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Gemstone Crucifixion Image: A Recent Study

September 15, 2017

In a recent article, Roy Kotansky provides a fresh analysis of an ancient gemstone that that is regarded as giving one of the earliest visual depictions of the crucified Jesus:  Roy Kotansky, “The Magic ‘Crucifixion Gem’ in the British Museum,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 57.3 (2017): 631-59 (the article available here). (There is an online image of the gemstone in question here.)

Kotansky proposes a cogent fresh transcription and interpretation of the inscribed image and writing on the front (“obverse”) side and also the different inscription on the reverse side.  He proposes that the two sides were inscribed by two different people at two different times, and the two inscriptions reflect somewhat different mentalities.  I find this all very intriguing and plausible.

He accepts a date for the initial image and inscription sometime late 2nd to early 3rd century CE.  This is possible, but it has to be noted that the technique of dating gemstones is at least as approximate as the dating of ancient literary papyri.  A date a century later wouldn’t be out of the question.

But his handling of the visual data, the depiction of the crucified figure, seems to me to include some dubious proposals that are offered far too confidently.  He makes much of the image as showing the crucified figure appearing attached to the crossbar by ropes rather than nails.  He asserts that this likely shows that the gemstone image was carved before the Gospel passion narratives had circulated widely.

Well, for one thing, this claim appears to reflect an inadequate knowledge of the body of (multiple copies of) early Christian papyri that are commonly dated to the same period as Kotansky’s dating of the gemstone.  These papyri show that the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John in particular circulated early and were apparently avidly read in early Christian circles. That is, by the putative date of the gemstone, the Gospels were in fact circulating and influential.  (Note also Justin Martyr’s reference to the Gospels read in churches that I cited in a previous posting here, which takes us back to ca. 150 CE or earlier.)

Also, it is worth noting that a similar gemstone in the British Museum also depicts the crucified Jesus without nails (here).  This gemstone is more typically dated 3rd/4th century CE, well past the time when the Gospels (including GJohn, the only account to mention Jesus nailed to his cross) were evidently in wide circulation.  So, it would seem more accurate simply to note that (for whatever reason) the depiction of the crucified Jesus without nails appears to have been used (preferred?) on such gemstones.  It tells us nothing about whether the Gospels were also circulating at the time of the production of these gemstone images.

Kotansky is an established and respected scholar in the study of amulets and such items.  But it seems that he is not sufficiently familiar with the papyrological data.   It’s not unique, however, for a scholar expert in one body of data to be insufficiently aware of other relevant data, and it shows how careful we all have to be in making large claims from something as small as one gemstone.


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  1. Roy Kotansky permalink

    The Constanza gem and others that I discuss are considered by experts including me to be considerably later than The British
    Museum piece, and as I infer they are modelled after the BM piece. You yourself claim that the dating of papyri is subjective. Neither that of the papyri or the gems is as subjective as you think. No doubt that papyri such as the John Rylands fragment is early, but you over-value from this and other factors the availability of the gospels and continue to misunderstand the implication of the gem’s unique language. So I, rather, do not follow or accept your reasoning on this, and leave it that. It is my argument that had the gospels been available to the producers of this gem, they would have been readably used. Could the writers had known the gospels and chose not to use them? I don’t think so. There is no fallacy in that argument, it just reaches a different confusion than yours. That’s all I have to say on this subject. Thank you very much for your thoughts, and good luck.

    • Dr. Kotansky: Thank you for participating in this discussion cordially. You prefer to say you don’t follow my reasoning, and I remain of the view that yours is faulty. I don’t misunderstand your reading of the “unique language” of the gem. I just don’t see that it justifies your claim that the gem reflects an absence of the Gospels. You can’t imagine the gem as it is if the Gospels circulated. I can. And I’ve given other examples of gems and texts that show similar “variant” versions of early Christian ideas. But let us draw a line under this now. Thanks again.

  2. GPG permalink

    Even if we were reasonably sure that some versions of gospels were in circulation by as early as 150 AD, can we be sure those early versions were exactly like our modern Bibles, nails and all? Has no editor whatsoever intervened between us, and the first gospel drafts?

    Here it might seem that what we see on at least two gemstones, contradicts that popular Christian assertion or assumption: that the gospels as we have them today, are essentially the same as the versions in circulation c. 150 BC. Since, among other things, these early gems do not in use nails in the crucifixion.
    [edited for conciseness–LWH]

    • We have manuscript evidence taking us back to ca. 150-300 CE, sufficient to characterize the care in textual transmission of that period. These copies are quite recognizably the texts that we know in “our modern Bibles”. So, that leaves us two options: (1) these very early copies reflect in turn the character of the textual transmission of these texts in the preceding decades (from which no copies survive), or (2) for some unaccountable reason, the character of textual transmission in that preceding period was categorically different from what we have in the extant manuscripts. But to posit #2 would also require explaining why a supposedly “wild” and unfathomable transmission of these texts suddenly became comparatively stable by the latter half of the 2nd century. It seems a far more economical and reasonable to assume that what we have in the early textual evidence is indicative of how these texts were copied in the previous period as well.
      “Exactly” the same? No text copied by hand is “exactly” (as a photocopy is) the same. But the evidence shows a conscientious effort at copying, producing copies that are, except for some minor variants, quite evidently the texts that we know.

      • Roy Kotansky permalink

        The second option 2) is a lot more fathomable than Prof. Hurtado imagines. It is a period when pre-recensional Western style, “wild” readings were the norm, as Vaganay and Amphoux (and others) correctly argue.

      • No. Dr. Kotansky relies on works that are too early to take account of the crucial papyri (Vaganay) and/or are somewhat a “minority report” (Amphoux). In fact, among all the many biblical papyri down to ca. 300, there is not one that evidences a “wild” approach. Not one. And what on earth does “pre-recensional” mean? A recension in the 2nd century?? Really? Basis? Evidence?
        It is perfectly intuitive to *presume* that the texts were handled more loosely and “wild” in the early period, yes. But the manuscript evidence falsifies that intuition. Option 2 is just not on . . . at least if you go with the evidence of how the biblical texts were actually copied.

      • Roy Kotansky permalink

        “Minority report”. It is a sizable minority, and one must not always judge that might = right. The early papyri are slendor at best, and one cannot exrapolate from them that all passages will mirror our present NT. They plainly won’t.

      • The early papyri are the evidence. Everything else is presumption! Your final sentence is purely an assertion. Let’s stay with the evidence. If contrary evidence comes along, fine. Till then, the evidence doesn’t support your assertion.

      • Roy Kotansky permalink

        The early papyri are too exiguous to state categorically that they represent conclusive evidence. They don’t. After all, how many 2nd century papyri do we have? The 3rd century doesn’t count for this argument as evidence. The earliest references in the Church Fathers suggest a variety of texts. “Wild” is probably not the best word.

      • No. You’re refusing to face the facts. The papyri from the 2nd and 3rd centuries show a reasonable effort to copy texts of biblical writings. How do 3rd century copies not apply? Manuscripts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries both evidence for us the same level of copying concern. As for church fathers, again, you’re confusing citation with copying. It’s a common mistake, and Petersen and Koester were classic examples. “Wild” copying has no basis at all in the extant evidence. Have you worked actually with these manuscripts? I have.

      • Roy Kotansky permalink

        Wrong. You’re arguing backwards. It’s fallacious to maintain that just because later mss. reflect the text we possess, because the scribes were careful and accurate, that earlier texts will follow suit. This is both naive and an argument from silence. The second century is hugely more important than the 3rd or 4th, precisely because we have so little evidence from then, and it is so much closer to the period of composition. To argue from later manuscript evidence that earlier evidence, of which we possess precious little, will continue to support the later is an argument from silence and just bad scholarship. Scribes were not often careful and included many novel readings and even changed text and added harmonized readings

      • Let me follow your argument: On the one hand, the 2nd century is the dark period from which we have scant evidence. Yet you feel perfectly confident in telling me (in the absence of supporting evidence) what copyists of that period did! And your purported “evidence” is the citation of texts in 2nd century writers such as Justin, not actual copies of texts from that period. Hmmm.
        On the other hand, I take as key evidence our earliest actual copies of texts, some of which date as early as the 2nd century and early 3rd. In the absence of any basis for positing some revolution in copying practices in early Christian circles in the 2nd century, I posit that the copying practices in these earliest manuscripts (NB: not 4th century and later, so stop dropping red-herrings, as they stink) likely reflect the copying of texts in Christian circles from the period preceding these early manuscripts. I’ll stick with my approach.

      • Roy Kotansky permalink

        One in particular, a fragment of Theognis, is particularly illustrative of your faulty assumption that just because a later scribe reproduces a text we have, that it natural follows that that those of an earlier century have done the same when they clearly have not. I published a new reading of a papyrus of Theognis, in fact a new word, a hapax legomenon, was contained in the text. All later mss. (there are only six or so papyrus fragments), did not support this reading which gave a difficult text, in some ways. A single late ms. K supported the reading though, or at least a partly corrupt version of it. All later mss. supported the original reading, for which there were no variants, so that the presence of an early papyrus with an entirely new Greek word that yielded beautiful sense proved that all the supposedly carefully copied mss. by conscientious scribes were all wrong. This is what has occurred in many places in the NT, as well, I can prove. The Bible is not invulnerable to this sort of stuff and to think otherwise is naive. Much change occurred in the period ca. 135-200, and to deny the evidence of this is poor scholarship, based on my earlier points. It would be nice to think our 3rd-4th mss. are relatively close to the originals, but I would proffer that they are, in some cases, only 80-85% so, maybe even less. A lot was happening during the period of the early Apologists. They cited their texts accurately, too. The distinction between quotation and scribal practice is a canard.

      • Again, you’re fudging the issue. Of course there are many small variants in the copying of all texts. These are the “micro” variations I mentioned in the posting. But, even with such variants the texts of certain writings remained impressively stable, whereas others underwent more sizable changes.
        Oh, and the distinction between citation practice and copying practice is well established in studies of the phenomena. So don’t call it a canard just because you find it works against your pet theory, and you appear to be ignorant of these studies. Really!

      • Roy Kotansky permalink

        I would like to see, yes, how well-established they are. When Clement at Lk. 3:23, for instance, carries a very different reading, inter alia, reading erchomenos (+ epi to baptisma), instead of archomenos, and is supported not only by other Father’s (not recorded in the apparatus) and ms. 700, he is beyond doubt deriving that reading, and carefully copy it, from a COPY of a text he has before him, and not just carelessly paraphrasing a text! I am providing specific examples, not making generalities, and this sort of example can be duplicated over and over. You neglect the importance of Patristic citations at your own peril and set up a false rule of thumb by mitigating the importance of Patristic citations to pursue a specific agenda, rather than follow the evidence, or when faced with the evidence establish a generalizing rule of thumb that is just not correct. Not good scholarship.

      • Oh sure, the variant reading that you cite is a known one, and appears in manuscript 700. And it’s a splendid example of just the sort of “micro” level variants that I’ve repeatedly noted, in distinction from the larger “macro” level variants that we see in some other texts (esp. those not read in churches). And the variant in question here is one letter, and just the sort of likely accidental variant that copying produces. This is hardly “wild” stuff! But the instances of ancient writers paraphrasing texts are numerous, and I’ve pointed to studies of the phenomenon.
        You must read more carefully, and get control of your temper! I don’t “neglect” Patristic citations, but only caution (with those who have specialized in them) about their usage, and the need to distinguish “loose” ones from more exact ones.
        So, please keep your careless accusations of “not good scholarship” to yourself. It’s you who seems to be fighting against the more direct evidence of how texts were copied == copies! I’ve no agenda other than trying to plead for a sound method over against tired old generalities (e.g., a “wild” early period of copying) that you seem to cherish. I think we’re done here. You’re obviously having trouble with your temper.

      • Roy Kotansky permalink

        Again, instead of addressing the evidence I present, you resort to name calling. I am not in any way “fudging” any issue, at all, but presenting you with hard evidence. To call it “micro” is to dismiss it out of hand. There’s nothing “micro” about it, but it is quite major. My evidence is hardly a “pet theory” — again, name calling, as is the word “ignorant”. The generalities of scribal practice vs. Patriotic citation may be useful to some extent, but cannot become a rule of thumb to promote a theory. Again, there are not enough early papyri, which you present in your latest posting as if quite “new” — they are not — to establish a rule that the 2nd century presents a reliability of textual transmission that is just not there. Wishful thinking. Provide me with an early papyrus that gives one of the Marcan “Minor Agreement” passages

      • Dr. Kotansky: Please restrain yourself. You seem terribly upset to have to re-think something that you obviously cherish as a notion–that the early textual transmission of the Gospels was chaotic and wild. I’ve called you no names. I’ve not impugned your character. I’ve given specific reasons for re-thinking the “wild” paradigm, and I’ve supplied readers with published major works on all the relevant data that I think justify a re-think.
        You have responded by pointing to one of a number of examples of “micro” level variants, of the sort that are not under dispute. Compare this with the textual dislocation evident in the Greek fragments of GThomas, or the massive textual variations in Shepherd of Hermas.
        (And the so-called Minor Agreements of Matt & Luke form a red-herring. It is more cogent to my mind that they reflect independent adaptations of Mark, as many other scholars have judged.)
        I don’t “fudge” the dating of manuscripts such as P75. The published dates range ca. 175-250 CE, and wherever on that spectrum you place it, it is obviously evidence that there was no 4th century “recension” that produced Codex Vaticanus.
        The question is this: If the texts of the Gospels,for example, were so wildly varied as some claim, then how to account for the comparative stability of the texts in the extant earliest manuscripts. The only way is to posit some 2nd century recension (a la Koester), and that is pure assertion.
        You show me early manuscript evidence of the wild diversity that you seem to prefer, and then we can talk evidence. Until then, you’re simply clinging to a cherished notion in the face of contrary evidence. You’ve done it now repeatedly, so we know your firm position. If you refuse to engage the manuscript evidence, we can’t proceed any farther. Be well.

      • Roy Kotansy permalink

        I shall present some evidence in print. But Codex Bezae (D) wrongly “dismissed” by many, and the whole Western Tradition, points to a diversity in the 2nd cent. as does the whole Diatessaronic tradition. All the verbal legerdemain in the world will not erase this evidence for me and a wide range of scholars, including Koester and Petersen, who cannot cavalierly point out

      • The Diatessaron isn’t a copy of the Gospels, but a fresh composition. So it’s not evidence of how the Gospels were *copied* (please focus!).
        Everyone today familiar with the evidence grants that Codex Bezae (NB: 5th century CE) is a unique product, the endpoint of a long process. There are predecessor manuscripts, but they don’t have the remarkable expansionary variants of Codex Bezae. It isn’t actually representative of the state of the so-called “Western text” in the 2nd century. “Verbal legerdemain” is unworthy of you and of scholarly discussion. Either refrain from such ad hominem language or take yourself elsewhere please!

      • Roy Kotansky permalink

        The Diatessaron is composed of early Gospel harmonies. How can you dismiss this evidence?
        Sounds too convenient to me …

      • The Diatessaron (1)was apparently a harmonized composition itself, and (2) is no longer available except in much later translations. So, in neither case is it an example of copying a Gospel text.

      • Roy Kotansky permalink

        There is nothing unworthy about using the phrase “verbal legerdemain” when one dismisses without evidence, I feel. We should stay focused on the facts. Whenever I present evidence that many scholars accept, and to me belongs to material that is really worth considering, it is dismissed as “dated” or insignificant

      • It’s one thing to refute a claim as based on faulty evidence or reasoning (the sort of critique that I’ve made) and quite another to accuse me of “verbal legerdemain” which = slight of hand, deception. That’s a character assault, not a refutation. Drop it.
        Likewise, you introduce “conservative” and “faith” into the discussion, whereas I’ve not labeled you or others religiously. If you can’t stick to arguments without character slams or trying to deflect my arguments with your silly religious pegging, then we’re done. Seriously. We’re done.

      • Roy Kotansky permalink

        “Quite evidently” may be wishful thinking. NT texts, evidence suggests, from the period ca. 150-200 CE, may be much like our text, to be sure, but clearly very different in respect of the Gospels, e.g., as well. There is more evidence than a conservative position might admit. Even Mt and Lk clearly did not have the same version of Mark that we do.

      • No. Again, you’re misinformed about the papyri evidence. Among the remnants of 18 copies of John, 15 or so copies of Matthew, what we have is “quite evidently” our familiar texts of these writings. There is no evidence that in 150-200 CE there was some radical change in copyist practices, and no basis to presume (and it is solely a presumption) that there was some “recension” in the 2nd century that generated all the many subsequent papyri. Old assumptions die slowly. But die they must to the continually accumulating evidence of the early papyri.
        And invoking the notion that Matthew and Luke used different “versions” of Mark, likewise, is an old idea that has surely passed its stale date!

  3. Roy Kotansky permalink

    Professor Hurtado’s blog claiming I am not sufficiently familiar with the papyrological data of the NT in discussing the British Museum gem is an incorrect insinuation (I hold a Ph. D. in NT from the University of Chicago, and am very familiar with NT textual criticism, but I am a devout eclecticist). My stronger argument, rather, clearly shows that the text of the gemstone gives no indication of a knowledge of the Canonical gospels, with its unusual Trinitarian formula, use of lysios, and poetic, non-Biblical, reference to the Cross (artanē). This is the crux, no pun intended, of my argument and deserves a closer reading than just the mention of the hanging by ropes. Many thanks for the kind remarks, nonetheless.


    • Dr.Kotansky’s comment doesn’t address his apparent overlooking the dates of early Gospel papyri, which are fully contemporary with or perhaps earlier than the putative dating of the gemstone in question. That was my complaint, not something about ropes. And the features of this gemstone are better accounted for, as he does more cogently earlier in his article by suggesting that the gemstone may derive from some kind of Christian(s) with what seems to be a stance that is not what became mainstream Christianity.

      • Roy Kotansky permalink

        This misunderstands my argument: sc. that the gem does not cite the Canonical Gospels, which argues for their relative scarcity. There are no canonical references in respect of the image. Bagnall has made a very good case.

      • Dr. Kotansky, I understand your claims perfectly, and they aren’t soundly based. That the gemstone doesn’t reflect directly the accounts in the Gospels means only that. To infer that this = no wide circulation of the Gospels at the point of the carving of this inscription is simply a non sequitur. And, more importantly, is rendered improbably by the other evidence of the circulation and liturgical usage of the Gospels.

        And Bagnall’s argument about the numbers of early Christian papyri is not his finest hour. It = a guestimate of the percentage of Christians in Egypt (which only God knows), and then on this flimsy basis argues for a corresponding percentage of books. See my review: I have great respect for Bagnall for other things, but this is an unwise argument.

      • Roy Kotansky permalink

        I’m afraid that I cannot agree with you on this. There is nothing “unsound” in an argument that suggests that a 2nd century gem belonging to an early Christian group of some kind that depicts the crucifixion and quotes non-Biblical references to that crucifixion is “non-canonical” in nature, and that that “non-canonicity” is due to an absence of available “canonical” material, especially during a time when the gospels were not in wide circulation and even at a time when their text was not yet firmly established. Texts critics as sound as Epp, and many others, have come to realize that we cannot securely recover the NT ‘original’ text before ca. 200 CE. One has only to read Justin Martyr to realize this.

      • But Dr. Kotansky: The dating of this gem stone is no more secure or precise than the palaeographical dating of papyri. You don’t know that the gem stone is 2nd century. It could be, but just as likely 3rd or even 4th century.
        And Epp doesn’t deny that we have evidence of the text of the Gospels earlier than 200 CE. He queries what we mean by “original” text, and whether it is realistic to recover it. And in citing Justin’s use of texts, you confuse citation practice with copying practice. A frequent fallacy.
        But the main fallacy is your argument that the features of the gemstone require the absence of circulation of the Gospels. That’s just a non sequitur. If you don’t see that, there’s no point in continuing this discussion.

      • Roy Kotansky permalink

        I don’t.

      • I remember Bagnall for his assessment of Jesus’wife fragment: “hard to construct a scenario that is at all plausible in which somebody fakes something like this.”. Another one of his finest moments… 🙂

      • Roy Kotansky permalink

        His endorsement was surprising. I never liked the papyrus fragment at all.

      • Roy Kotansky permalink

        I would also add that my arguments do not “require”, in your words, that the non-canonicity of the gem’s language points to an absence of available gospels, but that, all told, they suggest with a high degree of probability the absence of any such availability. I feel that to label my arguments as unsound, or containing a “fallacy”, and “non sequiturs,” without proferring any detailed counter-arguments, is to bait the discussion with ad hominem arguments that serve only to dissuade potential readers from discovering for themselves the merits of my, or anyone else’s, contribution. You seem to come from a position of attempting to mute the debate and honest discourse by throwing out descriptions such as “non-sequitur” or “fallacy.” Maybe I’m wrong. It certainly may not be your conscious intention. Scholarship is not always a certain science, but I have made what I feel are honestly sound and carefully made arguments. I have. You, or others, may not agree with them, but a good blog should encourage readers to discover for themselves whether an argument is solid or not — not to label them as “non-sequiturs” which really is a veiled ad hominem argument in itself, is it not? [edited for conciseness–LWH]

      • Dr. Kotansky, I have given reasons why your argument is a non sequitur: e.g., (1) we have the British Museum gemstone dated to the 3rd/4th century CE with a similar image, we after the Gospels were in wide circulation, so this image of the crucified Jesus on the gemstone in your article doesn’t mean that the Gospels weren’t in circulation; (2) we have remains of copies of the Gospels (in the case of GJohn, ca. 18 from ca. 150-300 CE; for GMatthew ca. 15 from this period) and references (e.g., Justin) to the reading of the Gospels in churches (ca. 150 CE), which takes us back to a period at least as early as your early date for your gemstone, so to posit that the Gospels weren’t widely circulating at that point goes against the manuscript evidence. Hence, your argument is fallacious, and that’s why I don’t accept it. It isn’t a matter of taste, but judging the evidence. I know that you feel that your arguments carry force, but your article shows no notice of the factors that I’ve itemized. You refer to others impressed with your article. I know of still others who are not impressed. I shall say no more, as it would be uncharitable.

        Moreover, as I pointed readers to your article in my initial posting, I can hardly be accused of stifling notice in what you wrote. This blog, however, isn’t a platform for unmoderated discussion, but is mainly a venue where I draw attention to matters and invite moderated discussion. And I have pointed readers to your article, and given some brief reasons for questioning some of your claims, I think that we’ve aired the matter sufficiently.

  4. Thank you, very interesting! At this point I must wonder why there are such images of crucified Jesus depicted without nails (i.e. using ropes), if Gospels describe it with nails..?

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