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What the Staurogram Implies:
How the First Christians Viewed the Shape of the Cross
Early Christian scribes used a variety of abbreviations called Nomina Sacra.1 These are present in our earliest Christian manuscripts and are so distinctive, that with no other evidence to work from, scholars can say the manuscripts came from a Christian provenance. But the earliest Nomina Sacra always consist of two or three letters of the word they stand for: iota - eta for Jesus (IH), or kappa -sigma (KS) for kurios ("Lord"). And they always have a horizontal line directly over them. But Staurograms are not like the other Nomina Sacra: they are distinctive in that they consist of a superimposed tau - rho, and often lack the horizontal line. They are intended to be shorthand for the word stauros ("cross") or stauro˘ ("crucify").
Jehovah's Witnesses believe Jesus was "impaled" on a single, upright stake, which they refer to as a "torture stake." Now, it is really not very important what shape the cross was; what is supremely important is what He accomplished there. But, because this belief is held so strongly by Witnesses, it is important that Christians are able to mount a solid defense that the cross was, in fact, shaped like our letter "T."
"Leolaia" has offered one of the most comprehensive articles on the shape of the cross here. The article you are now reading is meant to supplement her fine study.
Scholars, such as Larry Hurtado,2 believe the Staurogram is meant to picture Christ on the cross, with the tau representing the cross and the rho Christ's head.
Like the Nomina Sacra, these are distinctively Christian and are contained in our earliest Christian manuscripts. Below is an example of P66 with a Staurogram on the second line:
Staurograms also appear in P45 and P75, which (like P66) are conservatively dated to the mid-2nd Century, or slightly later.3
The presence of the Staurogram at this very early point in history suggests strongly that Christian at that time believed the cross to be shaped like our letter "T." If they had wanted to, these scribes could have easily used a capital Iota to represent an upright stake, as Jehovah's Witnesses are taught . The fact that the scribes did not do so is highly suggestive of what the true shape of the cross was.
For more information, see here.
1. See Hurtado, Larry, The Earliest Christian Artifacts. Kindle location 958 ff.
2. Ibid., Kindle location 1341 ff.
3. Hurtado, Larry, "The Staurogram in Early Christian Manuscripts", pp. 7-9; Comfort, pp. 156, 377, 501; and here.