How to Appreciate Early Jesus Symbols

How to Appreciate Early Jesus Symbols

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 (P66, P45 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 (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, Ἰησοῦς: 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

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  1. L. W. Hurtado, “The Staurogram in Early Christian Manuscripts: The Earliest Visual Reference to the Crucified Jesus?”