Art History in support of the truth
In fact, they never killed him, they never crucified him—they were made to think that they did. All factions who are disputing in this matter are full of doubt concerning this issue. They possess no knowledge; they only conjecture. For certain, they never killed him. (4:157)
I am reading a book that is just wonderful. This book, called Saving Paradise, is more than just a book, it is an event. Its subtitle is How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. Published by Beacon Press in 2008, it challenges the core of today’s Christian faith that the crucifixion of Jesus saved the world.
The two authors, Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker, began traveling the Mediterranean world in search of art depicting the dead, crucified Jesus. In their Preface they share that they discovered that it took Jesus a thousand years to die—at least if early Christian art is any indication... Images of his corpse did not appear in churches until the 10th century. Why not? How could it be that images of Jesus’ suffering and death were absent from early churches? What does this mean? It took them five years to find out.
Before the 10th century, depictions of Jesus are always of him alive in a beautiful world. The authors report finding his image as a shepherd, a teacher, a healer; and he is an infant, a youth, and a bearded elder, but he is never dead—not even once. Even when he appears with the cross, he stands in front of it, serene, resurrected. The world around him is ablaze with beauty. These are images of paradise—paradise in this world; not suffering.
The concept of an earthly paradise enjoyed here, in this life, matches very well with what we know from the Quran. For those who devote themselves to God, paradise begins in this world:
Absolutely, GOD's allies have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve. They are those who believe and lead a righteous life. For them, joy and happiness in this world, as well as in the Hereafter. This is GOD's unchangeable law. Such is the greatest triumph. (10:62-64)
But this concept is new to most Christians today, as is the thought that Jesus did not suffer for them. They have lost the teaching that those who devote themselves to God will not suffer:
He said, "Go down therefrom, all of you. You are enemies of one another. When guidance comes to you from Me, anyone who follows My guidance will not go astray, nor suffer any misery. (20:123)
For millennia Christians have been raised with the concept that Jesus Christ suffered horribly and died for their sins, and his sacrifice is their only means of redemption. This is at the very core of most Christian belief and is symbolized by the often very graphic agony of the crucifix. So for the authors of this book it was a tremendous surprise not to find this doctrine reflected in the very early art of Christianity.
We could not find a dead Jesus, not even one. It was just as the angel had said to the women looking for Jesus at his tomb, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ (Luke 24:5). ‘He is not here’ (Mark 16:6). He most certainly was not. (page x)
From Rome, we went to Istanbul and then to a remote part of northeastern Turkey where the crumbling remains of ninth-to eleventh-century monastery churches could be found upon high mountains. We failed to find even one dead Jesus. Returning to Italy, we lingered for several days in Ravenna to examine its beautifully restored fifth and sixth-century mosaics.
In the sixth-century St. Apollinare Nuovo Church, at the edge of the old city, we found the earliest surviving life story of Jesus depicted in images. Near the ceiling on both sides of the basilica nave, 13 rectangular mosaics marched from the chancel toward the main door. We examined each of the 26 panels closely. On the right wall near the chancel, an image of the Last Supper began the thirteen scenes of his Passion. At panel ten we encountered Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross for Jesus to Golgotha. We expected to see the crucifixion on panel eleven. Instead, we were confronted by an angel who sat before a tomb. The apparition spoke to two women swaying forward like Gospel choir singers. We too leaned forward in astonishment and remembered what the angel had said: ”I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here” (Matt. 28:5-6). The remaining panels showed the risen Christ visiting his followers in the stories of doubting Thomas (John 20:19-29) and the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-43).
We found no Crucifixions in any of Ravenna’s early churches. The death of Jesus, it seemed,
was not a key to meaning, not an image of devotion, not a ritual symbol of faith for the Christians who worshipped among the churches’ glittering mosaics. The Christ they saw was the incarnate, risen Christ, the child of baptism, the healer of the sick, the teacher of his friends, and the one who defeated death and transfigured the world with the spirit of life. Why were we looking for the living among the dead?…[because] we were told that the crucifixion of Jesus saved the world. (page xi)
Of course the Quran makes it very clear that indeed no one can redeem us but God, and no one else can bear our sins:
No soul bears the sins of another soul. Every human being is responsible for his own works. (53:38-39)
As this belief is one of the defining doctrines of Christianity, not finding it depicted by initial Christians was truly astonishing:
After we investigated early Christian art, we stepped back, astonished at the weight of the reality: Jesus’ dead body was just not there. We could not find it in the Catacombs or Rome’s early churches, in Istanbul’s great 6th century cathedral Hagia Sophia, in the monastery churches in northeastern Turkey, nor in Ravenna’s mosaics. The mystery of its absence deepened. We searched as many sources of early Christian art as we could find; we studied with an expert on first-millennium art at the University of California in Berkeley, and we consulted several times with a distinguished scholar of Christian art [Professor David Wright]. After we realized that the Crucifixion was absent, we began to pay attention to what was present in early Christian art (page xii)……Paradise, we realized, was the dominant image of early Christian sanctuaries…. Not just paradise after death, but also paradise on earth…Our modern views of heaven and paradise think of them as a world after death. However, in the early church, paradise—first and foremost—was this world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God. It was on the earth. (pages xiv-xv)
After 30 years of working in religion and theology, they say, “nearly everything we had previously understood about Christian history, theology, and ritual began to shift as we delved deeper into the meaning of paradise.”
If a defining doctrine of Christianity is shifting might we not hope sometime soon to see Christians focus on the true teachings of Jesus?
I am so excited about this book, and I pray that the truth prevails in our lifetime.