What Symbols has the Church Used to Refer to Christianity?

Christian symbols used by the church

I’ve been working on the series What are New Testament Manuscripts?, and my last article,  What are Nomina Sacra?, described how names and titles for God were contracted to show a special reverence for them. The other articles in the series were about Biblical Manuscripts, but this one focuses on Christian symbols used by the church, sometimes in copies of the New Testament, but also in commentaries, prayers, letters and even on buildings, art and jewelry. Some of these have been in use since ancient times, while others seem to have more recent origins. This article is a bit out of place in my series on manuscripts, because most of the pictures I’ve found aren’t in manuscripts. This is just a sample of the symbols that were used; there are links in the Resources section at the bottom which have more symbols.

Cross

The cross is the most common symbol of Christianity. The word “cross” (Strong’s G4716) can be used both literally (the cross Jesus was crucified on) and figuratively (the suffering Christians endure for being followers of Christ).

  • So he [Pilate] delivered him [Jesus] over to them to be crucified. So they [soldiers] took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. (John 19:16-18 ESV)
  • And he [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:24 ESV)
Christian Symbols - Cross
Christian Symbols – Cross

Staurogram / Tau Rho

The Greek word for “cross” is Σταυρός, and is transliterated into Latin script as stauros. The Greek letters tau (Τ) and rho (Ρ) are combined to create the staurogram. The shape may be meant to represent Jesus hanging on a cross.

Christian Symbols - Staurogram / Tau-Rho
Christian Symbols – Staurogram / Tau-Rho

ΙΧΘΥΣ

One of the earliest symbols used by the early Christians was ΙΧΘΥΣ, the Greek word for fish.

During times of persecution in the early church, this symbol was used by Christians to unobtrusively identify each other. ΙΧΘΥΣ is used as an acronym for Jesus:

  • Greek: ΙΧΘΥΣ  –  ησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ Υἱὸς Σωτήρ
  • Latin transliteration: Ichthys / Ichthus Iesus Christos Theos Huios Soter
  • English: Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior
Christian Symbols - Ichthys
Christian Symbols – Ichthys

Christogram / Chi Rho

The first two letters of the Greek word for Christ, ΧΡΙΣΤΌΣ (Strong’s G5547), are Chi (Χ) and Rho (Ρ). When these two letters are combined into a symbol, they create the Chi-Rho, or Chistogram.

Christian Symbols - Christogram / Chi-Rho
Christian Symbols – Christogram / Chi-Rho

IHS

The name Jesus in Greek is ἸΗΣΟῦΣ (Strong’s G2424), and is written as a nomen sacrum as IH. IHS is the name ἸΗΣΟῦΣ transliterated into the Latin alphabet as anomen sacrum.

Christian Symbols - IHS
Christian Symbols – IHS

IX

ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ is Greek for Jesus Christ, and is written as a nomen sacrum as IX.

Christian Symbols - IX
Christian Symbols – IX

Alpha and Omega

Jesus describes himself as the Alpha (α or Α) and the Omega (ω or Ω), the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet, in Revelation. These symbols are frequently associated with the Christogram / Chi Rho symbol.

  • “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:8 ESV)
  • And he [Jesus] said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.” (Revelation 21:6 ESV)
  • “I [Jesus] am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22:13 ESV)
Christian Symbols - Alpha & Omega
Christian Symbols – Alpha & Omega

Menorah (Temple) / Menorah (Hanukkah)

The menorah is typically associated with Judaism, but since the early Christians were Jews, they may have continued to use their traditional menorahs. The menorah used in the Temple in Jerusalem had seven candles, while the menorahs used on Hanukkah have nine candles. They’re sometimes associated with the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 (ESV). Jesus calls himself the “light of the world”, but also calls Christians “light of the world”.

  • Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12 ESV)
  • You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16 ESV)
Christian Symbols - Menorah
Christian Symbols – Menorah

Dove

In Christianity, the Dove represents the Holy Spirit, and is a symbol of baptism.

  • Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22–33 ESV)
Christian Symbols - Dove
Christian Symbols – Dove

Lion of Judah

Jesus is called the Lion of Judah.

  • And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Revelation 5:5 ESV)
Christian Symbols - Lion
Christian Symbols – Lion

Lamb of God

Jesus is called the Lamb of God.

  • The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV)
  • …and he [John the Baptist] looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36 ESV)
  • For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Revelation 7:17 ESV)
Christian Symbols - Lamb
Christian Symbols – Lamb

Star of David / Star of Creation

The Star of Davis is somewhat controversial. Some Jewish people get offended when a cross is added, while some Christians get offended when a Star of David is combined with a cross. From what i found, it seems Christians didn’t start using the Star of David until the late 1800’s.

Christian Symbols - Star of David
Christian Symbols – Star of David

Resources

Resources (Technical)

Footnotes

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