Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Jesus raising Lazarus. Catacombe de Via Anapo, Rome 

Common motifs in early Christian art are food/wine miracles and the raising of Lazarus or Jairus' daughter. 

Perhaps surprisingly, some early depictions of Jesus show him using a tool of some kind when performing miracles. (Several examples can be seen here.)  

Clearly, it appears as though Jesus is using a wand to aid in the miracle and it is often interpreted as an iconographic indication that Jesus was a magician.  This can be seen in Morton Smith's Jesus the Magician (1993.) among others.  

Magic was a major part of the ancient world, but it is also important to make sure that what we have in mind when examining these images is ancient magic, and not our own contemporary understanding.  NIDB gives a good overview, and notes that the difference between magic and miracles is primarily about the social standing of the one performing the act.  It seems to have been largely an issue of insider/outsider status, as in, our magic is miraculous and yours is sorcery.  Artifacts such as documents and amulets show that magic spells had a variety of uses, such as winning a court case or a competitive event, impeding a rival or promoting success in business or love.

I don't recall when these images were first brought to my attention, but I found it quite clear that Jesus was being presented as a magician.  However, an article by Lee Jefferson (Centre College), which he has posted on academia.edu, has made me rethink this. In The Staff of Jesus in Early Christian Art  (Religion and the Arts, 14 [2010] 221–251), Jefferson notes that "there are no artistic renderings of magicians in existence from late antiquity," and that magicians of late antiquity didn't use wands. Instead,
Magicians relied upon the proper vocalization and physical execution mandated by the spell in order to procure the desired effect, not the use of an external tool like a wand. Thus, the staff in Christian art bears no association with magic.

Moses Striking the Rock. Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome
His argument is that we are projecting our contemporary view of magic wands that is more at home in Harry Potter stories onto a culture in which that would have been foreign.  Jefferson further notes that Jesus is not the only one in early Christian art that bears a 'wand,' but Moses and Peter do too.  This includes images of Moses bringing water from a rock with an instrument that looks more like a wand than a staff.  His conclusion, as you may have guessed from his title, is that Jesus is using a staff which connects him to Moses more than Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24).  I find the article compelling, and pretty convincing.  

Isaac M. Alderman

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