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Why did it take five centuries for the cross to be embraced as a symbol of Christianity?

Catholic rosaries for sale in Tijuana Credit: Nathan Gibbs/Flickr/Creative Commons

You may have seen the images circulating of how Notre Dame’s alter and cross survived the devastating fire that destroyed much of the church on Monday, April 15, 2019.

Though this cross is making history, it is interesting to note that the cross was not fully embraced as a symbol of Christianity until around the fifth century.

In his article, Jesus and the Cross, historian Steven Shisley states that the first sign that the cross had finally gained public acceptance as a symbol of Christianity was in its appearance on the doors of the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome in the fifth century.

Until then, the cross had for the most part been down played and the reason for this Shisley claims is because of societal views on the cross.

For the Romans, that cross was associated with the deaths of criminals and slaves, the despised of society. They used the cross as a form of execution because it was particularly brutal and painful. And it was also favored because it often took days for people to die, prolonging the torture.

In fact, Shisley states Romans used the cross as an insult and points to graffiti where people insulted each other by wishing them death by a cross. Plautus, a Roman writer, used the expression “go to an evil cross” much in the same way we utter the words “go to hell.”

But not only was the cross despised by gentiles, but by the Jews as well. In the Old Testament, the bodies of those who were executed for the most hideous crimes had their body hung on trees as an indication God had cursed them:

22 “If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 21:22-23 NASV)

But the Jews were not allowed to hang a body on a tree over night because it would subsequently defile the land and this may be why Joseph of Arimathea asked permission to take Christ’s body down from the cross on the same day He died (John 19:38).

However, the Apostle Paul understood the significance of Christ’s death on a tree, because by His unique form of death, the Lord broke the curses associated with the Law:

13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— (Galatians 3:13 NASV)

Though the early church understood the theological significance of the cross, they also understood that people had negative opinions about it and Shisley believes this is what Paul was referring to when he wrote:

23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, (1 Corinthians 1:23 NASV)

And because of this, for the first three centuries Christians were reluctant to use the cross publicly because of the negative views people held of it. But it was noted that Christians being martyred in the Roman arenas would often stretch out their arms to signify their identification with Christ’s death on the cross as they died.

So while there were hints of acceptance it was very low-key.

So what changed?

According to Eusebius (260 AD to 340 AD), an early Christian historian, this change started under Constantine, who became a Christian and emperor of Rome in 306 AD after defeating his rival Maxentius. Eusebius writes that as Constantine was praying to God for help in his upcoming battle with his rival, the sunlight displayed a cross in the sky with the words displayed on it “Conquer by this.”

After his victory, Constantine made Christianity the legal religion of Rome and later banned death by crucifixion in honor of his victory by the power of the cross. This embracing of the cross by the most powerful man in Rome started the process of changing society’s perception of the cross at least among the Romans and to Christians using it as a public display of their faith.


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