The cross is recognized as one of the most important symbols of the Roman Catholic Church. It is displayed on top of roofs and towers. It is seen on altars, furnishings, and ecclesiastical garments. The floor plan on the majority of Catholic churches is laid out in the shape of the cross. All Catholic homes, hospitals, and schools have the cross adorning the walls. Everywhere the cross is outwardly honored and adored, in hundreds of ways!
When an infant is sprinkled, the priest makes the sign of the cross upon its forehead saying: “Receive the sign of the cross upon thy forehead.” During confirmation, the candidate is signed with the cross. On Ash Wednesday, ashes are used to make a cross on the forehead. When Catholics enter the church building, they dip the forefinger of the right hand in “holy water,” touch the forehead, the chest, the left and the right shoulder, thus tracing the figure of the cross. The same sign is made before eating meals. During Mass, the priest makes the sign of the cross 16 times and blesses the altar with the cross sign 30 times.
Protestant churches, for the most part, do not believe in making the sign of the cross with their fingers. Neither do they bow down before crosses or use them as objects of worship. They have recognized that these things are unscriptural and superstitious. But the use of the cross has been commonly retained on steeples, pulpits, hymnals, and in various other ways as a form of decoration.
The early Christians did not consider the cross as a virtuous symbol, but rather as “the accursed tree,” a device of death and “shame” (Heb. 12:2).They did not trust in an old rugged cross. Instead, their faith was in what was accomplished on the cross (stake); and through this faith, they knew the full and complete forgiveness of sin! It was in this sense that the apostles preached about the cross (stake) and gloried in it (I Cor. 1:17-18). They never spoke of the cross as a piece of wood one might hand from a little chain around his neck or carry in his hand as a protector or charm. Such uses of the cross came later.
It was not until Christianity began to be paganized (or, as some prefer, paganism was Christianized), that the cross image came to be thought of as a Christian symbol. It was in 431 AD that crosses in churches and chambers were introduced, while the use of crosses on steeples did not come until about 586 AD. In the 6th century, the crucifix image was sanctioned by the Church of Rome. It was not until the 2nd Council at Ephesus that private homes were required to possess a cross.
If the cross is a Christian symbol, it cannot be correctly said that its origin was within Christianity, for in one form or another it was a sacred symbol long before the Christian Era and among many non-Christian people. According to An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, the cross originated among the Babylonians of ancient Chaldea. “The ecclesiastical form of a two beamed cross had its origin in ancient Chaldea, and was used as the symbol of the pagan god Tammus (being in the shape of the Mystic Tau, the initial of his name) in that country and in adjacent lands, including Egypt. In order to increase the prestige of the apostate ecclesiastical system, pagans were received into the churches apart from regeneration by faith, and were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols. Hence the Tau or T, in its most frequent form, with the cross-piece lowered, was adopted to stand for the cross of Christ.
In any book on Egypt that shows the old monuments and walls of ancient temples, one can see the use of the Tau cross.
As the cross symbol spread to various nations, its use developed in different ways. Among the Chinese, “the cross is acknowledged to be one of the most ancient devices. It is portrayed upon the walls of their pagodas; it is painted upon the lanterns used to illuminate the most sacred recesses of their temples.”
The cross has been a sacred symbol in India for centuries among non-Christian people. It has been used to mark the jars of holy water taken from the Ganges, also as an emblem of disembodied Jaina saints. In the central part of India, two crude crosses of stone have been discovered which date back to a time centuries before the Christian Era, one over ten feet, the other over 8 feet high. The Buddhists, and numerous other sects of India, marked their followers on the head with the sign of the cross.
On the continent of Africa, at Susa, natives plunge a cross into the River Gitche. The Kabyle women, although Mohammedans, tattoo a cross between their eyes. In Wanyamwizi walls are decorated with crosses. The Yaricks, who established a line of kingdoms from the Niger to the Nile, had an image of a cross painted on their shields.
When the Spaniards first landed in Mexico, they could not suppress their wonder as they beheld the cross, the sacred emblem of their own faith, raised as an object of worship in the temples of Anahuac. The Spaniards were not aware that the cross was the symbol of worship of the highest antiquity by pagan nations on whom the light of Christianity had never shone.
In Palenque, Mexico, founded by Votan in the 9th century before the Christian Era, is a heathen temple known as “The Temple of the Cross.” There inscribed on an altar slab is a central cross six and a half by eleven feet in size. The Catholic Encyclopedia includes a photograph of this cross, beneath which are the words “Pre-Christian Cross of Palenque.”
In olden times, the Mexicans worshipped a cross as tota (our father). This practice of addressing a piece of wood with the title “father” is also mentioned in the Bible. When the Israelites mixed idolatry with their religion, they said to stock (a tree), “Thou art my father” (Jer. 2:27). But it is contrary to the scriptures to call a piece of wood (or a priest) by the title “father.”
Ages ago in Italy, before the people knew anything of the arts of civilization, they believed in the cross as a religious symbol. It was regarded as a protector and was placed upon tombs. In 46 B.C., Roman coins show Jupiter holding a long scepter terminating in a cross. The Vestal Virgins of pagan Rome wore the cross suspended from the necklaces, as the nuns of the Roman Catholic Church do now.
The Greeks depicted crosses on the headband of their god corresponding to Tammuz of the Babylonians. Porcelli mentions that Isis was shown with a cross on her forehead. Her priests carried processional crosses in their worship of her. The temple of Serapis in Alexandria was surmounted by a cross. The temple of the Sphinx when it was unearthed was found to be cruciform in shape. Ensigns in the form of a cross were carried by the Persians during their battles with Alexander the Great (B.C. 335).
The cross was used as a religious symbol by the Aborigines of South America in ancient times. New born children were placed under its protection against evil spirits. The Patagonians tattooed their foreheads with crosses. Ancient pottery in Peru has been found that is marked with the cross as a religious symbol. Monuments show that Assyrian kings wore crosses suspended on their necklaces, as did some of the foreigners that battled against the Egyptians.
Crosses were also figured on the robes of the Rot-n-no as early as the 15th century before the Christian Era.
The Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges that “the sign of the cross, represented in its simplest form by a crossing of two lines at right angles, greatly antedates, in both the East and the West, the introduction of Christianity. It goes back to a very remote period of human civilization.
But since Jesus died on a cross (stake), some question, “does this not make it a Christian symbol?” It is true that in most minds the cross has now come to be associated with Christ. But those who know its history and the superstitious ways it has been used, especially in past centuries can see another side of the coin. Though it sounds crude, someone has asked: “Suppose Jesus had been killed with a gun; would this be any reason to have a gun hanging from our necks or on top of the church roof?” It comes down to this: The important thing is not what, but who – who it was that died, not what the instrument of death was.
Crucifixion as a method of death “was used in ancient times as a punishment for flagrant crimes in Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Palestine, Carthage, Greece, and Rome. Tradition ascribes the invention of the punishment of the cross to a woman, the queen, Semiramis”!
Christ died on one cross (stake) whatever type it was and yet many kinds of crosses are used in the Catholic religion. The Catholic Encyclopedia shows forty. If the Roman Catholic use of the cross began simply with the cross of Christ and was not influenced by paganism, why are so many different types of crosses used?
Says a noted writer: “Of the several varieties of the cross still in vogue, as national and ecclesiastical emblems, distinguished by the familiar appellations of St. George, St. Andrew, the Maltese, the Greek the Latin, etc. there is not one amongst them the existence of which may not be traced to the remotest antiquity!”
The cross known as the TAU cross was widely used in Egypt. In later times the Egyptian Christians (Copts), attracted by its form, and perhaps by its symbolism, adopted it as the emblem of the cross. What is known as the Greek cross was also found on Egyptian monuments. This form of the cross was used in Phrygia where it adorned the tomb of Midas. Among the ruins of Nineveh, a king is shown wearing a Maltese cross on his chest. The form of the cross that is today known as the Latin cross was used by the Etruscans, as seen on an ancient pagan tomb with winged angels to each side of it.
Among the Cumas in South America, what has been called the St. Andrew’s cross was regarded as a protector against evil spirits. It appeared on the coin of Alexander Bala in Syria in 146 B.C. and on those Baktrian kings about 140 to 120 B.C. – long before St. Andrew was ever born!
A final question remains, Jesus died on one cross – what shape was it? Some believe it was simply a torture stake with no cross piece whatsoever. The word “cross” automatically conveys the meaning that two pieces of wood cross each other at some point or angle. But the Greek word from which “cross” is translated in the New Testament, stauros, does not require this meaning. The word itself simply means an upright stake or post. If the instrument on which Jesus died was no more than this, it was not a “cross” at all! This would clearly show the folly of many types of crosses being “Christianized.”
As to the exact shape of the cross of Christ, we need not be too concerned. All such arguments fade into insignificance when compared to the real meaning of the cross, not the piece of wood, but the eternal redemption of Christ.