First, let us all hope for the fall of Putin and for the Russian soldiers sent to murder and destroy in Ukraine to be brought home. What horrific evil Putin has done, both for Russian soldiers and for Ukraine. It is hard to believe such barbarity still takes place in the 21st century. Let us hope for the continuing independence of Ukraine, and for the return of freedom of speech to Russia. Slava to those Russians with a conscience who speak out against Putin and his insane mass murdering of soldiers, civilians, men, women, and children.
Today’s image is another of the Serbian 14th century Dechani (Visoki Dečani Monastery) frescoes. It is likely puzzling to those who do not know their Bible well, but for those who do, it presents no problem.
Jesus, with his IC XC abbreviated title inscription is easy to recognize, and three disciples behind him. At right are those he is teaching.
But the key to understanding the image lies in the objects on the ground.
They are, from upper left:
A loaf of bread; a stone
A fish; a serpent
A scorpion; an egg
The inscription at top left of the image tells us what is represented here. It is taken from Luke 11:11, which in the Elizabeth Bible reads like this:
Котораго же вас отца воспросит сын хлеба, еда камень подаст ему Kotorago zhe vas otsa vosprosit suin khleba eda kamen’ podast emu
“Which of you that is a father, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone to eat?”
The image depicts, but does not include in the inscription, the following words extending through Luke 11:12:
Или рыбы еда в рыбы место змию подаст емуИли аще попросит яица еда подаст ему скорпию Ili ruibui eda v ruibui mesto zmiiu podast emu Ili ashche poprosit yaitsa eda podast emu skorpiiu
“Or a fish to eat, in place of a fish will give him a serpent? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion to eat?”
The Gospel generally called “of Matthew” gives a shorter version in 7:9-10:
“Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?”
There was a tradition of belief in the classical world that human saliva had certain properties that made it harmful to snakes and animals, but nonetheless it could be in certain circumstances used in healing humans.
In the first century c.e., a Jewish scholar and reputed miracle worker lived in Galilee. No, in this case it was not Jesus, but rather Hanina Ben Dosa. It is said of him in the Talmud:
A certain person once came before Rabbi Hanina and said to him, ‘I am sure that this man is firstborn’. Rabbi Hanina said to him, ‘How do you know?’ — The person replied to him: ‘Because when people came to his father, he used to say to them: “Go to my son Shikhath, who is firstborn and his saliva heals’. Might he not have been the firstborn of his mother only [but not of his father]? There is a tradition that the saliva of the firstborn of a father heals, but that of the firstborn of a mother does not heal.
And here is that other teacher and reputed miracle worker from Galilee in a late (1908) Russian icon:
The title inscription reads:
ИСЦЕЛЕНИЕ ГЛУХО-НЕМНАГО ISTSELENIE GLUKHO-NEMNAGO “THE HEALING OF THE DEAF-MUTE”
It is a pleasant icon, with the mild expression of Jesus influenced by the softness of Western European art. By tradition, the deaf-mute is often depicted, as in this example, as a youth. The flower he holds in this right hand is a pleasant touch. The icon was originally ordered by a school for deaf-mutes. The saints in the upper corners are too small to read their name inscriptions, but those with Jesus are John the Theologian, the Apostle Peter, and the Apostle James.
At the bottom of the icon is a second inscription telling us the source of the event depicted:
OT MARKA GLAVA 7 STIKH 31 “FROM MARK, CHAPTER 7, VERSE 31
And this is what we find beginning there:
31 And again, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, he came to the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis.
32 And they bring to him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him.
33 And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue;
34 And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and says to him, Ephphatha, that is, “Be opened.”
35 And right away his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plainly.
36 And he ordered them that they should tell no man: but the more he ordered them, so much the more a great deal they reported it;
37 And were beyond measure astonished, saying, He has done all things well: he makes both the deaf to hear, and the mute to speak.
As you can see, the numbers on the icon are written in Cyrillic number-letters.
In Suetonius, this is recorded about the Roman Emperor Vespasian, who ruled from 69-79 c.e.:
Vespasian, the new Emperor, having been raised unexpectedly from a low estate, wanted something which might clothe him with divine majesty and authority. This, likewise, was now added. A poor man who was blind, and another who was lame, came both together before him, when he was seated on the tribunal, imploring him to heal them, and saying that they were admonished in a dream by the god Serapis to seek his aid, who assured them that he would restore sight to the one by anointing his eyes with his spit, and give strength to the leg of the other, if he would but touch it with his heel. At first he could scarcely believe that the thing would in any way succeed, and therefore hesitated to venture on making the experiment. At length, however, by the advice of his friends, he made the attempt publicly, in the presence of the assembled multitudes, and it was crowned with success.
Similarly, we find in the Histories of the Roman historian Tacitus this account, also of Vespasian:
In the months during which Vespasian was waiting at Alexandria for the periodical return of the summer winds and settled weather at sea, many wonders occurred which seemed to point him out as the object of the favor of heaven and of the partiality of the Gods. One of the common people of Alexandria, well known for his blindness, threw himself at the Emperor’s knees, and implored him with groans to heal his infirmity…He begged Vespasian that he would deign to moisten his cheeks and eyeballs with his spit … Vespasian, supposing that all things were possible to his good fortune, and that nothing was any longer past belief, with a joyful face, amid the intense expectation of the multitude of bystanders, accomplished what was required…the light of day again shone upon the blind. Persons actually present attest this, even now when nothing is to be gained by falsehood.
Beginning at Mark 8:22 in the New Testament, we find this:
22 And he [Jesus] comes to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man to him, and besought him to touch him.
23 And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw anything.
24 And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking.
25 After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly.
26And he sent him away to his house, saying, Neither go into the town, nor tell it to any in the town.
The account in John 9 gives us another example of Jesus using “spit magic,” as discussed in a previous posting:
Jesus uses a rather odd healing method here. He mixes his own spit with earth, rubs the wet mud mixture onto the blind man’s eyes, then tells him to go wash it off in the pool of Siloam. The man does so, then returns, able now to see.
A rather typical example of the icon type for the Sunday of the Healing of the Blind Man — Κυριακή του τυφλού/Kyriake tou typhlou — is this one, from the 16th century and the Dionysiou Monastery on Mt. Athos in Greece:
The inscription is not difficult:
If we fill out the abbreviation and separate the words, it reads:
Ὁ ΧΡΙCΤΟC ΙΩΜΕΝΟC ΤΟΝ ΤΥΦΛΟΝ Ho Khristos Iomenos Ton Typhlon “Christ Heals the Blind [man]”
At left we see Jesus applying the wet mud to the blind man’s eyes:
Now just a sidelight regarding Mark 7:31:
31 And again, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, he [Jesus]came to the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis.
That is close to the King James Version rendering, but it is not exactly what the Greek text of Mark says:
“And again leaving the region of Tyre, he came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the midst of the region of Decapolis.”
Critics often use this as an example of the lack of accurate geographical knowledge of the anonymous writer of the gospel called “Of Mark.” Their point is that to go to the Sea of Galilee from Tyre via Sidon means that Jesus went about 25 miles north to Sidon and out of his way to get to a place that was some 39 miles south of Tyre, and to get to the Decapolis one had to actually go some distance south on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
We can see how odd that is if we look at a map:
We can also see how odd it would be to go to the Sea of Galilee “through the midst of the region of Decapolis,” because one comes to the sea from the north before reaching the Decapolis.
The author of Matthew apparently tried to correct the oddity by saying simply in Chapter 15:
21 Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts [region] of Tyre and Sidon.
And he emends the return of Jesus southward like this, completely omitting any mention of the Decapolis:
29 And Jesus departed from thence, and came nigh to the sea of Galilee; and went up into a mountain, and sat down there.
Let’s start with Circe. As you may remember, she is the goddess and sorceress in chapter 10 of Homer’s Odyssey, who turns the men of Odysseus into swine:
“She brought them in and made them sit on chairs and seats, and made for them a potion of cheese and barley meal and yellow honey with Pramnian wine; but in the food she mixed baneful drugs, that they might utterly forget their native land. Now when she had given them the potion, and they had drunk it off, then she presently smote them with her wand, and penned them in the sties. And they had the heads, and voice, and bristles, and shape of swine, but their minds remained unchanged even as before. So they were penned there weeping, and before them Circe flung mast and acorns, and the fruit of the cornel tree, to eat, such things as wallowing swine are wont to feed upon.”
It is that “wand” I want to focus on. The Greek term for it is ράβδος῎rhabdos, and it has a range of meanings, from the basic “stick” to “rod,” “switch,” “wand” etc.
In chapter 16 of the Odyssey, the goddess Athena restores Odysseus to a more youthful appearance with her rhabdos:
“With this,Athena touched him with her golden wand. A well-washed cloak and a tunic she first of all cast about his breast, and she increased his stature and his youthful bloom. Once more he grew dark of color, and his cheeks filled out, and dark grew the beard about his chin.”
Now you may well be wondering why I am talking about the Odyssey and wands. It is because they show the very early connection between a wand/rod and magic. And I do that so you will have a beginning point for a discussion of the very interesting early Christian images of Jesus performing miracles.
You will recall that the appearance of Jesus in the earliest Christian art is nothing like the way he was later shown in icons. Here is an example from the Catacombs on the Via Anapo. Jesus stands at right, and wand in hand, raises Lazarus from his tomb at left.
Here he is again at the tomb of Lazarus, this time from the catacombs on the Via Latina. Note the wand in his outstretched hand:
Here, again from the Via Latina, is Jesus working another miracle, wand in hand. This time it is the multiplication of loaves and fishes.
There are numerous other such early images of Jesus working a miracle with a wand in hand, not only in catacombs but also on stone sarcophagi and even on glass medallions. We find them also carved into the presumably 5th century wooden doors of the Church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill in Rome. Here he uses a wand not only to multiply loaves and fishes, but also to turn water to wine:
Some argue against using the term “wand” for the rod held by the miracle-working Jesus, and prefer the term “staff,” to make it perhaps seem less magical and Jesus less like the sorcerer Celsus, the 2nd century critic of early Christianity, held him to be, as reported second-hand in the work “Against Celsus,” by Origen:
“… that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God.”
Critics of calling what Jesus holds in his hand a “wand” point out that the early Christians detested magic, so would not have depicted a “wand” in art; but now we get into the essence of the problem. There is basically no distinction — other than point of view — between the magic worked by the polytheists of early Christian times and the miracles worked by the Christians. The methodology may have been somewhat similar in certain respects or somewhat different in others, but the real difference lay in what was believed to be the source of the “miracles” worked: the Christians asserted that their miracles were of God, and that those of the pagans were worked through demonic powers. So whether one calls the supposed wonders worked “miracles” or “magic” depends solely on viewpoint.
There is a strangeness to early Christianity that the later Church did its best to obscure, but traces of it pop up here and there, and certainly the images of Jesus working miracles with a wand are part of that strangeness that was later removed from Christian art. There is not one word in the New Testament about Jesus holding a wand while performing any miracle, so the wand is something added from the context of the magical-thinking environment of early Christianity. Some have argued that the wand is more a symbol of authority, citing the staff of Moses in the Old Testament, but I find this argument unconvincing.
Jesus was not the only New Testament figure shown with a wand. We also find Peter depicted in an apocryphal story as causing water to gush out in a spring, and thereby converting his two jailers, whom tradition has given the names Processus and Martinianus. As you can see in the image below, he is striking the rock with his wand. Note the rather distinctive round, flat-topped Pannonian hats on two nearby figures, representing the Roman jailers of Peter.
Here is Peter striking the jail wall, as represented on the sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus:
In a Fall, 2020 article in the Biblical Archeology Review, Lee M. Jefferson argues that what Jesus holds in these early Christian depictions “. . . is not a magician’s wand but a staff.” I would say that is a meaningless distinction, because the rods held by Jesus and by Peter are certainly not staffs/staves for walking or sheep herding, and they are obviously being used as tools to transmit “power,” and that is basically the definition of a magician’s wand. And as we have seen in the Odyssey, the use of a wand/rhabdos to transmit “power” predates Christianity, so it was nothing new in the first several centuries of Christianity, when it was still trying to prove its superiority to the beliefs of the polytheistic masses.
Below is a 15th century icon from the island of Corfu (Kerkyra), an allegory of the Heavenly Jerusalem and the journey required to reach it.
Unfortunately, images of the icon are not clear enough to read all the inscriptions, but from what can be seen and read, the nature of the icon is clear enough.
One cannot help but be reminded of the later 17th century Protestant English devotional classic by John Bunyan, ThePilgrim’s Progress. that book also depicts the difficult journey, with all its pitfalls and dangers, to the Heavenly Jerusalem. The Greek inscription at upper right on the icon calls that goal the “Jerusalem Above,” and says of it:
“Concerning the Jerusalem Above, collected from the Prophet Isaiah and Tobit and David and the
Apocalypse of John. The City of God and Holy Zion and the Jerusalem Above, with its foundations on the Holy Mountain, and its walls built on emeralds and sapphires and rubies and other choice stones, and covered in gold. Its walls are of jasper and it gates precious pearls. Its streets are paved with pure gold. It has most beautiful mansions of clear crystal, shining with pearls and gold. In the river is the clear water of immortal life, and beautiful trees are for the ease and joy of the blessed people — those who leave Babylon the Great through the strait gate; having completed the narrow way of the Lord after many sorrows and hardships and toil and sweat on the rough path ….”
From that it is easy to see that most of the information given actually comes from the Apocalypse of John (Revelation of John), Chapter 21:16-21:
“And the city lies foursquare, and the length is as large as the width: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the width and the height of it are equal.
17 And he measured the wall thereof, one hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel.
18 And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like clear glass.
19 And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald;
20 The fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolyte; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, a topaz; the tenth, a chrysoprasus; the eleventh, a jacinth; the twelfth, an amethyst.
21 And the twelve gates were twelve pearls: every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass ….“
In the icon, the “Jerusalem Above” is on the “Holy Mount Zion” at right. This corresponds to the “Celestial City” in The Pilgrim’s Progress.
At lower left is another large city, called in the inscription “Babylon the Great.” It corresponds to the “City of Destruction” in Bunyan’s work. Just below it at left we see the city symbolized in the figure of the Whore of Babylon, as described in the Apocalypse 17:3-6:
3 “So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.
4 And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet color, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication:
5 And upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon The Great, The Mother Of Harlots And Abominations Of The Earth.
6 And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.”
In the city walls of Babylon the Great, we see two gates (doorways): that on the front is the widest. From it a great crowd of people issues, making merry and enjoying all the pleasures of the world. They proceed across the bottom to the right, where we see Death awaiting, represented as a skeleton holding a scythe. And beyond Death is the ultimate destination of these worldly people — Hades.
On the right side of the walls of Babylon the Great, we see another gate — this one very narrow — through which only a few people are exiting. The two gates are those described in Matthew 7:13-14:
13 “Enter in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leads to destruction, and many there be which go in at it:
14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads to life, and few there be that find it.“
We can see that those who leave the city through the “strait gate” each carry a cross, in keeping with the words of Jesus in Luke 9:23:
23 “And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
And indeed, if we follow the line of those leaving the city through the strait gate, we see that the person leading them is Jesus:
Some along the rough way, as they try to ascent the Mount of Virtues, are waylaid by demons, and fall from the path. But those who make it all the way to the Jerusalem Above are rewarded with crowns, and enter into great rest and unceasing joy.
Unless you are new here, you should certainly know who this fellow is:
(Moscow State United Art Historical, Architectural, and Natural Landscape Museum Reserve Kolomenskoye)
Yes, he is, as the title inscription says, BLAGORAZUMNUIY RAZBOINIK RAKH / БЛАГОРАЗУМНЫ РАЗБОЙНИК РАХЬ — “THE WISE THIEF RAKH,” better known in the West simply as “The Repentant Thief.”
This particular icon is from the middle of the 17th century, which you may recall was a turbulent time in Russian Orthodoxy, when it split into two factions: the State Church, which had the support of the Tsar, and the Old Believers, who kept the traditional church rituals and practices and texts instead of adopting the very controversial changes instituted by Patriarch Nikon in 1653, and consequently were severely persecuted.
As you have learned from previous postings here about him, Rakh may be recognized by his beard, by his wearing only a loincloth, and by the cross he carries. And as in this icon, he is often depicted surrounded by flowering plants or shrubs that represent the Paradise Garden, in keeping with the promise of Jesus to Rakh at the Crucifixion: “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). You will find those previous posting here:
We find the story of Rakh’s entry into Paradise in the Gospel of Nicodemus, also known in Greek as the Πράξεις Πιλάτου / Praxeis Pilatou) — “The Acts of Pilate.” It is a work generally dated in its known form to approximately the 4th or 5th century.
Here is the portion giving the relevant account:
Then the Lord holding Adam by the hand, delivered him to Michael the Archangel; and he led them into Paradise, filled with mercy and glory;
2 And two very ancient men met them, and were asked by the saints, Who are you, who have not yet been with us in Hades, and have had your bodies placed in Paradise?
3 One of them answering, said, I am Enoch, who was translated by the word of God; and this man who is with me, is Elijah the Tishbite, who was translated in a fiery chariot.
4 Here we have so far been, and have not tasted death, but are now about to return at the coming of Antichrist, being armed with divine signs and miracles, to engage with him in battle, and to be slain by him at Jerusalem, and to be taken up alive again into the clouds, after three days and a half.
5 And while the holy Enoch and Elias were relating this, behold, there came another man as a miserable figure carrying the sign of the cross upon his shoulders.
6 And when all the saints saw him, they said to him, Who are you? For your countenance is like a thief’s; and why do you carry a cross on your shoulders?
7 To which he answered, saying, You say right, for I was a thief who committed all sorts of wickedness upon earth.
8 And the Jews crucified me with Jesus; and I observed the surprising things which happened in the creation at the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus.
9 And I believed him to be the Creator of all things, and the Almighty King; and I prayed to him, saying, Lord, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.
10 He presently regarded my plea, and said to me, Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.
11 And he gave me this sign of the cross saying, Carry this, and go to Paradise; and if the angel who is the guard of Paradise will not admit you, show him the sign of the cross, and say to him: Jesus Christ who is now crucified, has sent me here to you.
12 When I did this, and told the angel who is the guard of Paradise all these things, and he heard them, he presently opened the gates, introduced me, and placed me on the right-hand in Paradise,
13 Saying, Stay here a little time, till Adam, the father of all mankind, shall enter in with all his sons, who are the holy and righteous servants of Jesus Christ, who was crucified.
14 When they heard all this account from the thief, all the patriarchs said with one voice, Blessed be You, O Almighty God, the Father of everlasting goodness, and the Father of mercies, who has shown such favor to those who were sinners against him, and have brought them to the mercy of Paradise, and have placed them amid thy large and spiritual provisions, in a spiritual and holy life. Amen.
I hope you remember from a previous posting that the name Rakh is found nowhere in the Bible, and not used in Greek Orthodoxy either, but seems to have originated in a misreading of a Church Slavic title inscription for the “Wise Thief in Paradise.”