The Christian Cross, seen as a representation of the instrument of the crucifixion of Jesus, is the best-known symbol of Christianity. It is related to the crucifix (a cross that includes a usually three-dimensional representation of Jesus' body) and to the more general family of cross symbols.
The basic forms of the cross are the Latin cross (✝) and the Greek cross (✚), with numerous variants used in heraldry and in various confessional contexts.
The cross-shaped sign, represented in its simplest form by a crossing of two lines at right angles, greatly predates the introduction of Christianity, in both East and West. It goes back to a very remote period of human civilization. It is supposed to have been used not just for its ornamental value, but also with religious significance. It may have represented the apparatus used in kindling fire, and thus as the symbol of sacred fire or as a symbol of the sun, denoting its daily rotation. It has also been interpreted as the mystic representation of lightning or of the god of the tempest, or the emblem of the Aryan pantheon and the primitive Aryan civilization.
Another associated symbol is the ansated cross (ankh or crux ansata) used in ancient Egypt. It was often depicted in the hands of the goddess Sekhmet, and as a hieroglyphic sign of life or of the living. Egyptian Christians (Copts) adopted it as the emblem of the cross. In his book, The Worship of the Dead, Colonel J. Garnier wrote: "The cross in the form of the 'Crux Ansata' ... was carried in the hands of the Egyptian priests and Pontiff kings as the symbol of their authority as priests of the Sun god and was called 'the Sign of Life'."
Another Egyptian symbol is the Ndj (Cross-ndj (hieroglyph)) - Uses for the hieroglyph: 1— "to protect, guard, avenge", and "protector, advocate, avenger" 2— "homage to thee", (a form of salutation to gods) 3— "discuss a matter with someone", "to converse", "to take counsel". Yet another Egyptian symbol is the nfr - meaning: beauty or perfect.
In the Bronze Age a representation of the cross as conceived in Christian art appeared, and the form was popularised. The more precise characterization coincided with a corresponding general change in customs and beliefs. The cross then came into use in various forms on many objects: fibulas, cinctures, earthenware fragments, and on the bottom of drinking vessels. De Mortillet believed that such use of the sign was not merely ornamental, but rather a symbol of consecration, especially in the case of objects pertaining to burial. In the proto-Etruscan cemetery of Golasecca every tomb has a vase with a cross engraved on it. True crosses of more or less artistic design have been found in Tiryns, at Mycenæ, in Crete, and on a fibula from Vulci.
According to Swami Vivekananda the Christian cross is nothing but the Shivalinga converted into a cross.
According to W. E. Vine, the cross was used by worshipers of Tammuz, an Ancient Near East deity of Babylonian origin who had the cross-shaped taw (tau) as his symbol.
Instrument of torture
John Pearson, Bishop of Chester (c. 1660) wrote in his commentary on the Apostles' Creed that the Greek word stauros originally signified "a straight standing Stake, Pale, or Palisador", but that, "when other transverse or prominent parts were added in a perfect Cross, it retained still the Original Name", and he declared: "The Form then of the Cross on which our Saviour suffered was not a simple, but a compounded, Figure, according to the Custom of the Romans, by whose Procurator he was condemned to die. In which there was not only a straight and erected piece of Wood fixed in the Earth, but also a transverse Beam fastned unto that towards the top thereof".
During the first two centuries of Christianity, the cross was rare in Christian iconography, as it depicts a purposely painful and gruesome method of public execution and Christians were reluctant to use it. A symbol similar to the cross, the staurogram, was used to abbreviate the Greek word for cross in very early New Testament manuscripts such as P66, P45 and P75, almost like a nomen sacrum (nomina sacra). The extensive adoption of the cross as Christian iconographic symbol arose from the 4th century.
The earliest depiction of the Christian Cross may be the Herculaneum Cross which was found in the city of Herculaneum, which was entombed in pyroclastic material along with Pompeii during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Another early depictions of the cross as a Christian symbol is the Alexamenos graffito.
However, the cross symbol was already associated with Christians in the 2nd century, as is indicated in the anti-Christian arguments cited in the Octavius of Minucius Felix, chapters IX and XXIX, written at the end of that century or the beginning of the next, and by the fact that by the early 3rd century the cross had become so closely associated with Christ that Clement of Alexandria, who died between 211 and 216, could without fear of ambiguity use the phrase τὸ κυριακὸν σημεῖον (the Lord's sign) to mean the cross, when he repeated the idea, current as early as the apocryphal Epistle of Barnabas, that the number 318 (in Greek numerals, ΤΙΗ) in Genesis 14:14 was interpreted as a foreshadowing (a "type") of the cross (T, an upright with crossbar, standing for 300) and of Jesus (ΙΗ, the first two letter of his name ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, standing for 18), and his contemporary Tertullian could designate the body of Christian believers as crucis religiosi, i.e. "devotees of the Cross". In his book De Corona, written in 204, Tertullian tells how it was already a tradition for Christians to trace repeatedly on their foreheads the sign of the cross. The crucifix, a cross upon which an image of Christ is present, is not known to have been used until the 6th century AD.
The Jewish Encyclopedia says:
The cross as a Christian symbol or "seal" came into use at least as early as the second century (see "Apost. Const." iii. 17; Epistle of Barnabas, xi.-xii.; Justin, "Apologia," i. 55-60; "Dial. cum Tryph." 85-97); and the marking of a cross upon the forehead and the chest was regarded as a talisman against the powers of demons (Tertullian, "De Corona," iii.; Cyprian, "Testimonies," xi. 21–22; Lactantius, "Divinæ Institutiones," iv. 27, and elsewhere). Accordingly the Christian Fathers had to defend themselves, as early as the second century, against the charge of being worshipers of the cross, as may be learned from Tertullian, "Apologia," xii., xvii., and Minucius Felix, "Octavius," xxix. Christians used to swear by the power of the cross
In contemporary Christianity
In contemporary Christianity, the cross is a symbol of the atonement and reminds Christians of God's love in sacrificing his own son for humanity. It represents Jesus' victory over sin and death, since it is believed that through his death and resurrection he conquered death itself. See Colossians 2:15, "Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross".
Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, members of the major branches of Lutheranism, some Anglicans, and other Christians often make the Sign of the Cross upon themselves. This was already a common Christian practice in the time of Tertullian.
The Feast of the Cross is an important Christian feast. One of the twelve Great Feasts in Eastern Orthodoxy is the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14, which commemorates the consecration of the basilica on the site where the original cross of Jesus was reportedly discovered in 326 by Helena of Constantinople, mother of Constantine the Great. The Catholic Church celebrates the feast on the same day and under the same name (In Exaltatione Sanctae Crucis), though in English it has been called the feast of the Triumph of the Cross.
Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican bishops place a cross [+] before their name when signing a document. The dagger symbol (†) placed after the name of a dead person (often with the date of death) is sometimes taken to be a Christian cross.
Although Christians accepted that the cross was the gallows on which Jesus died, they had already begun in the 2nd century to use it as a Christian symbol. During the first three centuries of the Christian era the cross was "a symbol of minor importance" when compared to the prominence given to it later, but by the second century it was nonetheless so closely associated with Christians that Tertullian could designate the body of Christian believers as crucis religiosi, i.e. "devotees of the Cross". and it was already a tradition for Christians to trace repeatedly on their foreheads the sign of the cross. Martin Luther at the time of the Reformation retained the cross and crucifix in the Lutheran Church. Luther wrote: "The cross alone is our theology." He believed one knows God not through works but through suffering, the cross, and faith.
The Protestant Reformation spurred a revival of iconoclasm, a wave of rejecting sacred images, which in some localities (such as England) included polemics against using the cross in worship. For example, during the 16th century, a minority of theologians in the Anglican and Reformed traditions Nicholas Ridley, James Calfhill, and Theodore Beza, rejected practices that they described as cross worship. Considering it a form of idolatry, there was a dispute in 16th century England over the baptismal use of the sign of the cross and even the public use of crosses. There were more active reactions to religious items that were thought as 'relics of Papacy', as happened for example in September 1641, when Sir Robert Harley, pulled down and destroyed the cross at Wigmore. Writers during the 19th century indicating a pagan origin of the cross included Henry Dana Ward, Mourant Brock, and John Denham Parsons. David Williams, writing of medieval images of monsters, says: "The disembodied phallus is also formed into a cross, which, before it became for Christianity the symbol of salvation, was a pagan symbol of fertility." The study, Gods, Heroes & Kings: The Battle for Mythic Britain states: "Before the fourth century CE, the cross was not widely embraced as a sign of Christianity, symbolizing as it did the gallows of a criminal."
Jehovah's Witnesses do not use the symbol of the cross in their worship, which they believe constitutes idolatry. They believe that Jesus died on a single upright torture stake rather than a two-beam cross, arguing that the Greek term stauros indicated a single upright pole. Although early Watch Tower Society publications associated with the Bible Student movement taught that Christ was executed on a cross, it no longer appeared on Watch Tower Society publications after the name Jehovah's witnesses was adopted in 1931, and use of the cross was officially abandoned in 1936.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that Jesus died on a cross, however, their prophet Gordon B. Hinckley stated that "for us the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of the living Christ." When asked what was the symbol of his religion, Hinckley replied "the lives of our people must become the only meaningful expression of our faith and, in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship." Prophet Howard W. Hunter encouraged Latter-day Saints "to look to the temple of the Lord as the great symbol of your membership." Images of LDS temples and the Angel Moroni (who is found in statue on most temples) are commonly used to symbolize the LDS faith.