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Earliest Depictions of the Crucified Jesus

December 3, 2014

A recent article helpfully discusses what historians of Christian art recognize as earliest depictions of the crucified Jesus, particularly a few gem-stones, a couple of them dated to the early-mid-4th century, and another that likely pre-dates them: Felicity Harley-McGowan, “The Constanza Carnelian and the Development of Crucifixion Iconography in Late Antiquity,” in Gems of Heaven: Recent Research on Engraved Gemstones in Late Antiquity, edited by Chris Entwhistle and Noël Adams (London: British Museum, 2011), 214-20.

One of these gem-stones, the “Constanza gem” (held in the British Museum) depicts Jesus on the cross flanked by the 12 apostles, reflecting the emergence of specifically Christian gem-stones likely sometime in the late 3rd or early 4th century. In addition, there is the plaster cast of another gem-stone (the current location of the gem itself not known) with a somewhat similar (though slightly cruder) depiction, and likely from the same rough period as the Constanza gem.

A third gem that Harley-McGowan sees as pre-dating these two is a large Bloodstone intaglio (30 x 25 x 8 mm; British Museum) that she places in the “late 2nd-3rd century.”  It depicts and names Jesus on a cross and is “covered with a densely carved and largely incomprehensible inscription.”  On the front side, however, a 9-line inscription commences with an invocation of “Son, Father, Jesus Christ,” followed by what appear to be indecipherable magical names and vowels, with an similarly strange 9-line inscription on the reverse side.  The best guess is that this is a magical gem, the likely purpose being to invoke the power of Jesus, making it unclear “whether the owner would have been a Christian or not.”

She draws attention to a certain similarity between the image on this gem stone and the well-known “Alexamenos” graffito, found scratched on the plastered wall in part of the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome, and commonly dated to the 2nd century.  This appears to mock Christian devotion to the crucified Jesus.  This graffito (and likely the Bloodstone intaglio as well) suggests “a ‘pagan’, or non-Christian’s awareness of two things:  firstly, the significance of Jesus Crucifixion (at least in terms of it being a powerful and efficacious symbol); and secondly, a consciousness of the existence of Christian representations of the Crucifixion by the early 3rd century AD” (p. 218).

The larger point is that these items comprise “one step in directly challenging that persistent belief that persecuted Christians were too scared or too ashamed to name and depict the subject [the crucified Jesus] explicitly” (220).

She seems unaware of confirming evidence in the form of the “staurogram,” the monogram-like device comprising a combination of the Greek majuscule letters tau and rho, which appears in several Christian manuscripts commonly dated to the third century (Gregory-Aland P45, P66, P75).  I’ve written about this device in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts (135-54) and in an essay (the pre-publication version available here, and in an earlier blog-post here), contending (with some earlier scholars) that in these early uses it is a simple pictographic depiction of the crucified Jesus.  This would confirm Harley-McGowan’s judgements about implications of the items she discusses.

It’s too bad, but not at all exceptional, that she seems unaware of the “staurogram.”  It’s indicative of the unhelpful walls sometimes created by the unavoidable necessity of scholarly specialization.  Art historians don’t think of manuscripts as offering useful data, and textual scholars don’t take account of iconographic data or questions.  I guess it helps to be somewhat eclectic (or so I like to think)!

P.S.  Subsequently to the above posting, email exchanges with Dr. Harley corrected my inference that she was unaware of the staurogram.  I should merely have indicated that she made no reference to the matter.  She is writing a book on the subject of pre-Constantinian Christian references to the crucified Jesus, to which I’ll look forward.

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  1. S_Walch permalink

    When you say that the third gem contains an “invocation of “Son, Father, Jesus Christ,” … on the reverse side”, does it have these as Nomina Sacra, or written out in full?

  2. John peterson permalink

    I am intrigued as to why late 3rd century Christians would depict Jesus being crucified in the presence of the 12 apostles. I believe none of the gospel accounts have the apostles present at the crucifixion. Acts tells us that the apostles were aware that Judas had acted as a guide for those who arrested Jesus, and that Judas was wicked and came to an unpleasant end. This end for Judas appears to have become emphasized greatly if Apollinarius is correct in his quote of Papias – “Fragments of Papias 18” in M Holmes ‘The Apostolic Fathers’ 3rd ed. Perhaps there were some Christians who may have thought that Judas had a role to play in God’s plan, and was simply doing as he was directed by Jesus, according to Gospel of John 13:26 + 27. i find it puzzling.

    • John, You need to understand that these gems weren’t intended as photo-like depictions of events, but as iconic statements of faith. So, picturing the apostles with a representation of the crucified Jesus suggests such things as stating the proclamation of Jesus’ redemptive death as apostolic faith, which the gem-maker/wearer affirmed.

  3. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Concerning the gem with the crucifixion you relate that it may be “magical”, making it unclear whether it is “Christian or not”. But I wonder if that’s not a dubious distinction to make (between magical and orthodox items or practices) even if commonplace among Christian scholars, since it appears laden with value judgement. Whether they were orthodox or not, we can reasonably infer that a group depicting Jesus on personal objects considered themselves Christians, even if others did/do not. Plus from a secular perspective many mainstream Christian practices may appear pretty “magical” too.

    • By “magical” I think Dr. Harley meant that there was no reason to see the gem as specifically Christian. We know from many ancient magical amulets, etc. that ancient Roman-era magic was VERY eclectic, invoking names of various deities and powerful beings. Among these was Jesus. So, Donald, “magical” is a perfectly legitimate label. The depiction of the crucified Jesus is not necessarily indicative of Christian faith, contrary to your assertion/assumption. For some initial bibliography:
      –Bonner, Campbell. Studies in Magical Amulets, Chiefly Graeco-Egyptian. Ann Arbor, MI: Univ of Michigan Press, 1950.
      –Aune, David E. “Magic in Early Christianity.” In Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt, edited by H. Temporini and W. Haase, 2.23:2, 1507-57. Berlin: De Gruyter.
      –Preisendanz, K. Papyri Graece Miagicae. 2nd ed. Edited by A. Henrichs. Stuttgart: Teubner, 1973.
      –Graf, Fritz. Magic in the Ancient World. Translated by Franklin Philip. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

  4. Thanks for this Larry. Last week I sent a manuscript to Fortress Press, to be published in 2015 as _The Cross before Constantine: The Early Life of a Christian Symbol_. The claim that the symbol of the cross was adopted in Christianity only as a Constantinian invention is widespread and wrong. You and Felicity Harley-McGowan are two of the few who have challenged it. Hopefully my book will help to set the record straight, by gathering together a broad spectrum of evidence, both material and textual. I cite the same passages from Felicity’s work that you do, but she needs to be lauded for “speaking truth” to a widespread but erroneous view.

    • Yes, you see this erroneous notion touted, e.g., in an otherwise helpful book by Graydon Snyder, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine. I think it derives from Max Sulzberger, “Le symbole de la croix et les monogrammes de Jèsus chez les premiers chrètiens,” Byzantion 2 (1925): 337-448. Picking up on observations by Erich Dinkler and Kurt Aland, I’ve challenged this notion since at least this publication: Larry W. Hurtado, “The Earliest Evidence of an Emerging Christian Material and Visual Culture: The Codex, the Nomina Sacra and the Staurogram,” in Text and Artifact in the Religions of Mediterranean Antiquity: Essays in Honour of Peter Richardson, edited by Stephen G. Wilson and Michel Desjardins (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2000), 271-88.

  5. joezias permalink

    Dr. Harley McGowan’s work, which had been brought to my attention, is a welcome contribution to the field of early Christianity, more so in that these gems were in a museum for a long period of time before anyone noticed their significance. Along with her research, I would like to point out the work of Professor John Cook from La Grange, GA on crucifixion, who has continued in the manner of the German scholars who at one time were the leading names in this field.

  6. Brian permalink

    Hi Larry. Your last paragraph resounds similar to some scientists in the hard sciences who complain about the same kind of isolated-specialized-boxes in which they find themselves, creating unnecessary oversights from one specialized domain to another making a specialist ignorant of other relevant data besides their own.
    When I went to Concordia University–after having done 4 years of academic Biblical Studies–I encountered a lot of Protestant reformations (yes, plural) scholars/professors that don’t know much about the biblical text, and they espouse outdated, traditional viewpoints about the text. I can safely say as well that it’s worse in Quebec than the rest North America.

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