apostles, will on account of his importance as a witness be specially
dealt with in the next chapter.
Justin Martyr, arguing that the figure of the cross is impressed upon
the whole of nature, asks men to
"Consider all things in the world, whether without this
form they could be administered or have any certainty.
For the sea is not traversed except that trophy which is
called a sail abide safe in the ship; and the earth is
not ploughed without it: diggers and mechanics do not
their work except with tools which have this shape. And
the human form differs from that of the irrational
animals in nothing else than in its being erect and
having the hands extended and having on the face
extending from the forehead what is called the nose,
through which there is respiration for the living
creature; and this shows no other form than that of the
cross. And so it was said by the prophet _The breath
before our face is the Lord Christ_. And the power of
this form is shown by your own symbols on what are
called standards and trophies; with which all your
processions are made, using these as insignia of your
power and government."
Elsewhere Justin Martyr declares that the Christ
"Was symbolised both by the Tree of Life which was said
to have been planted in Paradise, and by those events
which should happen to all the just. Moses was sent with
a _rod_ to effect the redemption of the people; and with
this in his hands at the head of the people he divided
the sea. By this he saw the water gushing out of the
rock; and when he cast a _tree_ into the waters of
Marah, which were bitter, he made them sweet. Jacob by
putting _rods_ into the water troughs caused the sheep
of his uncle to conceive . . . . Aaron's _rod_ which
blossomed declared him to be the High Priest. Isaiah
prophesied that a rod would come forth from the root of
Jesse, and this was the Christ."
Further on in the same work, Justin Martyr, alluding to the statement
in the Israelitish Law "Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree,"
"It was not without design that the prophet Moses
when Hur and Aaron upheld his hands, remained in this
form until evening. For indeed the Lord remained upon
the tree almost until evening."
Tertullian writes concerning the Christ "With the last enemy Death did
he fight, and through the trophy of the cross he triumphed"; and
elsewhere tells us that "Cursed is every one who hangeth on a tree" was
a prediction of his death.
There is also in existence a long essay by Tertullian which starts by
discussing the efficacy of "the sign" as an antidote. The sign of the
cross as traced upon the forehead in the non-Mosaic initiatory rite of
baptism seems to be what is referred to; and no representation of an
instrument of execution, or cross-shaped symbol of wood or any
material, is once mentioned.
In another of Tertullian's works we come across the passage "In all the
actions of daily life we trace upon the forehead the sign."
His famous reference to the Sun-God Mithras reads as follows:--
"The devil in the mystic rites of his idols competes
even with the essential portions of the sacraments of
God. He, like God, baptizes some, that is, his own
believing and faithful followers, and promises the putting
away of sins by baptism; and if I remember rightly
Mithras there signs his soldiers upon their foreheads,
celebrates the oblation of bread, introduces a representation
of the resurrection, and places the crown beyond
Elsewhere Tertullian writes:--
"If any of you think we render superstitious adoration
to the cross, in that adoration he is sharer with us . .
You worship _victories_, for in your trophies the cross
is the heart of the trophy. The camp religion of the
Romans is all through a worship of the standards . . . I
praise your zeal: you would not worship crosses
unclothed and unadorned."
In another of Tertullian's works we read:--
"As for him who affirms that we are the priesthood of a
cross, we shall claim him as a co-religionist . . .
Every piece of timber which is fixed in the ground in an
erect position is part of a cross, and indeed the
greater part of its mass. But an entire cross is
attributed to us . . . . The truth however is that
_your_ religion is _all_ cross . . . You are ashamed, I
suppose, to worship unadorned and simple crosses."
In the _Instructions of Commodianus_ we read "The first law was in the
tree, and so, too, was the second."
Cyprian contends that "By the sign of the cross, also, Amalek was
conquered by Moses."
Elsewhere Cyprian tells us that "In this sign of the cross is salvation
for all people who are marked on their foreheads"; quoting as proof of
this, from the Apocalypse, "They had his name and the name of his
Father written on their foreheads," and "Blessed are they that do his
commandments that they may have power over the Tree of Life."
Methodius tells us that "He overcame, as has been said, the powers that
enslaved us by the figure of the cross; and shadowed forth man, who had
been oppressed by corruption as by a tyrant power, to be free with
unfettered hands. For the cross, if you wish to define it, is the
confirmation of victory."
Passing on to Origen, we find in one of his works the noteworthy
"It is possible to avoid it if we do what the Apostle
saith 'Mortify your members which are upon earth,' and
if we always carry about in our bodies the death of
Christ. For it is certain that where the death of Christ
is carried about, sin cannot reign. For the power of the
_stauros_ of Christ is so great that if it be set before
a man's eyes and kept faithfully in his mind so that he
look with steadfast eyes of the mind upon that same
death of Christ, no concupiscence, no sensuality, no
natural passion, and no envious desire, is able to
Whether however this reference to the "_stauros_ of Christ" is or is
not a reference to the figure of the cross, is doubtful.
Such is the evidence regarding the cross, whether considered as
immaterial sign or material symbol, obtainable from the writings of the
Christians who lived between the days of the Apostles and those of
Constantine; other of course than the _Octavius_ of Minucius Felix,
which was dealt with in the last chapter, and the writings of Irenaeus,
which will be dealt with in the next.
Among the noteworthy features of the evidence in question prominently
stands out the smallness of its volume.
This is but a negative point, however; and what should be carefully
borne in mind is that the evidence as a whole leads to the conclusion
that the Christians of the second and third centuries made use of the
sign and venerated the figure of the cross without, as Dean Farrar
admits, it "only or even mainly," reminding them of the death of Jesus;
and therefore otherwise than as a representation of the instrument of
execution upon which Jesus died.