What’s up with the Chi-Rho tattoos?

Chi-Rho TattooThe Christian pacifist & anarchist sets seem to like the Chi-Rho (☧) symbol a lot. But as far as I can tell, that symbol was created as a military standard by Constantine. In a few “I finally got my Chi-Rho tattoo!” blog posts, people reference this line: “Early Christians, through fear of persecution, devised the secret symbol as a means of recognition.”

That comes from the Chi-Rho wikipedia article. But it seems like someone just slipped it in there and there is no reference. I know that the Ichthys (“Jesus fish”) served that purpose. But everything I can find about Chi-Rho says it started with Constantine. Is it just that the minivan crowd co-opted the fish, making it unacceptable for anarchist forearms, and so another symbol had to be enlisted?

Comments 23

  1. Mark Van Steenwyk 5 September, 2008

    I’ve often wondered about the chi ro being used by anarcho Christians. Maybe it is an attempt at subverting a symbol of dominance? I dunno, but I’m glad you asked and am eager to read different responses.

  2. dcrowe 5 September, 2008

    As far as I know, it started with Constantine. Doesn’t seem like a good idea to put up the monogram of Christ unless the emperor is a bit more friendly to your sect, y’know?

    I will resist ranting about Constantine’s conversion, followed by a slaughter and the desecration of his enemy’s corpse so he could carry the head into the city….

  3. tony jones 6 September, 2008

    Zack, speaking as a classics major who investigated this, here’s the skinny: the chi-rho was indeed first used by Constantine. In fact, it is the symbol he saw, according to Eusebius, in a dream the night before before the Battle for the Milvian Bridge (October 28, 312). Along with the symbol, he heard a voice say, in Greek, “En touto nika” (Latin: “In hoc signo vinces; English: “In this sign, conquer”). Constantine won the battle over the Emperor Maxentius, and became the emperor himself. The symbol first appears officially on coins in 315.

    Actually, there is no evidence that the fish symbol was ever used by early Christians to surreptitiously show themselves to one another. There is evidence that they made a very small and surreptitious sign of the cross on their foreheads as they walked the busy streets of Rome, by which they could indicate their Christianity.

    Finally, there’s the mysterious acrostic,


    found in walls in Pompeii (AD 79) and Cirencester, England. Rearranged, it becomes,

    P A T E R N O S T E R

    with an Alpha at the beginning and an Omega at the end.

    So, the chi-rho seems a most unlikely symbol for pacifist Christians.

    Maybe I’ll get that acrostic on my shoulder…

  4. Zack 6 September, 2008

    Tony – you may have started something there! Soon we’ll see that acrostic on ankles everywhere.

    Thanks for the comment — On you’re authority I’m not going over to wikipedia to edit out that line.

  5. Thom Stark 7 September, 2008

    Right. I doubt Constantine even had the vision. He obviously co-opted a Christian symbol for political purposes. Thus, those Christian anarchists “subverting” the Constantinian symbol may actually just be reclaiming it.

  6. Dale 7 September, 2008

    I don’t know why Constantine would have seen a whole lot of political cachet in sticking up for Christianity … he was far from perfect, but I don’t think he got a lot out of taking up what would have been a fringe religion, especially with all of the history of the Empire being against it.

  7. M.joshua 8 September, 2008

    Dang. Tony beat me to the point (and he explained it a lot better than I could).

    One of my favorite bands, the Psalters, is particularly confusing on this matter. The Chi-Rho is their unofficial logo and I’ve not had the chance to talk to Jay or Scott about it yet. They’re certainly the “Christian pacifist & anarchist” role models as I’m sure you know them from the Jesus for President book tour and close friendship with Shane Claiborne.

    If I might be a bit presumptuous, I would say that the Chi-Rho as been resurrected as contemporary symbolism due to a rebellion against popular opinion of Christian symbolism. As if to say, “The Ichthus is so Soccer mom,” and “the Chi-Rho is for those truly alien to the world (and it looks much cooler!).”

    But that’s just my opinion and I am willing to be swayed if I hear a good argument.

  8. Thom Stark 9 September, 2008

    Christianity was consistently proving difficult to stamp out. It’s numbers were steadily growing. And Constantine was a “fringe” emperor, if you will, at the time–one of two emperor’s of a divided empire. Getting the increasing numbers of the Christians on his side was a textbook political maneuver. And it worked, so…

  9. Pingback: The Gentle Exit » Enter the Chi Rho

  10. Martin Kelley 11 September, 2008

    At times like these I’m glad my Christian Anarcho-Pacifist model is Quaker–no hewing to empty symbols that might or might not mean anything in particular contexts. Whatever the original source of the symbol, today it’s being adopted to serve as in-jokes for a secretive sub-culture. I know tattoos are cool but are we really led to be cool?

  11. Michael 2 November, 2008

    you are forgetting that constantine was a roman ruler where latin was the primary language… and the Chi-Rho is in greek… so he can’t have been the first to use it. i have hear that he adopted it, but it had been used before.

  12. passerby 21 December, 2008

    Michael. You are incorrect. The eastern empires’ primary language was in fact Greek. Vulgate Latin dwindled down to nothing in favor of Greek. Although classic Latin is used in the Church. You can see that as a throw back to their Roman roots. You’ll also notice original translations of the gospels are in Greek and Latin.

  13. Melissa 26 January, 2009

    Chi (X) and Rho (P) are the first two letters of the Greek word Christ (XPICTOC). Early Christians, through fear of persecution, devised the secret symbol as a means of recognition. In the 4th Century, on the eve of a battle, the Roman Emporer Constantine saw the Chi Rho in the stars and viewed its appearance as an omen. He ordered his army to emblazon their standards with the symbol. The next day, Constantine defeated Maxentius in battle. In thanksgiving, Constantine rescinded the ban on Christianity in the Roman Empire.

  14. Joshua 16 April, 2009

    This is from the Catholic Encyclopedia.
    …two letters indicating the name of Christ by means of the initial letters, the letter X intersection P at the centre.” These two letters formed what is known as the monogram ofConstantine, so called — not because it was the invention of this emperor, for it had been a familiar Christian symbol prior to his conversion …

    And these were at the bottom of the page. I haven’t actually
    checked these out so maybe they’re lying.

    APA citation. Hassett, M. (1910). Labarum (Chi-Rho). In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved April 16, 2009 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08717c.htm

    MLA citation. Hassett, Maurice. “Labarum (Chi-Rho).” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 16 Apr. 2009 .

    Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael C. Tinkler.

    Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

  15. Roman 27 April, 2009

    Yeah….do more research. There are plenty of evidence that this symbol existed prior to Constantine I. Chi-Rho was engraved on tombs and walls of catacombs way before 312. Have no idea why Constantine use that symbol. But even more i see no reason why God Himself would comand to destroy aother army.

  16. Chance 2 June, 2009

    The Chi Rho symbol was derived from the first two letters of the greek word for Christ. Χριστός (khristos) Originally meaning the anointed. basically in full meaing; anointed by god for a special purpose on earth. the christian faith adopted it to describe Jesus. It might be a shocker to some but the last name of Jesus was not Christ.

  17. JON 13 July, 2009

    If constantine was indeed incited to war by an omen from God it wouldn’t be the first time God had called for complete annihilation of another army or kingdom. in the old testament it was practically commonplace

  18. Harry 13 August, 2009

    Roman about your last comment on why God would comand to destroy an army, do not forget that that it would not be the first nor last time he would command this, for examples of this you only have to look back at the Old Testament.

  19. Tyler 17 September, 2009

    I’ve had a chi ro tat since 2006. I get real tired of people asking me what it means. “Look it up” is what I always tell them now. I basically got it because a cross is too trendy, I wanted something not too many people had, but also had alot of meaning.

    It has alot of christian background, but primarily as a symbol it means good luck and fortune. So far its lived up to that

  20. Esme 6 January, 2010

    After jesus was resurrected, and called Christ, or kristos in Greek, people used the chi-rho-iota as a monogram for Christ because chi and rho are the first letters in kristos, and iota is the first letter in savior. Constantine was the emperor that converted the Roman Empire to Catholicism. Constantine was is favour of Catholicism before Maxentius, an opposing ruler who did not have the respect of his own people, mobilized his troops against Constantine. Before the battle occurred, Constantine had a dream that he had defeated Maxentius. After Constantine had killed this tyrant, the clouds opened up in the form of of the symbol chi-rho-iota, leading him to believe that that only through Christ could he win the battle against Maxentius. In 312, after Constantine defeated Maxentius, he converted the whole of the Roman Empire to Catholicism. Chi- rho-iota was not in any way created by Constantine, in was simply made famous by him because of a dream that he had. It was used by early Catholics to show, amoungst each other, their belief in Christ, but also keeping their religion secret from pagan rulers before Constantine. It was not a military standard….
    AND wikipedia is a terrible source, never use it. There are false facts on a miltitude of their pages because random, uneducated people can post “facts” and the pages are not edited very often.

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