Both Steven Fine’s The Menorah and Robin Jensen’s The Cross are impressive works of scholarship that provide well-informed, thoughtful consideration of the tremendously varied compendia of textual and visual artifacts relating to the Christian cross and Jewish menorah. The authors trace the development and transformation of these two symbols chronologically from their origins to the twentieth century. While the reader knows the authors have carefully selected specific menorahs and crosses for discussion, the books give a convincing illusion of comprehensiveness. They do this by including thoroughly detailed descriptions of images, lengthy quotations of primary texts, which sometimes require fulsome narration of historical events in order to contextualize the primary sources. Moreover, they work hard to represent the countless manifestations of these two symbols across time and place. Reading these books resulted in more than my enhanced knowledge of crosses and menorahs in their various manifestations; it facilitated fruitful reflection on how differently these two images functioned within their respective religions.
What I kept wondering, however, was whether the books intended any overarching argument, or whether the authors understood themselves more as compilers of crosses and menorahs—thoughtfully curated to be sure, with learned annotation and commentary, and providing readers with thoroughly researched, well organized, and nicely produced volumes—what may crassly be described as “everything you always wanted to know about cross/menorah (but never thought to ask).”
Fine begins and ends his book with discussion of the image of a menorah on the bas relief on the Arch of Titus, which was erected after his victory over the Jews in the first revolt and remains standing to this day. The relief depicts the victorious Romans carrying booty into Rome, specifically the holy contents of the Jerusalem Temple, with the menorah as the most prominent visual element. Although Fine calls the Arch of Titus menorah a “leitmotif” of his study (15), I kept wondering if it was not, in fact, the linchpin holding all the multitudinous material together.
I initially thought Fine was making an argument for seeing the Arch menorah as an answer to the question of why the menorah became such an important Jewish symbol at all. The assumption has sometimes been that the menorah’s importance is as one of the holy objects that furnished the Tabernacle and later the Temple, fashioned according to divine instruction. But the menorah was only one of several divinely ordained components of the Temple’s interior. What explains the particular fixation on the image of the menorah?
Perhaps because the Arch of Titus memorialized the first Jewish revolt, the menorah in this visual context connected emotionally with Jews’ grief over the loss of the Temple, and, over time, with a general sense of being a people despairing of their ongoing lack of self-determination. Perhaps the menorah became a signature mark of Jewish identity under the influence of the Arch menorah, precisely because the Arch depicted the object as part of a graphic narration of the Romans’ victorious destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. In other words, from the Jews’ perspective, the image of the menorah on the Arch served as a mark of the Temple’s absence, and it is for this reason the menorah rises to prominence in late antiquity—so common it is the signature image the archaeologist looks for to identify a synagogue—and not because the menorah was manufactured under divine instruction into a holy object that stood in the temple. Advancing this argument for the prevalence of menorah imagery would certainly be novel.
But this is not Fine’s argument. He does not argue the Arch is the reason the menorah became an emblem of Jewish identity generally speaking, rather than the ark, the Torah, or whatever else we might imagine as a candidate. Fine does demonstrate that the Arch image explains how the menorah became a Zionist symbol and an icon for the Temple Institute, an organization devoted to rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple.
The menorah’s base holds the key to his argument. The menorah before the twentieth century most often stands on a three-legged base, quite different from the base as rendered on the Arch. The base on the Arch menorah, in contrast, is a grandiose pedestal with bas relief images. It is this pedestal that forms part of contemporary menorah imagery. The enormous golden menorah built by the Temple Institute stands on a pedestal bearing close resemblance to the Arch menorah. Fine concludes that this iconography of the Arch menorah only becomes standard with the rise of Zionism. In a kind of semiotic reversal, the Arch menorah no longer signifies Jewish oppression, but comes to symbolize Jewish triumph with the founding of the modern state of Israel.
Jensen’s The Cross shares the same virtues as Fine’s. Like Fine, Jensen not only discusses material artifacts, pictorial images, texts from the Bible and later theological reflection and debate, she has other material available to her: she narrates the story of the True Cross, traces the evolution of the cross as an object of veneration, demonstrates cross-piety in hymnody, and discusses what I’ll call invisible ritual crosses, namely, the sign of the cross with which Christians mark themselves by gesticulation.
Jensen was more evasive about articulating a thesis, but the cogency of her discussion led me to devise a couple hypotheses. She brought me to question a deeply entrenched historical “datum,” namely, that the cross is not used (in any standard way) as a graphic marker of Christian identity until after Constantine, and that Constantine’s vision and Helen’s discovery of the True Cross turn the cross into the mark/sign/symbol of Christian identity. For a long time, this assumption has seemed a reasonable way to explain the paucity of material evidence of the cross before the fourth century and its comparative ubiquity in the fourth century and after.
But Jensen’s attention to early textual material—the New Testament, but also discussions in Tertullian, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and apocryphal literature—make a cumulative case that prior to the fourth century the cross was at least an imagined symbol and gesturing the sign of the cross was already Christian practice, at least in rituals like baptism. In other words, Christians were making the sign of the cross on their bodies, even if they didn’t wear images of crosses or use it to visually mark Christian space (Jensen, 36).
More significantly, Jenson reminds us that material/visual forms of the cross are extant before the fourth century, and not just in graffiti. Jensen mentions crosses or cross-like marks on graves and personal objects, though the evidence is not overwhelming and in any case, she says, “they were not graphic references to Jesus’ crucifixion” (49). (I will return to that claim.)
But there is one place we find crosses regularly and which we know function symbolically—early Christian manuscripts. On some of our earliest New Testament manuscripts there appears what we call a staurogram, which combines the letters tau and rho into a single sign, often as a stand in for the word stauros, cross. Sometimes the sign is embedded in the word. Some manuscripts use just the letter tau for a similar purpose. What interests me is that this sign—perhaps the first instantiation of the Christian cross functioning as a symbol-- is a composite of script and image. Jensen aptly calls it a pictogram. And in the fourth century, another pictogram of the cross emerges, the chi-rho, or christogram.
From the extant material evidence, it seems the christogram caught on much more than the staurogram. The chi-rho appears on all kinds of things. It is one of those signs that signals to archaeologists “Christians were here.” (Similarly, when a menorah appears on a wall newly excavated, archaeologists say, “ah, must be a synagogue.”) Whether the chi-rho took its form from reports of Constantine’s vision (of which we have conflicting reports), standards bearing images of swords crossed with a wreath laid over, or other more organic appropriations of existing symbols, I think it remarkable that the first material signs of the Christian cross are formed using letters of the Greek alphabet. It suggests, perhaps, that even the symbol of the cross did not originate as a “graphic representation of Jesus’ crucifixion.”
If—and it’s a big if, a hypothesis, if you will—the cross originates with imagistic uses of certain letters of the Greek alphabet, and not as a picture of Jesus hanging on a cross, then that marks a very important difference between cross and menorah. The image of a menorah unequivocally resembles a menorah. Perhaps in its symbolic function it signifies something other than itself, but there is no way you can look at a menorah and not think “menorah!” I will explain why this difference is so important, but in order to do that I first need to invoke (however briefly) some theoretical models for how we understand what signs, symbols, and images are and how they relate.
If I have a critique of Jensen’s and Fine’s studies, it is that they are undertheorized. Both authors excel in describing particular manifestations of cross and menorah in detail and with nuance; they attempt thoughtful etiologies of their forms by attending to the social, political, and theological contexts within which these symbols appear. Complementarily, they also flesh out how these symbols, in various renderings, affect their contexts.
What I missed were categorizations of the imagery involved that would enable comparisons between different manifestations of the images in hermeneutical/formalist/logical terms. Neither Fine or Jensen grouped the various instantiations for cross and menorah into types; each instance was individuated from the others because each had their own specific historical context, and Fine and Jensen prioritized particularity. What difference might it make when, for example, an image is described in text, but not materially rendered? Does resemblance of an image to the object (menorah) or event (cross) it represents make any difference to its symbolic value? Why did Christians sign themselves with an invisible cross before the cross became a graphic marker of Christian identity?
Reading Fine’s and Jensen’s books together left me wanting to articulate the similarities and differences in ways productive for thinking not only about how these symbols “worked” in their respective contexts but whether any differences were significant or arbitrary. When one is asked to engage in comparison, it is difficult to do without a set of reasoned criteria or a taxonomy that allows for commensurate analyses.
The study of signs, symbols, and images has a long philosophical tradition, starting with Plato and traveling through many generations of philosophers culminating in the twentieth century with Anglo-American philosophers in the analytic tradition (most famously C.S. Pierce), literary theorists, and most recently, media theorists. At one point, “semiotics” was touted as its own discipline. It is this academic genealogy to which I appeal. After all, the study of signs is now so interdisciplinary—it undergirds linguistics, informs psychology, and preoccupies cognitive scientists who are working on that enduring question: do thoughts originate with images and then we learn to articulate them through language or is language the basis of human thought and images are just the result of sense datum, which we interpret the same way we interpret language?
I am no expert on this subject, and I am not going to launch into a discourse on what semiotics can do us in our studies of religious images, symbols, or other visual artifacts. I bring it up because, first, as I already indicated, it allows us to make taxonomic distinctions, which then enable comparison that goes beyond cataloguing similarities and differences. Second, a generalized theory of signs may help overcome or at least “manage” the longstanding distinction between word and image. Since so much of the material discussed by Fine and Jensen is not visual but textual, one might ask how or whether it matters if an image is described verbally or depicted visually. When we exegete a description of a symbol in a text, is that another version of the symbol itself or is that someone doing what we’re trying to do—exegeting the symbol? In one of her later chapters, Jensen discusses the cross in hymns—is the hymn an aural form of the symbol of the cross; is it a reflection upon the symbol; or is it just a trope or literary figure and not itself an instance of the cross-as-symbol? I am often not sure whether the textual material is intended simply as “context” to help us “read” the symbols or whether they, too, count as symbolic objects of study.
Let’s start with terminology. Here I speak under the influence of three semiotic theoreticians: C.S. Pierce, Nelson Goodman, and W.J.T. Mitchell. Due to constraints of time and my desire to concentrate on only those elements relevant to this discussion, my use of these men’s insights will be something of a mash-up. It is likely I am among people who already know a lot about semiotics, so I don’t want to lecture to anyone, but I also don’t want to be obtuse.
A sign is anything that refers to something else; it is the ‘genus” in the world of semiotics, while “symbol” is a species of “sign.” For Pierce, a symbol is a sign that works within a code of signs by means of habit and convention. In other words, a symbol’s form has no formal or analogical relationship to the thing it signifies. This is how letters and words work. The word “pencil” bears no resemblance to real pencils or the image of a pencil in my head. Nevertheless, if you are literate in English, you know that “p-e-n-c-i-l” spelled out on a page (or screen) is the sign for pencil. For Pierce, it is this very arbitrariness that makes a symbol a symbol.
In addition to symbols, Pierce recognized other types of signs. We only need concern ourselves with one of them: what he called an “icon,” by which he meant a sign that indicates its referent by resemblance to it. The icon refers to things by means of similarity. When I see a painting of a tree, the painting represents the tree by rendering something we can recognize as a tree. We see a painted tree and know it’s a tree because it looks like a tree, but it’s not really a tree—it’s a picture of a tree.
The signifying potency of a painting of a tree does not necessarily lie in its life-likeness, as if photo-realism were required. One can take a photograph of someone, and we might think it an excellent likeness of the person. But, assuming we know something about this person, a caricature drawn by someone who knows them well might capture the person so well that the caricature represents that person better than the life-like photograph. Thus, iconographic signs by definition rely on similarity to signify whatever it is they want to signify, though conventions are always at play, too, which is why images are more interpretively elusive. One must learn to read pictures just as one learns to read the written word.
But the signifying power of images is even more complicated. There are probably an infinite number of ways to draw a tree, but there is only one correct way to spell the English word. In writing there is a finite set of tools—26 letters of the alphabet. And even though we can render the letters of the alphabet in different fonts, the letter ‘b’ will always stand for the letter b—nothing meaningful changes if I make the lines thicker or thinner. If, on the other hand, I want to create an image of an apple, there are any number of means I can use, like color and form and different media—none of which are precisely predetermined. The way the apple is depicted, and the larger context of the image, can greatly affect what meaning or effect the image might have.
I turn back now to the cross and the menorah. Earlier I highlighted how our earliest material examples of “signs of the cross” were graphically rendered using letters (and other objects, too, like swords and wreaths), but they formed the basic shape of a cross. To the best of my knowledge, a picture of a menorah never got used as a stand-in for a word on a page. In other words, a menorah is not an arbitrary sign. Menorah imagery—whatever its aesthetic variations—always looks like a menorah. In other words, even when a Menorah is being used to signify something else—like a Zionism bent on rebuilding the Temple—it is still always a picture of a menorah.
This is the first difference between a menorah and a cross that calls for reflection. Whatever else a menorah evokes for Jews (or non-Jews), a graphic representation of a menorah is a replica of a (or the) menorah, so when I see a menorah, the first thing I think of is not the Temple or descriptions of the tabernacle in Exodus, and certainly not Judaism per se. The first thing I think is “menorah!” (The second thing I think is “Hanukkah,”—no matter the number of lights does not match—but I cannot speak for others.) The image of the menorah may conjure many Jewish emotions, ideas, and memories, but I am arguing that a menorah does not actually refer to anything other than itself, or at least its manner of referencing is mediated by resemblance, and thus its signifying abilities are limiting. The image of the menorah may connote associated ideas and evoke feelings of belonging and nationalism, or Hanukkah, but it does not denote or refer to any of them as a matter of convention that all Jews have in common. The menorah is not a symbol that represents Judaism per se. On the other hand, the cross functions as just such a symbol for Christianity. It would be hard to overstate the signifying potency of the Christian cross.
Although Jewish philosophers like Philo and Mendelssohn discussed the metaphysical significance of the menorah, there has always been more weight bearing on Christian theological reflection on the cross. Jensen walks us through impassioned discussions of Christian theologians about whether the crucifix or simple cross is better for Christian spiritual well-being. In those discussions, the argument among the proponents of the crucifix is that a crucifix is a likeness of Jesus at the moment of his suffering and death. An empty cross—what does that really communicate? In other words, proponents of the crucifix think a cross should be a replica of what happened. According to this view, the signifying power of the cross lies in its resemblance to a specific event: the crucifixion. Defenders of the crucifix argued that seeing the image of Jesus’ body on the cross reminds the Christian of the incarnation (not just Jesus’ death), which makes sense, since the crucifix images Jesus as a mortal man. The problem is that for the image to serve as such a reminder the incarnation, there must be existing conventions familiar to Christians. In other words, the image of Jesus dying on a cross does not signify the incarnation to the onlooker because the crucifix resembles the idea of incarnation. One is taught to read the crucifix as a representation of incarnation.
Here is my hypothesis: the “sign of the cross” –graphic, mental, or gestured—was always a Christian convention. Its meaning was not critically dependent on being a graphic replica of Jesus’ dying on a cross. As Jensen documents, the cross took many, many forms. It is nearly impossible to have rules to govern all the possible human imaginings and creative impulses at work in the making of images, and crosses are no exception. To be sure, there were some impassioned debates at times, about the appropriateness of the crucifix, and canonical rules about what one could not do in making and handling crosses, but as long as one avoided the forbidden, and as long as it was recognizable as having the shape of the cross, what was to stop creative expression? The cross was visually translated in numerous and unpredictable ways as Christianity spread far and wide, and yet other Christians always seem to be able to recognize it.
I am hypothesizing that the cross functioned as an abstract symbol for the Christian gospel from the start, rather than an image of Jesus hanging on a cross. As every New Testament scholar knows, Paul’s gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the cross may have its start as a symbol of a person or thing devoted to that idea. After all, the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection is worthy of proclamation because it contains a complex of theological meaning, and it is hard to represent complex ideas merely by means of imagistic resemblance.
Because the cross worked as a symbol by convention and not by resemblance, it could take on infinite visual variation while also remaining constant as the symbol of Christianity. Are there any Christians who take offense at the cross (a crucifix, yes, but a plain cross?). A Christian wears a cross around her neck to mark herself as a Christian. The cross functions as a label for individual Christians and Christianity as a whole. It became an object of veneration in and of itself and landed a speaking part in the Gospel of Peter. But the cross can only do this by virtue of it functioning by convention and habit and not by resemblance. The cross is almost like a Platonic ideal—it can be instantiated in an infinite variety of forms, but it is still the signifier of Christianity per se.
One of Lenny Bruce’s most famous jokes speaks to the issue: “If Jesus had been crucified in the twentieth century, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks.” The joke is simultaneously funny and jarring because Christians who put a cross around their neck in the morning do not as a result call to mind the gruesome image of crucifixion. The cross simply marks their Christianity identity. The image of the electric chair conjures a violent death analogous to crucifixion, and that is not what Catholic school children are thinking about as they go off to school. For them the cross is not a “picture” of Jesus’ gruesome death; it is a symbol of Christian identity.
I propose that the menorah, on the other hand, is a sign of a different order. It may be a sign of Jewishness, but it signifies by sentiment and association; it is not a symbol of Judaism or Jewish identity in the way a cross symbolizes Christianity. I do not know any Jew who wears a menorah around her neck—mezuzahs, chais, magen Davids, but not menorahs. And Jews certainly do not venerate the menorah. The menorah has come to function as a sign that evokes objects or ideas or feelings other than itself, but its ability to function as a Jewish sign depends upon associative experiences Jews have had. The menorah was a holy object inside God’s Temple, so it can synecdochally signify the Temple. The image of the menorah being carried off as booty by the Romans was memorialized on the Arch, so the menorah thereby evoked the Jewish experience of suffering and, complementarily, became a symbol of political and violent resistance to would-be oppressors of Jews in the future. But the menorah does not represent Judaism. A menorah is a graphic representation of a very specific object, and, given its dependence on a sacred text for its graphic form, it is too limited to function as a signifier for something so complex as Judaism. It can evoke sentiments that create a sense of belonging among Jews, but it does not denote Judaism the way the cross denotes Christianity. When it comes to its symbolic potency, the menorah doesn’t hold a candle to the cross.
I’ll end with a question and an imagined counter-factual: if we were the marketing department for Judaism, what symbol would we pick to represent it? For me, the menorah would be pretty far down the list. Wouldn’t a scroll (=Torah) make more sense? The ark of the covenant? The Hebrew letter shin? A burning bush? A circumcised penis (tastefully stylized of course)? Fine is absolutely right to feature the Arch of Titus menorah so prominently in his book. My question is, would the menorah have had any long term potency at all as a Jewish symbol without it? It may not be Fine’s thesis, but his lifting up the Arch of Titus as central to understanding the story of the menorah made a cogent, even if implicit, case (at least for this reader) for seeing the Arch as perhaps playing a necessary role in the menorah’s rise to prominence in late antiquity.
While I generally avoid counter-factuals, I am willing to hypothesize that even if Helena never found the true cross, and no rituals or festivals associated with the cross emerged, and even if Constantine never had his vision of “the cross,” I think it probable the cross would still have become Christianity’s “signature” in the world. The cross was an idea from the start—yes, it probably called to mind an image at first (just as the letter bētonce resembled a baiyit, a house, and it bears a trace of that likeness still, even if no one “sees” it anymore), but the image of the cross was more a metaphor for the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection than it was an image of a specific object in the world.
 I am keenly aware of the morass that engulfs any attempt to construct a uniform category of “religion.” I do not think this problem bears on the issue I address in this paper, so I use it as a matter of convenience. For the most recent discussion about this issue, see Daniel Boyarin, Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion (Rutgers: Routledge, 2019).
 Adumbrations of this collective memory appear in Josephus’s recounting of the booty carried during the Triumph in book 7 of the Jewish War, cited in Fine (19). See Fine’s discussion in chap. 3
 To be sure, images of menorahs appear earlier, but they become ubiquitous only after the destruction of the Temple.
 See especially Fine’s discussion in chap. 7.
 There is not quite uniformity, no doubt partly due to the fact that scripture contains no description of the menorah’s base.
 The photograph of the Temple Institute menorah is on p. 212.
 According to Fine, the iconography of the Arch menorah starts to spread during the 18th century in Europe, through souvenirs that tourists bring back from Rome. We know this because Moses Mendelssohn argued strongly that his fellow Jews should not think the Arch menorah resembles the real menorah, the one that stood in the Temple. Mendelssohn wants to be sure that while Jews embrace Western culture, they remain Jews who are in continuity with Judaism as preserved among Jewish people. Mendelssohn says that collective Jewish memory of the menorah is more real than that which can be constructed or imaged by even the greatest sculptor.
 For an accessible overview of these distinctively Christian scribal practices, see Larry Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), especially chap. 4.
 Cf. Jennifer O’Reilly, “Gospel Harmony and the Names of Christ: Insular Images of a Patristic Theme,” in The Bible as Book: The Manuscript Tradition, eds. John Sharpe III and Kimberly Van Kampen (London: The British Library and Oak Knoll Press), 73-88. O’Reilly discusses the full-page, greatly embellished chi-rho found in the Irish gospel books. It is placed between the end of Matthew’s genealogy (1:17) and the start of the birth narrative (Latin: Christi autem generatio… . Note omission of Iesu found in Greek manuscripts). O’Reilly argues its appearance there indicates it is a sign of the word made flesh (the incarnation), not Jesus’ death.
 My orientation to comparison derives foremost from the work Jonathan Z. Smith. For a helpful proposal on how the work of comparison should be conducted (inspired by Smith), see David Frankfurter, “Comparison and the Study of Greek Religions in Antiquity,” in Comparer en histoire des religions antiques : Controverses et propositions, eds. Claude Calame et Bruce Lincoln (Presses Universitaires de Liége, 2012), 83-98.
 “The Icon, the Index, and Symbol” in Collected Papers, eds. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge: Harvard, 1931-58) Vol. 2.
 Languages of Art (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1976). Goodman is considered the ultimate “conventionalist.” That is to say, he argues that all types of signs, whether image or text, derive their powers of signification by means of cultural and linguistic convention, not by any correspondence to reality established by human perception.
 Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987). Mitchell includes an extended discussion of Goodman in chap. 2. Mitchell sums up Goodman’s extreme conventionalism with this: “Pictures, like paragraphs, have to be read as an arbitrary code” (65).
 Goodman would agree with this position, but he diverges from Pierce in that, for Goodman, this lack of perceptible relation between sign and thing is not characteristic only of symbols, but of all signs.
 Signs that communicate their referent by means of resemblance Pierce calls an “icons.” Signs that operate by cause and effect, he calls “indices.” We do not need to understand his complex array of terms. Pierce’s system of signs breaks down into more and more nuanced parts, making it almost unbearably complex, but, fortunately, more detail is not needed for this discussion. Subsequent semioticians, such as Umberto Eco, have aptly demonstrated that while Pierce’s insights are foundational to the study of signs, Pierce’s terminology creates more confusion than clarity. See A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington, University of Indiana, 1976). Mitchell cites another cautionary critic of Goodman: E.H. Gombrich, “Image and Code: Scope and Limits of Conventionalism in Pictorial Representation,” in Image and Code, ed. Wendy Steiner (Ann Arbor, Univeristy of Michigan Press, 1981); see Mitchell, 65.
 During presentation of this paper, members of the audience informed me that some Jews do, in fact, wear menorahs around their necks. It is certainly possible I’ve overlooked Jews wearing menorahs, but honestly I cannot think of one in my own experience.
Pamela Eisenbaum is professor of Biblical studies and Christian origins at Iliff School of Theology as well as associate faculty of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver.