As many writers have noted, perhaps most notable among them recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, in Western culture, the cross has largely lost its religious significance. One would not see pop stars of the 1940s and 50s wearing gold or silver cross while performing. I think it did not become a trend until perhaps the 1970s, about the same time contemporary Christian music began to catch on. From pop culture the practice has been adopted by the masses. It is not uncommon to see people who make no profession of faith, who seem to have no awareness of the historical or religious significance of the cross, wearing a one as a fashion statement.
When the early Christians thought of the cross, however, it was anything but a fashion statement. We think of the cross as a Roman implement of torture and that it was but as with many other things in Roman culture, the Romans did not invent it. They merely perfected it.
Crucifixion is first attested among the Persians (cf. Herodotus Hist. i.128.2; iii.132.2, 159.1), perhaps derived from the Assyrian practice of impalement. It was later employed by the Greeks, especially Alexander the Great, and by the Carthaginians, from whom the Romans adapted the practice as a punishment for slaves and non-citizens, and occasionally for citizens guilty of treason.1
In the Old Testament the impaling and public exhibition of a corpse was a sign of accursedness:
“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance (Deut 21:22–23).
The Seleucids introduced what we know as crucifixion into Palestine. Antiochus Epiphanes IV (ruled 175–164 BC) crucified rebellious Jews (see 1 Maccabees 1:44–50).2 The Romans crucified 3,600 Jews c. AD 66. The most famous crucifixion in all history, of course, is that of one person, the God-man, Jesus Christ. The intent behind the civil-political and military use of the cross was to evoke terror and the cause a conquered people to submit. It was a bloody, painful, and visible signal: this is what we do to those who get out of line.
Naturally, to the Jews the cross was a hated symbol of Roman oppression. The Romans regarded anyone who was crucified as disgusting. They valued outward conformity as a sign of civilization and even humanity. To resist the Empire and the the emperor, to be judged a criminal by the empire was a scandal. The Romans assumed that anyone who was crucified probably had it coming to them. In the first century, the Roman cross was the perfect sign of revulsion and rejection by God and society.
The writer to the Hebrews reflects the shame associated with the cross and connects it to OT priestly practice:
For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured Heb 13:11–13; ESV).
So it is appropriate that our catechism asks and answers:
39. Is there anything more in His having been crucified than if He had suffered some other death?
Yes, for thereby I am assured that He took upon Himself the curse which lay upon me; because the death of the cross was accursed of God.
Jesus did not merely die. He died an accursed death. We know that he was neither the first nor the last Jew to be crucified but he was the only man who bore the wrath of God against sin. He, not national Israel nor the Jews, was the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. He was the substitute. He was (and is) The Mediator. This is the consistent testimony of Scripture.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Gal 3:13–14).
His death fulfilled the OT curses. Because he was innocent his death shocked even the conscience of battle-hardened soldiers who had seen it all. The Roman centurion who witnessed it testified, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mk 15:39). Thus, ironically, the message about a crucified Messiah, which was a humiliation to the Jews, disgusting to the Romans, and foolishness to the Greeks, to Christians is to us who believe “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18).
The early Christians embraced the cross as a symbol of their salvation. They did not brandish it in gold or silver however. They used it surreptitiously. Among other things, copyists added it to early copies of New Testament texts.
Some of the oldest manuscripts of the Greek New Testament contain what are likely the earliest evidences of cruciform symbolism. Called a “staurogram” (from the Greek word σταυρός, stauros, “cross”) the symbol combines the Greek tau (T) and rho (P)—two of the letters in Greek words meaning “cross” or “crucify”—to represent the figure of a man hanging on a cross. The staurogram appears in seven verses in John 19 in a second-century papyrus (P66). There are also three instances in Luke (P75, third century) and one in Matthew (P45, early third century). The words in which the staurogram appear are treated as nomina sacra, or “sacred names” (Hurtado, “Staurogram,” 49–51; Dinkler-von Schubert, “Cross,” 734–35; Finney, “Cross,” 304).3
When, in our Christian experience, we are tempted to think that God has turned his back on us we should think of that cross because it was there that God really did turn his back on sin and, in that moment, executed justice against all our sins past, present, and future—not that we might continue sinning but that we might be set free from the power of sin, that we might die to self and sin and live to Christ. Our Father, who is our Father for Christ’s sake, may withdraw the sense of his presence for a season but he never turns his back on his children. That work is finished. Thus, a right understanding begins with seeing what the cross signifies. It does not say to us that Jesus began a process that we must complete. It does not say that Jesus has made it possible for us to be saved but that on that horrible cross he accomplished our salvation. It is ours, by grace alone, to believe, to trust that all that was done on the cross for us. As we remember the centrality of the cross then we are rightly oriented to take the next step in the Christian pilgrimage.
1. Allen C. Myers, s.v. “cross,” in The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 246.
3. Gregory J. Stiekes, s.v., “Cross,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).