Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Staurogram and The Epistle of Barnabas: Further Discussion

In a previous post, the comments of Dr. Brent Nongbri in reference to the staurogram and its place in a third century manuscript were taken up. At issue is whether Christian scribes of the second and third centuries were experimenting with images of Jesus on the cross in their art and worship practices. Dr. Nonbgri argued that,
"At the very least, such experimentation with cruciform imagery [in the staurogram] would appear less out of place in the fourth century than in the late second or early third century. (pg. 33-34)"
These observations are striking when looking at the many references in early Christian writings of the second and third century; Minucius Felix, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and the author of the Epistle of Barnabas. These authors mention the cross and cross shapes as venerated symbols of Christian identity. Yet, it is argued by Nongbri, each of these early Christian examples are merely allusions to the cross and its shape and not to the image of the crucified Jesus, which scholars purport the staurogram to be.
There was an oft repeated story in early Christian literature that may serve to illustrate that the image of Jesus as a crucified figure on the cross was a familiar Christian icon. In the Epistle of Barnabas, reference is made to to the story of Israel defeating the armies of Amalek in Exodus 17:8-13. In this account, Moses lifted up his hands as a sign to the Lord; when his hands were held aloft, Israel was victorious, when his hands fell to his side, Amalek was victorious. Aaron and Hur eventually held Moses' hands aloft as he grew weary and the Israelites won the battle. In light of this story, the Epistle of Barnabas (70-135 CE) wrote;
"Once again you have a reference about the cross and about him who was destined to be crucified. And again he speaks to Moses, when war was being waged against Israel by foreigners, and in order that he might remind those being attacked that they had been handed over to death because of their sins, the Spirit says to the heart of Moses that he should make a symbol of the cross and of him who was destined to suffer because, he is saying, unless they place their hope in him, war shall be waged against them forever. Therefore Moses piled one shield upon another in the midst of the battle, and standing high above them all he stretched out his hands, and so Israel was again victorious. But whenever he lowered them, the men began to be killed. Why so? So that they might learn that they cannot be saved unless they place their hope in him. (12:1-3)"
There are some aspects of this story that bear reflection. First, the Epistle of Barnabas assumes that Moses raised his hands horizontally, in the shape of the cross, and this is mentioned in such a way that this must have been a familiar Christian interpretation of this story. And second, the Epistle of Barnabas specifically references this as a symbol of the crucified Jesus and not just of the cross. At one point Barnabas uses the word "suffer" (πασχειν) (12:2) and the middle/passive infinitive (σταυρουσθαι) to refer to this event as a reference to Jesus (12:1). It is clear that Barnabas was viewing the imagery of Moses standing with arms outstretched as a visual representation of Jesus suffering on the cross.
Moses with outstretched hands as a symbol of Jesus on the cross
This story in Barnabas is set in the midst of several allegorical references to the cross that were found in the familiar passages and stories of the Old Testament. At Barnabas 8:1,5; 9:7; 11:1,8; and 13:5. In each of these other references the cross is mentioned as a stand alone representation of salvation with no visualization of the crucified Jesus. However, at 12:1-3, specific mention is made to the imagery of Moses with outstretched hands as a visual representation of the suffering Jesus on the cross.

Though, there is no specific reference to scribes taking this iconography and creating a staurogram, the impetus for doing so is already present in Barnabas some 80-100 years before it is found, represented by the staurogram, in the texts of P66, P45, and P75. The reverence for Jesus and the cross was already tied to a textual representation in the nomina sacra at Barn. 9:7-8. It takes no stretch of the imagination to conclude that a visual representation of Jesus on the cross, as found at Barn. 12:1-3, would find expression in a staurogram.

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.
Longenecker, Bruce W. The Cross Before Constantine The Early Life of a Christian Symbol. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.

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.


  1. None of this is surprising from Nongbri, he has made a name for himself by attempting to date Christian manuscripts much later than other scholars. Of course he would argue that the Staurogram is a late development. After a short period of novelty admiration, it has become obvious to many that Nongbri's arguments are not convincing.


    1. Thank you for your comments Tim. I think that Nongbri does good to poke holes in palaeographical practices, the discipline will only be the better for it. In regard to the staurogram, it is good for scholars to step back and ensure there is sufficient warrant for concluding that Christians were experimenting with cruciform imagery before Constantine. Nongbri, obviously, has his reasons for coming away with a negative in this regard. I have come to a different conclusion, but we can both benefit by looking at the evidence from different angles as we ask different sets of questions.