Some time ago I was asked by a Protestant relation what the sign of the cross was all about. I gave the usual answers I had been given, but wasn’t satisfied with my response. I recently came across some interesting information in Oskar Skarsaune’s book called “In the Shadow of the Temple”, which is about the connections between Judaism and Christianity. The particular information comes in a passage about post-baptismal anointing, which we Orthodox call the sacrament of chrismation.
The new element in Hippolytus’s description of the anointing is that the bishop—presumably with his finger in the oil on the candidate’s oiled forehead—‘seals’ the baptized (‘sealing him on the forehead’). All later evidence indicates that this means that the bishop signed him with the sign of the cross. Now, the letter tav in old Hebrew script [paleo Hebrew script(?)] was a simple cross, and this reminds us of Ezekiel 9:4: ‘Go throughout the city, Jerusalem, and put a mark [tav] on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament’ (NIV). We do not have evidence that allows us to conclude with any certainty that signing with the cross/tav on the forehead was an old baptismal rite, deriving from Judeo-Christians familiar with the original meaning of Ezekiel 9:4. But the following notice in Origen (A.D. 230s) is of considerable interest. When a Jewish believer in Jesus was asked about the meaning of Ezekiel 9:4, the man gave the following answer: “The old way of writing the Taw was in the form of the cross, so here [Ezek 9:4] we have a prophecy of the sign that later was to be signed on the forehead of Christians; and also of what believers now do, when they sign themselves whenever they begin a work, and especially before prayers and the holy readings.” (Skarsaune 2002, 370-371)
In the ancient Semitic alphabets, from which modern Hebrew derives, the letter “tau” was written as a cross in the Proto-Canaanite script. In the early Phoenician script it was written as a diagonal cross, a.k.a. St. Andrew’s Cross. Over the course of the centuries, the ancient Hebrew language changed its shape until the Babylonian alphabet replaced the ancient Hebrew script following the Babylonian exile.
Adam Clarke’s “Commentary on the Bible”, circa 1831, provides the following information; as an early Methodist, Clarke disagrees with the conclusion but is at least intellectually honest enough to present the information.
Set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh – This is in allusion to the ancient every-where-used custom of setting marks on servants and slaves, to distinguish them from others. It was also common for the worshippers of particular idols to have their idol’s mark upon their foreheads, arms, etc. These are called sectarian marks to the present day among the Hindoos and others in India. Hence by this mark we can easily know who is a follower of Vishnoo, who of Siva, who of Bramah, etc. The original words, והתוית תו vehithvitha tau, have been translated by the Vulgate, et signa thau, “and mark thou tau on the foreheads,” etc. St. Jerome and many others have thought that the letter tau was that which was ordered to be placed on the foreheads of those mourners; and Jerome says, that this Hebrew letter ת tau was formerly written like a cross. So then the people were to be signed with the sign of the cross! It is certain that on the ancient Samaritan coins, which are yet extant, the letter ת tau is in the form +, which is what we term St. Andrew’s cross. The sense derived from this by many commentators is, that God, having ordered those penitents to be marked with this figure, which is the sign of the cross, intimated that there is no redemption nor saving of life but by the cross of Christ, and that this will avail none but the real penitent. (Clarke 1831)
It should be noted that, as Clarke alludes to above, it was customary to put a mark or seal upon slaves, and sectarian markings upon various Hindu sects so as to differentiate them one from another. It is not a great leap from that to God’s setting a mark upon “those who grieve and lament” to what Jean Daniélou describes as the sphragis, or the seal placed upon the forehead of the candidate at baptism.
The word sphragis in ancient times designated the object with which a mark was stamped, or else the mark made by this object. So sphragis was the word for the seal used to impress a mark on wax. These seals often have precious stones placed in the bezel or setting that holds them. So Clement of Alexandria recommends that Christians should have for seals (sphragides) a dove or a fish or a ship with sails unfurled, but not mythological figures or swords (Ped II, 11; Steahlin, 270). These seals were used especially to seal official documents and wills. So St. Paul uses the symbol when he tells the Corinthians that the ‘are the seal of his apostolate in the Lord’ (I Cor. 9:2), that is to say, that they are the authentic sign of it. But more particularly—and here we come to the baptismal symbolism—the word sphragis was used for the mark with which an owner marked his possessions. (Daniélou 1956, 55)
Daniélou proceeds to develop this idea of the mark placed by an owner upon his possessions as indicative that henceforth the candidate belongs to Christ—both as a member of Christ’s flock and as one of the army of Christ. But the mark, the tav, the sphragis, the sign of the Cross, is not simply a sign of ownership but confers protection. On this point, Daniélou quotes from Gregory of Nazianzen.
But the sphragis is not only a sign of ownership, it is also a protection. Gregory of Nazianzen unites the two ideas. The sphragis is “a guarantee of preservation and a sign of ownership” (XXXVI, 364 A). He develops this idea at greater length: ‘If you fortify yourself with the sphragis, marking your souls and your body with the oil (chrism) and with the Spirit, what can happen to you? This is, even in this life, the greatest security you can have. The sheep that has been branded (ephragismenon) is not easily taken by a trick, but the sheep that bears no mark is the prey of thieves. And after this life, you can die in peace, without fear of being deprived by God of the helps that He has given you for your salvation’ (XXXVI, 377 A). The sphragis, the mark that enables the Master to recognize His Own, is also a pledge of salvation. (Daniélou 1956, 56-57)
And so we see that the Sign of the Cross is not simply a Christian invention, nor a mere human tradition, but has a basis in both Old and New Testaments, in the writings of the church fathers, and in ancient historical practice. Thus when we make the sign of the cross, it is as a reminder of our baptism into Christ and of the seal of the Holy Spirit. And not only a reminder, but it is a performative act, in that it does what it implies—confers actual protection upon the one so sealed.
Clarke, Adam. “Commentary on the Bible by Adam Clarke: Ezekiel: Ezekiel Chapter 9.” Internet Sacred Text Archive. 1831. http://www.sacred-tests.com/bib/cmt/clarke/eze009.htm (accessed June 13, 2010).
Daniélou, Jean. The Bible and the Liturgy. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1956.
Skarsaune, Oskar. In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2002.