Monday, January 11, 2016

P. Bodmer II (P66), and the Staurogram

During the last few years there has been a pushback against some of the early dates posited for Christian New Testament papyri. Scholars such as Pasquale Orsini, Willy Clarysse, Don Barker, Roger Bagnall, and Brent Nongbri have criticized the theological and apologetic motivations behind some of these early dates. To be sure, many of these criticisms are valid as there have been some extraordinarily early and narrow dating ranges proposed for a few of the papyri such as P46 (an early collection of Paul's epistles) and P52 (an early copy of the Gospel of John). However, in regard to a few of these recent pushbacks, perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. This can be seen in Brent Nongbri's article,
“The Limits of Palaeographic Dating of Literary Papyri: Some Observations on the Date and Provenance of P. Bodmer II (P66),” Museum Helveticum 71 (2014): 1-35."
In this piece Nongbri criticized the narrow "ca. 200 CE" date traditionally assigned to P. Bodmer II (here after simply referred to as P66), contending that palaeography does not allow for such a narrow time frame. Instead, he argued, palaeography only permits a date of composition sometime between the late second century and the early fourth century CE. Nongbri then examined the codicological evidence and provenance to propose a date at the later end of this range, that is, a date in the early fourth century. While the article masterfully questioned the warrant for the traditional dating of P66, I was surprised to find the following comments concerning the presence of the staurogram in the manuscript;
At several points in the fragmentary final pages of P.Bodmer II, forms of the terms σταυρος and σταυροω are abbreviated in a manner that involves combining the letters tau and rho to form a monogram, generally referred to as a staurogram. . . . Larry Hurtado and others have plausibly argued that these examples of the staurogram should be interpreted as visual representation of the crucifixion of Jesus. If this understanding is correct, then this fact would point to a date for the production of this codex in the fourth century, when Christian use of the imagery of crucifixion begins to become more common. Hurtado, assuming a date of “ca. 200 CE” for P.Bodmer II, argued that the appearance of the staurogram in this manuscript, and in the Chester Beatty Gospels-Acts codex (P45) and P.Bodmer XIV-XV (P75), provided proof of Christian use of the imagery of the crucifixion in the form of the tau-rho monogram at least as early as the final decades of the second century, and quite plausibly somewhat earlier. Yet, in light of the evidence laid out above, it would seem more prudent to interpret this feature as further support for a fourth century date for P.Bodmer II. At the very least, such experimentation with cruciform imagery would appear less out of place in the fourth century than in the late second or early third century. (pg. 33-34)
What surprised me was Nongbri's declaration that the staurogram "would appear less out of place in the fourth century than in the late second or early third century." Does Nongbri's assertion accurately reflect Christian attitudes in the second and third centuries? Would second and third century Christians be unlikely to visualize their reverence for the crucifixion in a pictogram embedded in the text of a Biblical manuscript? In order to answer these questions the discussion will now turn to a few Christian authors of the second and third centuries.

Marcus Minucius Felix (ca. 210 CE)
Very little is known about the Christian apologist Marcus Minucius Felix. According to Jerome, Minucius Felix lived in Rome and worked as a "solicitor" (Vir. ill. 58). He is known exclusively through his sole surviving work known simply as Octavius. The date of Octavius is uncertain, and scholars have placed its composition somewhere between the late second century and the early third century. In other words, its composition is roughly contemporaneous with the traditional "ca. 200 CE" dating of P66. The writing records a dialogue between two protagonists, the pagan Caecilius Natalis and the Christian Octavius Januarius with Marcus Minucius Felix acting as the moderator. During the interchange, Caecilius accused Christians of several debase acts. One of these detestable acts he described as follows;
I know not whether these things are false; certainly suspicion is applicable to secret and nocturnal rites; and he who explains their ceremonies by reference to a man punished by extreme suffering for his wickedness, and to the deadly wood of the cross, appropriates fitting altars for reprobate and wicked men, that they may worship what they deserve. (Oct. 9; ANF 4:177)
Caecilius made note that Christians worshiped the cross and the cruel act of crucifixion. In response to these charges, Octavius countered;
For in that you attribute to our religion the worship of a criminal and his cross, you wander far from the neighbourhood of the truth, in thinking either that a criminal deserved, or that an earthly being was able, to be believed God. . . . Crosses, moreover, we neither worship nor wish for. You, indeed, who consecrate gods of wood, adore wooden crosses perhaps as parts of your gods. For your very standards, as well as your banners; and flags of your camp, what else are they but crosses gilded and adorned? Your victorious trophies not only imitate the appearance of a simple cross, but also that of a man affixed to it. We assuredly see the sign of a cross, naturally, in the ship when it is carried along with swelling sails, when it glides forward with expanded oars; and when the military yoke is lifted up, it is the sign of a cross; and when a man adores God with a pure mind, with hands outstretched. Thus the sign of the cross either is sustained by a natural reason, or your own religion is formed with respect to it.(Oct. 29; ANF 4:191).
Octavius denied that Christians worshiped a criminal and his cross, but rather, they worshiped Jesus as God, and his provision of eternal salvation found in the crucifixion. What is interesting in Octavius' response is his reference to the "T" or cross shapes that can be seen in the various objects described. Octavius was pointing to a familiar Christian symbol, "the sign of the cross," and pagans unknowingly worshiped the crucifixion through these hidden cross symbols that could be found in every day objects.
The symbol of a cross must have been commonly associated with late second and early third century Christians in Rome, otherwise Caecilius' accusations and Octavius' rebuttal would make little sense.

Tertullian of Carthage (ca. 145-220 CE)
In the midst of a plea that tradition should have some authority in Christian practice, Tertullian mentioned a curious Christian tradition,
At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign. (Cor. 3; ANF 3:94–95)
The sign that Tertullian was referring to was the cross or "T" shaped symbol traced upon the forehead. In his famous Apology, Tertullian mentioned the symbol of the cross as a familiar aspect of Christian worship in North Africa.
Then, if any of you think we render superstitious adoration to the cross, in that adoration he is sharer with us. . . . We have shown before that your deities are derived from shapes modeled from the cross. But you also 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, a setting the standards above all gods. Well, as those images decking out the standards are ornaments of crosses. All those hangings of your standards and banners are robes of crosses. I praise your zeal: you would not consecrate crosses unclothed and unadorned. (Apol. 16; ANF 3:31)
With a little humor mixed in Tertullian was making a similar argument that Minucius Felix made through the mouth of Octavius, that is, the cross, or "T" shaped symbol, could be seen throughout many venerated pagan objects. Thus, pagans inadvertently worshiped the crucifixion in the same manner as Christians.
In North Africa, during the same time period as the traditional date given to P66, "ca. 200 CE," Tertullian could confidently refer to the cross, or "T" shaped symbol as an intricate component of Christian worship and practice.

Clement of Alexandria (ca. 153-217 CE) and the Epistle of Barnabas (ca. 70-135 CE)
In his third work on the Christian life, Stromata ("miscellaneous"), Clement loosely quoted from an even earlier Christian source, the Epistle of Barnabas. Both Christian writings referred to a passage found at Genesis 14:14.,
When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he led out his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. (NASB)
In the Greek number system 300 was designated by the Greek letter tau, a "T" shaped letter, and 18 was designated by the Greek letter combination iota and eta. In the majascule hand used in Biblical manuscripts of the day, the number 18 would have looked like "IH" which was a common abbreviated nomina sacra form of Jesus' name found in New Testament manuscripts of the second and third centuries. The "T" shape of the tau was seen as representing the cross, and thus, salvation by the death of Jesus on the cross (see the discussion in Larry Hurtado's Earliest Christian Artifacts, 113-114).
In the midst of discussing Christian symbology, Clement, in his Stromata, wrote concerning Genesis 14:14,
As then in astronomy we have Abraham as an instance, so also in arithmetic we have the same Abraham.“For, hearing that Lot was taken captive, and having numbered his own servants, born in his house, 318,” he defeats a very great number of the enemy. They say, then, that the character representing 300 is, as to shape, the type of the Lord’s sign, and that the Iota and the Eta indicate the Saviour’s name; that it was indicated, accordingly, that Abraham’s domestics were in salvation, who having fled to the Sign and the Name became lords of the captives, and of the very many unbelieving nations that followed them. (Strom. 6.11; ANF 2:500)
The cross, or "T" shaped symbol, had become so familiar in Alexandrian Christianity that Clement could simply refer to it as "the Lord's sign."
The author of the Epistle of Barnabas, writing nearly one hundred years earlier than Clement, referred to this account in Genesis 14:14 (and 17:23) in the following manner,
Learn abundantly, therefore, children of love, about everything: Abraham, who first instituted circumcision, looked forward in the spirit to Jesus when he circumcised, having received the teaching of the three letters. For it says: "And Abaraham circumcised ten and eight and three hundred men of his household." What, then, is the knowledge that was given to him? Observe that it mentions the "ten and eight" first, and then after an interval the "three hundred." As for the "ten and eight," the I is ten and the H is eight; thus you have "Jesus." And because the cross, which is shaped like the T, was  destined to convey grace, it mentions also the "three hundred." So he reveals Jesus in the two letters, and the cross in the other one. He who placed within us the implanted gift of his covenant understands. (Barn. 9.7-8; Holmes, Apostolic Fathers, 299)
As early as the beginning of the second century, the author of the Epistle of Barnabas could discuss the "T" shaped form of the Greek letter tau that all Christians would recognize as a clear reference to the cross, and salvation. Therefore, nearly one hundred years before the traditional date of "ca. 200 CE" assigned to P66, Christians were drawing theological meaning and worshipful devotion from the "T" shaped cross symbol.

As can be seen from the discussion above, for Christians of the second and third centuries, the cross, or "T" shape, had significant meaning as a visual representation of the salvation found in Jesus' crucifixion. Thus, Christians saw the cross in many "T" shaped objects of everyday life, and therefore drew spiritual meaning from this crucifix symbol. Christians made the sign of the cross on their foreheads at the beginning of the third century and drew theological and spiritual meaning from "T" shape of the Greek letter tau in their Biblical manuscripts from at least the beginning of the second century onward.
Very often, Christian worship practices found expression in the manner in which they manufactured their New Testament manuscripts. The public reading of the Old and New Testaments was clearly referenced as early as Justin Martyr in Rome (Apol. 1.67; ca. 140 CE), and was alluded to in the first century writings of Paul (see previous post). This aspect of Christian public reading of scriptures can be seen in the copious reading aids found in Biblical manuscripts of the second and third centuries and beyond. Coupled with this, Jesus and God were revered and worshiped in Christianity from the first century onward (see Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ). This worship and devotion can be seen expressed in the nomina sacra abbreviations used in the Christian papyri of the second and third century and beyond.
If each of these central Christian practices found expression in the manufacture of their Biblical papyri, then, we should see some form of this early Christian reverence for the cross, or "T" shape, in the Biblical papyri as well. Therefore, the staurogram appears in several manuscripts near the "ca. 200 CE" time period that the cross, or "T" shape, is expressed as having significance in Christian devotion by Minucius Felix, Tertullian, and Clement. Namely, the New Testament codices P66, P45, and P75. Contrary to the doubts expressed by Brent Nongbri, the staurogram is not "out of place," but rather is right at home, in second and third century Christianity.


References Cited

Holmes, Michael W., ed. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.

Hurtado, Larry W. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.

Hurtado, Larry W. The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

Nongbri, Brent. “The Limits of Palaeographic Dating of Literary Papyri: Some Observations on the Date and Provenance of P. Bodmer II (P66),” Museum Helveticum 71 (2014): 1-35.

P. Bodmer II, P66, at John Chapter 1

The Staurogram in P75 at Luke 14:27


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you. I think that the geographical spread, that is, Italy, North Africa, and Egypt, as well as time frame in consideration (ca. 100 years from Ep. Barnabas to Tertullian) is enough to show that experimentation with cruciform imagery would not be out of place in ca. 200 CE manuscript.

  2. Thanks for taking the time and giving the effort to respond to Nongbri. Too often what is written is allowed to stand without critical response!


    1. Thank you Tim. I appreciate you taking the time to read through this lengthy blog post!

  3. Here is the response from Brent Nongbri, following up on the Facebook page (And I was a little surprised that you did not interact with him directly)


    "Thanks for your note and your link to the blog post. I'm aware of the passages cited in the post, but they are beside the point for the argument in that article. Note the author's conclusion: "the staurogram is not "out of place," but rather is right at home, in second and third century Christianity."

    Yet, none of the passages he cites mentions the staurogram! There is no denying that the followers of Jesus were interested in the cross (this, of course, goes all the way back to Paul). But that's not the issue. Hurtado had claimed that the manuscripts (P66, P75, and P45, which he dated "ca. 200 CE), proved that the image of the crucified Jesus (and note--it's specifically the crucified Jesus, and not just the cross) was an established part of the Christian iconographic palette despite its non-appearance in the material record in contexts securely dated prior to the fourth century (see Graydon Snyder's book for that argument). What the article says is simply that the staurogram would be less out of place in a fourth century context. Is it impossible that it appeared earlier? No, of course not. But we're talking in terms of probabilities. Depictions of the crucified Jesus became more common during and after the fourth century. And even if the tau-rho ligature could be demonstrably shown by hard evidence to have originated in the second or third century (which currently cannot be shown), that would hardly undermine the rest of the article. The supporting argument about the tau-rho ligature is exactly that, a supporting argument, one that is part of a larger field of evidence suggesting that a fourth century date of construction is a real possibility for P.Bodmer II.


    1. Thank you for interacting with the blog post Dr. Nongbri. Graydon Synder, in his book Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine (Revised Edition. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2003), wrote that “the cross of Jesus ought not be considered pre-Constantinian” (pg. 25). However, Synder’s claims have been challenged recently by Bruce W. Longenecker The Cross Before Constantine: The Early Life of a Christian Symbol (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), who surveyed archaeological artifacts throughout a broad geographical region that depict the cross in use as a Christian symbol long before Constantine. It seems that you conceded this point when you stated that it is “possible” that the staurogram appeared earlier. It just seems rather circular to use as a supporting argument something that needs to be proved. Especially considering your comments in the article on page 34 footnote 86 “Indeed, this feature may also suggest that the other two papyri Hurtado mentions might be later than usually proposed.” But the staurogram cannot suggest this in and of itself if it is possible that it was used before the fourth century.