According to An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (London, 1962), W. E. Vine, p. 256. :

The shape of the [two-beamed cross] had its origin in ancient Chaldea, and was used as the symbol of the god Tammuz (being in the shape of the mystic Tau, the initial of his name) in that country and in adjacent lands, including Egypt. By the middle of the 3rd cent. A.D. the churches had either departed from, or had travestied, certain doctrines of the Christian faith. 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.”

There are many other references that agree that prior to 3rd or 4th century only non Christian groups ever used the symbol of the cross in their worship. There is also the matter of whether or not Jesus was put to death on a cross or a single upright stake as the Ancient Greek words stauros indicates.

Thus I am asking: How does the Catholic Church explain the cross becoming acceptable to use and venerate as a symbol of Christianity?

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    It doesn't matter what the origin was. Christ gave a different meaning to it.
    – Grasper
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 18:11
  • related or possible duplicate: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/62108/…
    – Grasper
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 19:20
  • @Grasper thanks for the link but that question was very broad and is closed as such
    – 007
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 19:27
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    @Grasper If Christ gave a different meaning to it, then why wasn't it used until "the middle of the 3rd cent. A.D." as the article says?
    – user32540
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 19:53
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    You state: “There are many other references that agree that prior to 3rd or 4th century only non Christian groups ever used the symbol of the cross in their worship.” Can you name a Few?
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Oct 6, 2019 at 1:02

4 Answers 4


This is a non-starter because it rests upon multiple logical fallacies, meaning it's a non-argument for anything other than one's inability or unwillingness to be logical.

Namely, it commits the Genetic Fallacy: 'x has origins in somone or something evil, therefore, x must be bad in and of itself' (e.g. 'circumcision is evil because pagans invented circumcision').

It also commits the Association Fallacy (Guilt By Association): 'x was done or caused by evil [person] y, and therefore all instances of x implies the evil [of person] y' (e.g. 'pagans used crosses on which to torture people, therefore anything plus sign or cross shaped is evil' or 'all guns are evil because some people shoot humans with them.')

There are probably a few more, but one is sufficient, and you get the point.

But more simply, the crucifying Him on a cross was an evil done to Christ. Just as killing Him was. But the evil done to Him was to our benefit (Gal 3:13; 2 Cor 5:21 etc.).

1 Cor 1:23-24: the cross is a stumbling block and an apparent defeat only to those who are perishing (2 Cor 4:3), but to us it is our salvation.

Gen 50:20: the Romans and Jews putting Christ to death was an evil objectively, but subjectively, we recieve benefit because of it.

Also, God can sanctify that which is pagan (see the above logical fallacies upon which some rest to object to this fact) for His own purpose. An example is circumcision. God doesn't care what other's signified or meant by, since why would He? Only He matters. Romans used the cross to torture criminals. So what? God used the cross to present His salvation to the world, and by definition becomes something holy, in spite of itself.

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    I was hoping for an answer with Catholic Church references
    – 007
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 20:40
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    I'm not sure the Church has any official teaching on this faulty accusation: it's based on logical fallacies, which demands no rebuttal. "By the middle of the 3rd cent. A.D. the churches had either departed from, or had travestied, certain doctrines of the Christian faith" is clearly an extremely biased source of 'history,' by the way. Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 21:45
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    That's not the falsehood. The falsehood or error is that this 'pagan use' of this shape or letter or whatever is the same meaning of the cross in Christianity, which it manifestly is not. Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 22:25
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    What needs explaining? Isn't it obvious that Christ was crucified on one and that's the reason we put them places?? Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 13:03
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    'How do Catholics respond to the claims' seems like it is asking for a rebuttal of an incriminating aspect to the Catholic faith from my perspective. But I of course respect that it isn't your intention. I don't know, I guess I I'm not sure what other kind of answer you want, especially given the link you provided.. Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 13:38

How do Catholics respond to the claims that the cross has pagan origins?

Of course the cross was of pagan origin and you are probably not correct that there are other "references that agree that prior to 3rd or 4th century only non Christian groups ever used the symbol of the cross in their worship."

First of all let us remember that it was only in 313 with the Edict of Milan that peace was officially given to the Church and crucifixion was put away with as a form of capital punishment.

In antiquity crucifixion was considered one of the most brutal and shameful modes of death. Probably originating with the Assyrians and Babylonians, it was used systematically by the Persians in the 6th century BC. Alexander the Great brought it from there to the eastern Mediterranean countries in the 4th century BC, and the Phoenicians introduced it to Rome in the 3rd century BC. It was virtually never used in pre-Hellenic Greece. The Romans perfected crucifion for 500 years until it was abolished by Constantine I in the 4th century AD. Crucifixion in Roman times was applied mostly to slaves, disgraced soldiers, Christians and foreigners--only very rarely to Roman citizens. Death, usually after 6 hours--4 days, was due to multifactorial pathology: after-effects of compulsory scourging and maiming, haemorrhage and dehydration causing hypovolaemic shock and pain, but the most important factor was progressive asphyxia caused by impairment of respiratory movement. Resultant anoxaemia exaggerated hypovolaemic shock. Death was probably commonly precipitated by cardiac arrest, caused by vasovagal reflexes, initiated inter alia by severe anoxaemia, severe pain, body blows and breaking of the large bones. The attending Roman guards could only leave the site after the victim had died, and were known to precipitate death by means of deliberate fracturing of the tibia and/or fibula, spear stab wounds into the heart, sharp blows to the front of the chest, or a smoking fire built at the foot of the cross to asphyxiate the victim. - The history and pathology of crucifixion.

Thus it would be normal that the faithful in the Early Church would not openly keep the sign of the cross as a public expression of faith, since it was still an instrument of torture.

It is from this original Christian worship of the cross that arose the custom of making on one's forehead the sign of the cross. Tertullian says: "Frontem crucis signaculo terimus" (De Cor. mil. iii), i.e. "We Christians wear out our foreheads with the sign of the cross." The practice was so general about the year 200, according to the same writer, that the Christians of his time were wont to sign themselves with the cross before undertaking any action. He says that it is not commanded in Holy Scripture, but is a matter of Christian tradition, like certain other practices that are confirmed by long usage and the spirit of faith in which they are kept.

The punishment of the cross remained in force throughout the Roman Empire until the first half of the fourth century. In the early part of his reign Constantine continued to inflict the penalty of the cross (affigere patibulo) on slaves guilty of delatio domini, i.e. of denouncing their masters (Cod. Th. ad leg. Jul. magist.). Later on he abolished this infamous punishment, in memory and in honour of the Passion of Jesus Christ (Eusebius, Church History I.8).

The so-called Constantinian monogram prevailed during the whole of the fourth century, assuming various forms, and combining with the apocalyptic letters Alpha and Omega, but ever approaching more and more closely to the form of the cross pure and simple. In the latter part of that century what is known as the "monogrammatic cross" makes its appearance; it closely resembles the plain cross, and foreshadows its complete triumph in Christian art. The early years of the fifth century are of the highest importance in this development, because it was then that the undisguised cross first appears. As we have seen, such was the diffidence induced, and the habit of caution enforced, by three centuries of persecution, that the faithful had hesitated all that time to display the sign of Redemption openly and publicly. Constantine by the Edict of Milan had given definitive peace to the Church; yet, for another century the faithful did not judge it opportune to abandon the use of the Constantinian monogram in one or other of its many forms But the fifth century marks the period when Christian art broke away from old fears, and, secure in its triumph, displayed before the world, now become Christian also, the sign of its redemption.

Seeing that the cross was the symbol of an ignominious death, the repugnance of the early Christians to any representation of Christ's torments and ignominy is easily understood.

Since by His holy sacrificial death upon the Cross Christ sanctified this former instrument of shame and ignominy, it must have very soon become in the eyes of the faithful a sacred symbol of the Passion, consequently a sign of protection and defence (St. Paulinus of Nola, "Carm. in Natal. S. Felicis", XI, 612; Prudent., "Adv. Symm.", I, 486). It is not, therefore, altogether strange or inconceivable that, from the beginning of the new religion, the cross should have appeared in Christian homes as an object of religious veneration, although no such monument of the earliest Christian art has been preserved. Catholic Encyclopedia

Let us not forget that Our Lord shed His sacred blood upon the Cross for our salvation!

The following article(s) May be of interest also:

What does modern scholarship conclude about the shape of the cross and the method of crucifixion?


There are 3 separate points or questions actually asked here that need to be addressed

  1. Did Jesus die on a cross or a stake?

The word stauros and its definition are the problem here. Stauros meant pole in classical Greek but not Koine Greek nor in modern Greek. It means cross. Language evolves and the meaning of words change. The word crucifixtion is Latin and means to fix to a cross. There are drawings and paintings showing the cross as a method of Roman execution such as The Alexamenos Graffito. The date of the drawing is debated but is from the 30sAD to about 200AD. Since it is mocking Christian worship it was most likely drawn by a non-Christian depicting how Jesus was crucified. Another graffito is considered the oldest known depiction of a Roman crucifixtion found in Puteoli, dated around 100 AD. You also have Josephus and Seneca the younger’s descriptions of Roman crucifixion. The cross among other instruments of execution are mentioned therein. All this evidence coupled with the Bible suggests Jesus died on a cross.

  1. When did the Christians start using the cross as a symbol?

The Staurogram

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a standard abbreviation of the word cross in the oldest Greek manuscripts such as P66 has a picture of a cross imbedded in the word this dates prior to 150AD.

Justin martyr wrote that the cross was found in everything. The Alexamenos Graffito,mentioned earlier.mocking Christian worship places the date early as well. The evidence would suggest at least by 100AD if not before Christians revered the cross.

enter image description here

enter image description here

Tracing of Alexamenos Graffito from plaster.

Additional information here

  1. Finally why do Christians use a pagan symbol(the cross)?

This assumes that they borrowed this symbol from the pagans and did not derive it on their own. While the Catholic church most definitely did bring pagan beliefs in, the cross predates the Catholic Church as you know.

There is no evidence to prove they adopted the cross from someone else. Only someones theory that they did. The evidence given in the previous points show that Christians believe their savior died on a cross for their sins and that they adopted the cross as a symbol of that. Thus not from pagan sources.

  • 2
    This looks more like your response than the official Catholic Church's response. If you could edit this to add quotes or references to authoritative Catholic sources it would be greatly improved.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 3:45
  • thanks for the input curiousdanni it is my response i am not catholic so really cant answer from their point of view Commented Apr 17, 2018 at 23:36
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    “This assumes that they borrowed this symbol from the pagans and did not derive it on their own. While the Catholic Church most definitely did bring pagan beliefs in, the cross predates the Catholic Church as you know.” Can you provide some scholarly proof for these statements? The Catholic Church most definitely did not bring pagan beliefs into Catholic faith.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Oct 6, 2019 at 13:31

According to Justin Martyr, in "Dialogue with Trypho", Christian's should not be concerned with such things. Here are the Chapter titles which summarize the chapter, taken from the New Advent (Catholic) web site. They pretty much say it all!

Chapter 69. The devil, since he emulates the truth, has invented fables about Bacchus, Hercules, and Æsculapius

Chapter 70. So also the mysteries of Mithras are distorted from the prophecies of Daniel and Isaiah

Dialogue with Trypho (Chapters 69-88)

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