Many Christians will probably be familiar with this symbol:

This is the so-called staurogram, composed by the Greek letter tau (Τ) superimposed on the letter rho (Ρ). As the name implies, this is a symbol of the cross (stauros in Greek). While the device is actually pre-Christian (the symbol was originally used as an abbreviation for “three” or “thirty” - treis and trianta, respectively) the symbol was used by early Christians to abbreviate the Greek word stauros (“cross”) or staur (“crucify”): it is used in this way in very early New Testament manuscripts such as Papyrus 66 (ca. early 3rd century), Papyrus 75 (ca. AD 175-225) and Papyrus 45 (ca. mid-3rd century), almost like a nomina sacra.

(What is a nomina sacra, BTW? Nomina sacra (Latin for ‘sacred names’) is a Christian scribal practice of abbreviating certain words or names which have some connection with God or Jesus - “Lord,” “God,” “Jesus Christ” - and thus are deemed to be in some way sacred. These contractions were usually indicated with overlines and are formed by taking the first one or two letters of the words, plus the final letter(s) to determine the inflection - since Greek is an inflected language, meaning that each word actually changes form, or inflection, based upon the role that it plays in the sentence. See this page for examples.)
A staurogram in Papyrus 75: C (st[au]ron, Luke 14:27)

The tau-rho is actually distinct from other monograms related to Christ (Christograms) in that the letters do not really derive from any letter contained in Jesus’ name (IHCOYC XPICTOC, Iēsous Christos) or in titles given to Him. The more popular chi-rho ( is composed by the first two letters of Christos (XP); the iota-chi monogram ( is formed by taking the first letters of Iēsous (I) and Christos (X), respectively. Moreover, the staurogram is the only one of these monograms that appears as part of nomina sacra, which would mean that it functioned differently as an early Christian symbol.

Now I think some of you will be familiar with the idea that Christians did not visually portray the crucified Jesus until the 4th-5th century, with some even drawing conclusions from this apparent absence. (The so-called Alexamenos graffito doesn’t count as it was made by a non-Christian who is mocking Christians.) A scholar named Larry Hurtado (his blog) disagrees with this idea; he instead argues that the staurogram could actually be the earliest extant Christian visual reference we have to the crucified Christ (the T = the cross; the loop on the P = the head of the crucified). The staurogram, in his opinion, were not simply abbreviations to save space in manuscript but were visual expressions of Christian piety.

See for example his book The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins, pp. 135-54, and the article The Staurogram in Early Christian Manuscripts: The Earliest Visual Reference to the Crucified Jesus? (alternate link), as well as some blog posts by him.


An intelligent and educational post. I didn’t know the name of that symbol. Thanks.


You’re welcome! :slight_smile:

BTW, here are most of the occurrences of the word stauros (σταυρός) and stauroo (σταυρόω) in Papyrus 66, a copy of John’s gospel. (Larger pic here)

You would notice that the scribe in most cases had contracted the words using the staurogram, the only exceptions being two passages (19:10, 23).


As mentioned earlier, the staurogram was already in use before the Christians had adopted it. It was usually used as an abbreviation for words or names that begin in tr-: for example, treis (‘three’), triakas/trianta (‘thirty’), or Trokondas (a proper name).

For example, here’s a coin of Herod the Great. There is the inscription ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΗΡΩΔΟΥ (Basileōs Hērōdou, “of King Herod”) surrounding a tripod holding a ceremonial bowl (lebes). Flanking this tripod are the letters LΓ “year 3” (Greek used letters as numbers; gamma (Γ) is the third letter), and the tau-rho. We aren’t totally sure what the tau-rho exactly means in this context (some even thought that it was actually an Egyptian ankh), although an idea has it that it is a contraction of the word trias or tritos (“three” or “third”) - which may either be a repetition of the meaning of LΓ (“the third [year]”) or an indication of the coin’s value (i.e. trichalkon).

In fact, the other Christograms like the chi-rho were not really original Christian inventions but are also attested before the rise of Christianity. The chi-rho for instance is used to abbreviate words like chronos (‘time’) or hēkatontarchia (‘a unit of hundred’, also used as a translation of the Latin centuria ‘a century’ - a unit of soldiers) or chiliarch*ēs* (a chiliarch, ‘a commander of a thousand’). As a contraction of chreston or chrēsimos, “good” or “useful” it was used in manuscripts to mark a particularly ‘valuable’ or relevant passage. (Incidentally, chrēston and Christos in later Greek are pronounced identically.) It was even found in amphorae (a type of container with handles) in Pompeii and elsewhere; in that case the chi-rho may have either denoted the attribute of the original contents of the containers - ‘useful’ :smiley: - or an owner’s, manufacturer’s, or examiner’s mark.


In the 4th century, St. Epiphanius gave the following explanation for the staurogram: the tau (T) refers to the cross, while the rho (P) refers to the Greek word boēthia (βοήθια ‘help’). Getting the cross out of the letter T is easy enough, but where does he get the idea that P = ‘aid’?

This is really a case of Christian gematria or isopsephy (adding up the number values of the letters in a word to form a single number). As I mentioned earlier, in Greek - as well as in Hebrew - letters doubled as numbers. (We saw this earlier in Herod’s coin and its use of Γ gamma for “3.”) Now the letter rho has the numerical value of 100. Well, what about the word boēthia?

B (beta) = 2
O (omicron) = 70
H (ēta) = 8
Θ (thēta) = 9
I (iota) = 10
A (alpha) = 1

2 + 70 + 8 + 9 + 10 + 1 = 100

So boēthia ‘help’ as a word has the same numerical value as the letter rho. For Ephrem, the staurogram thus expresses the idea that “the cross is our help/salvation.” The number 100 also has another symbolism: Abraham fathered Isaac according to a promise made by God when he was one hundred years old. It has also been suggested that P (100) was also connected to another phrase: ἐπ’ ἀγαθά ep’ agatha “good (fortune).”

E (epsilon) = 5
Π (pi) = 80
A = 1
Γ = 3
A = 1
Θ = 9
A = 1

5 + 80 + 1 + 3 + 1 + 9 + 1 = 100


Just a little digression. Now astute folks might ask here: shouldn’t the word mentioned in the last post be boētheia (βοήθεια), with an extra epsilon? Well, that’s gonna ruin Ephrem’s line of reasoning. :stuck_out_tongue: To be serious though, Ephrem was really helped by the fact that in his time the diphthong ει (ei) had become pronounced like simple ι (i - “ee”). It was part of a process known as iotacism, wherein a number of vowels and diphthongs in ancient Greek converged in pronunciation so that eventually they all came to sound like iota. Remember what I said about chrēston and Christos becoming pronounced identically in later Greek - with chrēston becoming simple christon; both the epsilon-iota (ei) diphthong and the ēta/ita are two such sounds which underwent iotacism (or in the case of ēta, itacism).

Whereas in the pronunciation of ancient Greek commonly taught to students nowadays (the so-called ‘Erasmian pronunciation’) the word boētheia might be pronounced something like boh-ay-thay-yah, in Byzantine and modern Greek the word is pronounced something like voithia - voh-ee-thee-yah. This explains why we read modern Greek names and surnames like Βασίλειος or Παντελής or Μητσοτάκης as Vasilios, *Pantelis, or *Mitsotakis and not as Basileios, *Pantelēs or *Mētsotakēs, because of the sound change.

The confusion between ei and i is actually pretty early, already being attested during the early 2nd century. We know this because writers back then sometimes tend to misspell words. Back in those days, when people wanted to write stuff like documents or letters, they did not write them by themselves as we do today. Also, scribes did not copy manuscripts by having an open scroll or codex before them from which they would copy letter-by-letter (as medieval monks did). Instead, the main way of composing books or letters and copying documents back then was by dictation. In other words, either (1) a person would dictate to a hired scribe (an amanuensis) what he wanted to be written, which the writer would then put down into writing, or (2) in the case of copying manuscripts, someone would read aloud from a document and all the scribes in the room would write down what he had just read.

We’ll take for example a few letters written during the early half of the AD 100s. In one of the Bar Kochba letters found in the Judaean desert (AD 132-135), the word εἰς (eis) ‘to,’ ‘for’ is misspelled as ις (is). συνεξελθεῖν (*synexelthein) “go out with” is written as συνεξελθιν (*synexelthin). Another cache of documents from the same cave, this time belonging to a Jewish woman named Babatha (ca. AD 96-134), also exhibits the merge: a summons to court from around July of AD 131 (P.Yadin 1 25) has επιδη (*epidé) for ἐπειδή (*epeidé) ‘since’, νυνει** (nynei) for νυν (nyni) ‘now’, and ὑπατίας (ypatias) for ὑπατείας (ypateias) ‘consulship’, while a deposition (P.Yadin 1 15, October 125) shows υμειν (ymein) for ὑμν (ymin) ‘to you’, τροφα (trophia) and τροφίων (trophion) for τροφεῖα (tropheia) and τροφείων (tropheion) ‘maintenance’, and ὁμειλίαν (omeilian) for ὁμιλίαν (omilian) ‘lifestyle’.

A discharged veteran and farmer, Lucius Bellenus Gemellus, writing in AD 100 (P. Fay. 114) to his son Sabinus ‘misspelled’ θέλει (thelei) ‘he wants’ as θελι (theli). He even wrote Σαβίνῳι τῷι υἱῷι (Sabinoi tói yiói), ‘to Sabinus his son’ as τῶι οιεἱῶι (transliterated tói oieiói), which is pronounced simply as toe ee-oh.

Lucius Bellenus Gemellus to his son Sabinus, greeting.

On receipt of my letter you will oblige me by sending Pindarus, the guard at Dionysias, to me at the city; for Hermonax has asked me to let him take him to Kerkesucha to look to his olive-yard, as it is overgrown and he wishes to cut down some trees, so that those which are to be cut down may be cut skilfully. Send the fish on the 24th or 25th for Gemella’s birthday feast. Don’t talk nonsense about your threshing. Good-bye.

The fourth year of the Emperor Caesar Nerva Trajanus Augustus Germanicus, Choiak 18.

We can also see this in Christian works: Pilatos is misspelled in many manuscripts as Peilatos (so in Papyrus 66, Papyrus 75, Codex Vaticanus and Sinaiticus and even the Akhmim Fragment containing the Gospel of Peter): names like Dauid and Elisabet are also written as Daueid and Eleisabet. Of course there was no difference in pronunciation.

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