Bumper stickers. Christian T-shirts. Giant back tattoos. Christian symbols have become an inescapable part of religious culture.
But, for as widespread as they’ve become, some believers still aren’t familiar with their origins, or even what they really mean.
Thankfully, we’ve created this handy list of the Christian symbols you’ve probably seen, along with descriptions of where they came from and what they do mean. So before you go and put on that Ichthys necklace or airbrush a giant Triquetra on the side of your van, take a look.
The Chi Rho
You’ve probably noticed the Chi-Rho incorporated into church ornamentation, pulpits and even crosses. That’s because it’s a “Christogram” used to abbreviate the name of Jesus Christ. In Greek, the first two letters of the word Christ are Chi (the character “X”) and Rho (the character “P”). After fourth century, the Roman emperor Constantine decided to use the emblem on his soldiers’ shields following what he said was a vision from God. After that, the symbol became even more widely recognized for its religious associations.
Another fun fact about “Chi” (X). The term “X-Mas” isn’t an effort to take “Christ out of Christmas.” Many of its first uses were simply an abbreviation, incorporating the common Greek shortening of the word “Christ.”
Where You Might Have Seen It: Old Bibles, Celtic art and crosses
Though there are lots of variations on Celtic Knots—many predating Christianity—the design became heavily integrated into crosses and early biblical manuscripts created in Celtic-influenced cultures. But, the Celtic Knot, with its endless lines connecting back onto one another, can also carry a deeper meaning. As Scot McKnight explains, it’s that circling back that makes it a powerful Gospel metaphor:
But neither of these is the Gospel. The full Gospel of Jesus Christ is an intertwined story of life, death and resurrection … Perhaps one of the most befitting images for the Gospel story is that of a Celtic knot. In a Celtic knot, every strand is completely interlaced with every other strand. There is no beginning or ending.
Until we see the Gospel as a Celtic-like knot—completely interwoven with no definitive start or finish—we will always have an incomplete picture.
The Rod of Asclepius
Where You Might Have Seen It: On your insurance card
The symbol of a snake on a stick—like the one found in the BlueCross BlueShield logo, the Star of Life or other various medical company symbols—has an interesting origin. (And, it’s not really regarded as a “Christian” symbol.) Though the name of the symbol directly references one of Greek mythology’s god of medicines, Asclepius, and some have theorized that it references the treatment of an infection that involves wrapping a guinea worm around a stick, there may also be a biblical reference related to it:
In Numbers, the Israelites started complaining about their living conditions, and as punishment God sent venomous snakes to bite them. After many died, they asked their leader, Moses, to “Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” The next verse says, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.”
Jesus later references the snake-on-a-stick in John 3, saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
Where You Might Have Seen It: On the cover of old POD albums
Similar to the Celtic Knot in style, the Triquetra has been used for several different purposes in different cultures, but it’s most commonly associated with the idea of the trinity: Not only are the three sides (representing Father, Son and Holy Spirit) distinctly, they are also interconnected.
Where You Might Have Seen It: On the back of cars, T-shirts and the ankles of former Gen-X youth group-goers
Though today, the “Jesus Fish” is most commonly found on the bumpers of minivans, the Ichthus ( or Ichthys) has a far better history than being the ankle-tat of choice for Christian college students. Though an icon of a fish has been used across cultures for sea life and sea-related pagan deities, the symbol took on new meaning after the life of Christ. There are some theories that early Christians used it to secretly communicate to each other during times of government persecution. (After all, Jesus’ most early followers were fisherman from fishing villages, who Jesus called “fishers of men.”) As the story goes, the symbol would allow them to identify themselves to other believers without detection from authorities.
But, one of the more fascinating associations between the Ichthus and Christianity comes from the Greek word itself in the form of a coded acrostic. Think of it like an early version of a sermon acronym that spells out “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”. In the decades after Christ, early believers used it as a way to remember and communicate the power of who Jesus is: ΙΧΘΥΣ/ichthys breaks down to Iesous CHristos Theou Yios Soter.
Where You Might Have Seen It: Stained glass windows
It’s not uncommon to come across an image of a pelican—usually stabbing itself in the chest with its own beak—in ornate stained glass windows or depicted on sculptures on the sides of churches. The avian symbol stems from a variation of a legend that circulated during medieval times that said if her chicks were starving, the mother pelican would pierce her own chest and feed the young her blood. The mother pelican would later die from the injury. Another version says that the mother’s blood actually revived chicks that were near death.
Either way, the myths had such strong allegorical ties to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, that they became a common symbol associated with Christianity.
Where You Might Have Seen It: St. Patricks day apparel
Though not solely associated with Christianity, the symbol has a close tie to one of Christianity’s most well-known evangelists: St. Patrick. From our piece, “Things You May Not Know About St. Patrick”:
The shamrock has become a huge symbol in Ireland in large part because the plant is everywhere, but also because of its connection to St. Patrick. Patrick is reported to have used the shamrock as a way to explain the mystery of the Trinity to the Irish people. It was something the Druid people very easily picked up because three was considered a sacred number in the Druidic religion.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.