Symbolism, Early Christian

views updated


The use of signs, both literary and material, to represent spiritual reality. It is now generally recognized that, similar to the development of the primitive Christian theology, of which it was an essential part, the symbolism of the early Christian Church was a continuation of Judaic practice, both in the literary sphere and in the sphere of plastic representation.

Judeo-Christian Symbolism

The New Testament is replete with symbols that express the reality of the mystery of God's presence in the world and in the Church. In preaching the Gospel, Christ frequently used symbolic words and actions to point a lesson or exhibit His divine power. He made mud of spittle to cure the man born blind (Jn 9.6); in healing the deaf mute He put his fingers into the man's ears, and spitting, He touched the mute's tongue (Mk 7.33); and He referred to the fountain of living water to describe eternal life for the Samaritan woman (Jn 4.1315). In the Gospels, likewise, He used a series of symbols to describe the reality of the Church: the planted field, and the seed that becomes a tree; the vine and its branches; yeast for leaven, and a kingdom. St. Paul in his Epistles spoke of the Church as the body of Christ, and described its members as the hands, feet, and eyes, with Christ as the head (1 Cor 12.1227; Col 1.18).

Theological Substratum. Besides these realistic symbols, however, the Epistle to the Hebrews and Revelation in particular abound in symbolic representations, both prophetic and explanatory, that have their roots almost solely in the Old Testament. The theological continuity between the two Testaments was thus exemplified in a striking fashion; its actuality is further expressed in the early liturgy, and supported by archeological evidence.

The principal feasts of the Jewish religion were centered in the Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkoth, Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur; they are ceremonial manifestations of a symbolism that points to eschatological fulfillment that, in later Judaism, expressed itself in a rising hope in Messianic deliverance and immortality. Likewise, the Old Testament funerary monuments and ossuaries, as well as the synagogues, were decorated with significant symbols whose history and meaning, though still not fully understood, depict a deep theological substratum and development in late Hebraic thought.

Liturgy and Archeology. The Judaic themes of deliverance and eschatological fulfillment are reflected in the primitive Judeo-Christian theology and appear early on Christian monuments with, for example, the palm leaf, the anchor, and the cross, accompanied by brief inscriptions or legends. In the catacombs as well as in the earliest ecclesial assembly rooms (see dura-europos), representations characteristic of the synagogue are rare; but the orans and the good shepherd were used as indicative of Christian piety, and of hope in God and in a Savior interested in mankind. It is not certain whether both the Orans and the Good Shepherd were adopted immediately from Jewish use, for both symbols were widely employed in the Greco-Roman milieu.

Eschatological Hope. It is in the liturgy that the true connection between the Old and New Testament symbolism is found; and this connection is reflected in the 3rd and 4th century plastic arts on monuments and in church decoration. In his Commentary on Zechariah, Jerome is a witness to this development (Comm. in Zach. 3) even though he considered the Jewish interpretation of the Feast of Tabernacles as a false pre-figuration of an earthly millennium. The prophet had spoken of "Yahweh standing on the Mount of Olives"; he described "living waters that shall go out from Jerusalem" and predicted that "the remnant of the nations will return yearly to keep the Feast of Tabernacles" (Zec 14.416). The earlier Jews celebrated the feast during eight days, living in huts or arbors surrounded by rustic greenery that symbolized the Garden of Eden. To this earthly paradise the people hoped to return in the restored Jerusalem. The living waters were the river of Paradise flowing in four directions; and the ethrog, or citron, and the lulab, or nosegay of myrtle, palm, and willow, carried in their hands, represented the fruit of the tree of life. The early Christians were familiar with these eschatological symbols and used them freely. This is clearly exemplified in the Shepherd of hermas, which in the early Church was considered as possibly a canonical book similar to Revelation.

Modern investigation indicates that there is a connection between the details of the Transfiguration and the description of the Feast of Tabernacles in Zechariah. The appearance of Christ and the three disciples on a mountain suggests the Prophet's reference to Yahweh's manifestation of His glory on the Mount of Olives; and Peter's reaction, "It is good for us to be here" (Lk 9.33), and his proposal to build three huts or arbors seem directly connected with the hope nurtured by the symbols of an eschatological state of enjoyment and life in the new paradise.

methodius of olympus reflects this attitude when he speaks of "celebrating a feast to God, adorning my bodily tabernacle with good deeds" (Convivium 9.17); and ephrem says that he saw the "tents of the righteous" in paradise; the greater a "man's struggle to be virtuous, the more beautiful will be his tabernacle" (Hymn Parad. 5.6). The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (2 Cor 5.1,4) and 2 Peter (1.13) had spoken of the body as a tabernacle, whereas irenaeus of lyons referred to the resurrection of the body when he described the "raising of the tabernacle of David" (Demonstration 38; 62).

Palestinian Ossuaries. Archeological evidence on Jewish and Paleo-Christian ossuaries in Palestine, as collected by E. Goodenough and more recently by E. Testa and B. Bagati and commented on by J. Daniélou, confirms the use of these symbols on Judaic funerary monuments in the Greco-Roman period, and particularly the use of the symbols of the lulab and ethrog, the menorah or seven-branched candlestick, and the shophar or ram's horn used as a trumpet. In the synagogue at Dura-Europos there is reason to believe that the frescoes have a direct relation to the Feast of Tabernacles and the dedication of the Temple. A fresco surrounding the niche of the Torah depicts the seven-branched candlestick, the lulab and ethrog, and the sacrifice of Isaac, overshadowed by the tree of life, a table, and throne, all of which have been interpreted by R. Wischnitzer as a reference to the eschatological temple of Zechariah (14.16).

Specific Symbols

The theological relationship between the two Testaments is illustrated by a series of specific symbols whose description here may serve as an introduction to the development of Christian thought in the early Church, indicating in a summary fashion its complexity and

profundity. These examples do not exhaust the rich storehouse of ideas contained in the archeological evidence and patristic literature.

The Palm and the Crown. tacitus described the Jewish priests wearing crowns of ivy during the Feast of Tabernacles (Hist. 5.5), thus confirming the Book of Jubilees (16.30), which prescribed that during the feast, "Israel should celebrate by living in arbors, with wreaths on their heads, and carrying leafy boughs and branches of willow." There is an obvious connection between these customs and Christ's triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, as well as the mocking ceremony in which He was crowned with a wreath of thorn branches.

The Shepherd of Hermas described a vision of the Judgment in which the angel of the Lord adorned the men with crowns "seemingly of palm leaves, after they had surrendered their branches bearing buds and fruit" (Sim. 8.2.1). The Odes of Solomon, describing apparently the rite of Baptism, refers to the crowning of the neophyte with a garland (Ode 20.78), and this custom was preserved in the Syro-Christian rite. Both the Testament of Levi (8.49) and the Gnostic Book of Jeû (47) refer to an olive branch and a crown of garlands in relation to the baptismal ceremony.

The crown of life is a symbol of immortality on the late Jewish funerary monuments according to Goodenough; in the Epistle of James (1.12), 1 Peter (5.4), the Revelation (2.10), and the apocryphal Ascension of Isaiah (7.22; 8.26) and Testament of Levi (4.1) there is direct reference to the "crown of life" and the "crown of glory." This symbolism seems to be inspired by a Jewish ideology independent of St. Paul's reference to the crown given to the victor (1 Cor 9.25), which reflects Hellenistic practice. tertullian repudiated the use of crowns for Christians, but his objection was based on the connection with the worship of the emperor as a god, exemplified in the triumphs celebrated by the military (De corona mil. ). Later Christian writers frequently employed the crown to symbolize the rewards of eternal life.

The Vine, the Tree, and the Cross. In describing the Church, Christ used a series of symbols that have their root in the Old Testament, and that are reflected all through patristic exegesis. Isaiah had spoken of the Israelites as the vine of Yahweh (5.17); Christ spoke of his Church as a plantation or vineyard (Mt 21.3341). This symbolism appears in the Shepherd of Hermas (5.5, 2;6.2); whereas the Apostolic Constitution (praef. ), Clement of Alexandria (Strom. 7.12, 74), and Justin Martyr (Dial. 110.4) speak of the Church as "The Lord's vine," apparently influenced by Isaiah and Psalm 79.

ignatius of antioch (Trall. 11.2) employed the tree with its branches in direct reference to the cross. This symbolism was related to the theological problem of membership in the Church and is developed by hippoly tus of rome following John's quotation of the Logia of Christ (Bened. Isaac ), and also by Clement of Alexandria (Quis dives 37.6). zeno of verona explicitly refers to Isaiah (5.17) in his mystagogic catechesis for neophytes (Tract 2.28) preached during the Easter Vigil: "The Lord's vine was the former synagogue but the Lord planted another, our mother the Church." asterius the sophist wrote: "The divine and timeless vine sprung from the grave, bearing as fruits the newly baptized, like bunches of grapes on the altar" (Hom. 14.12) to depict the full-fledged Paschal symbolism of the 4th century; he also employed the image used by Ignatius of Antioch: "Christ the tree of life has the Apostles for branches, the redeemed for fruit, words for leaves; baptism is the root, and the Father, the gardener" (Hom. 1.5).

Tau Sign. The T, or Tau sign, made on the forehead, is said by St. Basil to be one of the most ancient of Christian symbols. The epitaph of abercius speaks of "the glorious seal" (sphragis ) in connection with Baptism, and both Quodvultdeus (De Symbolo 1.1) and Augustine (Conf. ) refer to this usage. Gregory Thaumaturgus used the sign of the cross "to cleanse the pestilential atmosphere" of a pagan temple (Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Greg. Thaum; Patrologia Graeca, ed., J. P. Migne, 161 v. (Paris 185766) 46:916). john chrysostom testified that the sign of the cross was used continually as "a saving protection" (Hom. Phil. 13.1).

Not only was the sign of the cross used as an exorcism, it also was tattooed on the foreheads of Christians (Mark the Deacon, Vita Porphyrii Gazae ), and depicted both in the catacombs and on monuments, frescoes, basreliefs and mosaics, in the Greek and Latin form, respectively. While later writers used the T form in reference to the cross of the crucifixion, earlier sources connected the T sign with the Tau of Ezekiel, who speaks of the members of the Messianic community marked with the Hebrew Tau in the form of T or X (for cross sign) on their foreheads (Ez 9.46). In the Book of Revelation (7.3 and 14.1) the Tau sign signifies God the Father, and is related to the Name [of the Lord], which was a symbol used also in Acts (9.15); Shepherd of Hermas (Sim. 9.13.23); and the didache, where it means the Word of God. However, the Tau sign was early associated with the cross in the Epistle of barnabas (9.8), and in subsequent ages became the usual symbol for the crucifixion.

The Church as a Ship. Besides Christ's references to the Church as a temple or a flock, the early catechesis symbolized the Church as a ship, and this imagery reflects Old Testament and late Judaic thought that referred to a rough sea as a figure of eschatological trials. The incident of Christ's calming the waters for the 12 Apostles on the Lake of Tiberias was impressive and had antecedents in the story of Noah's ark. Justin Martyr indicated that the ship was not represented merely as a means of salvation but as the Church itself, which was the object saved: "One cannot sail the seas," he says in describing the Cross of Christ, "unless the trophy that is called the sail is properly set on the ship" (Apologia 55.3). The archeological findings on ancient Judeo-Christian ossuaries in Palestine depict the ship with the transverse yard on the mast in the form of a cross.

Although the ship was used also on Greek, Roman, and Egyptian monuments and mausoleums as a symbol of hope in immortality, philo judaeus had described the ark as an image of the soul sailing toward the life of blessedness, and Clement of Alexandria described "the ship running before a favorable wind" as one of the symbols on rings that Christians did not have to reject as idolatrous (Paedag.

Justin Martyr described Noah's ark as a symbol of salvation in connection with "Christ the firstborn of every creature [who] has become in a new sense the head of another race, of those whom he has brought to birth by water, faith, and the wood that holds the mystery of the Cross, just as Noah was saved in the wood of the Ark" (Contra Tryphonem 138.12). Tertullian made the ship an explicit symbol of the Church (De Bapt. 12.7), an imagery that reflects the Judeo-Christian thought of the apocryphal Testaments. In his De Idololatria he says "what was not [saved] in the ark, is not saved in the Church" (24.4), and this theme leads to the aphorism "Outside the Church, no salvation" in the thought of or igen and cyprian, and in the early Roman theology of Church unity. Hippolytus changes the orientation and speaks of the local churches as ships (Bened. Moysis ), with the Lord as the sheltered harbor.

Since in Hellenistic literature the ship symbolized the state, the two sources of the imagery were combined in its further development. But the original Christian usage came from Judaic sources. This symbol is depicted in the primitive area of the catacombs of Callistus at least four times, but it seems to have disappeared in the late 3d century. However, minucius felix stated explicitly that "the ship is a reminder of the cross which can be seen in the mast and yard arm, particularly when running before the wind or in a storm" (Octav. 29).

Living Water and the Fish. In the Gospel of John, Christ proclaimed himself to be a "fount of living waters" (7.37), evidently as He was standing in the temple during the libation connected with the Feast of Tabernacles. The allusion apparently is to Ezekiel (47.89) and Zechariah (14.810), who speak of the living water issuing from Jerusalem and flowing east and west while the nations go up to Jerusalem (14.16). Christ referred to the eschatological significance of this text, which symbolized the outpouring of God's life in the living waters beside the Temple. In the New Testament this idea is expanded in Baptism, which achieves the outpouring of the Spirit.

There is reference in Tertullian to the primordial waters of Genesis (1.2.20) that "were commanded to bring forth living creatures" (De Bapt. 3.4); and to the Tree of Life in the new paradise, fed by the river of living water as were the trees of the original Paradise by the four rivers. This imagery is notable in the Syrian catecheses and in the Odes of Solomon, and can be seen in the decoration of early baptisteries. The four rivers were identified with the four Gospels by Cyprian (Epist. 73.10), Hippolytus (Comm. Dan. 1.17), and Jerome (Comm. Matt., Prolog.). Finally, this living water is recognized by Gregory of Elvira as the liquid that flowed from the side of Christ on the cross, guaranteeing the accomplishment of man's redemption (Tract. 15; Suppl. 1).

While the ordinary interpretation of the fish, which in Greek as ΙΧΘ[symbol omitted]Σ is an acrostic for ησο[symbol omitted]ς Χριστς Θεο[symbol omitted] ϒις Σωτήρ (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior), in the older tradition, as expressed in the catacombs, the fish denotes the presence of living water and also the Christian enlivened in Baptism by the outpouring of eschatological water whose source is in Jerusalem. Evidence for this interpretation is supplied by a chain of texts or testimonia accredited to the authorship of Gregory of Nyssa.

The Plow and the Star. The text of Isaiah, "For the Law shall come from Sion and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem . They shall turn their swords into plowshares and their spears into sickles" (2.34) was quoted frequently by Justin Martyr (Apol. 39.1; Dialogues 110.3), Cyprian (Test. 2.18), and Origen (Contra Cels. 5.33). It is explained at length by Irenaeus, who speaks of "God's word as the law of liberty that changed the world ." He states that the Lord made the plow andprovided the sickle: this signifies the first seed time of man patterned in Adam, and the gathering of the harvest at the end of time, for the wood combined with iron in the plow is the materialized [for incarnate] Word, made one with the flesh (Adv. Haer. 4.34.4). He further comments on 2 Kings (6.57) wherein the Prophet Elisha brings an ax to the surface of the river by throwing in a piece of wood, and affirms that "the materialized Logos of God, lost by us through neglect, had to be retrieved through the Economy of the Wood [of the Cross]" (ibid. 5.17.4). This imagery is repeated by Tertullian (Adv. Jud. 13.19), Ambrose (Myst. 51), and Didymus the Blind; the last (De Trin. 2) specifies that the iron is sin, and the wood of the plow, the Cross of Christ. The cruciform character of the plow is developed as a theme by the later fathers; more recently its earlier usage has been discovered on the Judeo-Christian ossuaries in Palestine.

Justin Martyr testifies that in the testimonia concerning Christ, "He is called Wisdom, Day and Dawn" (Dial. 4), and later says: "He is called Wisdom by Solomon, Star by David, and Dawn by Zacharias" (ibid. 126.1). Justin is making reference to Numbers (24.17) and reflecting 2 Peter (1.19). There is also a relation between these designations and the quotation of Amos (5.2526) in Stephen's discourse (Acts 7.4243), and in Justin (Dial. 22.34), who commented on the coming of the Wise Men "from Arabia" by stating that it was a fulfillment of Balaam's prophecy (Nm 23.7). Origen likewise connected Balaam with the Magi's star (Contra Cels. 1.60; Hom. Num. 13.7) and gave evidence that the symbolism of Christ as the star was emphasized in the early Eastern Church as a corrective to Zoroastrian Magism. This may have an interesting connection with the infancy narrative in Matthew.

The Zodiac Christianized. Hippolytus of Rome wrote: "He [Christ] the Sun, once he had risen from the womb of the earth, showed the 12 Apostles to be as it were, 12 hours . Once they were gathered together, the 12 Apostles like 12 months, proclaimed the perfect year, Christ . Because the prophet [Is 61.2] refersto Christ as day, sun and year, the Apostles must be called hours and months" (Bened. Moysis; Patrologia Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne 27:171). This symbolism of the zodiac is common to the earliest Judeo-Christian imagery as witnessed by the apochryphal Clementine literature. It is reflected in Methodius of Olympus (De Sanguisuga 9.3), Asterius the Sophist (Hom. in Ps. 20.14, 1516), Ambrose (Exp. Luc. 7.222), Zeno of Verona (Tract. 2.9.2), and Augustine (Ennar. Ps. 55.5). Clement of Alexandria testified to the heretical use made of it by the gnostics (Exc. Theod. 25.2).

It is well known that, although the zodiac was a Hellenic device, it was also in use among the Jews of Palestine before the time of Christ as a decoration for the synagogues (Goodenough, 1.203, 248251), and Philo Judaeus made the connection with the 12 Patriarchs (Vita Mos. 2.123124) whereas Clement of Alexandria combined both Patriarchs and Apostles (Strom. Thus a complicated series of symbols was created and used in the catacombs and funerary monuments. In these symbols Christ was compared to the sun, and depicted as such, for example, on the vault of the mausoleum (M, the family tomb of the Iulii) in the excavations under St. Peter's (see vatican). There Christ appears as the Helios; his head is surrounded by a radiant nimbus, and he is mounted on a chariot. The zodiac symbolism was further developed in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Later Christian Literature

In both the monuments and the early and late patristic literature, Christian symbols were drawn from the Old and New Testaments and adapted to the cultural environment. These symbols included the anchor, the dove as symbol of the soul or the Holy Spirit, the Lamb and the Good Shepherd, the Monogram of Christ, the Wise Virgins, and almost innumerable other allusions that accompanied the allegorical and mystagogic interpretations of the Scriptures.

Personal Figures as Symbols. In the 3d century the symbol of a personal figure was widespread: the angler was the sign of the priestly office; the philosopher, of Christ as teacher. Daniel in the Lion's den, Jonah, the youths in the fiery furnace, Noah, and Susannah, were exemplifications of virtue. Jonah stood also for the death and resurrection of Christ (Sarcophagus of Aquileia); and the woman with a veil, for the Church (Aegedius sarcophagus, Perugia; wooden door of St. Sabina, Rome). In the 4th century the hand of God, the crown, and the cross gradually took on a multitude of significances; this development is particularly notable in regard to symbolic animals, such as the lamb, lion, dove, and stag. While in Roman symbolism the lion symbolized death (Gerona sarcophagus), in Christian symbolism he stood for St. Mark the Evangelist. Even the wolf had an ambiguous significance (Sarcophagus, Praetextatus catacomb, Rome: Art Gallery, Brescia), and the snake (Sarcophagus, Gerona; Pignatta sarcophagus, Ravenna) could be the tempter or the saving serpent of Moses (Jn 3.14).

Middle Ages and Renaissance. In the Carolingian period the idea of a symbol as an abbreviation for a fact or a hope was widespread. A reference to the Feast of Cana or the chalice placed beneath the cross, for example, stood for the Eucharist; the healing of the blind man, for Baptism. In the Middle Ages, symbolism developed in new areas of Christian thought. Individual saints were idealized as models of a particular virtue, e.g., as St. cris pin, model of industrious application. Animal symbolism proliferated; the lion signified everything about Christ from his birth and Resurrection to his mercy, power, and kindness, and served as well as the early Roman sign for death (Sarcophagus of Frederick II, Palermo); and the goat stood for the damned, the demons, and the impure. In the later Middle Ages and especially during the Renaissance, the union of the fables and myths of classical literature with Christian symbolism brought symbolism into a new and more complex stage.

Bibliography: j. daniÉlou, Primitive Christian Synbols, tr. d. attwater (Baltimore 1964); Théologie du judéo-christianisme (Tournai 1958). e. testa, Il simbolismo dei Giudeo-Cristiani (Jerusalem 1962); L'Osservatore Romano (Rome 1849) 224 (September 25, 1960) 3. b. bagatti, ibid. 182 (August 6, 1960) 4. e. r. goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (Bollingen Ser. 37; New York 1953). r. b. wischnitzer, The Messianic Theme in the Paintings of the Dura Synagogue (Chicago 1948). p. a. underwood, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Harvard University 5 (Cambridge, MA 1950) 43138, fountain of life. e. peterson, Frühkirche, Judentum und Gnosis (Rome 1959). h. rahner, "Flumina de ventre Christi," Biblica 22 (1941) 269332, 367403; Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, tr. h. battershaw (New York 1963). j. carcopino, Études d'histoire chrétienne (Paris 1953). j. legrand The Clergy Monthly 23 (1959) 377384, star. h. j. schoeps, Aus frühchristlicher Zeit (Tübingen 1950). f. cumont, c. daremberg and e. saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines d'après les textes et les monuments (Paris 18771919) 5:104662, Zodiac. j. seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods, tr. b. f. sessions (Bollingen Ser. 38; New York 1953). f. piper, Mythologie und Symbolik der christlichen Kunst, 2 pts. (Weimar 184751) 2:276310. l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 6 v. (Paris 195559) v.13. f. mayr, et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765); suppl., Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) 9:120710. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq and h. i. marrou, 15 v. (Paris 190753) 15.2:17781812. k. galling and k. wessel, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 6:543548. t. klauser, Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum (Münster 1958) 1 (1958) 2051; 2 (1959) 115145; 3 (1960) 112133. w. m. bedard, The Symbolism of the Baptismal Font in Early Christian Thought (Cath. U. of Amer. Studies in Sacred Theology, 2d ser. no. 45; Washington 1951).

[f. x. murphy]