Picturing God: Yeshua in Early Christian Art (Lane)
Picturing God: Yeshua in Early Christian Art
by Lonnie Lane
A culture is very often defined or articulated by its art and music. Ancient cultures to modern cultures all have their own particular music and their art. The art shows up in practical utensils like jars and pitchers as we see in archaeological findings, or as jewelry or on wall murals that tell stories of life in that culture. These range from the earliest cave paintings of stick figures and animals to sophisticated depictions of great generals conquering other peoples and marching them to captivity which can still be seen throughout Europe and elsewhere. One notable depiction of a “triumph” is on the Arc de Triumph, or Arc of Titus, which commemorates the brutal campaign in which the Roman general Titus, who later became the Roman Emperor, crushed the uprising of the Jews in AD 70, destroying Jerusalem, and killing up to a million Jews and enslaving another 97,000. On this bas-relief (a sculptural picture) we see a scene of the “victorious” Roman army capturing the Menorah of the Temple of the Jews, to take it back to Rome. This, incidentally, is not too often shown or at least so identified in art books.
My point is that history is often reflected in art, and might I say, the art is generally that of the victor as the victims aren’t usually in the place of having the funds or the time or leisure to produce art or literature to tell the story from their experience. Accordingly, history is almost always written from the perspective of the upper or dominating class, or the “winners” and not so much from that of the losers, or the disenfranchised.
So, it could be said, that history is never an exact representation of the facts, but an interpretation of what took place from the perspective of the observer. Art then, is representational, not exact. One’s paradigm or life view is reflected in their art, be it music (Reggae does not have the same effect as, say, Chopin), art (Renaissance painters did not ‘see’ the same way modern abstract painters ‘see’), or writing (historians are factual and more exact than poets who are more ethereal). Nevertheless, there is that burning within human-kind that needs to record for generations to come what they have experienced, and what they want others to know about them.
So it would be normal that as Jewish believers established themselves as Jews and no longer became assimilated — losing their Jewishness upon becoming followers of Yeshua — even while still remaining part of a church, a Messianic culture began to evolve. This maintaining of their Jewish identity took hold after 1967 when Jerusalem was once again in Jewish hands. Coincidence? No way. This Messianic culture was God’s doing. Messianic means having to do with the Messiah, a term very meaningful to Jews — the long awaited one promised by Moses and the prophets has come! There’s continuity with their Jewish heritage in following the Messiah. While many Jews worship in Messianic Jewish synagogues, a number of years ago Jews for Jesus, an organization that was largely church-based, conducted a survey and found that most Jewish believers were in churches. The Lord, evidently, has purpose for both.
But regardless of one’s affiliation, a Messianic culture has evolved, and one which their non-Jewish brothers and sisters have enjoyed greatly. The worship music has become a part of the overall music of the greater church body in many areas of the world. I was once in a small sleepy airport in Nigeria when we heard piped over the sound system Paul Wilbur singing a song about Jerusalem.
But what about the art? Today our “art” form can largely be found online rather than on walls, depicting our life style. Messianic art is available for the world to see at a click of a mouse. I typed “Messianic Art” into my browser and up came so many that after 45 pages x 10 per page I gave up looking. But it wasn’t always that way.
In the 1980’s, David Stern, the translator of the Complete Jewish Bible and his wife Martha organized a Messianic art show at a Messianic conference. The problem was, no one knew what Messianic art was. That first show was primarily made up of 15 portraits of rabbis. Praying ones, dancing one, serious ones, joyous ones, but all rabbis. That same year David and Martha moved to Israel and somehow I became the custodian of the art show for the next six years or so. So we began some dialog: What do Jews want to portray as believers? What do Jewish believers call art that’s any different from church art? What do we want to contribute to the culture of all believers that is specific to us as Jewish believers in Messiah? The Holy Spirit had more in mind than just rabbis and so the art of the Jewish believers began to flourish until now it’s a significant genre of its own and presents many and varied visual insights into Scripture and the life of Believers from a uniquely Jewish perspective.
But back then, at the beginning of this evolving culture, we hadn’t yet formulated a picture (no pun intended) of what this should all look like. So I began to do some research. What, I wondered, did the first Jewish believers depict in their art? Surely there must be good research into that in Israel or elsewhere. Here’s what I was to discover.
There was a distinct lack of art done by the Believers for the first two centuries. Archaeological remains exist but they are indistinguishable from the remains of the non-Christian culture. No distinctively Messianic or Christian archaeological materials exist before AD 180. It took over a century for the new community of faith to develop a distinctive artistic self-expression. Why? Well, for one thing, Jews “make no graven images” (Ex 20:4) of God, and if Yeshua is God, to depict Him would be to violate Torah. Secondly, that first and even second generation of Believers expected Him to return in their lifetime. Why bother creating history? Why inform a generation you didn’t believe would be there? Another reason may apply and that is that the early Believers met in homes (“house to house”) and not so much in public buildings where art work would be displayed. They didn’t build new structures to hold meetings until Constantine. At some point, they took over existing buildings, but the focus was always in homes.
As non-Jewish persons came to faith, art begins to appear. Now keep in mind that these folks were very influenced by their Jewish counterparts. Their art shows us what they understood about the Lord based on what they had been told by the Jewish Believers who shared the gospel with them, and based on stories told by those who knew Yeshua. So we’re talking not only about the very first (Jewish) Believers but the first few generations in the community of Believers. What we find is strikingly different than what you may expect of how it all began.
There are no early Christian symbols that exalt the suffering of Yeshua nor are there even any motifs of suffering, dying or even of the resurrection. When Yeshua does appear in early Christian art, he comes as a healer, overcoming sickness as well as political and social difficulties. He also overcomes death, like raising Lazarus from the dead. To these early Believers, under threat of persecution, harassment, prejudice or hatred, they stressed deliverance and victory rather then death and resurrection. Whereas Greek influences later would make the goal of Christianity the next life, a Jewish paradigm would be God’s victory in the here and now. The sense was success in the present. Early Christian art is very optimistic and generates a sense of great hope among these Believers.
Lambs were prominent in early Christian art, usually portrayed in a rather bucolic scene along with the good shepherd. This reflects a pleasant community of Believers in a kind of kinship relationship, like a flock that belongs together. It is only later that this changes when, after Constantine, this natural symbol of the kinship of a faith community disappears and the lamb takes on a different meaning having more to do with suffering as the Lamb of God.
Strangely, most Christian art has been found in burial areas. In Rome by the second century they often met in the catacombs. Artistic representations of the meal they ate include fish, baskets of bread, and wine. The wine appears in a glass or tumbler and none of the art portrays a eucharist. The eucharist pictures more likely reflect the feeding of the five thousand.
There is a distinct lack of crosses in early Christian remains, especially any specific reference to Yeshua’s death at Golgatha. It cannot be found prior to Constantine and is first recognized mid-fourth century on a sarcophagus cover in the Vatican. The first clear depiction of the crucifixion (Jesus on the cross, not just the cross) does not appear until the fifth century. There is one example of a cross, called the Palatine cross, found in 1856 in the servants’ quarters in the Imperial Palace in Rome. It is basically graffiti, like an insulting cartoon used by someone who wanted to mock Christianity. The conclusion from this is that the cross at that time was not an early Christian symbol of worship. Crosses have been used as symbols long before Christianity, but there is no evidence of them being used by Believers before the fourth century, and they have no connection with the crucifixion of Yeshua. There is also some archaeological evidence that the cross upon which Yeshua was crucified took on a somewhat different shape than the one we’re used to seeing in depictions.
To a Jew, one who died on a tree, which is what the cross would be made of, was a curse. “Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree” (Deut. 21:23, Gal 3:13). It is one of the Messianic prophecies that proves that Yeshua took our curses upon Himself. The early Believers would be entirely adverse to any veneration of a cross. At the same time, there is no place for a crucified Messiah, nor is there any indication of a symbol of divine death. Only later would such representations develop.
While many Biblical scenes are depicted in pre-Constantine mosaics or frescoes, what is representative of Yeshua Himself is what’s of interest here. There is a difference between the Old and New Testament art in the presence of a deliverer rather than the delivered. There is, however, no single picture of the Lord that can be deduced from the archaeological evidence of very early Christian art. It is possible that He is in the symbol of the good shepherd, but that does not take on “Christological” implications until the late Constantinian period.
When the representations that could be interpreted as Jesus appear, he is usually a beardless young man, even sometimes a boy. He is the wonder-worker who walks among the people. There are very few examples of an older Yeshua in third century Christian art. There are two others in which He appears to have a beard prior to AD 313. Bearded or not, He is portrayed as a wonder-worker. He is the subject of all New Testament scenes assuming that the Wise Men are pointing to Him and the women at the tomb point to His death. Mostly He is portrayed as a deliverer — he points or touches with his hand. As said above, there is no cross symbol or any equivalent, nor does He suffer and die in pre-Constantinian art. Believers did find themselves in situations that could cost them their lives but in these portrayals their faith in Yeshua centers on being delivered from those circumstances or at peace despite them.
The Baptism of Yeshua is a most popular Biblical scene and one of the oldest portrayals shows him as a clothed adult being baptized by a somewhat larger John. A dove hovers nearby. Though the dove is nearby, the dove does not represent the Holy Spirit in early Christian art. The dove functions more as a peace symbol. Neither does the fish represent Messiah or His people before Constantine. On another, on a sarcophagus (literally, flesh eater), Yeshua is drawn as a small youth being baptized by a very large bearded John who stands above little Yeshua with his hands on His head. This scene is repeated often. Also repeated is the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Even more frequently the agape meal which was celebrated among the early Church is pictured, letting us know how important fellowship around a meal together was among Believers.
There are five healing scenes in early Christian art, the healing of the paralytic being the most popular. He is also portrayed as the Teacher. He is seated with a scroll in one, a wandering philosopher in another. These imply the authority of Yeshua but stress more the function of One who brings revelation or authoritative teaching, related to Moses. He is not seen with His disciples until after Constantine. And only later did the boy or young beardless Yeshua become the King at which time he is portrayed as one with great power. It is in the fourth century that the picture shifts from Him teaching the people to teaching His disciples. It becomes evident as we begin to see how the personalities of Constantine and those around him affect how Yeshua is portrayed with His disciples around Him, that those portrayals are to represent Constantine surrounded by officers of his Empire. Let’s dip into that scenario to give some understanding of what unfolded.
Worship of the sun was a principal imperial cult prior to Constantine. A temple to Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) was established between AD 218 and 222 and was related to the winter solstice on December 25th, the birthday of the Unconquered Sun. The Christians and the Hellenistic Jews tried to deal with this Sol Invictus and in the battle, sometime between AD 274 and 336, under Constantine, supposedly the first “Christian” emperor, the natalis solis invicti was adopted as the birthday of Jesus, now the Sun of Righteousness. The young man had become the King and the Christians “lost” to the imperial Sol Invictus. When Constantine saw the cross over the sun at the Milvian Bridge in 312, it confirmed to him that the sun was god and it was a mere step to connect Yeshua with that god. Putting them together made everybody happy, was the thought. It included everyone’s religious preference. In order to become the public religion of the Empire, Christianity had to make Jesus the emperor of the Universe, the Sol Invictus. Or rather Constantine did. As the State religion, there was no longer any concern for who might be born again or not. The State had presumed the role of meting out salvation. Everyone was a Christian in a Christian empire under Constantine and henceforth so long as you “went to church.”
The first church buildings Constantine built (from which we began to call the buildings “church” instead of the people), were oriented toward the rising sun and the Christians of the Byzantine era bowed toward that sun. Now Yeshua had become the imperial Christ and iconographically Christ Helia. From a Carpenter Messiah walking among the people, He is now pictured as One who rules the world from the heavens, riding a chariot across the sky with sun rays streaming from His head. What a far cry from a manger-born Messiah to this.
Can you see the wisdom of God in the commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God” (Ex 20:3-5)? A visual of God, even of Yeshua, cannot possibly adequately portray Who He is! At best it limits our vision of Him to what our minds can come up with. The inconceivable distortion of the Person of Messiah Yeshua removed Him from the people as an approachable, personal Man who walked among them as one of them, touching, healing, caring. God had Him come as a Man for the purpose of identifying with our humanity, a Man who understood what it is to be human and about Whom we could say: “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). But as Sol Invictus, He was no longer personal….He was no longer what He really is to us!
As Constantine made his version of Christianity the religion of the Empire, he commanded that the buildings be erected for the church to meet where the people would stand to hear homilies given by one appointed man. This put an end to the kinship communities in the comfort of homes in which they were “teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16). No longer would there be the ministering to one another by the “Spirit (who) works all these things, distributing to each one individually (spiritual gifts) just as He wills” (1 Cor 12:11). The gifts of the Spirit operating under an anointing became obsolete and the power was vacuumed out of the church by the grandiosity of the Emperor.
In time, representations of Yeshua and his disciples on stained glass windows or frescoes on walls were the only teaching the congregation got as Bibles were forbidden to the people. In these paintings, the disciples tended to look a whole lot like the leaders in the congregations or the people who had the most money to pay for the paintings, thereby setting up a kind of special status as men the people knew were seen in the place of the disciples. This added to the hierarchy and justified it as leaders were seen as closer to Jesus than the ordinary folk.
Of course, once we get to the Renaissance, religious paintings in Catholic Europe were abundant. While these paintings were quite beautiful, they did foster some gross misunderstandings of what is in the Bible. As was said above, art is seen from the perspective of the one creating the art. A knowledge of history or archaeology would have rendered many of those depictions as inaccurate, but even those anomalies tell us something about the people. Once, while in Europe, I did a kind of mini-study, going to museums in England, Brussels and Holland (Rembrandts “in person”!) I wanted to see how different people saw Jesus. I discovered an interesting fact. When the people were under great oppression or coming out of plagues, etc., Jesus is portrayed as weak and victimized. His feet may have been on a little “stool” so that he didn’t have to bear the unbearable weight of his body on the cross, as it would have been just too much for poor Jesus. But when the people felt empowered in different times in history, Jesus is portrayed as more powerful, more “in control,” even on the cross. We do see Him through our own lenses. We do tend to project onto Him our own strengths or weaknesses.
Perhaps that’s why God said not to make any images of Him. To do so is to rob ourselves of letting the Spirit give us revelation of God. When God says to “Seek My face” (2 Chron 7:14; Psalm 27:8; 105:4), He intends for us to come to Him by His Spirit. Anything else is idolatry. Constantine turned Yeshua into a “divine” idol that entirely misrepresented Who He is. The church has yet to fully recover from the poison Constantine injected into the veins of the church so that we are not fully alive in Yeshua as the early church was. But as God returns the Body of Messiah to truth and delivers us from error and heresy as He is restoring the Hebrew foundation upon which He built the true church, we are, I believe, on the cusp of revelations of God in spirit and in truth that we’ve not known since the beginning.
I had a mini-vision. I saw invisible ink on a page sudden become visible. At the same time I saw silver trumpets being blown. Whether this was from the Lord or not, I know not, but what they appear to me to represent are this: The ink becoming visible is as things in the Word that have been invisible to us until now. They will start to become visible and real to us. Perhaps this little history lesson today will have some part in disregarding art that limits our understanding of Yeshua. Visual aids in knowing Him should come from the Spirit, not the hands of man. The trumpets represent a call from God to those who have not heard His voice before, or things of God that have been beyond the audible sounds before, like how a dog can hear a higher frequency than we can. The trumpets are calling those to the Lord who have not heard His call to them before, or have not been able to hear what He would say to the church before. But He is clearing the airwaves, so to speak, so we can hear truth we’ve missed before.
Therefore, I pray for us all that “the God of our Lord Yeshua Messiah, the Father of glory, gives to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened, that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His might power” (Eph. 1:17-19).
Reprint of this article is permitted as long as you use the following; Use by permission by Messianic Vision, www.sidroth.org, 2009.
Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif. All rights reserved. Used by permission.