Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Early Use of the Cross

I wrote this paper for my rhetoric class and thought it was meaningful enough to post up on here. (it IS my academic work so please dont steal it!!!!!)

I have done hours and hours worth of research for this paper as well as for the paper before (about the cross as a necklace pendant and how it is used in contemporary times...its like a two part series. this one was written second, but is the first part of the series because it addresses the historical doxa of early Christians.) Its really long, but its worth the read. The final paper (parts one and two, plus more) will be 20-25 pages. This (below) is about 8 pages.

Please read it knowing that I am a Christian.

If you would like, please offer your impression of this essay to

It has been awesome to work on this project and learn more about Christ and his cross. The timing of finishing this paper is awesome because Easter Sunday is this coming weekend! How exciting to look at Christ and his cross during a time of year when crosses are shown all around us!


Early Use of the Cross

The cross, as we know it today, is rooted in its association with Jesus Christ. However followers of Christ (early Christians) that lived in the first three centuries A.D. view the cross very differently than contemporary audiences may view it today. When rhetorically evaluating any artifact, it is useful to view the item through specific rhetorical frames. Two key rhetorical frames that will provide a focused outlook on Christians and their view points of the cross are the terms audience and identification, and doxa.

As a point of definition and clarification, there are many types of crosses, and the one addressed in this essay is the Latin cross. The Latin cross is “the commonest form, and its more realistic than other shapes as its proportions are those of a human figure (Urwin 11). It is the cross that most people from a Western audience probably visualize when the word “cross” is mentioned. It may be surprising for some readers to learn that there are over ten different forms of crosses, each with their own specific use (Urwin 11-13). Some examples of other well-known crosses are the Maltese Cross, the Greek cross (a traditional Latin cross that has a footrest at the bottom and a title piece above the criminal’s head), and the ancient Egyptian’s hieroglyphic cross that has a loop at the top. The Latin cross was the choice torture instrument of the Roman Empire because it was easy to assemble and it fit the form of the human body.

In terms of the rhetorical devices used in this essay, they too must be defined. Acclaimed rhetor Lloyd Bitzer touches on the notion of audience and their connection with rhetoric. He believes that because people have different outlooks on life, there is a division of their thoughts. Rhetoric, Bitzer believes, can be used as a tool to bring people together. He says that rhetoric can be used to “find common meaning, unifying symbols, and ways of acting together, and thus promoting cooperation” (Bitzer 9). The two audiences that will be discussed in this essay are the early Christians (from the first, second, and thrid centuries) as well as contemporary Christians (starting from the fourth century until modern-day, 2011). By evaluating these two different groups’ doxa concerning the cross of Christ, one can see that there is a clear differing of opinions.

The second rhetorical frame that will give clarity and focus to this rhetorical analysis of the cross of Christ is the term doxa. Doxa is a Greek word that suggests “common opinion…dominant beliefs and impressions” (Poulakos 63). Drawing from the word’s Greek roots, Author Takis Poulakos argues that the ancient Greek Isocrates used the term doxa to additionally mean a “working theory based on practical experience” (Poulakos 63). This definition is well suited for examining both audiences’ views of the cross because many did (and do) indeed have specific ideas they associate with the cross based on “practical experience” from their everyday lives.

When looking at the cross of Christ from a cultural perspective, first, second, and third century Christians do not hold the same doxa –the same common belief—about the cross as Christians today. One of the main reasons for this difference of doxai is because crosses were originally created as devices of death and torture. Author Henry Dana Ward, who was himself a Christian, wrote: “Not an instance of exalting or of honouring the visible form of the cross occurs in the New Testament. On the contrary, it is the emblem of our humiliation and sorrow …” (Ward 15). Ward’s main point is that the connotations that early Christians made with the cross were associated with its literal use. Thus, their frame of mind for viewing the cross as an object of religion (as it is commonly viewed by contemporary audiences) would not have been a part of their doxa. The Romans were the ones who created the “technique” of crucifixion and it was “inflicted on hardened criminals, and on resolute enemies…” with Roman rulers sometimes crucifying up to 2,000 people a day (Ward 16). This type of death was used as a punishment for the worst of criminals and because of its extreme nature, “no Roman citizen could be crucified” (Benson 24).
The process of crucifixion was brutal and it would sometimes take days before the criminal actually died from suffocation. The way the Romans crucified their criminals was by attaching the human body to a cross made out of wood. Almost always, before being nailed to the cross, the offender was flogged and scourged. They were then required to carry their cross “(or at least the cross-beam) to the place of execution. The victim was stripped naked. Long nails were then driven…through the wrist bones” (Taylor 42). The feet were nailed to the cross just below the ankle and the criminal would have to push himself up, placing the weight of his body on his feet, in order to take a breath. “The downward pull of the body would have caused a slow suffocation…” (Taylor 42) which, of course, only drew out the criminal’s agony. This description of the horrific reality of crucifixion may clarify for some readers the reason why Christians of the first centuries viewed the cross as the greatest inflictor of human pain and torture.

When evaluating the reality of crucifixion in its historical context, it is easy to understand why the early Christian audience would have a different doxa from contemporary Christians in regard to the cross of Christ. Art and architecture historian Walter Lowrie explains that “…early Christians felt a particular distaste for the representation of the instrument which was still commonly in use, like our gallows, for the punishment of felons…” (Lowrie 237). There is no doubt that for the early Christian audience, the way they identified with the symbol of the cross was with its use to cause death. Reverend George S. Tyack states in his book The Cross in Ritual Architecture and Art that because of the extremely negative doxa that these early Christians held towards the cross it makes sense that “…it must have been difficult even for the followers of the Crucified to rise entirely above the common sentiment of their age” (Tyack 3).

“The Crucified” refers specifically to Jesus Christ, the key figure of the Christian faith. Jesus lived within the Roman Empire but was a Jew and not a Roman citizen, and therefore his death by crucifixion was not prohibited according to Roman Law (Benson 24). Many people view Jesus as a great prophet who did many miracles and helped the sick and broken of his day. Why then was this type of death inflicted on a man who was not a criminal, but rather a humanitarian, was not a slave, nor an enemy of the Roman government? The Jewish leaders, some of whom were already upset at Jesus’ teaching against their practices and unholy behaviours in their temples, arrested Jesus on the charge of blaspheme. Jesus never directly claimed “Yes, I am God” but he did quote scriptures that shows he indeed indirectly claimed equality with God the Father. In the Jewish Law, blaspheme was punishable by death. However, the Jewish leaders themselves could not kill any person. They therefore arrested Jesus under the name of the Jewish Law and brought him before the father-in-law, Annas, of the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas. Both these leaders questioned Jesus and were not satisfied with the answers he gave so they took him to the Roman governor name Pilate. Pilate denied any desire to take part in the trial and death of a man who, in his eyes, has committed no crime. He turned Jesus back over to the Jewish leaders to have them deal with Jesus, but the Jews replied back to Pilate that they could not put any man to death. To pacify the mob, Pilate decided to question Jesus and still did not find fault with him. Because it was the “custom that I [Pilate] should release one man for you at the Passover” (John 18:39), Pilate agreed to the Jews incessant demands and release another prisoner in exchange for Jesus. Jesus was then delivered over from the hands of the Jews to the brutality of the Romans and was taken to be crucified by Roman soldiers. Essentially, the Roman soldiers crucify an innocent man; in today’s news, this injustice shown to Jesus Christ in a court of Roman law would be the most televised and most debated court case in the history of the world. Because Christ viewed himself as God’s sacrifice, he did not protest nor plead with his condemners. Instead, he chose to take on the punishment of death so that, theologically speaking, all humans can have the opportunity of possessing spiritual and eternal life.

Even thought Jesus was hated by the Jewish Pharisees, he had developed quite a fan base with the local people of his culture. Naturally, one would look with favour upon the man who raised your once-dead child, or who cured your crippled bones. These people not only loved Jesus for his acts of physical healing, but also for his spiritual healings and teachings. Even though these early Christians adamantly loved Jesus, they did not use the symbol of the cross in written form due to the connotations of death they associated with the cross.

As time progressed away from the first, second, and third centuries, followers of Christ did come to identify themselves with the Crucified and used the cross as a symbol to represent Christ. Lowrie argues that even though early Christians (of the early fourth century and onward) still had the image of the cross as a tool for death fresh in their minds, “never has the sign of the cross been held in higher estimation than it was in the first centuries of the church” (Lowrie 236). One must note with careful understanding that by the term “first centuries of the church” he is not referring to the first century, but rather is using this term to identify the audience of followers of Christ beyond the first through third centuries, A.D. Because of Jesus’ association with the cross, followers of Christ began to assimilate the cross itself not with the tool of torture as was the doxa of their current culture, but rather, they began to recognize and cherish the cross as a symbol of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of all humankind. An early Christian named Tertullian discusses the use of the cross among early Believers. He says that “on coming in and going out, on dressing or washing…in whatever occupation we are engaged, we imprint our foreheads with the sign of the Cross” (Tyack 5).

One of the main reasons why the doxa of the early church changed so radically from viewing the cross as a sign of death to one representing Jesus Christ is due to the Emperor Constantine’s use of the cross during the Crusades. The cross, within the context of the fourth century culture, took on a new doxa to represent victory and life. It was not until 337 A.D. when Constantine overthrew the Roman government that crucifixions ceased. Henceforth, because crucifixions were no longer a part of the fourth century Christian’s immediate culture, a new doxa immerged. Because Constantine implemented the cross as a symbol of victory, conquest, and life, Christians of the fourth century began to adopt these ideas. Jesus Christ’s death on a cross in 30 or 33 A.D (date debated by scholars) was not the agent that caused a shift in early Christian’s doxa. Rather, Constantine’s use of the cross during his Crusades created the modern doxa about the cross This doxa of the cross (as being a symbol of victory and life) is clearly different from early Christians in the first through third centuries’ view of the cross (as a symbol of defeat and death). As “crucifixion ceased to be employed as a form of punishment, the Cross began to be treated with honour” (Tyack 6). By this statement alone, it is clear to see that there has been a historical shift in the way that people within the same audience (Christians) view the cross of Christ.

Christians today identify the cross as a representation of life. More specifically, because Christians believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection were a means of God offering eternal life to humankind, the significance of “life” in this context is heightened from meaning simply human life, to also including eternal life. Contemporary Christians today view the cross with such high regard because the cross that crucified the key figure of their belief system brought them life. Lowrie states that in regard to the “Christian cross” the most common and fundamental beliefs is that it is “regarded as the tree of life” (Lowrie 238). He continues on to say that Christ’s cross was often times represented as the tree of life in “early Christian art” (Lowrie 238). Other scholars say that while early Christians of the fourth centuries held the doxa that the literal use of crosses previously meant torture and death, they were able to distinguish between their past cultural identifications and their current religious identifications. For deeper insight, one can linguistically evaluate the meaning of the word “cross” in the original Greek language used in the original New Testament of the Bible.

The literal translation of the Greek words used in the Bible to describe Christ’s cross, according to scholar Henry Dana Ward, mean “wood cut ready for use, a stick, cudgel, or beam; any timber; a live tree” (Ward 13-14). Ward states that the descriptions of the cross offered in the New Testament does not refer specifically to two pieces of wood that were arranged to a traditional cross. Rather, the cross in its Biblical sense is composed of pieces of wood that have been formed from a living tree; the wood itself came from something alive, but now the wood is dead. The symbol of the wood used in the cross of Christ parallels Christian beliefs concerning life and death. Jesus himself, of course, was first alive while hanging on the cross and eventually died on those pieces of wood. Christ’s resurrection from the dead three days after he died is thought to be a symbolic representation of Christ’s defeat over death. Christians believe that the life Christ possesses and offers to his followers is stronger than death that is present in a life lived without Christ. The great irony is that while the Romans used crosses as means of death, the Bible offers the interpretation that even something that invokes death once came from something that was alive. Thus, because of Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross (or upon the tree as the Greek detonates), and his offer of new life for all humankind, the cross is now viewed by contemporary Christians as the tree of life. According to historian Richard Taylor, the Egyptians also used a cross-like symbol as “a hieroglyphic sign for life, or the living” (Taylor 39). Perhaps Constantine and early Christians borrowed these ideas about life and applied them to their own cross as a symbol of life.

Regardless of how historical and contemporary Christian audiences view the cross this fact remains: the symbol of the cross itself is arbitrary when taken out of its cultural definition. Without this realization, it would be impossible to understand how the same symbol of a horizontal and a vertical line that intersect each other can connote death to once audience and life to another audience. The doxa that any such audience places as a marker of identification on a symbol can become completely altered over the course of time.

Works Cited

Benson, George Willard. The Cross, Its History and Symbolism: an Account of the Symbol More Universal in Its Use and More Important in Its Significance than Any Other in the World. New York: Hacker, 1976. 11-17. Print.

Bitzer, Lloyd. “Political Rhetoric,” in Landmark Essays on Contemporary Rhetoric, ed. Thomas Ferrell. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998. 1-22, p. 9. Print.

Lowrie, Walter. "The Cross and the Monogram." Handbooks of Archaeology and Antiquity: Monuments of the Early Church. New York: Macmillan, 1906. 237-44. Print.

Poulakos, Takis. "Isocrates' Use of Doxa." Philosophy and Rhetoric 34.1 (2001): 63. Print.

Taylor, Richard. "Crosses and Crucifixes." How to Read a Church: a Guide to Symbols and Images in Churches and Cathedrals. Mahawh, NJ: HiddenSpring, 2003. 39-47. Print.

The Holy Bible. English Standard Version. Wheaton, Illinois: Good News Publishers.

Tyack, George S. "Chapter I. Introductory." The Cross in Ritual, Architecture, and Art. London: W. Andrews, 1900. 1-7. Print.

Urwin, John Hope. "The Cross and Passion." Signs and Symbols in Christian Art and Architecture,. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1909. 11-14. Print.

Ward, Henry Dana. "The Cross of Christ No Image." History of the Cross: the Pagan Origin, and Idolatrous Adoption and Worship, of the Image. London: J. Nisbet &, 1871. 13-17. Print.

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