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

Bruce W. Longenecker (Author)
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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.

Release date: 
August 1, 2015


“Longenecker lays down an effective barrage on the insufficiently-examined position that the cross was not a Christian symbol prior to Constantine.  There may well be objections to his proposals on some specific artifacts, but the sheer weight and diversity of the evidence that he gathers here cannot be denied by anyone ready to consider the matter fairly.  With this richly documented work, we have the basis of a new and more evidence-based understanding of how the cross functioned in pre-Constantinian Christianity.”
—L. W. Hurtado
Emeritus, University of Edinburgh

“It has long been thought that the Christians only began to use the symbol of the cross when Constantine made it his imperial sign. In Bruce Longenecker’s careful and wonderfully detailed survey, this is shown up as a modern myth. Though there is no uniform pattern, the cross was known and used as a Christian symbol from at least the 70s of the first century. This is revisionist historiography at its best.”
—N. T. Wright
University of St. Andrews

“This compelling study brings fresh insight to a thorny problem in the history of Christianity: the origins of the cross as a symbol in the early Church. Against the long-held view that cross-symbolism of any kind was avoided prior to the fourth century, Longenecker demonstrates not only the presence of the symbol in the material record of early Christianity, but its role as a symbol of power. Such a thorough and insightful analysis of both the material and literary evidence on this problem has been long overdue; and the findings demand attention from scholars and general readers alike.”
—Felicity Harley-McGowan
Yale Divinity School

“Never again let it be said that the cross only became a symbol of Christianity after the emperor Constantine adopted it as a sign of political and religious power in the fourth century CE. Longenecker rightly, and convincingly, disproves this long-held, but incorrect, scholarly truism. More importantly, the abundance of archaeological and literary material which illustrates and confirms Longenecker’s position sheds important new light on the way the earliest Christians utilized the cross as a tool to ward off the power of evil in their everyday lives as well as in death. If you only read one book on early Christianity this year, The Cross before Constantine has to be that book!”
—William Tabbernee
University of Oklahoma 

Sample of Images

1.1 Constantine Coin

Figure 1.1. Constantine on a Roman coin from the first half of the fourth century | Bruce Longenecker

1.2 Chi-Rho Coin

Figure 1.2. A mid-fourth-century coin honoring Emperor Constantine II, depicting a chi-rho at the middle right | Bruce Longenecker

1.4 T Cross

Figure 1.4. A Byzantine T cross | Bruce Longenecker

1.6 Equilateral

Figure 1.6. An ancient ring displaying an equilateral cross | Bruce Longenecker

1.7 Ankh.jpg

Figure 1.7. A stylized Egyptian Ankh, formed by placing a circular handle above a T cross | Bruce Longenecker

1.8 Gamma Cross1

Figure 1.8. The gamma cross in right-facing form. Mosaics from the marketplace in ancient Ostia | Bruce Longenecker

6.6 Crosses Compareds

Figure 6.6. The artifact from Herculaneum’s House of the Bicentenary (left) together with the artifact from the bakery in Pompeii’s Insula Arriana Polliana | The Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Activities and Tourism—Special Superintendency for Archaeolog


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