The Earliest Drawing of the Crucifixion in History?

tau rhoThe cross is at the centre of Christianity.  No cross, no anything.

Jesus outstretched on the ancient torture device is his open-armed embrace of humanity. His pain because of our depravity.

But it has been long held that the picture of Jesus on ancient-version-of-the-electric-chair was a “stumbling block” in those early years of the faith. Why?

Because it was considered a shameful death. We kind of forget that now because we’ve sentimentalized the cross: we wear it around our necks and have it on bumper stickers. There’s nothing wrong with that; I do it too. But imagine having a little symbol of the electric chair around your neck. What would that say about your love for who did this for you, and who invites each of us to take up our own in his cause?  (See Mark 8:34)

But it’s helpful to remember that historically the local murderers and rabble-rousers were hung up there in a public degradation ritual that served several purposes, including: publicly showcasing the power of Rome to kill; the humiliation of (supposed) guilt; a slow death; arms pulling out of sockets and lungs filling up with blood to drown the victim—the only “relief” being propping yourself up with your feet (the knees would have been bent to the side) for some air. This wouldn’t have been pleasant considering the feet/ankles were nailed to a beam of wood.

Horror. In his book telling Jesus’ story in the first person, Norman Mailer says that Jesus on the cross was “luminous with pain.”

The cross was a “problem” (theologically and otherwise) that the Messiah (“anointed”) one—God’s Son—could suffer such a fate. Wouldn’t this have been proof that he had failed?


It was proof that the old order was passing away, and that God’s love was bigger than we ever imagined. Jesus foretold his own suffering and death, and there were prophecies about it. No more God-on-fluffy-cloud illusion; but God in the blood, sweat and tears of his people—a people whose heart he shares.

The early followers came to know the cross as both the “power” and “wisdom” of God (as articulated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:24). It was the way God turned the whole order of things upside down. The scales had now been tipped toward victory.

It has been long held, however, that the cross was such a challenging idea to the early followers of “the Way” that they didn’t talk about it much. And they didn’t draw or depict it either for about 400 years. Why throw a hammer into the gears?

It’s true that many of the early Christian images of Jesus are as the Good Shepherd, or of him sitting at table with people breaking bread and sharing fish. Those are more pleasant images to the eye.

But maybe the cross wasn’t totally absent from the visual imaginations (and records) of the early followers.

In a recent article in Biblical Archaeology Review (March/April 2013), scholar Larry Hurtado identifies how in the biblical manuscripts themselves (!) believers were portraying the crucified Jesus.

And these ones are from way before the year 400.

Many of you will know about Christian symbols. The most popular is the cross. And I have a “Jesus fish” on my car. But a lesser known symbol is the “tau rho.” These are Greek letters. The tau is like our English “T” and the rho is like our English “R.” The T looks like a T but the R looks like a P. So when you overlay the T with the P it appears like a head and outstretched arms (i.e. someone on a cross). (See the middle character in the image I’ve used for this blog — or just google “tau rho symbol”.)

It seems that in some of the earliest manuscripts of the Bible (in this case in the early 200’s in a Greek manuscript called Bodmer Papyrus P75), scribes were including the tau-rho symbol in the word for “cross” or “crucify.” They were including a small linguistic drawing of a person on a cross in the actual text of Scripture.

One of the earliest examples of this is in John 19:6 when the crowds are yelling “Crucify him!” Well, in the Greek word for “crucify” the scribe has actually included the tau-rho, and therefore, a picture of a man (Jesus) on the cross almost foreshadowing the event that would be.

A few thoughts:

The power of the cross—and the crucified Jesus on the cross—was so definitive and mysterious and loving and mind-blowing and earth shattering that it simply could not be suppressed no matter how “offensive” it may have seemed to some people. It’s physical depiction was a part of the early story.

Jesus is often called “the Word” (as in the start of John’s Gospel, see chapter 1, verse 14). I love that the words of the Bible and the “Word” himself overlap into one with the use of this symbol.

In the tau rho symbol, the face is empty with no characteristics. Perhaps symbolic that in the earliest depiction of Jesus, any of our faces could be where his is. I’m reminded of what Augustine said, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” And so there is Jesus in our place.

And last
The written letter symbol is such that it shows no ethnicity, and therefore, can represent all ethnicities.

(As I come to a close I should thank Dr. Claude Cox for giving me the magazine!)

No amount of offence could hold back the simultaneous authority, muscle and parental tenderheartedness that the cross represents from bursting forth in scripture itself.

Blood falls on sand. Ink falls on paper.

Christianity without the cross is like a car without an engine. Or more aptly, a human without a heart.


  1. I really appreciate your reflections here Matthew. I’ve been following your blog for a while at Tony Plomp’s suggestion. You are doing great work/ministry here – thank you.


  2. Hi Matthew I may be wrong in saying this, however here I go . Christ suffered greatly on the cross It doesn’t surprise me if people cannot comprehand this at all. I heard once the Roman soldiers also broke the legs of the individuals on the cross. Sometimes we as people need to hear how he (Jesus) did suffer for us, on the cross with a graphic explanation . Hopefully this visual thought stays with them for awhile? When I think of how Jesus suffered for me, like a parent(s) would for their children if need be? I appreciate him even more.


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