The cross: the most venerated and recognized symbol of Christianity and its founder.
It is everywhere. There are cross tats, cross necklaces, bejeweled crosses on back pockets, cross gravestones, cross tee-shirts, and the list goes on.
For some, the cross is an icon of their faith, a symbol they identify with; for others the cross is nothing but two crisscrossing, though fashionable, lines; and for still others, wearing the cross is a way to slap all that Christianity represents on the face.
Growing up, I was always under the impression from my broader religious community that the symbol of the cross was both forbidden and tainted. Many and varied reasons were offered.
The cross was a pagan symbol
For some, the cross is pagan, a symbol that predated Christianity as a pagan symbol in numerous parts of the world. For these pre-Christian societies and religions, the cross could mean sacred fire, nature worship, protection for the tombs of the dead, vestal virgins in Rome, fertility…you get the idea. Some suggest it was also attached to the ancient Chaldean god Tammuz (in other countries known as Baal, Molech, or Osiris) and to the Roman god Jupiter.
And now it’s a symbol of Christianity.
Yet Christ was nailed to a tree—possibly in the shape of a cross—(I Pet 2:24; Acts 5:30; 10:39). Crucifixion was the ancient Jewish and Roman method of death. Jesus likely carried a beam that would be nailed to a tree or pole, forming a rugged T or cross shape. Or perhaps, he was merely nailed to one pole without the beam. Regardless, later Christianity settled on the cross as the universal symbol of Jesus’ death.
Some suggest that early Christianity drew on its pagan neighbors, utilizing the cross as a more “cross-religious” symbol (pun intended).
Many people quickly point out that the Torah clearly prohibits practicing and utilizing pagan customs (Deut 7:1-6, Jer 10:1-5; Rev 18:1-4)…this would include adopting the ancient, pagan symbol of the cross.
The cross is an idol
Others argued that by elevating the cross to an icon, believers were in fact creating a sort of idol. After all, the Christian cross is classically pictured with a Christ crucified to it. And we all know how God feels about idol worship. (Exod 29:3)
The cross was the elephant in the room
And for many in the messianic Jewish or Gentile Jewish roots movement, the cross was mostly avoided because Christ was something rarely spoken of, his divinity a question left unasked, and the cross itself a symbol that separated us from our Jewish brothers and sisters. Star of David necklaces abounded, but the cross gathered dust in our jewelry boxes.
Yet in spite of all this, after twenty-two years, I now wear a cross pendent.
Let me address the above arguments.
First, the cross as an abstract, universal symbol did probably have pagan significance. Yet today, when I wear a cross, people don’t see it and remember they forgot to offer their daily sacrifice to Jupiter or pay homage to a sacred fire. That’s ridiculous.
Instead, the cross makes people think of Jesus—his death, burial and resurrection—the very things Christians are commanded to both remember and proclaim to the world. If it once had pagan connotations, it does no longer.
Let’s take a brief detour. Consider the zodiac. It is an incredibly pagan symbol, based on the idea that the stars control human destiny and earthly events. Today we know the Zodiac wheel as the horoscope.
The zodiac wheel was incorporated into ancient synagogue mosaics in Israel during the time of Talmudic Judaism (in synagogues in Beth Alpha, Hammath Tiberias, Ein Gedi, and Sepphoris) but not as a pagan symbol (though it did contain pagan symbols like the Helios).
According to Walter Zanger in “Jewish Worship, Pagan Symbols,” the zodiac wheel was adapted in an alternate (and later suppressed) branch of Judaism as a symbol of the Jewish mystical journey to salvation, utilizing Jewish ancestors, calendar elements, and holy symbols. Later, some rabbinic traditions tried to validate the use of symbols or icons in Jewish art.
According to Tagum Jonathan: “… you may place a mosaic pavement impressed with figures and images in the floors of synagogue; but not for bowing down to it.”
According to one midrash: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him [Abraham]: just as the zodiac [mazalot] surrounds me, and my glory is in the center, so shall your descendants multiply and camp under many flags, with my shekhina in the center.”
So it is not the symbol or image that is bad, it is what it represents to the person. For the early members of those synagogues, the images of the mosaics were not worshiped or considered significant to the pagan roots of the zodiac. Rather, they had taken on new significance in their own religious context.
Or how about the Jewish equivalent of the cross: the Star of David? It is essentially a hexagram, a six-pointed star, which some argue is an ancient symbol of magic, witchcraft, sex, and the occult. A bit disturbing if true. Yet, regardless of its origins, today the Star of David means nothing of the sort. For the Jewish people it is a symbol of unity, freedom, and identity.
So also, the cross, regardless of its possible adaptation from an ancient, more universal symbol, means something completely different for Christians and non-Christians today.
Finally, it seems very unlikely that early Christianity would have adopted so widely and quickly a pagan symbol in the interest of being more open to other forms of worship. Christians were still living in the era of martyrdom and sacrifice for their faith, not compromise. By the second and third centuries, Christians were depicting the cross with an anchor or with the crisscrossing of the Greek letters tau-rho or the letters chi-rho. In later centuries, a simple cross was depicted.
The second argument—that the cross is an idol—is equally ridiculous. I pay the cross no homage; rather, the cross reminds me of Jesus and it is him we are to commanded to worship as the lamb slain for the world (Rev 5:11-14).
Finally, as to the elephant in the room…
The cross is for me, something like what tzitzit are for the Jewish people: an identity marker and a remembrance.
By wearing it, I am identifying with Christ my Savior, and I’m remembering his sacrifice and my obligation to God and to sharing the Good News.
In Galatians 5:11 Paul refers to the “offense of the cross” (τὸ σκάνδαλον τοῦ σταυροῦ) I’m commandeering Paul’s phrase because that is exactly what the cross is for many people.
It is offensive because it represents the death of the divine messiah, something Paul reminds us is a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23). It is offensive because it reminds us of our human insufficiency, brokenness, and neediness. The cross is also a vivid reminder of Christ’s horrible death and the uncomfortable reasons behind it.
The offense of the cross is that on some level we cannot comprehend, God died for the sake of our salvation.
As for me, I refuse to be offended. Instead, I embrace the cross as the symbol of my faith and a reminder of my Savior.