The Cross before Constantine

The Cross before Constantine: The Early Life of a Christian Symbol

Bruce W. Longenecker
Copyright Date: 2015
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13wwwf3
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  • Book Info
    The Cross before Constantine
    Book Description:

    This book brings together, for the first time, the relevant material evidence demonstrating Christian use of the cross prior to Constantine. Bruce W. Longenecker upends a longstanding consensus that the cross was not a Christian symbol until Constantine appropriated it to consolidate his power in the fourth century. Longenecker presents a wide variety of artifacts from across the Mediterranean basin that testify to the use of the cross as a visual symbol by some pre-Constantinian Christians. Those artifacts interlock with literary witnesses from the same period to provide a consistent and robust portrait of the cross as a pre-Constantinian symbol of Christian devotion. The material record of the pre-Constantinian period illustrates that Constantine did not invent the cross as a symbol of Christian faith; for an impressive number of Christians before Constantine’s reign, the cross served as a visual symbol of commitment to a living deity in a dangerous world.

    eISBN: 978-1-5064-0036-5
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preliminaries
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 The Cross in Its Place
    (pp. 1-20)

    To die by crucifixion was hideous and horrific. One ancient historian called it a “most pitiable of deaths” (Josephus,The Life76). One incident in particular reveals the extent to which crucifixion was recognized as a most agonizing form of torment. A Jewish soldier, captured by Roman forces in the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66–70 ce, was saved from crucifixion by the efforts of his comrades, who agreed to surrender en masse and become slaves of Rome rather than see their colleague crucified (Josephus,Jewish War7.202–203). Because of the excruciating pain involved in crucifixion, one ancient rhetorician...

  5. 2 The Cross and Non-Christian Society
    (pp. 21-48)

    Wasn’t it the case that Christians before Constantine wanted to keep a low profile for fear of being spotted for their faith? And in that effort to keep a low profile, wasn’t it the case that adopting the cross as a symbol of their religious devotion would only have added risk to their already precarious lives? And, moreover, shouldn’t it be the case that if we find any cross within the material record prior to Constantine, it should be interpreted without reference to Christianity? Before turning to the material record, we need first to consider whether such questions regarding Christians...

  6. 3 The Cross in a Jewish Cradle
    (pp. 49-60)

    The first stop on a tour of the pre-Constantinian material record must be Jerusalem. It is there that we first see crosses used in a fashion that will become instructive for interpreting texts and artifacts arising from later Christian contexts.

    A hive of Jewish ossuaries (i.e., bone boxes) have been discovered in the vicinity of Jerusalem. These stone receptacles were intended to house the bones of the deceased a year after their death, once the flesh had fully decomposed. Generally speaking, these ossuaries date from about the middle of the second century bce to the time of the first Jewish...

  7. 4 The Cross in Textual Images
    (pp. 61-72)

    We have seen that two intersecting perpendicular lines seem to have played a role as a mark of theological significance in some sectors of first-century Judaism, and we know that the Constantinian era started the cross on a meteoric rise as the preeminent symbol of Christian devotion. We want now to probe the years in between, to determine whether, to what extent, and in what ways the cross was used as a Christian symbol.

    Two early Christian texts from the late first and early second centuries are important in this regard, for three reasons—temporal, theological, and artistic.

    1. Temporally, they...

  8. 5 The Cross in the Material Record
    (pp. 73-120)

    It is one thing to recognize how the cross was being formed in the mental imaging of two early Christian authors. It is another thing to find those mental images transferred to ancient artistic media. This chapter surveys most of the material evidence testifying to the cross as a devotional symbol among pre-Constantinian Christians. It will demonstrate that, even in the pre-Constantinian era, the cross was employed by Christians as a visual, artistic symbol of their faith. The cross was not simply formed in conceptual images enjoyed by the mind. Instead, at times it became concretized as a visual symbol,...

  9. 6 The Cross in a Pompeii Bakery
    (pp. 121-148)

    It has often been said that the archaeological record shows no trace of Jesus-devotion prior to the last two decades of the second century or so.¹ But that estimate has recently been overthrown by the discovery of Christian inscriptions in the city of Smyrna that date to sometime before the year 125.² In this chapter, we will stretch fifty years further back from that, to an artifact found on the wall of a bakery in Pompeii. A rather neglected artifact, it has unappreciated significance for our topic.

    Before analyzing the artifact, it needs to be noted that, with its destruction...

  10. 7 The Cross in the Literary Record
    (pp. 149-162)

    This chapter will survey Christian literary sources of the second and third century (and occasionally the early fourth century) for their relevance in understanding the role of the cross as a symbol of Christian identity in the pre-Constantinian period. It allows us to overlay the literary data onto the material record. Without a material record as a platform, it might be argued that the cross was nothing more than a conceptual trope of theological importance within pre-Constantinian Christianities, a theological construct that had no impact on the material world of Christian artistry. But with the material record undergirding the discussions...

  11. 8 The Cross and Its Advocates
    (pp. 163-184)

    In the preceding chapters it has been demonstrated that (1) the shape of the cross had already made its way into the Christian imagination (in its various permutations) as a theological symbol, and (2) that the cross was visually reproduced as an artistic symbol of Christian devotion long before Constantine ever thought to make it so. This chapter, then, seeks to accomplish several further tasks: it plots the geographical and temporal spread of this symbolic use of the cross; it proposes hypotheses about the potential attraction of the cross in ordinary situations; and it offers a postulate regarding the minimal...

  12. 9 A Very Short Conclusion
    (pp. 185-188)

    Rather than imagining that the cross did not function as a Christian symbol prior to the time of Constantine, we have seen that the cross was, in fact, an important theological symbol among many pre- Constantinian Christians. The spread of imperial Christianity in the fourth century and beyond was not branded under a formerly unused symbol; instead, the melding together of diverse groups into a united empire included the harnessing of a symbol that already had some currency across various Christianities prior to Constantine.

    If that is the main thesis of this book, I need also to be clear about...

  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 189-206)
  14. Index of Subjects
    (pp. 207-214)
  15. Index of Modern Authors
    (pp. 215-220)
  16. Index of Ancient Sources
    (pp. 221-230)
  17. Index of Locations
    (pp. 231-232)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 233-233)