Supernatural depictions of Jesus in Early Christian art
Did Jesus use a magic wand when performing his miracles? It seems so—if we are to judge by some of the earliest depictions of Jesus in Christian art.
Early Christian iconography provides us with precious insights into the esthetics of early Christians. Inspired by biblical and apocryphal texts, the earliest Christian imagery is also a window into the theological thinking of the third- and fourth-century followers of Jesus. Coming primarily from funerary contexts, early Christian art is especially rich in mural paintings found in catacombs and in smaller sculptures, such as sarcophagi and tombstones. It is thus no surprise that the repertoire of motifs expressed in these media is mostly associated with the afterlife and healing (physical or spiritual).
In his article “Jesus the Magician? Why Jesus Holds a Wand in Early Christian Art,” published in the Fall 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Lee M. Jefferson of Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, zooms on one particular subject from the plethora of artistic motifs—Jesus holding a wand or rod while performing a healing or miracle. “The implement that Jesus holds (sometimes called a virga or rabdos) is portrayed as either thick and ruddy, such as on the sarcophagi, or thin and reed-like, such as in catacomb paintings. He uses it in the performance of a miracle, leading several scholars to conclude that early Christians understood Jesus as a magician. The problem with this identification is that early Christians greatly maligned magic,” remarks Jefferson, before introducing the varied representations of Jesus and his miracle-working tool.
Utterly theatrical and visualizing the authority of the new religion (Christianity), the most popular scene of early Christian funerary art was the raising of Lazarus. Jesus usually stands in front of a small shrine that holds the swaddled cadaver and he uses a wand to summon forth Lazarus from his grave, where he had been dead for four days (John 11).
Even though the Bible never mentions Jesus using a wand in performing his miracles, you may recall other prominent biblical figures who did use a similar tool to work miracles. Moses reportedly used a rod to separate the Red Sea to save his people from the Pharaoh’s army during their daring escape from Egypt (Exodus 14). And he later used a rod to strike the rock and provide drinking water for his fellow Israelites during their wanderings to the Promised Land (Exodus 17:2). Is this where the early Christians got the idea, or were they inspired by the pagan imagery of the larger Greco-Roman world?
The only other New Testament figure who can be seen using a wand to perform a miracle in early Christian art is the apostle Peter. Illustrating a legend attested in apocryphal literature, the scene usually shows Peter striking a rock with a stick, in the presence of two other figures, who wear Roman military cloaks and headgear. According to the legend, Peter during his detention in Rome miraculously opened a spring of water, which he then used to baptize his two jailers.
Influenced by modern pop culture and literary characters, such as Harry Potter, we may be forgiven for interpreting the mysterious tool as a magic wand. The reality is even more complex and fascinating. “For early Christians, Jesus performing miracles with the staff was not magical. Rather, it was intrinsically biblical (recalling Moses) and innately ecclesial (touting the supremacy of the Church),” explains Jefferson.
To dive into the various representations of Jesus with a wand and to discover their true meaning, read Lee M. Jefferson’s article “Jesus the Magician? Why Jesus Holds a Wand in Early Christian Art,” published in the Fall 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Subscribers: Read the full article “Jesus the Magician? Why Jesus Holds a Wand in Early Christian Art,” by Lee M. Jefferson, in the Fall 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
A version of this post first appeared in Bible History Daily in September, 2020
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