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.
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)
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.
One of the earliest symbols used by the early Christians was ΙΧΘΥΣ, the Greek word for fish.
- Jesus fed 5,000 men, plus women and children, with 5 loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14:13-21 ESV; Mark 6:30-44 ESV; Luke 9:10-17 ESV; John 6:1-13 ESV)
- Jesus fed 4,000 men, plus women and children, with 7 loaves of bread and a few fish (Matthew 15:32-39 ESV; Mark 8:1-9 ESV)
- Jesus paid the temple tax using a coin in the mouth of a fish (Matthew 17:24-27 ESV)
- Jesus tells the first disciples they will be fishers of people (Luke 5:1-11 NIV)
- Jesus ate fish after the resurrection (Luke 24:36-43 ESV; John 21:4-14 ESV)
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 – Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ Υἱὸς Σωτήρ
- Latin transliteration: Ichthys / Ichthus – Iesus Christos Theos Huios Soter
- English: Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior
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.
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.
ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ is Greek for Jesus Christ, and is written as a nomen sacrum as IX.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
- 8 Ancient Christian Symbols and Their Hidden Meanings (ChurchPop.com, Aug 14, 2015; web) Accessed 16-Jan-2020.Christian signs and symbols. (Symbols.com, 2020; web) Accessed 16-Jan-2020.
- Wilson, Ralph F. Early Christian Symbols of the Ancient Church from the Catacombs (JesusWalk.com, 2019; web) Accessed 16-Jan-2020.
What are New Testament Manuscripts? (27 articles)
- What Media has the Bible been Written On? (1 of 27)
- What is a Manuscript? (2 of 27)
- Why were the Early Christians More Likely to Write on a Codex Rather than a Scroll? (3 of 27)
- Do I Need a Dictionary to Study Ancient Manuscripts? (4 of 27)
- Where are Biblical Manuscripts Found? (5 of 27)
- What is the Kurzgefasste Liste der griechischen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments? (6 of 27)
- What is the Gregory-Aland Numbering System? (7 of 27)
- How Many New Testament Manuscripts Exist? (8 of 27)
- How does the Quantity of New Testament Manuscripts Compare to Other Ancient Manuscripts? (9 of 27)
- How does the Quality of New Testament Manuscripts Compare to Other Ancient Manuscripts? (10 of 27)
- What’s the Difference Between an Autograph and an Original? (11 of 27)
- How Long did the Autograph or Original New Testament Manuscripts Last? (12 of 27)
- Why Didn’t God Preserve the Autographs of the Bible? (13 of 27)
- What is Scriptio Continua? (14 of 27)
- What are Nomina Sacra? (15 of 27)
- What Symbols has the Church Used to Refer to Christianity? (16 of 27)
- What are Diglots and Polyglots? (17 of 27)
- Was the Bible Copied Like Links in a Chain or a Tangled Ball of String? (18 of 27)
- Should the Bible be Copied Like Links in a Chain? (19 of 27)
- How are New Testament Manuscripts Dated? (20 of 27)
- What is Paleography? (21 of 27)
- What is Boustrophedon? (22 of 27)
- What is “First Century Mark”? (23 of 27)
- Do Fake or Forged Biblical Manuscripts Exist? (24 of 27)
- What are Illuminated Manuscripts? (25 of 27)
- What is Skellig? (26 of 27)
- Why did I Study Biblical Manuscripts? (27 of 27)