Thursday, May 19, 2011

Caesar Worship and Christian Art

After Augustus Caesar (Emperor from 31 B.C. to 14 A. D.), Tiberius, his step-son, reigned from A.D.14 37, and then Gaius Caligula (A.D. 37 41) was the grandson of Tiberius’s brother Drusus. Everett Ferguson “Backgrounds of Early Christianity,” Third Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, © 1987, 1993, 2003) says, “he foolishly depleted the treasury and became convinced of his divinity, demanding divine honors.”
His reign was marked by conflict with the Jews. When his friend Agrippa I was returning from Rome to take possession of the kingdom assigned to him in northeast Palestine, he stopped in Alexandria. This became the occasion of an anti-Jewish riot in the city: an idiot was parated through the city in royal robes to mock Agrippa, statues of Gaius were set up in the synagogues, and there was burning and pillaging in the Jewish sections of the city. . . . Gaius was a personal friend of Agrippa’s, but he had no appreciation for Jewish religion and customs. When the Jews in Jamnia tore down an altar erected to him in A.D. 40, he ordered a statue of himself set up in the temple in Jerusalem (pg. 32).
This event is reported by three ancient historians, (Josephus, Philo, and Tacitus.) The statue was never actually placed there. Ferguson reports that “Petronius, the legate in Syria, knew what this would mean to Jewish sensibilities and successfully stalled on the order.” But the order had been given; such was the emperor’s desire to show his own divinity.

Ferguson elsewhere goes on to note theories for the beginnings of “Christian art”:
Certainly in style and technique, Christian art borrowed from both classical and non-classical influences on late antique art. As a specific context for the beginnings of Christian art, since pagans decorated their tombs, Christians did too. And, in fact, our earliest identifiable examples of Christian art come from the catacombs, the underground burial chambers, around Rome. The catacombs were not hiding places in times of persecution (the authorities knew of their existence), nor were they normally places of assembly, although funerary meals in memory of the deceased were held there. The rooms (cubicula and their entrances were sometimes decorated with small paintings, and the stone slabs covering the burial niches (loculi) in the galleries were sometimes chiseled with inscriptions or simple pictures. The paintings were often decorative scenes of plants and birds, but many depicted events from the Old or New Testaments. Most popular from the Old Testament was the story of Jonah; from the New Testament, the raising of Lazarus. Symbolic representations were even more common, and the symbolic nature of early Christian art is often noted.

Particularly frequent in Christian art as a whole, as well as in the catacombs, were the pictures of the Good Shepherd (besides its biblical precedents, it was an image associated with philanthropy) and a figure in the posture of prayer with arms extended and hands uplifted (orans—a symbol of piety). Occasionally Christian ceremonies are depicted, such as baptism and meal scenes, of which the feeding miracles of the Gospels, the Last Supper, the eucharist, the agape [meal], the funerary meals are now indistinguishable. Because of the difficulty of working underground with limited light from small lamps or torches, the pictures for the most part employ a limited range of colors and a minimum of detail, more alluding to the scene than describing it.

From the latter half of the third century there began to appear among Christians evidence of a more expensive form of burial, sarcophagi (stone coffins for depositing the bodies of the deceased) with sculptured scenes. The same repertoire of biblical and symbolic subjects continued to be employed, the selection and forms of which was often governed by the existence of an image available from Greco-Roman art. Free standing, three-dimensional sculpture is rather rare in Christian art for many centuries, but from the third century there do survive small images of Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd and as a teacher, as well as images from the Jonah cycle (“Church History, Volume One, From Christ to Pre-Reformation,” Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 169 171).
Given the urge of the Roman emperors to enshrine themselves in statues, and also the developing Christian use of art (especially in funerary situations), Ferguson goes on to note some connections:
Christian art had arisen by the beginning of the third century. This was nearly simultaneous with the first evidence of Jewish pictorial art, so the theory that Christianity inherited a tradition of religious iconography from the Hellenized synagogues lacks evidence.

The earliest distinctive Christian art represented scenes from the Bible. It was decorative, but some have claimed that it helped to teach. The funerary art may further have served to enhance the sacred character of the monuments.

Marks of devotion to pictures seemingly evolved from the marks of respect paid to official portraits of reigning emperors during the late empire. These portraits were considered a substitute for the emperor’s presence, so the same signs of respect due the emperor were shown to his pictures: draperies to set them off, prostration before them, burning of incense and lighting of candles beside them, carrying them in solemn processions. The first Christian images known to have ben surrounded with these marks of cult were portraits of persons venerated as holy while they were still alive. A cult of images is first attested during the fifth century and became suddenly popular during the last half of the sixth and seventh century. The reserve that church leaders such as Epiphanius and Augustine had shown toward the first images at the end of the fourth century had now disappeared (pgs. 336-337).
It should be noted that this notion that “honor” given to images passes through to the person or reality behind them was later picked up by John of Damascus, the Council of Nicea II (A.D. 787) and also Aquinas. But here you have the source for it.

Henry Chadwick provides an account of Epiphanius’s resistance to this practice:
Epiphanius of Salamis (315 403) … was horrified to find in Palestine a curtain in a church porch with a picture of Christ or some saint. He tore it down and lodged a vehement protest with the bishop of Jerusalem. Though Epiphanius did all he could to prevent the introduction of pictures of churches, he was fighting a losing battle (The Early Church, first published in Pelican Books, ©1967, Reprinted in London: Penguin Books, LTD., revised edition ©1993, pg. 281).


  1. This event is reported by three ancient historians, (Josephus, Philo, and Tacitus.) The statue was never actually placed there.

    I should clarify. Statues of Gaius Caligula had been placed all over Alexandria, and because of his hatred for the Jews, it was his intention (knowing the symbolism it would entail), he had ordered Petronius to place a statue of himself in the Jewish temple. Petronius hesitated, and Caligula was assassinated, and hence the statue was never placed there.

  2. A small nitpick; the 2nd council Nicaea was held in 787 AD, not 784.

    Anyways, this apostate council - there is no other word for it - demanded all Christians (under the threat of anathema) to "proskuneo" images. According to its definitions, this was an acceptable form of "second-rate" worship, distinct from "latria."

    But in New Testament, the word "proskynesis" is casually used to describe worship given to God, or to false idol gods. In his Vulgate Bible translation, Jerome still systematically translated "proskynesis" as "adoration".

  3. It is instructive to read the Septuagint Old Testament in Greek original and see how many times the term "Proskynesis" is used for condemned idolatry - and keep in mind that the 2nd Nicene council commanded all people to "proskuneo" icons under the threat of anathema.

    Take Daniel 3:15 for example:

    "15 Now if you are ready at the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, and you fall down and WORSHIP the image which I have made, good! But if you do not WORSHIP, you shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?”

    Septuagint Greek translation:

    "15. καὶ νῦν εἰ μὲν ἔχετε ἑτοίμως ἅμα τῷ ἀκοῦσαι τῆς σάλπιγγος καὶ παντὸς ἤχου μουσικῶν πεσόντες προσκυνῆσαι τῇ εἰκόνι τῇ χρυσῇ ᾗ ἔστησα εἰ δὲ μή γε γινώσκετε ὅτι μὴ προσκυνησάντων ὑμῶν αὐθωρὶ ἐμβληθήσεσθε εἰς τὴν κάμινον τοῦ πυρὸς τὴν καιομένην καὶ ποῖος θεὸς ἐξελεῖται ὑμᾶς ἐκ τῶν χειρῶν μου "

    Also note that in the above passage, Nebuchadnezzar's "image" is called "εἰκόνι", an ICON.

    Not "εἴδωλον", "eidolon", which is where the word "idol" comes from. (EOs and RCs make sophistic distinction that while idols are bad, icons are good - similar to their latria/dulia game.)

    Likewise in Revelation 13:15, it is the "Eikon" and not the "Eidolon" of the Beast that people are depicted "proskuneing":

    "καὶ ἐδόθη αὐτῷ πνεῦμα δοῦναι τῇ εἰκόνι τοῦ θηρίου, ἵνα καὶ λαλήσῃ ἡ εἰκὼν τοῦ θηρίου καὶ ποιήσῃ, ὅσοι ἐὰν μὴ προσκυνήσωσι τῇ εἰκόνι τοῦ θηρίου, ἵνα ἀποκτανθῶσι."

    "And he had power to give life unto the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak, and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed."

  4. Fascinating! Many thanks for the posting of this.

  5. Viisaus, I've made the correction (to 787) in the main article. Thanks for the heads up on that.

    It's amazing to see the connections you're making from the Septuagint, as context for how the later church "developed".

    At the moment I'm listening to Darrell Bock's New Testament Introduction course (NT113 at Dallas Theological Seminary) through iTunes. I'd recommend that series (and some of the other things, too) for anyone who's interested in this sort of thing. They've certainly doing some amazing work in this area.

    I'm just fascinated by this whole body of "New Testament Backgrounds" work that's being done -- tying the Bible and the apocryphal works into the secular history, and giving us a much more robust picture of what was actually going on in those days.

  6. The 2nd century "Martyrdom of Polycarp" declares:

    "Jesus Christ we PROSKUNEO (worship) as Son of God, martyrs we AGAPEOMEN (love)."

    Clear implication: we do NOT "proskuneo" saints.


    "τοῦτον μέν γάρ υἱόν ὄντα τοῦ θεοῦ προσκυνοῦμεν, τούς δέ μάρτυρας ὡς μαθητάς καί μιμητάς τοῦ κυρίου ἀγαπῶμεν ἀξίως ἕνεκα εὐνοίας ἀνυπερβλήτου τῆς εἰς τόν ἴδιον βασιλέα καί διδάσκαλον ὧν γένοιτο καί ἡμᾶς κοινωνούς τε καί συμμαθητάς γενέσθαι."

    "For him we worship as the Son of God, but the martyrs we love as disciples and imitators of the Lord; and rightly, because of their unsurpassable affection toward their own King and Teacher. God grant that we too may be their companions and fellow-disciples."

  7. One of the things this material reminded me of was how historians writing about the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, have made a convincing case that much of what the Church claims about its practices being traced to the early church and thus being "authentic". Is really nothing more than the Church adopting socio-policial structures into the church and calling it Biblical.

    Something that is not new or specifically a Roman Catholic or Orthodox practice. Everyone can be and is influenced by ther culture.

    Whether what develops is right or not is another question.

    On another note, one of the reasons I reject much of the High Priestly practices of some churches is I think the Book of Hebrews makes a convincing case for the abolishment of these practices in the ending of the Old Covenant.

    But that is a discussion for another day.

    Reading a study on Baptism which throws an interesting light on practice, disputes and supposed early practice of child baptism.

  8. John: have you considered the cross-pollenization considerations with the reformed position against images of Jesus? I'd be interested if you might provide a few more source references for me to peruse. I'm thinking the doctrinal case can be strongly supported by what is suggested from the history here.

  9. John, that last comment is from Reed DePace. Can't seem to get Blogger to read my label differently than "pastor." Sorry.

  10. have you considered the cross-pollenization considerations with the reformed position against images of Jesus?

    Hi Reed -- If I recall, Steve and Turretinfan were going back and forth a bit over the use of images. That's not a discussion I want to get into the middle of.

    This was really something I stumbled across while looking up something else, and so my hope was just to provide a historical account here at this point, especially that the origin of the "devotion to pictures seemingly evolved from the marks of respect paid to official portraits of reigning emperors during the late empire".

    In the long run, my hope is to begin to catalog that much that is distinctively "Roman" Catholic had its origins in the religious practice of Pagan Rome.

  11. "the "devotion to pictures seemingly evolved from the marks of respect paid to official portraits of reigning emperors during the late empire".

    JB, did you know that the apocryphal OT "Book of Wisdom" already presented this theory? This work was written probably in Hellenistic Egypt, where the cult of divine rulers was cultivated even before it spread to Rome itself.

    "Wisdom of Solomon", 14:12-21:

    "For the devising of idols was the beginning of spiritual fornication, and the invention of them the corruption of life.

    For neither were they from the beginning, neither shall they be for ever.

    For by the vain glory of men they entered into the world, and therefore shall they come shortly to an end.

    For a father afflicted with untimely mourning, when he hath made an image of his child soon taken away, now honoured him as a god, which was then a dead man, and delivered to those that were under him ceremonies and sacrifices.

    Thus in process of time an ungodly custom grown strong was kept as a law, and graven images were worshipped by the commandments of kings.

    Whom men could not honour in presence, because they dwelt far off, they took the counterfeit of his visage from far, and made an express image of a king whom they honoured, to the end that by this their forwardness they might flatter him that was absent, as if he were present.

    Also the singular diligence of the artificer did help to set forward the ignorant to more superstition.

    For he, peradventure willing to please one in authority, forced all his skill to make the resemblance of the best fashion.

    And so the multitude, allured by the grace of the work, took him now for a god, which a little before was but honoured.

    And this was an occasion to deceive the world: for men, serving either calamity or tyranny, did ascribe unto stones and stocks the incommunicable name."

  12. (continued)

    As you can see JB, the Book of Wisdom presented the idea that besides ruler-worship, the OTHER major source of idolatry had been the cult of ancestors - the custom of praying to dead forefathers or relatives.

    And it is well known how icons came to occupy the same places in the households of EO and RC masses as the images used in ancestor-worship had formerly been.

    Apocryphal of not, I believe that the Book of Wisdom got this right and that ruler-worship and ancestor-worship together have been the two biggest sources of idolatrous sentiments.

    "But in the Nicene age it advanced to a formal invocation of the saints as our patrons (patroni) and intercessors (intercessores, mediatores) before the throne of grace, and degenerated into a form of refined polytheism and idolatry. The saints came into the place of the demigods, Penates and Lares, the patrons of the domestic hearth and of the country.

    As once temples and altars to the heroes, so now churches and chapels came to be built over the graves of the martyrs, and consecrated to their names (or more precisely to God through them). People laid in them, as they used to do in the temple of Aesculapius, the sick that they might be healed, and hung in them, as in the temples of the gods, sacred gifts of silver and gold. Their graves were, as Chrysostom says, move splendidly adorned and more frequently visited than the palaces of kings. Banquets were held there in their honor, which recall the heathen sacrificial feasts for the welfare of the manes. Their relics were preserved with scrupulous care, and believed to possess miraculous virtue. Earlier, it was the custom to pray for the martyrs (as if they were not yet perfect) and to thank God for their fellowship and their pious example. Now such intercessions for them were considered unbecoming, and their intercession was invoked for the living.821"

  13. Viisaus, I did not know this, but it doesn't surprise me. I'm amazed at how immersed in all of this that you are. Are you a former Roman Catholic?

  14. No John, I am not a former Roman Catholic - just a former unbeliever. :) I am not a cradle Christian, so perhaps one could say that I have this urge to find out exactly what I believe in.

    Here's yet one more piece of arcane knowledge (dug out thanks to my nerdy obsessions); king James I of Britain - the same one who sponsored the 1611 King James Bible translation - was one of the most learned monarchs of Europe back in his day, and also a strong supporter of royal absolutism.

    Thus both as a scholar and as a king, James was able to see how the RC cult of the saints was connected to royal ideology and pagan ancestor-worship:

    ""As for prayer to saints," says King James, "Christ (I am sure) hath commanded us to come all to him that are loaden with sin, and he will relieve us; (Matt. xi. 28 ;) and St. Paul hath forbidden us to worship angels, or to use any such voluntary worship, that hath a shew of humility in that it spareth not the flesh. (Coloss. ii. 8, 23.)

    But what warrant we have to have recourse unto these Dii Penates or Tutelares, these Courtiers of God, I know not; I remit that to these philosophical neoteric divines."

  15. And here's some information that one can nowadays find with only a simple web search:

    Lemuria (festival)

    "On what had been the culminating day of the Lemuralia, May 13 in 609 or 610— the day being recorded as more significant than the year—, Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs, and the feast of that dedicatio Sanctae Mariae ad Martyres has been celebrated at Rome ever since. According to cultural historians,[4] this ancient custom was Christianized in the feast of All Saints' Day, established in Rome first on May 13, in order to de-paganize the Roman Lemuria,[5] ...

    4. See for example "Days of the Dead" in Christian Roy, ed. Traditional festivals: a multicultural encyclopedia, 2005, vol. 2: s.v. "All Saints' Day and Halloween": "...yet May 13 had also happened to be the last day of the Roman Lemuria for lost souls"; Richard P. Taylor, Death and the Afterlife: a cultural encyclopedia‎ 200, p. 163: "Pope Boniface IV (608-615) replaced Lemuria with "All Saints' Day" on 13 May."

    5. An attempt to connect the cultus of All Saints' and All Souls' Day with the Roman Parentalia, observed however in February, is sometimes made: e.g. Gordon J. Laing, Survivals of Roman Religion (Boston 1931) p. 84: "...the thirteenth of May, which was one of the days of the Roman festival of the dead, the Lemuria. Whether there is any connection between these dates or not, the rites of All Saints' Day are a survival not of the Lemuria but of the Parentalia.""

  16. Ever wonder why Halloween is such a sinister festival (that Christians should not take part of)? It descends from a pagan festival of the malevolent dead spirits:

    "The origin of the festival of All Saints celebrated in the West dates to May 13, 609 or 610, when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs; the feast of the dedicatio Sanctae Mariae ad Martyres has been celebrated at Rome ever since. There is evidence that from the fifth through the seventh centuries there existed in certain places and at sporadic intervals a feast date 13 May to celebrate the holy martyrs.[4] The origin of All Saints' Day cannot be traced with certainty, and it has been observed on various days in different places. However, there are some who maintain the belief that it has origins in the pagan observation of 13 May, the Feast of the Lemures, in which the malevolent and restless spirits of the dead were propitiated. Liturgiologists base the idea that this Lemuria festival was the origin of that of All Saints on their identical dates and on the similar theme of "all the dead".[5]"

    All Saints' Day (Catholic Encyclopedia)

    "In the West Boniface IV, 13 May, 609, or 610, consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs, ordering an anniversary. Gregory III (731-741) consecrated a chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter to all the saints and fixed the anniversary for 1 November."

  17. A compilation of most if not all our posts on the topic of graven images and the second commandment can be found here.