THOSE “RED” ICONS

I have always thought the “red” icons produced in the region of the Russian icon painting village of Kholuy to be quite pleasant.  They are simple enough to look like folk art, but when done by an experienced painter, they have a charm often missing in more sophisticated icons.  They were once rather inexpensive, but that is changing as more people have come to appreciate them.

You will recall that many of them have a silver background that was generally originally tinted with a colored varnish to make it appear gold.  Often this varnish is removed when the icon is cleaned, and that of course also removes the “gold” effect, leaving the silver background instead.

Here are some good examples.

First, a “Smolensk” type icon of Mary:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

And here is a “Lord Almighty”:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

And finally a “John the Forerunner”:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

These “red” icons, with their bright borders and stamped floral decoration, were very popular and widely sold.  They even turn up in the Balkan countries, including Romania — having been there for many long years.

If you are a regular reader here, you should be easily able to read the inscriptions on book and scroll, because the texts are common and we have seen them in previous postings.  The three icon types seen here were also previously discussed, and you will find those postings in the site archives.

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THREE ICONS — SAME NAME

The Sporuchnitsa Greshnuikh –– the “Guarantor/Surety of Sinners” type of Marian icon — was popular in the 19th – early 20th century.  The icon is characterized by the inscription that borders the central image.  The position of the hand of the Christ Child in this example is a bit unusual, in that he holds a scroll; generally he just touches his mother’s hand with both of his.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The inscription around the central image is:

Аз Споручница грешных к Моему Сыну; Сей дал Мне за них руце слышати Мя выну, да тии, иже радость выну Мне приносят, радоватися вечно чрез Меня испросят

Az Sporuchnitsa greshnuikh k moemy suiny; Cey dal mne za nikh rutse sluishati mya vuiny, da tii, izhe radost’ vuiny mne prinosyat, radovatisya vechno chrez menya isprosyat.

“I am the Surety/Guarantor of sinners for My Son; he has given me for them the hand [i.e. the assurance] to hear those who come to me;  that those who bring joy to me in coming shall rejoice eternally through me.”

No one really knows the origin of this icon.  An example, long ignored, was in the chapel behind the gates at the Nikolaevsk-Odrin Monastery in Orlov diocese.  It was old and dusty, and the icon had become so dark that its image was barely visible.

In the summer of 1844 the wife of a merchant named Pochepin, whose two-year-old son was having seizures, had a prayer service (moleben) before the icon, and her son got immediately better, so that gave the icon a reputation for miracle working.  Consequently the icon was cleaned up.  Later — in 1847-1848 — the icon was credited with saving people from a plague of cholera in the region, as well as with other supposed miracles.

There are two other icons under the same name celebrated in the Russian Orthodox calendar.  The first — the “Moscow” Surety of Sinners — is a copy of the Nikolaevsk-Odrin Monastery icon, and the copy also gained a reputation is miracle working.    Eventually placed in the Nikolo-Khamovnicheskaya Church in Moscow., it is said to have developed drops of healing oil on its surface in 1848, and a number of other cures are attributed to it by Russian Orthodox believers

There is also the “Koretskaya” Surety of Sinners icon, kept at the Holy Resurrection-Trinity Convent in Korets, Ukraine, where it is said to have been since the 17th century.  Examples of this type generally lack the inscription characteristic of the icon from Orlov diocese.

THE LAME MAN AND THE BLIND MAN

We recently examined an icon that included the image of Bishop Kyrill of Turov.  Today we will look at an uncommon icon type from the 16th century, based on a text by Kyrill.

(Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg)

The subject of this icon is Притча о хромце и слепце / Prichta o khromtse i sleptse —  “The Parable of the Lame Man and the Blind Man.”

If you look for the parable in the Bible, you will not find it.  It is a motif, however, found early on from India to Greece to Jewish literature — and of course it pops up again in the writings of Kirill of Turov.   In Kirill it is a sermon called “The Discourse on the Soul and the Body.”  Kirill intended it, however, as an attack on Bishop Feodor/Theodor of Rostov.

Kirill conflates the old tale of the lame man and the blind man with the story told in Matthew 21:33-46 about a man who puts others in charge of his vineyard while he travels, but they are dishonest and not only refuse to give the owner what is due him, but also kill his servants and his son.

The Parable depicted on the icon, however, is this:

A certain man (depicted as Jesus in the icon) made a vineyard, and put a fence and a gate around it.  He is afraid that if he puts an ordinary guard at the gate to protect it, it will not be secure.  So he decides to place a lame man (the body) and a blind man (the soul) at the gate, thinking that if a robber comes, the lame man will see him and the blind man will hear him.  And the owner thinks that the lame man and blind man will not be able to steal the grapes (blessings/wealth) themselves, because the lame man cannot walk into the vineyard, and the blind man cannot see what is there.  So putting these two in charge, the owner thinks the vineyard secure from theft.

It happens, however, that the two guards smell the delicious grapes, and the blind man devises a plan:  The blind man will take the lame man on his shoulders, and the lame man can direct the blind man.  If the owner suspects them, the blind man will say that of course he cannot see to steal, the the lame man will say that he is obviously unable to walk into the vineyard and steal.  Thus the two enter the vineyard — with the lame man on the blind man’s shoulders — and steal the grapes.

When the owner discovers the theft, each blames the other, one saying that if the blind man had not carried him, he would have been unable to steal, and the other saying that if the lame man had not ridden on his shoulders and directed him, there would have been no theft.

In spite of their protestations, the owner had his slaves beat them both and cast them into prison.

Kirill’s surface interpretation of this parable is that the owner of the vineyard is God, seen in the person of Jesus; the vineyard is the world and the blessings and wealth in it, which belong to God to dispense;  the fence around the vineyard is the commandments of God.  The servants of the owner are the angels.

The lame man is the human body, and the blind man the soul.  Placing them at the vineyard gate meant God gave them power over the earth, within the bounds of his commandments.  When man broke those commandments, his soul is brought before God, and says it is not he, but rather the body that has committed the offense.  So the soul is kept in prison until the Second Coming, when the dead will be resurrected and soul and body will be judged together, and sent into everlasting torture in Hell.

In the icon, we see all of this illustrated.  In the center we see Jesus putting lame man and the blind man at the gate to guard the vineyard.  Then we see the lame man on the blind man’s shoulders, as they steal grapes (blessings and wealth) inside.  At right, Jesus expels the untrustworthy pair from the vineyard.

At the top, we see the judgment by Jesus.  At right the soul is kept in a dark place until the resurrection.

At the bottom of the icon, we  see the man — as the unity of body and soul — being driven into Hades by a punishing angel.  And finally — in Hades — we see the body and the soul there for eternal punishment.

The real meaning hidden behind the allegory, however, was the bitter conflict between Kirill and Bishop Feodor/Theodore of Rostov.  It is all a fight over religio-political control, and as we know, from the time of Kievan Rus to present-day Russia, religion and politics have never been separate in that part of the world.

The situation was, some accounts say, that Prince Andrey Bogoliuskiy wanted  to have a bishop in Vladimir who would be entirely independent of the control of the Metropolitan of Kiev.  He and Feodor supposedly cooperated in a scam in which Theodore went to the Patriarch in Constantinople to be consecrated, telling the Patriarch that the Metropolitan of Kiev was dead, so the place was without a Metropolitan.  When the Kiev Metropolitan found out what had happened, he excommunicated Theodore of Rostov, and so the plan failed.  In Kirill’s text,  Feodor is the blind man (the soul), and the lame man is Andrey Bogoliubskiy, whom Feodor talks into the deception.  Feodor was eventually accused of heresy and condemned to death.  He died c. 1170.

YOU CAN’T HAVE ONE WITHOUT THE OTHER — THE “CHERNIGOV” TYPE

This is a Marian icon of the Chernigov (Черниговская/Chernigovskaya) type:

There are actually two old “Chernigov” type icons classified as “miracle working” in Russian Orthodoxy.  The second originated as a copy on canvas of the first, and when looking at various examples of subsequently painted icons of the two , one cannot really tell the difference from appearance alone.

Here is the title inscription of the example above:

It reads:

ЧЕРНИГОВСКИЯ ПРЕСВЯТЫЯ БОГОРОДИЦЫ
CHERNIGOVSKIYA PRESVYATUIYA BOGORODITSUI
“[The] Chernigov Most Holy Birth-giver of God.”

You will recall that the –iya ending of the first word is Church Slavic, but common practice is to use the Russian –aya ending for such titles in discussion and in writing, so we refer to this type as the Chernigovskaya — “Of Chernigov.”

Now when the icon has only the “Chernigov” title — like the one shown above — it generally represents examples painted after the original icon, which is more specifically known as the “Chernigov-Ilinskaya” (Chernigov-Elijah) type.   Examples representing the second icon — which was originally a copy of the first, but gained a reputation for miracle-working on its own — are technically known as the Черниговская Гефсиманская/Chernigovskaya-Gefsimanskaya (Chernigov-Gethsemane) — but confusingly, they may have only the same title as the first, so copies of these two related icons are constantly confused.

What that means is that unless a given icon of the Chernigov type is distinguished by the secondary title, one cannot tell from appearance alone whether one is looking at a rendering of the Chernigovskaya-Ilinskaya (Черниговская Ильинская), or of the Chernigov Gethsemane icon.  This example of the Chernigov-Ilinskaya is clearly identified as such by the title below:

Here is a closer view of the title inscription:

It reads:
Representation of the wonderworking icon of the Mother of God “Ilinskaya-Chernigovskaya, which is to be found in the Pecherskaya Church of the Holy Archistratigos Michael.

However a copy of the Chernigov-Gethsemane icon may only be identified as “Chernigov,” without the secondary title.  When one is uncertain, it is generally preferable to just go with the “Chernigov” title, and to assume it is based on the Chernigovskaya-Ilinskaya icon.

Here is the Chernigovskaya-Gefsimanskaya icon in the Gethsemane Skete:

Notice the obvious evidences of reworking, particularly visible in the title inscription:

And notice also the numerous votive rings, necklaces, etc. attached to the icon out of veneration and to show thanks for supposed answered prayers.

As for the origin stories of these two icons, the “Chernigovskaya-Ilinskaya” is said to have been painted by the monk Grigory Konstantinovich Dubenskiy in 1658. Five years later — in 1662 — word spread among the people that the icon was shedding tears.  No one was quite sure just what this supposed omen signified, though various interpretations were offered.  In any case, it made the icon famous.  This was followed by the usual addition of more “miracles” to its story, which is typical for icons classified as “wonderworking” in Russian Orthodoxy.  Some were even described in The Dew-wet Fleece (Руно орошенное/Runo oroshennoe), written by Dimitriy Rostovskiy.  The icon was kept at the Trinity-Il’insky Monastery near Chernigov, thus the secondary title.

The second “Chernigov” icon — the Chernigovskaya-Gefsimanskaya — was, as earlier mentioned, a copy of the first.  It was painted on canvas sometime around the middle of the 18th century.  It was eventually given to a girl named Alexandra Grigorieva Filippova, by a priest in Moscow named Ioann Alekseev, who had received it from a monk of the Trinity-Sergiyev Monastery. Alexandra, who kept it for many years, had the painting touched up — “renewed.”  In 1842 the icon was given to the Gethsemane Skete (thus its secondary title), and was kept in the Church of the Archistratigos Michael.  It’s first miracle of healing suppposedly happened on September 1, 1869, with the cure of a bedridden woman.

THE “MOVIE STAR” SAINT: ALEXANDER NEVSKIY

Those of you familiar with cinematic history will know the famous 1938 black and white movie Alexander Nevsky, with its remarkable musical score by Sergei Prokofiev.  It was directed by Sergei Eisenstein.  Those of you who have not seen it may watch the film (with English subtitles) here:

Many of those familiar with the movie have no idea that Alexander Nevsky/Nevskiy (Александр Невский ) is also considered a saint in Russian Orthodoxy, and there are many icons of him.  Here is one example, from the year 1880:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Two icons are above him:  the “Iverskaya” Marian icon on the left, and the standard “Lord Almighty” icon of Jesus at right.

Alexander Nevskiy was a prince in the great northern city of Novgorod during the time of the Mongol invasions in the early 1200s.  At that time Eastern Orthodox Novgorod was threatened on the West by Roman Catholic Swedes — the “Latins.”

Before Alexander went out to battle the Swedes, he went into the Church of Holy Wisdom to pray, and when he came out, he is said to have roused his men by saying,

Не в силе Бог, а в правде. Иные — с оружием, иные — на конях, а мы Имя Господа Бога нашего призовем!

God is not in power, but in truth.  Others are in armor — others are on horses — but we shall call on the name of our Lord God.

Tradition relates that one of his soldiers saw a kind of vision — a boat floating upon the water, and in the boat — dressed in crimson robes — were the first two “Russian” saints, the Princes Boris and Gleb. That was considered a sign that God was with Novgorod against its enemies, and Alexander and his forces defeated the Swedes in a battle at the Neva River on Juy 15, 1240.  That of course gave him his title — Alexander “of the Neva” — Alexander Nevskiy.  At the time, Alexander is said to have been only 19.  There is some doubt among historians as to the historical authenticity of this victory over the Swedes, but it is part of the traditional tale of Alexander.

To film buffs, however, his most famous battle was that against the Teutonic Knights, whom he met at frozen Lake Peipus/Peipsi — which the Russians call  Чудское озеро/Chudskoe ozero –on April 5th of 1242.  I won’t tell you what happened there, because if you have not seen the Eisenstein movie, I don’t want to give a “spoiler.”

Alexander developed good relations with the Mongol Golden Horde, and paid regular tribute as a vassal prince.  He was made Grand Prince (Velikiy Knyaz) of Vladimir in 1252, and died some 12 years later.  Shortly before his death he became a monk and put on a monk’s habit.

Alexander was officially “glorified” as a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow in 1547, and is commonly given the title Благоверный Великий Князь/Blagovernuiy Velikiy Knyaz’ — “Pious/Orthodox Great Prince.”

There is of course much more to his traditional “life,” and this is just a brief summary.

As the centuries passed, Alexander became an important national symbol for Russia.  He is depicted in two quite different ways.   Early icons and those of the Old Believers show him dressed as a monk, as in this 16th century Moscow icon that titles him Blagovernuiy Knyaz’ Velikiy Alexandr Nevskiy Chudotvorets — “Pious Prince Great Alexander Nevskiy, Wonderworker.”

Post-schism State Church iconography, however, favored showing him in military and royal garb — often standing by a table on which lay his scepter and crown, as in this example from the late 19th-beginning of the 20th century:

It is only in recent years that the Russian Orthodox Church — the State Church, that is — began advocating a return to the old iconography depicting him as a monk.  Old Believer icons always preferred showing Alexander in a monk’s habit.

 

THOMAS AND THE TANGLE OF INTERPRETATION

Here is a fresco in the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, in Greece.  It depicts a well-known scene from the Gospel called “of John” (20:24-29):

At the top, we see the title:

Ἡ ΨΗΛΆΦΗCΙC
or in full,

Ἡ ΨΗΛΆΦΗCΙC  ΤΟΥ ΘΟΜΆ
HE PSELAPHESIS TOU THOMA
“The Touching of Thomas,”

or as it would better be rendered in English,

“The Touching by Thomas.”

In Russian examples, it is often called
Уверение Фомы
Uverenie Fomui
“[The] Assuring of Thomas.”

or
Уверование Фомы
Uverovanie Fomui
“[The] Belief of Thomas.”

The account in “John” says that the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples, and it continues:

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.

The other disciples therefore said  to him, We have seen the Lord [Greek ton kyrion]. But he said to them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be to you.

Then says he to Thomas, Reach here your finger, and look at my hands; and reach here your hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

And Thomas answered and said to him, My Lord and my God.

Jesus says to him, Thomas, because you have seen me, you have believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

It is noteworthy that this story of Thomas not believing the resurrection of Jesus until he touches the wounds inflicted by the crucifixion is not found in any other Gospel.  It is unique to John. That tells us the writer of John — whoever he was — had a particular theological interest in showing that Jesus — though risen — had a physical body.  There were other Christian groups at the time who believed that Jesus had no physical body, but only appeared to possess one.  Early Christianity was not monolithic, but consisted of a number of different Christian communities with differing beliefs.  The fixing of Christian teaching into “universally binding” dogmatic creeds came later, and was the result of the desire to eliminate such disagreements.

Now interestingly, this declaration of Thomas to Jesus, calling him “My Lord and my God,  has been a focus of endless controversy through the history of Christianity.  Some groups said it means that Thomas is here identifying Jesus as God himself.  Others said it cannot possibly mean that, given other statements about Jesus in the Gospels and elsewhere in the Bible.

The controversy is still going on within Christianity today.

While “John” obviously had a very high view of the nature and person of Jesus — much more blatantly so than the other gospels, he basically repeats the Hellenistic notion found also in Philo of Alexandria, that Jesus is in reality the Logos –– the Word, or better, the Reason, of the hidden God who functions in the world through the Logos as his emanation, using the Logos as his means of interacting with the world and with humankind — and even of creating “all things.”  So as Philo wrote, this Logos was a “second God.”  Students of classical Greek religion will recognize in this a more developed form of the same notion found in the tale of the origin of the Goddess Athena — the Goddess of Wisdom and intelligence (i.e “reason”) — who was born when she sprang forth from the forehead of Zeus, fully armed.

There was always much controversy in early Christianity over precisely in what sense Jesus was divine — whether he was actually the God, or divine in a somewhat lesser sense.  But controversy and bickering over doctrine has existed in Christianity from its very beginning.  In the writings of Paul — considered to be the earliest in the New Testament, we not only find Paul disagreeing with Peter and the Jerusalem Church, and in Galatians we even find the irritable Paul saying of other Christians with whom he disagreed on one point,

“Would that those who are stirring you up would castrate themselves.”
ὄφελον καὶ ἀποκόψονται οἱ ἀναστατοῦντες ὑμᾶς.

The arguing never stopped.  The Christian writer Origin quoted Celsus, the 2nd century Greek philosopher and opponent of Christianity, who said of the Christian groups of his time (Contra Celsum, 64):

You may hear, he says, all those who differ so widely, and who assail each other in their disputes with the most shameless language, uttering the words, ‘The world is crucified to me, and I unto the world.’

Regarding the declaration of Thomas  — “My Lord and my God” — those Christians who believed Jesus is God interpreted it as being addressed directly to Jesus by Thomas — Thomas declaring that Jesus is both Lord and God.

Some, however, had and have a different interpretation. In fact they have many different explanations of why this cannot possibly mean what it appears to mean — and cannot seem to settle on any one explanation as the definitive answer.  Sometimes they say it is just an exclamation, and not an address to Jesus as God; they appeal to the context, to other quotes in the Gospels that seem to indicate Jesus is not the God; or they say that perhaps it is an archaic manner of speaking no longer understood; some even use the excuse of Greek grammar, claiming that if Thomas had been directly addressing Jesus, he would have used the vocative case — that instead of saying

Ho kyrios mou kai ho theos mou

He would have said instead,

Kyrie mou kai thee mou

Interestingly we find the same grammatical construction — only with “Lord” and “Jesus” reversed in order —  in the Septuagint Greek Bible used by the early Christians, in Psalm 34:23:

ἐξεγέρθητι, κύριε, καὶ πρόσχες τῇ κρίσει μου, ὁ θεός μου καὶ ὁ κύριός μου, εἰς τὴν δίκην μου.

“Awake, Lord, and attend to my judgment, my God and my Lord, [even] to my cause.”

In Greek the text of “John” is:

ἀπεκρίθη Θωμᾶς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· Ὁ κύριός μου καὶ ὁ θεός μου.
apekrithe Thomas kai eipen auto: Ho kurios mou kai ho theos mou
literally,
“Answered Thomas and said to him:  The Lord of me and the God of me.”
Or, as we would put it in normal English,
“Thomas answered and said to him, ‘My Lord and my God.”

Of course there is a vocative Kyrie found at the very beginning of the sentence in which the parallel construction is found in the Psalm:

ἐξεγέρθητι, κύριε…
exegertheti kyrie…
“Awake, Lord…”

My point in discussing these esoteric matters is not to defend any side of the question here, but rather to point out that historically, there was never doctrinal agreement among various Christian groups from the very beginning of Christianity, not even on such a matter as who precisely, Jesus was — whether man, spirit, angel, a lesser god or the God.

When the matter came to a head in the 4th century during the reign of Emperor Constantine, and was put to a church council — the so-called “First Ecumenical Council,” the Council of Nicea — Constantine seems not to have much cared which opinion carried the day, as long as it stopped bickering Christians from creating divisions among the people of his empire.  It did not.

So historically in Christianity, there was and is still the question of just what John actually meant by having Thomas declare to Jesus “My Lord and my God.”  Many early Christians were subordinationists, believing that though Jesus was God, nonetheless, because he was begotten by the Father — or in other terms was an emanation of the hidden God — he was on a secondary and subordinate level to God the Father.  One even finds such an argument made in the Gospel of John (14:28):

You have heard how I said to you, I go away, and come again to you. If you loved me, you would rejoice, because I said, I go to the Father: for my Father is greater than I.

My reason for discussing all of this is not to intentionally bore you, but to point out some of the problems inherent in Christian history.  It is quite obvious that, given the full history of Christian doctrinal disagreement from the beginnings to now — disagreements obvious even in the earliest Hebrew and Greek manuscripts — that one can hardly successfully argue — as many fundamentalists do — for an inerrant Bible.  The frequent ambiguities of the component documents have contributed greatly to the ongoing differences among Christians as to just what was meant by this or that biblical writer.  And keep in mind that disagreements among Christians preceded the assembling of the various books of the New Testament, together with those of the Old Testament, into a Christian Bible.

Martin Luther got the Protestant Reformation underway with the principle of Sola scriptura — “Scripture alone” as the deciding authority in determining doctrine.  But as he quickly found, “Scripture” still requires interpretation, and others who disagreed with Luther’s interpretations began popping up almost immediately.

Christianity had earlier attempted (or at least the political and religious hierarchy had attempted) to solve the problem by saying that the determining authority as to what any part of the Bible means is the Church and Church tradition, which is the view of Roman Catholicism.  Eastern Orthodoxy has a similar approach; that the Church created the Bible, and the Church — through the writings of the Church Fathers and tradition — is the only authority in interpreting it.  Of course there are great numbers of other Christian groups who did and do disagree.

It all reminds one of Mark Twain’s remark:

Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion–several of them.

 

 

 

BORN WHERE? AND SON OF WHO?

In Eastern Orthodoxy, King David of the Old Testament is called both king and prophet.

We see that from the title inscription in this 17th century Russian icon:

It reads:

ПРОР[О]КЪ Ц[А]РЬ ДАВЫД
PROROK TSAR’ DAVUID
“Prophet King David”

The spelling of “David” is a bit unusual.  Usually it is ДАВИД, but as we know, icon inscriptions are sometimes spelled phonetically rather than following what we think of as standard.

In icons such as this one, David often holds a scroll:

It is a text found both in the Psalms (131:8-9, or 132 in the KJV)  and in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy:

Воскресени, Господи, в покой Твой, Ты и киотъ [святыни Твоея. Священницы Твои облекутся правдою, и преподобнии Твои возрадуются].

Voskrenseni, Gospodi, v pokoy tvoy, tui i kiot [svyatuini tvoeya.
Svyashchennitsui tvoi oblekutsya pravdoiu, i prepodobnii tvoi vozraduioutsya].

Arise, Lord, into your rest, you and the ark [of your holiness. Your priests shall be clothed in righteousness, and your venerable ones shall rejoice.]”

We may wonder why the ark is mentioned.  In Eastern Orthodoxy, the ark is considered a prefiguration of Mary, who is called the “Ark of the New Covenant.”  So the ark in this Psalm is regarded in such icons as referring to Mary and the incarnation of Jesus in her.  It is such rather far-fetched interpretations — of reading later dogmas back into the Old Testament — that contributed to David being called a prophet as well as king.

Now as anyone familiar with the Bible knows, Jesus is referred to as the “son of David,” who was born in the city of David — Bethlehem.  Well, that is one side of the story as related in the Gospels, but there is another, which we find in the Gospel called “of John.”

It is commonly held that “Mark” was the first of the four Gospels to be written, and that Matthew and Luke are edited, expanded books based on Mark.  Matthew contains about 97% of the material found in Mark, and Luke contains about 88%.  The Gospel “of John,” however, is 92% unique.  It has often quite different things to say of Jesus than we find in the other Gospels.

You will recall that Mark has no birth story about Jesus.  The writers of Matthew and Luke each added somewhat different birth stories to the beginning of their edited, expanded versions of the material of Mark, as well as adding stories of post-resurrection appearances of Jesus at the end.

One thing Mark and John have in common, however, is that unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark never says Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the “city of David.”  Like Mark, John gives no birth story of Jesus, other than the beginning chapter, which refers to him as the Logos that “became flesh, and dwelt among us.”  No place of birth is mentioned.  We do find, however, that in John, Jesus is several times called “Jesus of Nazareth,” as in John 1:45:

Philip finds Nathanael, and says to him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’

Now in the gospels called “of Matthew” and “of Luke,” Jesus is called the “son of David.”  And even in Mark, blind Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus (Mark 10:7), “Jesus, you son of David, have mercy on me.” Paradoxically, however, Jesus himself is described in “Mark” as asking how the scribes can say that the Messiah (the “Christ”) can be called the “son of David,” when David called the Messiah (in Jesus’ interpretation) “Lord.”

In any case, when we get to John, we find, as already stated, that there is no mention of a birthplace for Jesus, other than indicating he was from Nazareth, a tiny place in Galilee.  And when we find Bethlehem mentioned in John, it is in a very odd way.  There is a controversy among the people in Jerusalem over just who Jesus is.  In John 7:47, they say:

How is it that we know where this man is from?  But when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.”

And when Jesus spoke publicly, some said,

Truly, this is the prophet.” (John 7:40);

Others, however, said (7:41):

This is the Christ [i.e. the Messiah]. But some said, What, does the Christ come out of Galilee? Has not the scripture said that the Christ comes from the seed of David, and from Bethlehem, the village where David was? So there arose a division in the multitude because of him.”

So some of the people are saying no one will know where the Messiah comes from — but they do know where Jesus is from; and other people are saying that the scriptures say he is to be a descendant of David, and from Bethlehem.  There is no agreement.

Now it is noteworthy that no one in the crowd says, “Well, you know, Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem.”  Instead, to all appearances here, his origin is in Galilee, as we find in John 7:41:

Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee?”

Now if one discusses this excerpt with biblical fundamentalists, they will say that this exchange about Bethlehem and just where the Messiah was to be from was intended as a bit of irony — a kind of veiled reference to the fact that Jesus really was born in Bethlehem, as we know from the other Gospels.  But keep in mind that the Gospels were originally separate books, circulated separately.  And that Jesus was born in Bethlehem is never actually stated in “John,” and in fact the claim that Jesus is from Galilee rather than from Bethlehem is never contradicted in that gospel.  Remember that the people say, “We know where he is from. (John 7:47), and that place appears to be Galilee.  This gives us the strong impression that John did not hold Jesus to have been born in Bethlehem.

Adding further to that, and to the impression that the writer of John did not believe Jesus to be the “son of David,” we find an interesting comparison.

In “Mark,” when Jesus has his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, we read (11:9-10):

“And they that went before, and they that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna; Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord:
Blessed be the kingdom of our father David, that comes in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest.”

And in “Matthew,” we find (21:9)

And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.

And in 21:15:

“And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the son of David; they were sore displeased….”

Yet strangely, when we come to the parallel account in “John,” all reference to David and the “son of David” is absent (12:12-13):

John-12-12:

On the next day many people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him,and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that comes in the name of the Lord.”

In short, one gets the very strong impression that the writer of “John” — for his own reasons — did not hold that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, or that Jesus was descended from King David and so was the “son of David.”  We may conclude from this that he did not believe the Messiah required either of these qualifications. Of course rather fundamentalistic readers of the Bible just mentally gloss over all this, with many not noticing the discrepancies at all.

Here is another Russian icon of “Holy Prophet David”:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

This David, as you can see, has a different Church Slavic inscription on his scroll, though one we have already seen in a different context:

It is part of Psalm 109:3 (in Eastern Orthodox numbering; 110:3 in the KJV):

Из чрева прежде денницы родих Тя. Клятся Господь и не раскается: [Ты иерей во век по чину Мелхиседекову.]

Iz chreva prezhde dennitsui rodikh tya.  Klyatsya Gospod’ i ne raskaetsya: [Tui ierey vo vek po chinu Melkhisedekovy.]

“I have begotten you from the womb before the morning.  The Lord swore and shall not repent: [You are a priest forever after the order of Melchisedek.]”