SPIRITUAL DARKNESS OF THE MIDDLE AGES #4
IS THE CROSS Q CHRISTIAN SYMBOL?
by Ralph Woodrow
THE CROSS IS recognized as one of the most important symbols
of the Roman Catholic Church. It is displayed on top of roofs and
towers. It is seen on altars, furnishings, and ecclesiastical
garments. The floor plan of the majority of Catholic churches is
laid out in the shape of the cross. All Catholic homes,
hospitals, and schools have the cross adorning the walls.
Everywhere the cross is outwardly honored and adored-in hundreds
When an infant is sprinkled, the priest makes the sign of
the cross upon its forehead saying: "Receive the sign of the
cross upon thy forehead." During confirmation, the candidate is
signed with the cross. On Ash Wednesday, ashes are used to make a
cross on the forehead. When Catholics enter the church building,
they dip the forefinger of the right hand in "holy water", touch
the forehead, the chest, the left and the right shoulder--thus
tracing the figure of the cross. The same sign is made before
eating meals. During Mass, the priest makes the sign of the cross
16 times and blesses the altar with the cross sign 30 times.
Protestant churches, for the most part, do not believe in
making the sign of the cross with their fingers. Neither do they
bow down before crosses or use them as objects of worship. They
have recognized that these things are unscriptural and
superstitious. But the use of the cross has been commonly
retained on steeples, on pulpits, and in various other ways as a
form of decoration.
The early Christians did not consider the cross as a
virtuous symbol, but rather as "the accursed tree", a device of
death and "shame" (Heb.12:2). They did not trust in an old rugged
cross. Instead, their faith was in what was accomplished on the
cross; and through this faith, they knew the full and complete
forgiveness of sin! It was in this sense that the apostles
preached about the cross and gloried in it (1 Cor.1:17,18). They
never spoke of the cross as a piece of wood one might hang from a
little chain around his neck or carry in his hand as a protector
or charm. Such uses of the cross came later.
It was not until Christianity began to be paganized (or, as
some prefer, paganism was Christianized), that the cross image
came to be thought of as a Christian symbol. It was in 431 that
crosses in churches and chambers were introduced, while the use
of crosses on steeples did not come until about 586. In the sixth
century, the crucifix image was sanctioned by the church of Rome.
It was not until the second Council at Ephesus that private homes
were required to possess a cross.
If the cross is a Christian symbol, it cannot be correctly
said that its origin was within Christianity, for in one form or
another it was a sacred symbol long before the Christian Era and
among many non-Christian people. According to An Expository
Dictionary of New Testament Words, the cross originated among the
Babylonians of ancient Chaldea. "The ecclesiastical form of a two
beamed cross ... had its origin in ancient Chaldea, and was used
as the symbol of the god Tam m uz (being in the shape of the
Mystic Tau, the initial of his name) in that country and in
adjacent lands, including Egypt ... In order to increase the
prestige of the apostate ecclesiastical system, pagans were
received into the churches apart from regeneration by faith, and
were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols.
Hence the Tau or T, in its most frequent form, with the
cross-piece lowered, was adop-ted to stand for the cross of
In any book on Egypt that shows the old monuments and walls
of ancient temples, one can see the use of the Tau cross. The
accompanying illustration shows the Egyptian god Amon holding a
This illustration, taken from a building at Amenophis IV at
Thebes, Egypt, shows a king praying. Notice the round sun circle
with a mystery form of the sun-god beneath it. Says a noted
historian in reference to Egypt: "Here unchanged for thousands of
years, we find among her most sacred hieroglyphics the cross in
various forms ... but the one known specially as the 'cross of
Egypt', or the Tau cross, is shaped like the letter T, often with
a circle or ovoid above it. Yet this mystical symbol was not
peculiar to this country, but was reverenced ... among the
Chaldeans, Phoenicians, Mexicans, and every ancient people in
As the cross symbol spread to various nations, its use
developed in different ways. Among the Chinese, "the cross is...
acknowledged to be one of the most ancient devices ... it is
portrayed upon the walls of their pagodas, it is painted upon the
lanterns used to illuminate the most sacred recesses of their
The cross has been a sacred symbol in India for centuries
among non-Christian people. It has been used to mark the jars of
holy water taken from the Ganges, also as an emblem of
disembodied Jaina saints. In the central part of India, two crude
crosses of stone have been discovered which date back to a time
centuries before the Christian Era - one over ten feet, the other
over eight feet high. The Buddhists, and numerous other sects of
India, marked their followers on the head with the sign of the
On the continent of Africa, at Susa, natives plunge a cross
into the River Gitche. The Kabyle women, although Mohammedans,
tatoo a cross between their eyes. In Wanyamwizi walls are
decorated with crosses. The Yaricks, who established a line of
kingdoms from the Niger to the Nile, had an image of a cross
painted on their shields.
When the Spaniards first landed in Mexico, "they could not
suppress their wonder", says Prescott, "as they beheld the cross,
the sacred emblem of their own faith, raised as an object of
worship in the temples of Anahuac. The Spaniards were not aware
that the cross was the symbol of worship of the highest antiquity
... by pagan nations on whom the light of Christianity had never
In Palenque, Mexico, founded by Votan in the ninth century
before the Christian Era, is a heathen temple known as "The
Temple of the Cross." There inscribed on an altar slab is a
central cross six and a half by eleven feet in size. The Catholic
Encyclopedia includes a photograph of this cross, beneath which
are the words "Pre-Christian Cross of Palenque."
In olden times, the Mexicans worshipped a cross as tota (our
father). This practice of addressing a piece of wood with the
title "father" is also mentioned in the Bible. When the
Israelites mixed idolatry with their religion, they said to a
stock, "Thou art my father" (Jer.2:27). But it is contrary to the
scriptures to call a piece of wood (or a priest) by the title
Ages ago in Italy, before the people knew anything of the
arts of civilization, they believed in the cross as a religious
symbol. It was regarded as a protector and was placed upon tombs.
In 46 B.C., Roman coins show Jupiter holding a long scepter
terminating in a cross. The Vestal Virgins of pagan Rome wore
the cross suspended from their necklaces, as the nuns of the
Roman Catholic church do now.
The Greeks depicted crosses on the headband of their god
corresponding to Tammuz of the Babylonians. Porcelli mentions
that Isis was shown with a cross on her forehead. Her priests
carried processional crosses in their worship of her. The temple
of Serapis in Alexandria was surmounted by a cross. The temple of
the Sphinx when it was unearthed was found to be cruciform in
shape. Ensigns in the form of a cross were carried by the
Persians during their battles with Alexander the Great (B.C.
The cross was used as a religious symbol by the Aborigines
of South America in ancient times. New born children were placed
under its protection against evil spirits. The Patagonians
tatooed their foreheads with crosses. Ancient pottery in Peru has
been found that is marked with the cross as a religious symbol.
Monuments show that Assyrian kings wore crosses suspended on
their necklaces, as did some of the foreigners that battled
against the Egyptians.
Crosses were also figured on the robes of the Rot-n-no as
early as the fifteenth century before the Christian Era.
The Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges that "the sign of the
cross, represented in its simplest form by a crossing of two
lines at right angles, greatly antedates, in both the East and
the West, the introduction of Christianity. It goes back to a
very remote period of human civilization."
"But since Jesus died on a cross", some question, "does this not
make it a Christian symbol?" It is true that in most minds the
cross has now come to be associated with Christ. But those who
know its history and the superstitious ways it has been used -
especially in past centuries - can see another side of the coin.
Though it sounds crude, someone has asked: "Suppose Jesus had
been killed with a shotgun; would this be any reason to have a
shotgun hanging from our necks or on top of the church roof?" It
comes down to this: The important thing is not what, but who -
who it was that died, not what the instrument of death was. St.
Ambrose made a valid point when he said, "Let us adore Christ,
our King, who hung upon the wood, and not the wood."
Crucifixion as a method of death "was used in ancient times
as a punishment for flagrant crimes in Egypt, Assyria, Persia,
Palestine, Carthage, Greece, and Rome ... Tradition ascribes the
invention of the punishment of the cross to a woman, the queen
Christ died on one cross--whatever type it was - and yet
many kinds of crosses are used in the Catholic religion. A few
different types are shown here. A page in The Catholic
Encyclopedia shows forty. If the Roman Catholic use of the cross
began simply with the cross o f Christ - and was not influenced
by paganismwhy are so many different types of crosses used?
Says a noted writer: "Of the several varieties of the cross still
in vogue, as national and ecclesiastical emblems, distinguished
by the familiar appellations of St.George, St.Andrew, the
Maltese, the Greek, the Latin, etc., there is not one amongst
them the existence of which may not be traced to the remotest
antiquity! The cross known as the TAU cross was widely used in
Egypt. "In later times the Egyptian Christians (Copts), attracted
by its form, and perhaps by its symbolism, adopted it as the
emblem of the cross." What is known as the GREEK cross was also
found on Egyptian monuments. This form of the cross was used in
Phrygia where it adorned the tomb of Midas. Among the ruins of
Nineveh, a king is shown wearing a MALTESE cross on his chest.
The form of the cross that is today known as the LATIN cross was
used by the Etruscans, as seen on an ancient pagan tomb with
winged angels to each side of it.
Among the Cumas in South America, what has been called
the ST.ANDREW'S cross, was regarded as a protector against evil
spirits. It appeared on the coins of Alexander Bala in Syria in
146 B.C. and on those of Baktrian kings about 140 to 120 B.C. -
long before "St.Andrew" was ever born! The cross which we show
here is today called the CALVARY cross, yet this drawing is from
an ancient inscription in Thessaly which dates from a period
prior to the Christian Era!
A final question remains. Jesus died on one cross - what
shape was it? Some believe it was simply a torture stake with no
cross piece what soever. The word "cross" automatically conveys
the meaning that two pieces of wood cross each other at some
point or angle. But the Greek word from which "cross" is
translated in the New Testament, "stauros," does not require this
meaning. The word itself simply means an upright stake or post.
If the instrument on which Jesus died was no more than this, it
was not a "cross" (as such) at all! This would clearly show the
folly of many types of crosses being "Christianized." But we need
not insist on this conclusion.
The statement of Thomas about the print of nails (plural) in
the hands of Jesus (John 20:25) would seem to indicate a cross
piece, for on a single stake his hands would have probably been
driven through with one nail. Allowing room above his head for
the inscription (Luke 23:38), these things would tend to favor
what has been termed the Latin cross. Crosses shaped like a "T"
or "X" can be eliminated since these would probably not allow
sufficient room above the head for the inscription.
As to the exact shape of the cross of Christ, we need not be too
concerned. All such arguments fade into insignificance when
compared to the real meaning of the cross - not the piece of wood
- but the eternal redemption of Christ.
To be continued with "Constantine and the Cross"