Early Christian Depictions of Christ (Part III)

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.

Jesus with a wand raising Lazarus (click to enlarge),  Catacomb of the Giordani, Rome, third century.

Figure 1 (click to enlarge). Jesus with a staff/wand raising Lazarus, Catacomb of the Giordani, Rome, third century.

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”).

Christ healing the Bleeding Woman

Figure 2 (click to enlarge). Christ healing the bleeding woman, Catacomb of Marcellinus and Peter, late-third century.

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).

Figure 3 (click to enlarge). Christ healing the paralytic. Dura Europos Domus Ecclesiae, Syria, mid-third century.

Figure 3 (click to enlarge).
Christ healing the paralytic, Dura Europos house church, Syria, mid-third century.

A Ewer with Jesus Healing the Blind Man, Rome, late-fourth century.

Figure 4 (click to enlarge). A Ewer with Jesus Healing the Blind Man, Rome, late-fourth century.

[Note: This blog claims no credit for any of these images. Images on this blog are copyright to their respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and do not wish for it appear on this site, please let me know and the image will be promptly removed.]

Early Christian Depictions of Christ (Part II)

Pre-Byzantine Christian Depictions of Christ

Figure 1 (Click to enlarge). Christ as Sol Invcitus, St. Peter’s necropolis, Rome, mid-third century.

Figure 1 (Click to enlarge).
Christ as Sol Invictus, St. Peter’s necropolis, Rome, mid-third century.

Figure 2 (click to enlarge). Christ as Orpheus, Catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus, Rome, early-fourth century.

Figure 2 (click to enlarge).
Christ as Orpheus, Catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus, Rome, early-fourth century.

As far as I can ascertain there is no extant art from the first two centuries that can be firmly labeled Christian. This is probably due, in part at least, to the fact that during this period Christian groups were mostly comprised of people from the lower-class where money for art was in scarce supply. Most of what we do know about the earliest Christian art is found in the frescoes of the catacombs, where Christ is depicted through the utilization of themes drawn from pagan deities. Examples of this include Christ appearing in the guise of the Roman sun deity Sol Invictus (see figure 1) and the Greek god Orpheus (see figure 2). There are also possible deliberate similarities between images of Christ and the deities of the Graeco and Roman pantheons of Antiquity, such as the bearded Christ (see figure 3), which is reminiscent of the beard of Zeus or Poseidon, as well as the beardless, youthful Christ (see figure 4), which suggests the youthful images of Apollo or Dionysus. While Christians indeed appropriated the artistic motifs available to them from pagan art, this adaptation was not taken wholesale and was infused with the Christian viewers’ beliefs.

Figure 3 (click to enlarge). Christ with a beard, Catacomb of Commodilla, late-fourth century.

Figure 3 (click to enlarge).
Christ with a beard, Catacomb of Commodilla, late-fourth century.

Figure 4 Beardless Christ teaching his apostles, Catacomb of Domitilla, Rome, late-third early-fourth century.

Figure 4 (click to enlarge).
Beardless Christ teaching his apostles, Catacomb of Domitilla, Rome, early-fourth century.

The catacombs are a good repository for early Christian art due to two key reasons: (1) belief in a bodily resurrection by Christians meant they were more likely to bury their fellow believers rather than undergo the common Roman funerary practice of cremation; and (2) any artwork in the catacombs was safe from prying eyes due to Roman law outlawing the desecration of such places. However, as J.D. Breckenridge notes, “the exact number and nature of pre-Constantinian Christian works of art is the subject of acrimonious debate” and that “the dating of catacomb paintings is often problematic” (“The Reception of Art into the Early Church,” Atti Congresso Internazionale di Archeologia Cristiana 9 (1978): pp. 361-369; p. 365). Furthermore, due to the pagan antecedents of some of the images of Christ, it is not always clear whether an image is actually of Christ. The images can, however, be easier to categorize when one takes into consideration the images of the surrounding context. Despite these uncertainties, there is a general consensus to be found in the relevant literature on the subject matter that one can safely assign some catacomb depictions of Christ to the pre-Byzantine period.

Christ in the Catacombs: Christ the Shepherd

A recurring theme found in the early depictions of Christ, typically being employed in baptismal and funerary contexts, is that of the kriophoros – the ram-bearer. Breckenridge also notes that there are “some 73 examples [of Christian catacomb art] dated to 300 A.D. or earlier bearing portrayals one might relate as symbols of the person of Christ: 63 Good Shepherds, a few Fishers of Men, Christ in a variety of Miracle scenes (all late in the century), and the Baptism three times” (ibid). Robin Jensen lists 120 examples of Christ as a shepherd in the catacomb frescoes (Understanding Early Christian Art, p. 37).

Figure 5 (click to enlarge). Christ as shepherd, St. Callisto Catacomb, Rome, mid-third century.

Figure 5 (click to enlarge).
Christ as shepherd, St. Callisto Catacomb, Rome, mid-third century.

Figure 6 (click to enlarge). Christ as shepherd, Vatican Museum, Rome, early-fourth century.

Figure 6 (click to enlarge).
Christ as shepherd, Vatican Museum, Rome, early-fourth century.

This motif existed for a very long before Christ, with it often being found in ancient Roman funerary art and on various media such as statues and pottery. This shepherd motif draws upon the Greek deity of Hermes, the patron deity of shepherds. The image of the shepherd was one of benevolence in the Graeco-Roman world and is typically depicted as a youthful, beardless man, garbed in a tunic. Yet despite possessing pagan antecedents, the image of the kriophoros enjoyed certain popularity in early depictions of Christ (see figures 5, 6, and 7), though he was sometimes depicted as standing among the sheep rather than bearing them on his shoulders (see figure 8). This popularity would, to a degree, have been precisely due to the pagan connections the image possessed, because while this would have made the depictions of Christ appear innocuous to any Roman authorities or non-Christians who came upon them, the Christians could nevertheless link it back to their sacred scriptures (e.g., Psa. 23:1; Isa 40:11; Jn 10:1-16; Heb 13:20; and 1 Pet. 5:4).

Figure 7 (click to enlarge). Christ as shepherd, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, late-third century.

Figure 7 (click to enlarge).
Christ as shepherd, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, late-third century.

Figure 8 (click to enlarge). Christ as shepherd, Museo Epigrafico, Rome, early-fourth century.

Figure 8 (click to enlarge).
Christ as shepherd, Museo Epigrafico, Rome, early-fourth century.

[Note: This blog claims no credit for any of these images. Images on this blog are copyright to their respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and do not wish for it appear on this site, please let me know and the image will be promptly removed.]

Early Christian Depictions of Christ (Part I)

Time for another blog series on Christian art! This series of blog posts will provide a brief look at the evolution of the image of Christ from its humble beginnings in the catacombs to the artistic splendor of the early Byzantine period, with a spotlight being put on the development of the crucified Christ.

Despite the multitude of images available of Jesus of Nazareth, no one obviously knows what he really looked like. Yet thanks to popular artists of the Renaissance period such as Da Vinci and the popular Baroque artist Rembrandt, the typical image of Christ in Western culture is that of a willowy somber-faced man with long dark hair and a tidy beard. This is not how Jesus was depicted in the earliest extant images. In fact, the earliest images of Christ demonstrate that the focus was not on the specific look of Christ (such as physiognomic details), but on the roles that he possesses in the community of the faithful; the earliest depictions of Christ are images, not portraits. To quote Robin M. Jensen in her classic book on the topic, in early Christian art “the emphasis was on the meaning behind the images more than on their presentation” (Understanding Early Christian Art, pg. 24).

A careful consideration of the progression of the image of Christ from the earliest catacomb images to those of the early Byzantine period demonstrates that while depictions of Christ in various roles such as shepherd and miracle worker were ubiquitous in early Christian art, these motifs underwent a metamorphosis during the Byzantine period. Another transformation that occurred during this period was the emergence of the crucified Christ, an image which is peculiarly absent from the earliest Christian artistic record. This dearth of images of the crucified Christ is quite anomalous considering that the death of Christ upon the cross was considered of the utmost importance in the earliest extant Christian writings (e.g. 1 Cor. 2:2), with it being inextricably tied up in the earliest kerygma (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:3; Phil. 2:8).

Select Bibliography

A few books I’ve found helpful in studying early Christian art (in no particular order):

James Stevenson, The Catacombs: Rediscovered Monuments of Early Christianity. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

Graydon F. Snyder, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985.

Thomas Mathews, The Clash of the Gods: Calling the Imperial Argument into Question. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

André Grabar, Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Robert Milburn, Early Christian Art and Architecture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Paul Corby Finney, The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians in Art. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994.

John Lowden, Early Christians and Byzantine Art. London: Phaidon Press, 1997.

Jean-Michel Spieser, “The Representation of Christ in the Apses of Early Christian Churches,” Gesta 37.1 (1998): pp. 63-73.

Matilda Webb, The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome: A Comprehensive Guide. Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 2001.

Robin M. Jensen, “Art,” in ed. Philip F. Esler, The Early Christian World, Vol. II. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000; pp. 747-772.

_____ Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005.

_____ Understanding Early Christian Art. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000.

Jás Elsner, Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: The Art of the Roman Empire, AD 100-450. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Walter Lowrie, Art in the Early Church. Revised edition. New York, NY: Norton & Co., 2007.

Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art. Yale: Yale University Press, 2009.

Lee Jefferson, Christ the Miracle Worker in Early Christian Art. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014.


God Will Provide the Burnt Offering? Marc Chagall’s The Sacrifice of Isaac (Part V)

Figure I; Marc Chagall, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1960-66; oil on canvas; Chagall Museum, Nice.

Marc Chagall, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1960-66; oil on canvas; Chagall Museum, Nice.

See Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Chagall’s Use of Color

Four basic colors –red, blue, yellow, and brown– construct most of the painting, along with a touch of white and green. Chagall has elected to flatten out the image of the painting rather than provide a three-dimensional rendition, allowing him to more freely apply these colors independently from the contours of the characters and objects, and it is this use of color which helps convey Chagall’s distinct interpretation of the Aqedah where Isaac is indeed the “burnt offering.”

The body of Isaac is swallowed up in red and yellow, the colors of flames, reminiscent of the Nazi crematoria that were responsible for the deaths of millions of European Jews. The pallid brown color of the scene above is symbolic of the smoke and ashes of the Holocaust victims. Moreover, the red color streaming down from the cross-bearing Jesus is richly evocative of blood, evoking a key piece of New Testament theology –the blood of Jesus– into the painting. Yet while the blood of Jesus is seen in the New Testament as being God’s provision for the atonement of sin, it is not what Chagall intends to communicate to the viewer here. The red engulfs Abraham and Isaac, telling us that both Abraham and Isaac were ultimately consumed as a “burnt offering,” seen in the suffering of their descendants.

The blue section of the painting represents the sky and heavens, the ethereal realm that is separate from the harsh reality of the yellow and red that we face in the world. Note that the ram is found in this section of the painting, perhaps indicating that the promised substitute for Isaac is not to be found in this unsympathetic world that is full of misery, but only in the hopeful realm of fantasy. Thus, ultimately there is no substitute for Isaac or his descendants.

Concluding Thoughts

After examining this painting I think it is quite apparent that Marc Chagall’s The Sacrifice of Isaac is more of a reinterpretation of the Aqedah rather than a strict and faithful depiction of the biblical text. At first glance, Chagall’s painting seems in harmony with the Aqedah due to Abraham’s knife pointing away from Isaac. Yet, as the winking Isaac reveals, it is not so simple. No mention is made of Isaac returning with Abraham (Gen. 22:19) and Chagall, in a similar manner as some Rabbis, plays upon this ambiguity by subtly depicting Abraham as having sacrificed Isaac. Indeed, notice that Chagall titled this work “The Sacrifice of Isaac” and not “The Binding of Isaac.”

Chagall’s use of color, combined with his use of the crucifixion scene as commentary, reveals that he is using this painting to issue a grievance against the God of Abraham and Isaac. I see Chagall’s complaint being that this God seems to have all but forgotten the Chosen People now. Chagall is raising the question of how is one to view Abraham’s statement in Gen. 22:8 about God’s provision of the ram, as well as God’s reissued promises in Gen. 22:15-18, in view of the future that played out, that is, the history of Jewish suffering and the horrors of the Holocaust. As a representation of the paradigmatic suffering Jew, Jesus carries the cross on the road to Golgotha; no ram will be provided for him nor for Abraham, Isaac, and their descendants.

Jacques Ellul’s Books on Prayer and Violence

Prayer and Modern Man

An OK book, not as good as what I was hoping for, but there were still plenty of golden nuggets to be found within.

This first quote (unfortunately) resonated with me (much more so in the past than the present):

The man of our time does not know how to pray; but much more than that, he has neither the desire nor the need to do so. He does not find the deep source of prayer within himself. I am acquainted with that man. I know him well. It is I myself.

I love this following quote. It is on the “the obligatory prayer at the opening of the business meetings of the Church”:

We know in advance that if ever they were answered, if ever the Holy Spirit were given, it would overturn all the financial plans, all the projections for the future, all the wise administrations. Even when the person saying them is filled with piety, they are purely formal prayers to cover the mediocrity of our decisions … They are covering prayers, putting us right with God at the opening of the session; then, since we have called upon him, we feel all the more free not to take the Lord into account during the course of the discussions.

This is an accurate summation of how prayer is viewed in our modern age, or as Ellul calls it “the technological society”:

Prayer is ridiculed because its effectiveness is entirely unpredictable, and statistical techniques are able to show that the percentage of “answers” to prayer corresponds exactly to the percentage of success which would have been the case had events been allowed to take their own course, and without prayer. Thus we can say that in this competition prayer is doomed. But we must understand that what is doomed is that kind of prayer, the prayer of success and efficacy.


Precisely because our technological society is given over entirely to action, the person who retires to his room to pray is the true radical. Everything will flow from that. This act in society, which is also an action on this society, goes very much further than the concrete involvement, which it still does not shirk.

This last one is harsh. But I can see the truth behind it:

The absence of prayer and the difficulty of praying are the evidence for the absence of faith.

Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective

I think this book should have been titled “Violence: Reflections from a Sociological (and Christian) Perspective.” A lot of this book seems to be more about sociological analyses of violence in regards to such things as socialism, capitalism, revolutions, and so forth. Ellul is openly a socialist, but he recognizes the evils that such governments have wrought and, more importantly, he thinks it is utterly foolish to try and equate socialism or capitalism with the Christian faith. Hallelujah! I hate when people try and portray socialism or capitalism as a Christian economic system. For the love of Peter, Paul, and Mary, people! Stop using “Christian” as an adjective to describe your preferred economic and political systems!

One of Ellul’s critiques of standard Christian positions on violence is that they lack “realism.” Here is some of what he says about realism in relation to violence:

Realistic appraisal shows that violence is inevitable in all societies, whatever their form … The first law of violence is continuity. Once you started using violence, you cannot get away from it … Once a man has begun to use violence he will never stop using it, for it is so much easier and more practical than any other method … The second law of violence is reciprocity. It is stated in Jesus’ famous word, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” … Violence creates violence, begets and procreates violence … The third law of violence is sameness. Here I shall only say that it is impossible to distinguish between justified and unjustified violence, between violence that liberates and violence that enslaves … Violence begets violence – nothing else. This is the fourth law of violence. Violence is par excellence the method falsehood … Violence can never realize a noble aim, can never create liberty or justice. I repeat once more that the end does not justify the means, on the contrary, evil means corrupt good ends … Finally, the fifth law of violence is this: the man who uses violence always tries to justify both it and himself. Violence is so unappealing that every user of it has produced lengthy apologies to demonstrate to the people that it is just and morally warranted.

Ellul is a proponent of nonviolence, as the following quote shows:

Thus violence can never be justified or acceptable before God. The Christian can only admit humbly that he could not do otherwise, that he took the easy way and yielded to necessity and the pressures of the world. That is why that Christian, even when he permits himself to use violence in what he considers the best of causes, cannot either feel or say that he is justified; he can only confess that he is a sinner, submit to God’s judgment, and hope for God’s grace and forgiveness.

I like this idea of prayer as being the true last resort of a Christian:

Violence, we are told, is legitimate when the situation is such that there is absolutely no other way out of it. The Christian can never entertain this idea of “last resort.” He understands that for the others it may be so, because they place all their hopes in this world and the meaning of this world. But for the Christian, violence can be at most a second-last resort. Therefore it can never be justified in a Christian life, because it would be justified only by being really a last resort. The Christian knows only one last resort, and that is prayer, resort to God.

The last sentence of this final quote… ouch!

Neither exaltation of power nor the search for vengeance will ever solve any human situation. In accepting death, Jesus Christ showed us the only possible way. We may refuse to take it. But we must realize that when we refuse we are left with one alternative – increasing the sum of evil in the world. And we ought to be honest and renounce all pretensions to the Christian faith.

God Will Provide the Burnt Offering? Marc Chagall’s The Sacrifice of Isaac (Part IV)

Marc Chagall - Sacrifice of Isaac (Figure 9)

Figure VIII

See Part I, Part II, and Part III.

The Crucifixion Scene

As with many of his biblical paintings Chagall adds his own commentary to the biblical text he paints. He does this here by adding a scene of Jesus carrying the cross on his way to Golgotha (see figure VIII). Just as Isaac carried the wood to Moriah (Gen. 22:6), this figure is Jesus bearing a cross on his way to Golgotha. Rabbis made a similar observation about Isaac carrying the wood: “‘And Abraham placed the wood of the burnt-offering on Isaac his son.’ Like a man who carries his cross on his shoulder” (Genesis Rabbah 56:3).

Despite the imagery of a cross being a common sight in Western art during the last two millennia, it can nevertheless create quite the cultural dissonance when used in a painting by a Jewish person. However, while in Christian art the crucified Christ is typically  meant to inspire the reader to ponder the payment for sin and the hope of resurrection, the utilization of the cross by Jewish painters usually connotes a message of religious persecution and suffering. Chagall was not the only Jewish artist who utilized the crucified Jesus in paintings, with others being Adolph Gottlieb, Emmanuel Mané-Katz, Max Weber, Samuel Bak, Mark Antokolsky, Max Liebermann, Abraham Rattner, and Mark Rothko; though none of these artists employed this imagery as much as Chagall.[1]

Figure IX, click to enlarge.

Figure IX, click to enlarge.

Chagall’s The Sacrifice of Isaac is not the only time he has drawn upon Jesus in order to provide commentary on a key story of the Hebrew Bible. For instance, in the same series Biblical Messages, Chagall places a crucified Jesus in the painting Creation of Man (see figure IX) with Jesus being employed there as a type of Adam (cf. 1 Cor. 15:22, 45). Additionally, the figure of a crucified Jesus is far from a rarity in the work of Chagall. In fact, it is quite ubiquitous in his oeuvre, with two notable examples being his White Crucifixion (see figure X and this blog post) and Yellow Crucifixion (see figure XI and this blog post).[2] These two paintings demonstrate that despite the crucified Jesus being the archetypal icon of the Christian faith, Chagall utilizes him for his own art and deliberately depicts him as an observant Jew, for example, in White Crucifixion Jesus is wearing a tallit (a Jewish prayer shawl) around his waist and head, while in Yellow Crucifixion he shares the center space with a large Torah scroll and wears the Jewish prayer bands that accompany tefillin (phylacteries).

Figure X, click to enlarge.

Figure X, White Crucifixion, click to enlarge.

To the right of the cross-bearing figure is a bearded, Hasidic-looking man carrying a book that represents the Hasidic community of the Jewish ghetto in Vitebsk, Belarus where Chagall was born. Above there is a woman who, with her arms upraised and knees bent, is in an apparent agony over the scene playing out with Jesus bearing the cross. I take this figure to be, like Sarah by the tree, another mother grieving for her son and thus represents Mary the mother of Jesus. To the left of Jesus are two more women, one standing and one kneeling, and it is these three women taken together that likely represent the three women mourning at the crucifixion in Jesus (Jn 19:25). To the right of Jesus is a woman clutching her child, possibly representing Hagar and Ishmael, and above all this are faint, phantom-like figures that disappear into the sky.

Figure XI, click to enlarge.

Figure XI, Yellow Crucifixion, click to enlarge.

Chagall was undoubtedly aware of the Christian typological interpretation of the Aqedah as a prefiguration of Jesus’ crucifixion, so was Chagall a messianic Christian who identified the crucified Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Deutero-Isaiah? No. Chagall’s Jesus is rather a representation of all Jews over the generations who have endured affliction from the moral, political, and religious authorities of the world. Chagall’s crucifixions are to be interpreted as a symbol of Jewish suffering, especially that of the victims of the Holocaust, with Jesus being the perfect symbol of the suffering Jew.[3] In this vein, Chagall is not directing his artistic efforts here in The Sacrifice of Isaac to portraying Jesus as Christianity’s divine figure of salvation and eschatological redeemer, but rather to provoke the question of what the Aqedah means for the suffering of the Jewish victims of pogroms and the Holocaust. With reference to this scene of the cross-bearing Jesus and surrounding figures, Foray and Rossini-Paquet say that “history is summoned up by the portrayal of Christ carrying the cross, by a character symbolizing Vitebsk and by a mother and child.”[4]


[1] See Catherine Quehl-Engel, “Modern Jewish Art and the Crucifixion: A Study in Appropriation,” Soundings 80/1 (1997), pp. 133-152 (esp. 133-134); and Mark B. Hoffman, From Rebel to Rabbi: Reclaiming Jesus and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), pp. 206-251. Also, for an in-depth study of Marc Chagall, containing a focus on his use of the crucifixion motif, see Aaron Rosen, Imagining Jewish Art: Encounters with the Masters in Chagall, Guston, and Kitaj (London: Legenda, 2009), pp. 19-47.

[2] Jean-Michel Foray and Francois Rossini-Paquet, National Museum Message Biblique Marc Chagall (Nice: Reunion des Musées Nationaux, 2000), p. 17, say that the 1940s and 1950s was when Chagall “focus[ed] especially on the Crucifixion.”

[3] Hoffman, From Rebel to Rabbi, p. 218, says that Chagall “conceive[d] of Jesus as the ideal symbol of Jewish martyrdom, both ancient and contemporary”, and quotes Chagall as saying, “For me, Christ has always symbolized the true type of Jewish martyr.”

[4] Foray and Rossini-Paquet, Marc Chagall, p. 20

[Note: This blog claims no credit for any of these images. Images on this blog are copyright to their respectful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you and do not wish for it appear on this site, please let me know and the image will be promptly removed.]


Thoughts on Christian Pacifism

For most of my time as a Christian I have been a proponent of the ‘standard’ Christian views on violence and war. It was only in the past couple of years that I decidedly shifted over to the pacifist/peacemaking/nonviolence side of the spectrum (granted, I have not settled on a precisely nuanced position). This swing is due primarily to two reasons.

The first reason is simply due to a better understanding of the significance of the life and teachings of Christ. What Jesus taught is what he demonstrated with his life in general and his death in particular. This should have big ramifications in how we respond to violence and enemies. Yet, sadly, it is a popular Christian view to look at the cross of Christ as simply some mystical transaction taking place between humans and God for our sins, and that the cross has nothing to do with how the Lord expects us to live our  lives.

The second reason is the poor theological arguments against pacifism. There is just too much resorting to emotionally manipulative arguments and cries of “but that isn’t practical” (as if Jesus really gave a shit about practicality). Then there is also the claim that pacifists “cherry-pick” Scripture, that we ignore the multitude of instances of divinely sanctioned violence in the Bible. It isn’t cherry-picking; it is employing a Christ-centric hermeneutic.

But if you mention the word “pacifism” to your typical theologically illiterate American evangelical, the response you invariably receive is the emotionally manipulative question: “What would you do if someone was raping/killing your child or spouse?” And which is usually followed by something along the lines of, “Pacifism is a nice ideal but it just isn’t realistic.” The idea with this argument is that if you do nothing (because people typically equate pacifism with passivism), then you are a monster.

I think it is lamentable that this is the response that so many Christians resort to when confronted with the idea of pacifism. Why? Aside from the fact that this question shows a lack of understanding of the varieties of Christian pacifism, it also seems like a knee-jerk reaction against nonviolence as if violence is some sort of norm and we are stupid for thinking otherwise. But the main reason I think this is a lamentable response to pacifism is primarily because it is not a Christ-centric response (despite the fact that it is the standard Christian response to pacifism).

I think a good response to this question would be something like the following: “Let me answer your question with another question. What would you do if someone was violating your spouse and children and going to kill them, unless you renounced Christ and offered a sacrifice to Satan.” It would also be pertinent to point out Matthew 10:33 and Matthew 10:37/Luke 14:26. These verses are where Jesus says that whoever denies him before people, he also will deny before his Father, and that if you love your parents, spouse, siblings, or children more than him, then you are not even worthy of him (i.e. allegiance to Christ trumps our familial bonds). And you may have to remind the person you are speaking to that it is not a legitimate response to say, “well it’s alright if I deny Christ and offer this sacrifice to Satan to stop this evil from happening, because I know in my heart that I don’t really mean these things.” I think one would have to be biblically illiterate to resort to such a tactic, but… well… yeah… that is why I could see it being a possible Christian response.

Now if I was thrust into the situation where I came across someone being violently violated and/or about to be killed, I would not stand idly by and do nothing. But neither do I think the answer should automatically be a blood-thirsty cry for their head. One needs to think more creatively. To quote Yoder:

When I see a person about to attack my mother or daughter or wife, I might think of some way to disarm the attacker emotionally. It might be a loving gesture, a display of moral authority, or my undefensive harmlessness which would disarm him psychologically. I might use nonlethal force or a ruse. If money is part of what he wants, I could hand it over. I might interpose myself and let the intended victim escape.


Far from asking as a certain contemporary style of ethics would, “What options does the situation give me?” or even more superficially, “What action does the situation demand?” Jesus would ask, “How in this situation will the life-giving power of the Spirit reach beyond available models and options to do a new thing whose very newness will be a witness to divine presence?”

So back to my response of, “What would you do if someone was violating your spouse and children and going to kill them, unless you renounced Christ and offered a sacrifice to Satan?” The reason why I think this is a good response is because, (1) it responds to a dumb hypothetical with another dumb hypothetical, and (2) because it allows one to reorient the question of Christian pacifism to where it should be, which is, on Christ. Christians who are pacifists are not so because they are gluttons for punishment and have sadist tendencies, it is because of what they see in Jesus’ words and deeds (particularly in the cross). Sadly, though, when it comes to issues of violence and enemies, it seems like the majority of Christendom is more influenced by the ones who crucified Christ than by the Crucified One.

Another response to the “what would you do if…” question that I think is good is something in the spirit of this final quote from Yoder:

I do not know what I would do if some insane or criminal person were to attack my wife or child, sister or mother. But I know that what I should do would be illuminated by what God my Father did when his “only begotten Son” was being threatened. Or by what Abraham, my father in the faith, was ready to sacrifice out of obedience.


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