The Paternoster Square
Permission is granted to reprint the following article as long
as no changes are made and the byline, copyright information,
and the resource box is included. Please let me know if you
use this article by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.|
The Paternoster Square
Copyright © March 24, 2012 Douglas W. Jerving.
All Rights Reserved.
The Paternoster Square is an acrostic anagram written in Latin using a 5X5 horizontal and
5X5 vertical pattern of letters, which reads forward, backward, up, and down the same way,
creating a square. One of the best examples of it is the one shown above, discovered in ancient
Pompeii in Italy. Here is the text:
I was first introduced to this interesting pattern in Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of
Christianity (p.55, Lion Publishing, 1977). It is not certain that it was originally a
Christian symbol. Archaeological hints indicate it may have been incorporated by later
Christians who used it as a identifying code in times of persecution. Although the square probably
originated in non-Jewish/Christian culture, (possibly in Hellenistic Judaism), it late took on a
Christian identifying characteristic by Gentile Christian believers. Typical of much acrostic poetry,
there were suggested meanings, not the least of which was the sign of the cross in the vertical and
horizontal center-piece built around the word TENET, which reads up and down, back and forth
through the mid-section of the square exactly the same:
Since the Latin N is the center of the acrostic anagram, and is the only time the character
is used, it is, according to some scholars, the center-piece not only for the anagram itself, but for
whatever the real message was that it conveyed. Although without conclusive evidence, still based upon
internal factors, some have concluded that the acrostic anagram could have been rearranged by some
early Christians as a reference to the Lord’s Prayer (or in Latin, the Pater Noster):
The beginning A and ending O in that text are assumed to refer to the Greek
letters Alpha and Omega, which in New Testament theology refer to God as the Beginning (Alpha)
and the End (Omega). Thus the Eternal God Who is Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End, is Our Father
(Pater Noster). To say the least, this assumes that the earliest Christians were using Latin as regularly,
and without prejudice, as they used Greek or Aramaic. A ritualized confluence of Greek and Latin by first
century Christians appears unlikely. Educated Gentile Christians certainly would have used both languages
in their dealings with the greater Roman society around them, but likely would not have used Latin
as an identity tag attached to their Christian convictions. Jerphanion argues that “If the square had been
invented by Christians of the first century, it ought to have been in Greek, since Greek rather than Latin
seems to have been used for teaching and liturgy.”
Duncan Fishwick, University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, 1959).
The first century Church was still far more Jewish to have bothered with Latin/Greek anagrams, and the
small Gentile communities of Christians were more democratic and lower class in structure. They probably
would not have oriented themselves around high-minded Latin/Greek word-runes. (The convoluted theology of
Gnosticism, however, which seemed to always need some justification for their assumed superiority, would
have gravitated to such puzzles.)
The author of the University of St. Michael’s College article offers evidence that the anagram may have had its
origins in paganized Judaistic sects, particularly in the area of Pompeii where the earliest version of
the acrostic was discovered. He says in
Fishwick, Footnote 55
We are left with the probability that the Pompeian examples are Jewish. Large numbers of Jews had, in fact,
been settled in Pompeii and its neighborhood in 62 B.C. after Pompey’s campaigns in the East. Their
reputation as superstitious charlatans and dabblers in magic had been widespread since the days of Moses,
and they were notorious for their use of magic talisman, amulets, spells, and riddles.
There are also some historical problems with the interpretation of the so-called Paternoster Acrostic as being
of earliest Christian origin, mainly related to a lack of historical evidence from first century Christian documents.
First, the “T” cross symbol does not appear until the Epistle of Barnabus after the first century AD
Fishwick, Footnote 35).
This was a time when Gnosticism was growing rapidly in both the Jewish and Gentile Church. This was the
time-frame of Irenaeus (died 202 AD), who wrote the massive work Against Heresies chiefly to combat Gnostic errors.
Irenaeus never mentions the acrostic, despite his thorough examination of Gnosticism's intricate labyrinth
of mystical words, letters and numbers. This may imply a more orthodox Christian use of the Paternoster
Square. Then again, it may indicate the early Church had very limited knowledge of it, and it was
inconsequential to their religion.
Although the concepts of Alpha and Omega originate in the first century New Testament book of
Revelation, the character-symbolism does not appear until the third century. (This explains why
Irenaeus never referred to it.)
Fishwick, Footnote 36).
Of course, these are arguments from silence, and silence is not historical evidence. It is only proof
that evidence has not been discovered! We still have no evidence that the Paternoster Square
acrostic was in use by Christians before the second or third century AD.
I am not at all convinced that the so-called Paternoster Square acrostic is of first century Christian
origin. It may have been an example of what the early Christian Church was fighting against,
i.e., the Judaist tendency to bring the Christian faith down to the level of a magical works-religion based
on mysticism and ritualism, while ignoring personal commitment to God. There is no evidence that it was ever
used by the early (first century) Church, nor even of its use by Christian Gnostic sects. It may have had its
origin amongst Jews who were under direct influence of Helenist paganism. That might best explain its use in
Pompeii, as we have seen. The Paternoster “Cross” was a re-invention of the acrostic by later Christians of
the second or third century AD. It may have been an attempt to neutralize Jewish and Gnostic syncretism,
or even to discover Christian philosophy hidden in an ancient pagan puzzle. As such it does not reflect the
teachings of Jesus or the Apostles or even the first one hundred years of the Church. It is the equivalent
of the Cabalistic Judaism or Roman Catholicism of our own times: Religion based on ritual and magic rather
than personal faith in the Living God.
Doug Jerving is the publisher of the NewEdisonGazette.com. You may contact him at
Return to The New Edison Gazette main site.