The People That History Forgot
Chapter 3 

The Idolaters Were Not Mainline Jews

Read and ListenThe people who mixed pagan designs on synagogue walls and on their tombs along with Jewish themes were not Jews under Rabbinic control. This can be shown in various ways. Besides the lack of reference to these pagan practices in any contemporary Jewish literature of the period, the same lack of reference can be shown in records maintained by our Christian authorities who lived from the second to the sixth centuries. This is an important point to consider because our early Christian authorities were well versed in matters concerning the Jews and their teachings. Because the majority of Christians felt that the Jews and their religion were under a ban from God because of their rejection of Jesus as the Christ, the Christians watched with a hawk’s eye any activity by the Jewish authorities which would demonstrate this lapse from God as they viewed it to be. In this regard, Christian testimony about the Jews and their doctrines becomes an important witness to the faithfulness of the mainline Jewish people in abhorring idolatrous themes and having nothing to do with idolatry or its practices.

In showing this Christian testimony, one must be aware that during the period from the second to the sixth centuries of our era, most Jews and Christians were quite hostile to the doctrines of each other and we know that each party was looking for ways to denigrate the other. There was little friendliness between the two groups (the only exception being the dialogue between Trypho the Jew and Justin Martyr in the middle of the 2nd century). But even though Jews and Christians were virtual enemies during this period, and with Christians trying desperately in many public debates to show what they considered to be the error of Jewish beliefs, it is significant that not once (in all mainline Christian literature that has come down to us from those times) do the Christians blame the Jewish people for practicing any form of idolatry. The central accusation that Christians had of Jews was their refusal to accept Jesus as the prophesied Messiah and what Christians considered was their allegorizing away some plain scriptures which prophesied of the Messiah that Christians believed were fulfilled by Jesus. That’s it! There is not a word of Christians accusing the Jews as a whole or as individuals who were mainline Jews of the slightest idolatrous acts after the fall of Jerusalem in C.E. 70. and up to and including the 6th century.

This is a highly important point because this was the very period when Christians and Jews were battling one another over many doctrinal disputes. But the practice of idolatry by the Jews (that is, the making or using of idols, paintings, symbols, etc. in their synagogues or burial places) was a subject that never came up among mainline Christians. At no time did they consider mainline Jews as practicing idolatry.

Some might believe, however, that the reason Christians did not censure the Jews for adopting pagan ways (as the archaeological remains we have mentioned in the first two chapters of this book seemingly suggest) is because the Christians were themselves beginning to indulge in the same practice of using pagan motifs in their religious services. Some people believe that even mainline Christians were engaged in doing the same thing starting with the second and third centuries. This is because at Dura Europos was also found a small Christian church near the synagogue and it also had pagan paintings on its walls. It showed Jesus as the pagan god Orpheus.

This discovery of an early mid-3rd century church having a painting of Orpheus as Jesus is the first example of Christian folk who violated the second command against the use of images or idols. In this first depiction, Jesus is shown beardless and not with long feminine hair which became the later portrayal of Jesus from the mid-4th century onward. This latter portrayal of Jesus having long hair and a beard like the pagan gods Zeus (Sarapis) or Askelepios the pagan god of healing only came into vogue with the advent of Constantine and his family.

(For information on whether it is proper from a New Testament point of view to show Jesus with long hair and a beard which mimics the grooming of the pagan gods, see my historical study "The Pagan Images of Christians Today" at the ASK Website, http://askelm.com/doctrine/d920201.htm>.

The discovery of this church at Dura Europos with its pagan paintings in a similar way to the synagogue of the same period that was not far away, would normally suggest to historians that Christian testimony about the idolatry of the Jews at the time was probably not forthcoming since Christians were themselves practicing idolatrous actions. And this is true enough among certain groups who were calling themselves Christians. The "orthodox" Christians referred to them as “Gnostics” ― those who were mixing pagan themes with those of the Holy Scriptures (we will speak about these people shortly and discuss their idolatrous ways). But for mainline Christianity (which is normally called “orthodox Christianity” today), every single authority up to the time of Constantine condemned the slightest practice of idolatry among Christians as well as did the mainline Jews. There is universal testimony to this fact and it can be shown.

The following excerpts from early historical documents (which I will soon give) show the opposition by several Christian theologians during and soon after the time of Constantine to the pagan portrayals of Jesus that were just beginning to be distributed amongst orthodox Christians. Though many church buildings had been constructed in the 3rd century (which were different from the "house-assemblies" of the first two centuries in Christendom), there was then a great resistance among Christian leaders to the trend of displaying pagan images (either by paintings or the carving of idols themselves) in all periods in pre-Constantinian times. Mainline Christian authorities were as adverse to such pagan activities as were the Jewish authorities.

With the advent of Constantine, Christian attitude against such idolatrous use of images and pictures began to wane. In the higher social circles in Christendom (and in the emperor’s family itself), the people began to abandon the former stance of mainline Christians against idolatrous depictions in their churches. They then started to show Jesus in the form of Zeus (Sarapis) and Askelepios with long hair and a beard. This was never done among "orthodox" Christians before the time of Constantine.

The following quote (abridged) is from Eusebius’ "Letter to Constantia" (the sister of Constantine the Great). It shows the utter disdain of Eusebius (the first historian of the Christian church) for the trend toward idolatry that was beginning to occur in "orthodox" churches. He expressed complete outrage that any one would lapse into such depravity. All words in brackets are mine and the italics and bold letters are my emphases.

"You also wrote me about some supposed image of Christ, which image you wished me to send to you. Now what kind of thing is that you refer to as the image of Christ? I do not know what compelled you to request that an image of Our Savior should be shown. What kind of image of Christ are you seeking? Is it the true and unadulterated one which bears His essential characteristics [His divine image], or the one which He assumed for our sake when He took up the form of a servant [His human form]? ... Granted, He has two forms, and even I do not think that your petition has to do with His divine form. ... Surely then, you are seeking His image as a servant, that of the flesh which He assumed for our sake. ... How can one paint an image so unattainable and wonderful ... unless, as so the unbelieving pagans, one is to represent things that have no possible resemblance to anything ... ? For they [the pagans] make such idols when they wish to form the likeness of what they think to be a god or, as they might say, one of the heroes or anything else of like nature, yet they are unable even to approach a likeness, and accurately represent some strange human forms. Surely, even you will agree with me that such practices are illegal for us. [Eusebius believed, accurately so, that even a true likeness of Jesus ― if one were available ― was still not allowed to be displayed by biblical teaching.] Have you ever heard of such a resemblance yourself in church or from another person? Are not such things excluded and banished from churches all over the world, and does not everyone know that such practices are not permitted to us alone?

"Once there was a woman, I do not know how, brought me in her hands a picture of two men in the demeanor of philosophers [with their hair long ― see Dio Chrysostom, “Oration Thirty-Five,” vol.III, pp.393, 401] and the woman mentioned that they were Paul and the Savior. I have no way of knowing where she got this information or where she learned it. But in order that neither she nor others might receive offense, I took the picture away from her and kept it in my house, as I thought it was improper for such things to be displayed to others, lest we appear, like idol worshipers, to carry our God around in an image. I note that Paul informs all of us not to hold any more to things of the flesh; because he tells us that though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet from now on we know Him no more."

Eusebius (who has been reckoned the most educated Christian at the time and he was certainly the first historian of the Christian faith) was not the only one who was indignant at the trend that was just starting at the time of Constantine among "orthodox Christians" of portraying Jesus on curtains or walls, along with the apostles and other saints of the Bible. It was a novelty that had not been practiced among mainline Christians before.

There were other Christian scholars who showed the same abhorrence as Eusebius. As an example, the following quote is from Epiphanius of Salamis in his "Letter to the Emperor Theodosius" (written somewhere between 379 and 395 C.E.). The chief role of Epiphanius was his stern opposition to the heresies then afflicting the Christian world. A main abhorrence of his was the trend of painting the picture of Jesus (which in itself he considered biblically illegal) and showing him as having long flowing hair like that of the Greek philosophers and like the grooming of the pagan gods. The following is a quote from Epiphanius (bracketed words and emphases mine).

"Which of the ancient Fathers ever painted an image of Christ and put it in a church or a private home? [None of them ever did such a thing.] Which ancient bishop ever dishonored Christ by depicting Him on door curtains?...

"Moreover, they are deceiving who portray the likeness of [biblical] saints in different forms according to their whim, sometimes showing the same individuals as old men, sometimes as young men, intruding into things which they have not seen. For they paint the Savior with long hair, and this by guessing because He is called a Nazarene, and Nazarenes wear long hair. They are in error if they try to attach stereotypes to Him, because the Savior drank wine, whereas the Nazarenes [the Nazarites] did not.

"They also show forth deception by concocting things according to their whims. These falsifiers present the holy apostle Peter as an old person with his hair and beard cut short; some portray holy Paul as a man with receding hair, others as bald and bearded, and the other apostles are shown having their hair closely cut off. If then the Savior had long hair while his apostles were cut close, and since by not being cropped, He was unlike them in appearance, for what reason did the Pharisees and scribes give a fee of thirty silver pieces to Judas that he might kiss Him and show them that He was the one they were after, when they might themselves or by means of others have determined on account of His [long] hair Him whom they were seeking to find, and thereby without paying a fee?...

"Can you not see, O most God-loving emperor, that this state of things is not in accord to God? [Which trend was then sweeping the Christian world.] Wherefore I beg of you ... that the curtains which may be found that have such false portrayals of the apostles or prophets or of the lord Christ Himself should be collected from churches, baptisteries, houses and martyria [sites where martyrs were buried or honored] and that you should give them over for the burial of the poor, and as [for those] on walls, that they should be whitewashed. As for those that have already been designed in mosaics, realizing that their removal is difficult you know what to command in the wisdom that God has granted you. If it be possible to remove them [mosaics], well and good; but if this is not possible, let that which has already been produced suffice, and let no one paint in this manner from now on."

This belief of Christians like Epiphanius (and all those in the pre-Constantinian period) against paintings and pictures in mainline churches is universal. And what is significant to our present question is the fact that Tertullian in the early 3rd century wrote a treatise against the Jews and their worship and though he criticized them on every normal point that Christians used to counter Jewish beliefs and manner of worship, Tertullian never once accused any of the Jews of idolatrous practices (either with statues, paintings or symbols). Even more vociferous against the Jews was John Chrysostom, bishop of Antioch, in the last part of the 4th century. And while he mentioned many things that irritated him and other Christians concerning the Jews, especially their spiritual "idolatry" in not accepting Jesus, even he admitted that there was no actual idolatry (that is, statues, paintings or pagan symbols) in their synagogues. Yet, Chrysostom was severe in his critique of the Jews. He said,

"Even if there is no idol in the synagogue, still demons do inhabit the place. And I say this not only about the synagogue here in town [in Antioch] but about the one in Daphne [a suburb] as well. ... [It was to Chrysostom] a place of impiety even if no god’s statue stands there."

• Discourses Against Judaizing Christians, Dise. I, VI. 2–3

What is important with Chrysostom’s witness is the fact that Antioch was on the main trade route between Egypt/Palestine and Mesopotamia, but also it was on the trade route between Persia and Greece/Rome. The Dura Europos synagogue had been on the eastern trade route a century before Chrysostom (and he could not comment on it), but he nevertheless spoke of all the Jewish synagogues that he was aware of during his time and he knew of none which had idolatry associated with it in the sense of having statues, paintings, etc.

This strategic location of Chrysostom and his vast knowledge of Jewish affairs goes a long way in showing that all Jewish synagogues that most people were aware of at the time were free of idolatry. We should also recall that no mainline Christians previous to Chrysostom even once accused the Jews of idolatry in their synagogues or at their places of burial though early Christian leaders were looking at every opportunity to condemn the Jews for any infraction of the Mosaic Law.

In summation, I wish to quote from one of the top ecclesiastical historians of our time on this important matter. He is Professor W.H.C. Frend. He shows the universal abhorrence of any type of idolatrous themes in what we call the orthodox churches in the second, third and up to the mid-fourth centuries. He cites in his notes the authorities for his statements.

"The origins of Christian art remain a mystery. Ostensibly, both Judaism and Christianity rejected pictorial art on religious subjects. The second commandment had forbidden Israel to make any graven image, and Christian leaders in the East and West alike, including Tertullian, accepted this. Clement and Eusebius, showing rare unanimity, considered this prohibition absolute and binding on Christians. The principal crime [said Tertullian] of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring cause of judgment, is idolatry, and for once Tertullian commanded almost universal assent. The Syriac Didascalia laid down that no offerings were to be received from those who painted with colors, nor from those who made idols or worked in silver and bronze. At the other end of the Mediterranean world, canon 36 of the Council of Elvira stated without qualification that there should be no paintings in church lest what was painted on the wars should be worshiped and venerated."

• Frend, The Rise of Christianity, p.415

The early mainline Christians held all forms of idolatry (paintings, pictures, symbols, statues, etc.) in complete abomination. And, important to the issue before us, none of them ever accused mainline Jews of having such things in their synagogues or in their homes up to and including the time of Constantine. Historians will have to look elsewhere for the origin of the synagogue at Dura Europos and the small Christian church at the same site (which date to the middle of the 3rd century) than looking to mainline Judaism or mainline Christianity as the source of those idolatrous paintings. But really, we can now know without difficulty who were the first to bring such pagan paintings and symbols into certain types of synagogues and certain types of churches. Those people were not mainline Jews or mainline Christians. Such idolatry was introduced into the world by The People That History Forgot.


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