A cryptogram called the "magic square," whose date, origin, and interpretation are the subject of great uncertainty. A possible transliteration is: sator, the sower; arepo, with his plow; tenet, holds; opera, with purpose; rotas, the wheels. The five words can be read consecutively either horizontally or perpendicularly; and while the disposition of the words varied in both East and West during the Middle Ages, the device was traced to the 4th century a.d. and considered of Christian origin.
The affinity of the word arepo with the Celtic arepennis, which means acre (French, arpent ) and can signify a plow led J. Carcopino to place its origin in Gaul. The fact that tenet in both the horizontal and vertical reading forms a cross seemed to give further assurance that it was a Christian symbol. However, a possible connection with Ezechiel (9.6) seemed to argue for a Jewish source. The discovery of four copies of the cryptogram at dura europos in 1932 pushed back its dating to the 3d century, for that city had been lost to sight since 256. Since it was associated with the A and O (Alpha and Omega), Grosser deciphered it as an anagram of the Pater Noster arranged between A and O, referring to the Apocalypse's symbolism of God as the Beginning and the End.
Its presence at Pompeii, discovered in 1937, threw doubt on its Christian origin since Pompeii was destroyed a.d. 79. More recently I. Daniélou has indicated a possible knowledge of the cryptogram on the part of irenaeus of lyons, who spoke of Him "Who joined the beginning with the end, and is the Lord of both, and has shown forth the plough at the end" (Adv. haer. 4.34, 4). Irenaeus was refuting the Gnostics who interpreted John 4.37, "One sows, another reaps," as an opposition between the Demiurge, who created, and Christ, who redeemed. He maintained that the creator and redeemer are one, and the passage refers to the cross, symbolized by the plow, which was shown forth at the beginning or seed time, and in the end at the final weeding. Despite intensive study, nothing certain is known of the origin or planning of this anagram. H. Leclercq traces it to folklore and doubts its connection with Hebraic or Christian symbolism.
Bibliography: g. de jerphanion, La voix des monuments: Études d'archéologie, NS (Rome 1938) 38–94. j. carcopino, Études d'histoire chrétienne. Les Fouilles de St. Pierre et la tradition. Le Christianisme secret du carré magique (2d ed. Paris 1963). m. della corte, Rendiconti della R. Acc. di Arch. Lett. e belle Arti di Napoli 19 (1939). a. ferrua, La civiltà cattolica (Rome 1850–)(1937) 3:130–135. m. simon, Verus Israel (Paris 1948). h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq and h. i. marrou, 15 v. (Paris 1907–53) 15.1:913–915. j. daniÉlou, Primitive Christian Symbols, tr. d. attwater (Baltimore 1964) 99–101.