A-1 - Encouraged by What You Read?

As someone who calls himself a “historic Christian,” I am very interested in learning as much as I can about the person of Jesus Christ. My interest extends to an appreciation of early Christian art and especially symbols that use Greek and Latin letters to represent the person of Jesus Christ. These early alphabetic artistic symbols were common in the ancient and medieval Christian world and remain so today in various liturgical church traditions (Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, etc.). Learning what they mean gives us, at the very least, an appreciation for Christ’s preeminence in history. That factor alone has led to centuries of thought and written expression about who Jesus truly was.

The symbols are called monograms or Christograms and can be used—instead of formal images or statues—to represent the person of Jesus Christ. Christians have used these monograms of the name of Jesus Christ in art and symbolism through the centuries. Some even appear extremely early in ancient biblical manuscripts. Over time these images came to be used not only in texts but also as freestanding symbols of Jesus Christ or of the historic Christian faith. You will often see them on liturgical vestments and utensils in more traditional churches.

Yet many Christians and non-Christians today see these symbols but don’t know what they represent. In these six common symbols we learn surprisingly much about the Christ of history.

  • Chi-Rho: ☧

One of the earliest symbols for the person of Jesus Christ, the Chi-Rho (pronounced “KEE-roe”) looks like the crossing of the English letters X and P. But in actuality it is the superimposed Greek letters chi (Χ) and rho (Ρ) from the title Christ (Greek: Χριστός) meaning Messiah (Hebrew: “anointed one”). So the Chi-Rho reflects Jesus’s role as the Messiah who, in a Christian context, is the divine Son of God and the deliverer or Savior.

  • Staurogram: 

The staurogram consists of the superimposed Greek capital letters tau (Τ) and rho (Ρ). It takes its name from stauros (σταυρός), the Greek word for cross, and the combining of the tau-rho letters seeks to visually represent Jesus as a crucified figure on the cross. In this way it serves as a “cross-monogram.” It appears in primitive papyri New Testament manuscripts (P66P45 and P75) and may be the earliest visual reference to the crucified Jesus in history.1

  • IHS

The IHS (or sometimes JHS) monogram symbolizes Jesus and is derived from the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus (ΙΗΣΟΥΣἸησοῦς: Iēsous), Iota-Eta-Sigma. This common Western symbol for Jesus is used by both Catholics and Protestants. You’ll see this symbol in many liturgically oriented churches.

  • Ichthus: ΙΧΘΥΣ

The ichthus (also ichthys) symbol which is the Greek word for “fish” consists of the first letters of the Greek words Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ Υἱὸς Σωτήρ meaning “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour.” This symbol represents Jesus’s core identity as Messiah, Son of God, and Savior. Some of Jesus’s disciples were fishermen—thus giving rise to the Christian fish symbol in primitive Christianity.

  • Alpha & Omega: Α – Ω

Alpha (Α) and omega (Ω) are the first and last letters, respectively, of the Greek alphabet (the New Testament was originally written in Greek). In the New Testament Jesus is called the Alpha and the Omega or the First and the Last. These two Greek letters represent the truth that Jesus Christ is the beginning and the end of all things and he possesses divine qualities and prerogatives (see Revelation 21:6, 22:13).

  • INRI

These four letters represent the Latin inscription IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDÆORVM (Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum), which was posted by the Romans on the cross of Jesus. The Latin translates into English as “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” (John 19:19). You will sometimes see this symbol on crucifixes in Catholic Churches where it represents Jesus’s passion on the cross.

It has rightly been said that “Christianity is Christ.” And these symbols powerfully illustrate the centrality of Jesus Christ and his identity to historic Christianity. These early alphabetic artistic symbols that abbreviate the name of Jesus Christ reflect both theology and art. And Christian art in its own way can facilitate apologetic engagement and evangelism.

Reflections: Your Turn

Have you seen these symbols? Which do you find most interesting? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Resources

Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

Endnotes
  1. L. W. Hurtado, “The Staurogram in Early Christian Manuscripts: The Earliest Visual Reference to the Crucified Jesus?” https://larryhurtado.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/staurogram-essay.pdf?fbclid=lwAROutaVrJsMqPIFzddDSm9YsyKFeZA5LDk1NDkIFQ4OHsIYITNGM4wmwnXY.

 

About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.

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