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An obvious and important question to ask when examining the validity of the presence and veneration of the Holy Icons in the churches today is whether or not the earliest Christians, roughly those of the first five hundred years of the Church, used iconography and, if so, how they used it. The faith and practice of these earliest Christians is supremely important in deciding correct faith and practice of Christians today as these early Christians lived the closest in time, place, and culture to the Apostles and other first century followers of Christ. Many of the Christians who lived during this period were members of churches which had been directly founded by Apostles and lived in cities mentioned in the Bible. In addition, very importantly, most of the Christians of this period spoke the ancient Greek of the New Testament as their own native language. Recognizing the importance and authority of the early Church, John Calvin wrote:

If the authority of the ancient church moves us in any way, we will recall that for about five hundred years, during which religion was still flourishing, and a pure doctrine thriving, Christian Churches were commonly empty of images. Thus, it was when the purity of the ministry had somewhat degenerated that they were first introduced for the adornment of churches.

Until fairly recently, Calvin's words here were the common assumption of both Protestants and historians of early Christianity. It was widely believed and taught that the churches of the first several hundred years were largely imageless and that Christians themselves were generally hostile to figurative art, rejecting it as an idolatrous pagan practice. This assumption was largely based on a dearth of archaeological evidence and on a false assumption of Jewish iconophobia coupled with erroneous prooftexting of various early Christian writers' criticisms of the idols of the pagans.

All three bases of the theory of early Christian hostility toward images have been dismantled by the introduction of new evidence throughout the 20th century, and more evidence continues to be uncovered today through archaeological exploration.14 The hole that once existed in physical evidence of the worship of ancient Christians and Jews has now been filled with numerous discoveries throughout the Middle East, Southern and Eastern Europe, and North Africa.

Perhaps the most famous of these discoveries is the ancient city of Dura Europos.15 Dura Europos was a diverse city, home to Christians, pagans, and Jews alike, located near the western border of what is now the nation of Syria. While under Roman rule, the city was left abandoned by its inhabitants due to a Sassanian seige in AD 256-257,16 preserving for modern archaeologists, who would begin excavating the city shortly after its rediscovery in 1920, a particularly interesting look into the lives of Romans in Syria in the third century.

And of particular interest to us for the purposes of this essay is the church of the city, the oldest Christian church yet discovered, dating to about AD 233.17 Though they are in some rough condition, several examples of early Christian iconography are preserved within the church.18 On the wall near the baptismal font, there is an icon of Christ as the Good Shepherd,19 with Adam and Eve below the figure. On the south wall of the baptistry are icons of St. Photini, better known as “the woman at the well”20 and, to the left of that, an image of the Prophet-King David's fight with Goliath.21 On the north wall of the baptistry are an illustration of the healing of the paralytic22  and a depiction of Christ and St. Peter walking on water.23 A large icon below these depicts three women, probably the Virgin Mary, St. Mary Magdalene, and St. Salome, walking towards what appears to be a tomb, probably a depiction of the cave in which Christ's body was placed after the Crucifixion.24

And the Christians of the city weren't the only ones whose house of worship had lots of images. The Jewish synagogue discovered at Dura Europos, the construction of which was probably finished in about AD 245,25  is filled nearly top to bottom with ornate iconographic depictions of Old Testament events and figures.26 (image below) 


Throughout the dozens of icons present in the synagogue are images of Prophets, such as MosesDavidEzekielElijah (below), and Abraham ,



symbols such as the Menorah and the Torah Scroll (below),


and depictions of events such as the near-sacrifice of Isaac27 and Moses' reception of the Ten Commandments.28 The synagogue at Dura Europos, though a very striking example because of its excellent preservation, is by no means unique in the ancient world; there are many more synagogues with much more iconographic art which archaeologists have discovered and are still in the process of discovering.29

The abundance of images in these synagogues is especially important to our current purposes as it significantly undermines one of the key pillars of the theory that early Christians were hostile to images, namely, the assumption, which passed unquestioned for quite some length of time, that the early Judaism from which Christianity emerged was aniconic and even iconophobic. Clearly, the opposite was true; Christianity emerged from and grew up alongside a Judaism with a vibrant iconographic tradition.

The statements of early Christians writing against idolatry have been interpreted in the context of this false assumption by many for some time. But, with this new archaeological evidence, including both the synagogues and the church at Dura Europos, new interpretations are necessary. The textual evidence can not continue to be interpreted in a vacuum, but must now be interpreted alongside and within the context of the archaeological evidence.

Why would the early Christians expend so much time and effort arguing so vehemently against the idolatry of the pagans while remaining silent about the idolatry, assuming they considered it to be so, rising up in their midst? Early Christian apologists simultaneously railed against the images of the pagans while attending worship services in churches with images; the only plausible explanation for how to reconcile these two facts is that they must not have considered their own images to be idolatrous.

Additionally, early Christian apologists were never shy about criticizing the Jews for any of even the slightest perceived transgressions;30 if the widespread use of images in the synagogues was viewed by them as idolatrous, why did they never take the opportunity to attack the Jews for this? Why, instead, does it seem that early Christians in fact picked up their art forms and styles from the Jews?31 Contrary to the former allegations of Calvin and his faithful disciples, the introduction of icons into the churches was not the result of later pagan influence upon a weaker Church, but was part of the early Jewish inheritance assumed by the new Christian Faith in its first centuries.

These are questions and conundrums that, because the evidence was unavailable until fairly recently, never occurred to earlier Protestant proponents of iconoclasm like John Calvin and which iconoclasm's modern proponents have yet to sufficiently answer or explain. But these are questions which demand an answer if their views are going to continue to be taken seriously in the light of modern archaeological evidence.





12 See Calvin, Institutes 1.11.13

14 Bigham, Steven. Early Christian Attitudes toward Images. Rollingsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2004.

15 For more information on Dura Europos, see Hopkins, C., The Discovery of Dura Europos. New Haven and London, 1979. and Rostovtzeff, M.I. Dura-Europos and Its Art. Oxford University Press, 1938.

16 Anglim, Simon, Phyllis G. Jestice, Rob S. Rice, Scott M. Rusch, and John Serrati. Fighting Techniques of the Ancient World: 3000 BC-500 AD : Equipment, Combat Skills, and Tactics. New York: St. Martin's, 2002. pg. 218.

17 González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. pg. 95.

18 Perkins, Ann Louise. The Art of Dura-Europos. Oxford: Clarendon, 1973. and Snyder, Graydon F. Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine. Macon, Ga.: Mercer UP, 2003. pp. 128-134

19 John 10:11. Depictions of Christ as the Good Shepherd in poetry, prayer, literature, and art were very popular amongst early Christians.

20 John 4:4-26

21 1 Samuel 17

22 Mark 2:1-12

23 Matthew 14:22-33

24 Mark 16:1

25 Goldstein, Jonathan. “The Judaism of the Synagogues (Focusing on the Synagogue of Dura-Europos” in Neusner, Jacob, Alan J. Avery-Peck, and Bruce Chilton. Judaism in Late Antiquity. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995. pg. 110.

26 Fine, Steven. Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: toward a New Jewish Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. ch. 11.

27 Genesis 22:1-24

28 Exodus 31:18

29 Urman, Dan, and Paul Virgil McCracken. Flesher. Ancient Synagogues Historical Analysis and Archaeological Discovery. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1998.

30 See, for instance, St. Justin the Philosopher's (also known as Justin Martyr) lengthy diatribe against the Jews for what he alleges are their alterations, most of them nearly insignificantly minor, of the Scriptural texts, in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (written ca. AD 165).

31 For a very interesting and enlightening examination specifically of the Dura Europos synagogue on this point, see Weitzmann, Kurt, and Herbert L. Kessler. The Frescoes of the Dura Synagogue and Christian Art. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1990.


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Article posted in English on: 21-1-2015.

Last Update:  21-1-2015.