Christ in the Catacombs: Christ the Miracle Worker
As apparent from the likes of the cult of Asclepius, a Greek deity of healing and medicine, the belief in the miraculous curing abilities of a deity was a key component in the cultic life of the typical Roman citizen. Similar to the portrayal of Christ as shepherd, the depiction of Christ as miracle worker also draw upon pagan motifs. A good example of this is that depictions of Christ as miracle worker invariably have him brandishing a hand-held tool for the task (see figure 1). While this apparatus is, of course, at first glance a magician’s wand, in the eye of the Christian beholder it is instead a staff, portraying Christ as the “New Moses” (cf. Ex. 4:2-5) and also a possible allusion to his role as shepherd of God’s people (cf. Psa. 23:4). For more on this see Lee Jefferson’s recently published work, Christ the Miracle Worker in Early Christian Art, where there is an entire chapter that specifically focuses upon the staff of Jesus (pp. 145-176). For a slightly different view that argues the wand specifically is meant to portray Christ as a magician, see Thomas Mathews, The Clash of the Gods: Calling the Imperial Argument into Question, pp. 54-91.
This motif of miracle worker is apparently more prevalent than that the shepherd in early Christian art, appearing in pre-Byzantine art in the funerary contexts of catacomb art and sarcophagi sculptures, an appropriate setting due to the confidence it instills in the future resurrection (see figures 2, 3, and 4 for a small sampling). Jefferson tells us that Christ as miracle worker is “ubiquitous” in early Christian art, “especially in the fourth century” but “dissipated after the fifth century, nearly disappearing altogether” (Jefferson, Christ the Miracle Worker, pp.2-3). Also, see pp. 87-108 where he examines three specific images of Christ’s curative capability: the healing of the paralytic (Mk 2:1-12), the bleeding woman (Mk 5:21-43), and the blind (e.g. Mk 8: 22-26; 10:51).
The preponderance of art displaying the miracle-working Christ should not be terribly surprising when one takes into consideration that the canonical Gospels likewise place an emphasis on this aspect of Christ’s life, providing almost three dozen mentions of the healing power of Christ. Medical motifs are also apparent in non-canonical early Christian texts as well, e.g. Ignatius, Letter to the Ephesians 7:2 (“there is only one Physician”), and 20:2 (“breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die”).
Through Christ being portrayed as a miracle worker, the Christian faith was shown to the people as being a viable, and even stronger, option than what the pagan religions provided. “Jesus is the miracle worker par excellence, superior to any rival deity” (Jefferson, Christ the Miracle Worker, p. 3). Also, note Origen’s claim that: “Without miracles and wonders they would not have persuaded those who heard new doctrines and new teachings to leave their traditional religion and to accept the apostles’ teaching at the risk of their lives” (Contra Celsum I:46).
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