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Pre-Constantinian and Byzantine Christian Attitudes towards Images

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Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...
Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church. Illustrates Jesus’ description of himself “I am the Good Shepherd” (from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 11). This version of the image shows the detail of his face. The memorial window is also captioned: “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Wright. Died 6th November, 1932. Aged 70 Yrs.”

Christian attitudes towards images in the early periods have been the subject of many scholarly debates over the more recent centuries.  First it seems necessary to look at the attitudes of Christians before the time of Constantine through the works of academics and Christian images themselves.  Scholars have often maintained that the attitude of the early Christians towards art was very negative.  Klauser set out to define proof of early Christian opposition to images based n the archaeology of the third and fourth centuries and believed that the attitude towards art was decidedly negative and aniconic.[1]  Finney assesses that the consensus view of images was primarily based on the Judaic roots of Christianity and Exodus 20:4.[2]You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters below.’[3]

It is difficult to analysis the attitudes towards images throughout both the pre-Constantinian and Byzantine periods let alone compare them and determine whether there was significant differences in attitudes between the periods.  One of the main reasons for the issues in analysis is the many varying opinions of recent scholars on the attitudes of early Christians.  Adolf Van Harnak for instance believed that early Christianity was undermined and thrown off track by Hellenic influence and that the new ideas and the manufacture of religious images was an intrusive and hostile move by the Greeks.[4] Klauser and Van Harnak among others appear to have set out to prove an opposition to images before the pre-Constantinian period.  This suggests that much of the evidence that scholars were examining of the era was in fact positive towards images.  So how is this positive view of images seen in the archaeology of the period and how does this attitude differ from the post-Constantine/Byzantine period if at all?

Klauser’s three step view of the changing attitudes of the early Christians towards artwork is an interesting standpoint by which to compare the archaeological and written evidence.  Klauser defined the pre-Constantinian period as iconophobic and aniconic on at least a clerical level.  The later periods are defined as a progression through the submission to pressures from the uneducated laity and then the introduction of images into the church itself as a compromise of early attitudes and practices that he describes as typically early Christian.[5]  With these points in mind it is possible to compare and assess the attitudes of the early Christians on art, keeping in mind that the views of the laity and the clerical classes would often differ.  Belting for instance explains that ‘whenever images threatened to gain undue influence within the church, theologians have sought to strip them of their power’[6] where as Klauser’s interpretation of attitudes includes the views of the people being a contributing factor in the placement of images in churches.

The Catacombs at Rome provide a unique standpoint from which the attitude to art and images can be analysed for the first centuries of the Christian religion.  Until recently with the works of Wilpert, the monumental nature of images in the catacombs has been widely ignored.[7]  The catacombs contain a large variety of early Christian artwork and imagery dating from the first to the fifth century AD.[8]  The evolution of imagery can through these examples be traces and in relation the attitudes towards images of the early Christians.  For instance, the earlier images in the catacombs consist of many traditionally pagan ideologies and symbols that have been inserted into a Christian context to serve as part of the new religion with either the same ideas behind them or an idea sculpted to suit a more Christian framework.  The images from the fourth and fifth centuries show an evolution to more crude and clumsy interpretations of the Christian artwork, indicating a change in attitude.  This suggests that the attitudes of the early Christian population pre-Constantine were largely based on a traditional foundation where as the later periods saw a change in attitudes and in relation a change in the imagery displayed.

Virgin and Child. Wall painting from the early...
Virgin and Child. Wall painting from the early catacombs, Rome, 4th century.

Pre-Constantinian attitude to images can also be assessed through the interpretations made of the images in the Rome Catacombs.  Richter asserts that the outcome of the art is very sure of itself indicating that the portrayal of images in a Christian context was a widely accepted and perhaps desirable part of the Christian tradition in the pre-Constantinian period.[9]  This idea is also expressed by the evidence of conformity to prototypes seen in the catacombs which suggests that certain images were widely displayed.  For instance, two images of the good shepherd in the catacomb of Domitilla which resemble each other in ‘conception and motive, but differ in important details…although evidently deprived from a common prototype.’[10]  Other images in the catacombs that appear to conform to a common prototype include the breaking of bread and the adoration of the Magi.[11]  Along with this evidence of commonality, scholars have asserted in recent years that the Christians wished to adorn the tombs of their loved ones with images like those that had been put up in their earthly homes, indicating a link to traditional classical antiquity that the early Christians seem to have continued in part whether purposely or subconsciously.[12]  These points indicate that the Christians of the pre-Constantine period actually held images in some regard despite the opinions of the likes of Van Harnak and Klauser.

Finney asserts that the early third century and before, though being a time of artistic license for much Christian artwork, was also a time of aniconism where many Christians did see images and the display of those images as being against their beliefs.  Finney though also attributed external forces to changing this view suggesting that the negative attitude towards images in relation to the early Christians was from near the beginning a part of their ideals but not so big a part of the overall christian attitude that I could not be swayed.[13]  For instance, in the pre-Constantinian period, Christians who carried out acts of violence directed at Pagan religious artworks would have ‘invited disaster’ suggesting that that attitude was pro-image or at least tolerant.[14]  This tolerance towards images is further evidence in Rome, Ravenna and in many other places in the west which saw works of great importance ‘executed in the early years of Christendom.’[15]

The attitudes of the early Christians towards images in the period of Constantine appear to be continually mixed.  The wide variety of ecclesiastical paintings and works of art displayed and attributed to this period suggests that the general attitude was positive rather than the negative view that Klauser and Van Harnak contribute.[16]  Constantine’s edict of Milan in 313 suggests that he aimed to impress the populace and express the new state religion in a way that would appeal to all.  These edicts saw a turning point in ecclesiastical history but not in art as the old pagan ideas and motifs were simply taken over and ascribed new meanings with few changes in style that could be attributed to the new faith.[17]  Constantine did this through the creation of elaborate churches, paintings and monuments to press the impression of the new religion of the state.[18]  This suggests that the general populace in the time of Constantine had an attitude that was decidedly positive and images were appealing rather than feelings concerning heresy. By impressing the populace in this manner it is indicative that the early Christians who were converted with the enforcement of the state religion and those who were already Christian were not opposed to images and they were accepted in this period as part of the religion itself.

Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as...
Mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, section: Maria as patron saint of Istanbul, detail: Emperor Constantine I with a model of the city.

There are many elaborate examples of images being used in conjunction with the new religion early on.  Eusebius for instance describes in his ecclesiastical history the church at Type and its painting and architecture as well as describing in his Vita Constantini the Christian monuments at Constantinople, Nicomedia and Antioch and the architecture of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem.[19]  From these descriptions we can assess that the attitude of Christians in the Constantinian period was not entirely negative with Constantine himself (though he is reported to only have become a Christian on his deathbed) encouraging a taste for the liberal arts.[20]  Not only does this express the appeal of artwork to the people and the encouragement of its creation but it also illustrates that with the influence of traditional and pagan attitudes, which were still a significant part of Constantine’s thinking and the state’s, the Christians of this period appear to have acknowledged that art and in relation images had there place in society.

The attitude of early Christian is also illustrated through examples such as the early Christian mosaic at Deir Dakleh.  Dating to about the fourth century AD and discovered in 1918, the mosaic is a fine example of the high standard of art and workmanship that prevailed in the period suggesting that the attitude towards images and artwork was not completely negative.[21]  Artwork such as this indicates again that attitudes were not always towards the negative like many scholars believe but the degradation of the artwork and how like many images it was covered up over time suggests that either by the process of time or influence of changing views even the most highly of praised artwork saw a period where it was in a way downgraded in the hearts of the Christian population.

The use of images was continued in classical themes and elegance in a number of areas after the time of Constantine, for instance in Alexandria long after the adoption of Christianity.[22] This illustrates further that the attitudes were often mixed within the Christian populace as while many condemned it on the influence of Exodus and certain clerical groups and individuals, the artwork of the periods after Constantine before the era of the iconoclast still depicts many classical symbols and traditional images.  Such examples showing this include the niloctic landscape first applied to church decoration in the second half of the fourth century suggesting some symbolic meaning.  Also the famous letter of St. Nilus to Olympiodorus discussing the increasing number of biblical scenes in churches, and scenes on the walls of St. Maggiore in Rome dating to the fifth century indicate an acceptance of imagery despite much negative attention by the church.[23]

The attitude towards the image in the Byzantine period was influenced greatly between then and the pre-Constantinian era.  The constant attack on art by the Christians is seen with the belief that images were linked to atheism and superstition as well as sexual misconduct, a common complaint based on observed behaviour and a link to Judaism.[24]  Images were also condemned in light of apologist standpoints, though Clement applies platonic doctrine to refute the charge of atheism, seeing images as belonging to the plane of error and falsehood as related to platonic doctrine.[25]  For instance, some of the earliest Christian apologists interpreted the story of Diagoras as being in good sense when he ‘recognised a statue as a ‘mere piece of wood and he had the good sense not to confuse divinity…with hyle, which is created and perishable.’[26] This illustrates one of the most prominent attitudes of clerical society on and off throughout the periods which would have influenced the attitudes of the early Christians towards art as the Byzantine period went on despite the regeneration of positive iconophilic ideas and desire for images.

The attitudes towards images however would have like anything been subject to regional diversity and political, cultural and religious spheres of influence.[27]  For example, it is evidence that the elites of the fifth century suddenly and purposely turned against classicism and artistic tradition.  This can be seen in a series of diptychs made by officials in the west.[28]  The fifth century saw many conflicts surrounding this point though works of art continued to be executed in private and public sectors pointing to a continual desire for images in churches by the public and the clerical majorities.  For instance, the detail on the dome at the church of St George at Thessaloniki, showing Saints Onesiphorus and Porphyrius.[29]  This indicates that while in some areas the attitudes towards images were negative especially to the upper classes that held power, in other areas images were being embraced still by the population.

Icons in the Byzantine period are an excellent source of assessment of changing and differing views on images in the period that we can use in our discussion of early Christian attitudes.  Throughout the Byzantine period icons were continually the subject of debate throughout the empire and in a number of Councils in the eighth century.  Belting’s point is considerably the case in relation to iconography as these councils indicate that many ecclesiastical and political groups and individuals condemned the use of art when held a position of power.[30]  The debate over iconography is particularly illustrated as the icon became motive enough for murder and political repression.[31]

From the outset the display of icons was recognised as an adaption of many pagan practices and hence debate on their use appeared almost instantly.[32]  In the eighth century they became the subject of much debate, Gregory of Neo-Caesarea for instance said that ‘the foul name of images, falsely so-called, cannot be justified by the tradition of Christ, nor can it be justified by the tradition of the apostles and the fathers’ at the council of Nicaea in 787.[33]  The opinion of Gregory of Neo-Caesarea, as the tradition of Christians can not justify giving images a foul name, is just one example of one side of the debate that raged for several centuries.  The second Iconoclastic council, that of 787, condemned the definition of the first Iconoclastic council at Hiereia in 754 held under the rule of Constantine V. Both councils and the content of their debates illustrate the strong differing opinions between the iconoclastic and iconophiles factions in the Byzantine world and the mixed attitudes of early Christians on images in this period.

An Iconoclast is describes in the Oxford English dictionary as a person who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions or ‘a person who destroys images used in religious worship, especially one belonging to a movement opposing such images in the Byzantine Church during the eight and ninth century.’ The Iconoclasts were a faction that had a strong holding in Byzantine society and their attitude towards images is a prime example of what many early Christians thought of images.  This iconoclastic attitude is one of the main reasons that attitudes towards images would have differed from the pre-Constantinian period compared to the Byzantine period.  This attitude whether held by the many or the few within the Christian population had a great influence on the exhibition and creation of images in the public and private sectors.  The influence of the iconoclastic movement would have stuck in the mind of the Christians just as the influence of an historical event or opinion sticks in the minds of anyone as displayed in our own morals and values today; they are based if not completely then at least slightly on those of the past.

The attitude of the majority of the Christian populace is seen with the restoration of icons under Irene from 780 to 802AD during her joint reign with her son Constantine VI.  This illustrates that the attitudes of the populace which Irene is said to have represented were some what differing from that of the powerful clerical individuals and groups in the period.[34]

Hagia Sophia provides us with an excellent source of interpretation for attitudes towards images in the Byzantine period after the Iconoclastic periods.  Hagia Sophia envelopes the trends Byzantine artworks after the controversies that, as discussed above, ruled the eighth and ninth centuries of Christian tradition and thought and expresses a newly registered desire for images to be portrayed that in many ways parallels earlier models.[35] Hagia Sophia also shows us that the attitude of the early Christians in the Byzantine period paralleled in some ways those of the pre-Constantinian age as the Christians looked again to antiquity to help represent aspects of the Christian faith.  For instance, the representation of Christ in the Byzantine times in comparison to pagan representations of Hermes, Dionysis or Apollo, and also often Zeus, Hades and Poseidon.[36]

The attitudes of early Christians in the Byzantine period, though maintaining much of earlier positive vibes that are assessed with the existence and form of pre-Constantinian imagery, was however subject to the influence of the controversies of the centuries.  Morey asserts that the Christians, while they returned to a less negative attitude towards images, remained instinctively distrustful of sculpture and similar forms of imagery due to them being ‘too real’ in their depiction of supernatural themes.[37]  Hagia Sophia is a prime example of how images evolved over time after the Christians decided to look for an ideal ‘commensurate with both the humanity and the divinity of the Son of God.’[38]  The images of Christ and his associates which were for so long through blasphemous by much of the Christian population is seen at places like Hagia Sophia in abundance, displaying how the attitude towards images returned to a more desirable want for them.  The attitude to these images is further backed up by the existence of inscriptions in the same or similar contexts.  For example the inscription on the face of the apsidal arch bearing a similar line to that preserved in the Palatine Anthology, ‘Icons which the imposters here destroyed, the pious sovereigns have restored again.’[39]

Christian Attitudes towards images changed and differed through out the periods from pre-Constantine to the Byzantine period.  Not only was it subject to change over the natural course of time but due to the events that define some of this time; the reign of Constantine, the reigns of emperors after Constantine, the iconoclastic councils and the establishment of an attitude in the majority of the population which was pro-icons. Due to these influential events, edicts and the like, though the attitudes of the early Christians towards images in the Byzantine period were in some ways similar to that of the Pre-Constantinian period, they also differed.  The attitudes of the early Christians throughout the ages is seen in a large number of examples such as the catacombs at Rome in relation to pre-Constantine and the Hagia Sophia in the later times.  These show that attitudes differed over time though some ideas were maintained and renewed at intervals.


Bibliography

An Early Christian Mosaic at Deir Dakleh, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.34, No.193 (Apr., 1919), pp.144-145

Belting, H., Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (London, 1996), pp.1-14, 17-26, 30-36, 49-63, 102-109, 144-155, 164-173, 184-195

Cameron, A., The Later Roman Empire: AD 284-430 (London, 1993), pp.14-92

Cormack, R., Byzantine Art (Oxford, 2000), pp.1-37, 38-75

Downey, G., Education in the Christian Roman Empire: Christian and Pagan Theories under Constantine and His Successors, in Speculum, Vol.32, No.1 (Jan, 1957), pp.48-61

Finney, P.C., The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art (Oxford, 1997), pp.1-15, 39-58, 69, 146, 229

Frend, W.H.C. Religion Popular and Unpopular in the Early Christian Centuries (London, 1976)

Frend, W.H.C., The Rise Of Christianity (Philadelphia, 1984), pp.600-610

Harl, K.W., Sacrifice and Pagan Belief in Fifth- and sixth-Century Byzantium, in Past and Present, No.128 (1990), pp.7-27

Hillgarth, J.N., Christianity and Paganism, 350-750: The Conversion of Western Europe (Pennsylvania, 1969), pp.46-65

Holy Bible: New International Version, Hodder and Stroughton (London, 1996), Exodus 20:4

Kitzinger, E., Byzantine Art in the Making: Main Lines of Stylistic Development in Mediterranean Art 3rd-7th Century (Massachusetts, 1980), pp.7-22, 45-66

Laistner, M.L.W., Christianity and Pagan Culture in the Later Roman Empire (New York, 1951), pp.4, 131-138

Mango, C., The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453 (Canada, 1986), pp. 3-21, 32-50, 55, 113-117, 123-181

Mathews, T.F., The Art of Byzantium (London, 1998), pp.7-9, 17-32, 43-70, 111, 137-143

Michaelides, D., The Early Christian Mosaics of Cyprus, in The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol.52, No.4, From Ruins to Riches: CAARI on Cyprus (Dec., 1989), pp.192-202

Morey, C.R., The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol.2, No.7 (Mar., 1944), pp.201-210

Richter, J.P., Early Christian Art in the Roman Catacombs, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.6, No.22 (Jan., 1905), pp.286-262

Spieser, J.M., The Representation of Christ in the Apses of Early Christian Churches, in Gesta, Vol.37, No.1 (1998), pp.63-73

Talbot Rice, D., Art of the Byzantine Era (London, 1997), pp.47-67, 132-135

Talbot Rice, D., Byzantine Icons, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.86, No.506 (May., 1945), pp.127-128

Treadgold, W., A History of the Byzantine State and Society (California, 1997)

Vermeule III, C.C., Roman Art, in Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol.20, No.1, Ancient Art at The Art Institute of Chicago (1994), pp.62-77

Whittemore, T., The Unveiling of the Byzantine Mosaics in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, in American Journal of Archaeology, Vol.46, No.2 (Apr.-Jun., 1942), pp.169-171


[1] Finney, P.C., The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art (Oxford, 1997)

Kitzinger, E., Byzantine Art in the Making: Main Lines of Stylistic Development in Mediterranean Art 3rd-7th Century (Massachusetts, 1980), p.9

[2] Ibid., p.15

[3] Holy Bible: New International Version, Hodder and Stroughton (London, 1996), Exodus 20:4

[4] Finney, op.cit., p.8

[5] Finney, op.cit., p.10

[6] Belting, H., Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (London, 1996)

Cormack, R., Byzantine Art (Oxford, 2000), p.1

[7] Richter, J.P., Early Christian Art in the Roman Catacombs, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.6, No.22 (Jan., 1905), p.286 – even though the source for this information is rather old in comparison to today’s newer resources, written 1905, it is still a well defined and structured description of the catacombs at Rome and holds significance evidence of points that are unchanged in the century since it’s publication.

[8] Ibid., p.287 – fifth century is the latest date that can be given to the catacombs images with any certainty as the latest inscription found in the catacombs does not go higher than this century.

[9] Richter, op.cit., p.290

[10] Ibid., p.290

[11] Ibid., p.292

[12] Ibid., p.292

[13] Finney, op.cit., p.9

[14] Ibid., p.39

[15] Talbot Rice, D., Art of the Byzantine Era (London, 1997), p.7

[16] Finney, op.cit., p.8

[17] Talbot Rice, op.cit., p.9

[18] Mango, C., The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453 (Canada, 1986), p.3

[19] Eusebius, Hist. Eccles X, 4.37ff – the church of Tyre (c.317) – describing painting in 63 – Mango, op.cit., p.9

[20] Cod.Theod XIII, 4.1 – edict of Constantine to the Praetorian Prefect Felix, posted at Carthage in 334 – ‘need as many architects as possible…encourage…a taste of liberal arts’ – Mango, op.cit., p.14

[21] An Early Christian Mosaic at Deir Dakleh, in The Burlington Magazines for Connoisseurs, Vol.34, No.193 (Apr., 1919), p.145

[22] Talbot Rice, op.cit., p.14

[23] Mango, op.cit., p.22

[24] Finney, op.cit., p.40

[25] Ibid., p.43

[26] Ibid., p.49

[27] Kitzinger, E., Byzantine Art in the Making: Main Lines of Stylistic Development in Mediterranean Art 3rd-7th Century (Massachusetts, 1980), p.45

[28] Ibid., p.47

[29] Ibid., p.54

[30] Belting, op.cit., p.1

[31] Mathews, T.F., The Art of Byzantium (London, 1998), p.43

[32] Ibid., p.45

[33] Finney, op.cit., p.5

[34] De sacris aedibus Deiparae ad fontum, p.880, Mango, op.cit., p.156

[35] Morey, C.R., The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol.2, No.7 (Mar., 1944), p.202

[36] Ibid., p.202

[37] Ibid., p.202

[38] Ibid., p.202

[39] Morey, op.cit., p.206

Mark 7:31-37, The Healing of a Deaf and Mute Man

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Mark 7.31-37 records the miracle story of the healing of a deaf and mute Man.  This post will explore the verses and their connection to redaction, history and tradition.

Mark 7.31 describes the journey of Jesus and his disciples to the area in which this miracle of the healing of a deaf and mute man takes place.  When one looks at this journey on a map, the first thing that stands out is that Jesus appears to make a massive detour by going North and through Sidon from his starting point in Tyre. It is difficult to surmise why Jesus is said to take this root. Its absurdity indicates that the trail was historically accurate, simply because why would anyone make up such a detour and then not give pause to explain the addition. It has been suggested that Jesus took this route in an attempt to gain the necessary seclusion for the instruction of the Twelve which he had twice before failed to gain.[1] This is demonstrated in Mark 6.31-32, ‘Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat…So they went to a solitary place.’ Mark 7.24 closely precedes the miracle story in Mark 7.31 following.  It again demonstrates this required seclusions; ‘Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence a secret.’

Decapolis, the area of Jesus’ destination, was a ten-city group on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. Eusebius explains that the region included Hippose, Pella, Scythopolis, Philadelphia, Gerasa, Dion, Kanatha, Damascus, Raphana and Gadara (the site of the famous healing baths).[2] Each of the ten cities included numerous smaller settlements and dominated trade routes.  This presented Jesus and his disciples with an abundance of people, especially of the middle and lower classes, to which to expose to his teachings. Decapolis is also mentioned in Mark 5.20.  This occurrence acts as a preliminary exposure for the people of the region; ‘So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.’ This verse similarly parallels the reaction of the people in Mark 7.37. It is interesting to remember that the places mentioned in Jesus’ journey were inhabited by a large number of Gentiles, especially Decapolis which was a nominally Gentile region.

The state of the disabled man is interesting in its description.  The inability to speak clearly does not necessary mean that the man is neither dumb nor mute; more so it could be caused by the man’s deafness. The term μογιλαλον is a rarely found word which only again occurs in Isaiah 35.6; ‘Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the mute shall sing; for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.’ This verse in Isaiah and its preceding verses suggest that the wording of Mark was referring to a much earlier tradition from the Old Testament in Isaiah 35. Μογιλαλον could also mean ‘stammerer’ which would attest the man’s inability to articulate due to his deafness.

The movement away from the crowd in Mark 7.33 may have simply been to avoid the distraction and the unnecessary publicity. This verse could emulate the idea presented by Jesus’ journey mentioned above; an attempt to gain some seclusion in which to teach and perform his miracles. The reason for this act remains under debate. The act appears elsewhere in Mark 8.23 which could suggest a link to the secrecy motif in Mark and the association of Jesus’ identity and his actions which will be explored later in this paper.

Reasons that are possible for the act of taking aside from the crowd could be as simple as to conceal the manner of the cure, in order to be not distracted, and not to attract unwanted attention. This may be part of the historical Jesus, a window into his thought processes and attitude to what he was doing.  Similarly it is indicative of an addition by Mark in accordance with his motives to keep the identity of Jesus quiet within the population until the end; while maintaining Jesus’ relation to divinity and keeping the audience of his gospel informed.

Jesus’ methodology in curing the man is full of vivid detail which is indicative of the Markan gospel. Jesus put his fingers in the man’s ears. Then spat and touched his tongue. On first observation one notes that Jesus is identifying the ailments for everyone to see. There have been some hypotheses suggesting that Jesus is more so communicating with the man here saying that he understands his pain. This is a plausible hypothesis as it initially shows that Jesus can relate to human suffering. One hypothesis goes so far as to suggest that it is a form of sign language, while possible, the argument made in its favour is far too simplistic.

Medicine in this time and region was basically inexistent. Morton Smith explains that healing institutions and medicine remains primitive in Israel to this very day, and that in ancient times anyone with healing ‘powers’ was upheld in high regard by the population and highly sought after.[3] One of the main cures that healers provided was simply the placebo effect that accompanied the use of charms and medicinal cures. Jesus’ methodology for curing the deaf and mute man is indicative of the placebo healing method. Jesus was by then known for his cures and teachings and people really believed that they would be cured and hence were by faith alone in many cases. The healing in this story appears to be designed to evoke the co-operation of faith and to present the idea that, with faith, you will be opened to the will and teachings of Christ. Mark’s gospel often acted as a handbook, this story could have been used by Mark to convey this instruction. The ability of Jesus’ hands and saliva to heal is also suggestive to the audience of his divine nature. That he could remove the sins by simple actions.

The use of saliva was a significant and accepted remedy in the period and region. It is also seen in Mark 8.23, ‘He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spat on the man’s and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”’ The appearance of this cure in John 9.6 is implicit of the acknowledgement of saliva as a remedial cure; ‘Having said this, he spat on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes.’ The use of saliva was a well-known remedy mentioned even in Pliny the Elder. Pliny’s Naturalis Historia contains a whole chapter on the remedial uses of human saliva. Pliny first notes what Marcion of Smyrna says on the remedy before noting that Salpe (a female healing authority) believed that saliva could cure numbness if applied correctly.

  1. The Efficacy of Saliva

Stiffness is removed from any numbed limb if you spit into your bosom or if the upper eyelids are touched with Saliva. [4]

Placement of the hands in order to heal is repeated several times throughout the synoptics and could be interpreted as an acknowledged healing procedure in the period or an illustration of Jesus’ powers to heal. Mark 5.23 reads ‘Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.’ This healing touch is also expressed in Mark 6.56; ‘…they placed the sick in the market places.  They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.’  This suggests that Mark uses the touch of Jesus in Mark 7 as he does elsewhere, as a mark of Jesus’ divinity and that faith heals. Luke similarly emulates this healing technique and the message of divinity and faith in 4.40; ‘When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them.’ The touching of the ears is found in one notable synoptic comparison with Luke 22.51.  This verse tells of the who’s ear has been severed and Jesus heals him by touching the afflicted body part.

The look up to heaven and accompanying sigh in 7.34 give a connection to heaven and the divine that suggest that they are involved in the healing of the deaf and mute man. The sigh is an indication not that Jesus had difficulty in healing the man, but more likely a representation of the feelings Jesus felt.  This links back to Jesus’ human side, his ability to relate to humanity, to be human.  This is an important idea in Mark’s gospel as well as the other synoptics.  Luke particularly represents Jesus as the perfect ‘man’; as an example to humanity.

The sigh is an indication of Jesus’ emotions concerning the man and the compassion he feels towards him.  He is expressing his pity for the hardships of human life and the horrible things that can happen to undeserving people.  It is this form of human emotion and relation with Mark often likes to express in his gospel in relation to Jesus.

The magic word “Ephphatha!” used in Mark 7.34 could be a sign of the historical Jesus.  It means ‘be opened’ in Aramaic which many believe Jesus spoke along with Greek and Hebrew. Nazareth, where Jesus is said to originate from, was primarily Aramaic-speaking. The use of the word in this miracle story is implicit of the historical Jesus as Aramaic was a common language in the first century AD in Israel and the surrounding areas. The New Testament contains many examples of Aramaic (and Hebrew) additions, including Ephphatha. Some scholars believe that the gospel writers had access to Aramaic sources which they took from.  For instance, Q was possibly a collection of Aramaic writings. So the use of the Aramaic word and phrase may be representative of source material as well as the historical Jesus.

Other examples of the inclusion of Aramaic and Hebrew phrase are found throughout Mark.  Mark 5.41 includes the phrase Ταλιθα κουμ (טליתא קומי) which is Aramaic in a Greek transliteration. This generally translates to ‘Little girl, Get up.’ Mark 14.36 contains the Aramaic word Αββα (אבא) in Greek transliteration which is originally an Aramaic form borrowed into Hebrew. This phrase is also found in Romans 8.15 and Galatians 4.6. Εφφαθα (אתפתח) could be the passive imperative of the verb ‘to open’ and is also given in Greek transliteration, similarly to these other examples. Mark’s explanation of the word at the end of Ephphatha is indicative of his writing for a Gentile audience which he believed required him to provide some often highly detailed explanations.

In the days of Jesus, ailments such as deafness and muteness were often seen as either punishment for sin or possession by demons.  Jesus’ ability to cure these ailments presents him as one who can forgive sin and overcome demons.  This picture of Jesus would have been a powerful illustration of who Jesus was.  This may account further for the secrecy at the end of the story in relation to Mark’s addition of the Messianic secret.  The curing of the man highlights the identity of Jesus, so though the actual command for secrecy does not deal with the identity of Jesus as the Messiah, the miracle story as a whole attests to the fact.

Mark 7:37 expresses the amazement of the people who witnessed the miracle. This amazement is a logical reaction to witnessing such an act; even in this enlightened day one still is in awe of even a simple magic trick.  But why was this added to this particular story? Firstly, it is by far not the first inclusion of the reaction.  It appears numerous times throughout Mark (Mark 6.51, 5.42, 1.22, 16.8). The multiple uses of this reaction indicate that Mark is attempting to highlight the extraordinary nature of Jesus’ acts and teachings.  This amazement in turn would have provided a base for the revelation of Jesus’ identity at the end of the gospel. It is difficult to isolate whether this feature is redactional or historical, it is too logical a reaction for this to be determined; it could be both.

The amazement in hand with the people’s reaction in talking more about the miracle also says something of the Jesus presented in Mark’s gospel. It presents Jesus as a man of humility in that he wishes not to proclaim his own achievements; he is seen as a modest soul. This could be interpreted as Jesus setting an example, a form of his teaching.  Jesus, as the messiah, is not likely to be represented as one in danger of being ostentatious. The taking away from the crowd, the amazement expressed by the people and their talking of the act is implicit of the historical Jesus in that he would have recognised that there were those that saw him as an evil doer.  By taking the man away from the crowd Jesus limits the audience to only those who may have faith already or a wish for faith.  The amazement expressed by the audience and the modesty of Christ mean that others are more likely to believe what they are told.

The people talk more about the act the more Jesus asks them not too, which is essentially a logical and human reaction to being amazed or on hearing something unusual. Mark’s motive and Jesus’ attitude will be discussed below concerning this addition but first one should consider the message that this verse conveys in relation to its placement and context. It can be interpreted readily as if our ears are open to the teachings of God and Christ then we will have our tongues loosened to praise and prayer.[5] So while this verse appears to be an act of human nature, it also potentially holds an important message which coincides with Mark’s purpose.  It is instructional in that it outlines the benefits and result of opening oneself to God’s teachings; just as the man who is healed is ‘opened’ to the world.

The line ‘he has done everything well’ is an interesting point for interpretation It is plausible that this line refers to the idea which is pushed in all the synoptics that Jesus is the exemplar man. Luke particularly raises this view of Jesus. Mark 7.31-37 emulates that Jesus is indeed human in that he understands human reaction and emotion.  It also, in this line, expresses that he is what humans should be; someone who does things well, to the best of their ability, who understands others and forgive sins (just as he forgives the sins which are metaphorically the ailments of the deaf and mute man.)

Mark 7.36 expresses Jesus’ command to the witnesses not to tell anyone of the event that had taken place. This is not the only indication of secrecy in the Markan gospel; Mark 1.43-44, Mark 5.43 and Mark 7.24, and their synoptic counterparts (Matthew 8.4 and Luke 5.14 for 1.43-44, and Luke 8.56 for Mark 5.43) exhibit this also. There is evidence to suggest that these miracle stories and this command for secrecy was not directly to do with the messianic secret because the actual identity of Jesus is not an issue. Mark’s secrecy motif though indicates that the gospel writer did acknowledge these acts as works of the Messiah.[6]  This indicates a link between Jesus’ commands and the Messianic secret. It is possible that this was the originally use of these sayings, to provide a link between the identity of the Messiah and the acts that he performed.  When one considers redaction then Mark could have recorded the verses without their original sense (the link to the identity of the Messiah), if he chose to interpret them in a different way.

Jesus’ wish for secrecy appears obvious, but this assumes the attitude of Jesus based purely on his words and not on reaction.  With Jesus telling the people not to talk of the miracle, they talked more.  By this time Jesus would have surely been aware of the reaction people would have to his miracles and his commands.  Jesus’ intention could have been a form of reverse psychology which acted as a catalyst for the spread of the story.  This is though an issue of interpretation, attitude and redaction criticism which remains in contest.

Mark 7.31-37

31.) Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis.

32.) There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged him to place his hand on him.

33.) After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spat and touched the man’s tongue.

34.) He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means, “Be opened!”).

35.) At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue loosened and he began to speak plainly.

36.) Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it.

37.) People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

Matthew 15.29-31

29.) Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down.

30.) Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them.

31.) The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

Luke 4.38-44

38.) Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Jesus to help her.

39.) So he bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them.

40.) When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them.

41.) Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Christ.

42.) At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them.

43.) But he said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”

44.) And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea.

Matthew 15.29-31 provides us with the means for synoptic comparison for the healing of the deaf and mute man miracle in Mark. Matthew’s version is a summarised version but still maintains several key features of the Markan version. These include; Jesus’ journey down the Sea of Galilee, the great crowds that confront Jesus and his disciples, the healing miracles (though they are more general and there is no detail in Matthew), the amazement of the people and their clear need to tell and praise what they had seen. Matthew’s version does not have the same emphasis and focus that Mark’s has but it maintains its placement and essence.

Matthew’s version is likewise placed between the two feedings and straight before the feeding of the 4000. The two feedings in Matthew illustrate the Markan priority Matthew generally exhibits; however the healing here, while having similarities, is outside the Markan priority.  This was probably in part due to Matthew’s differing motives and foci, but there is also evidence that Matthew decided to take this story from a separate independent source.  This is seen in the Greek wording in comparison to Mark. Unlike the feedings, the healings in Matthew have very few of the same words and phrase that Mark uses.  The only initial similarity in wording is seen in the ‘Sea of Galilee.’ One would expect that Matthew would at least use the same term for mute or amazement if he was taking from Mark, but he does not.  This suggests that Matthew and Mark both had sources which told of Jesus’ journey and healing of men but these sources were independent to the authors and both made their choices based on personal preference, if indeed they had a choice or more than one source. Matthew for instance, was not so concerned about the secrecy motif and so did not require additions concerning identity and secrecy.

Luke again only summarises the healing of many and does not recall the instance in Mark 7.31-37. Luke 4.38-44 tells of many people bringing Jesus various kinds of sickness and Jesus laying his hands on them healed them. Luke does not maintain the placement that we see in Matthew and Mark. Luke does though emphasise that Jesus wished to keep his title as the Son of God quiet; he silences the demons that shout ‘You are the Son of God!’ and would not allow them to speak because ‘they knew he was the Messiah’ (Luke 4.41). This indicates that Luke, like Matthew, knew of stories telling the journey and healings of Jesus but sources or at least motives differed between the synoptics.

Luke 4.43 emphasises an idea which, as discussed, could be behind the long detour that appears in Mark 7.31. Luke 4.43 expresses the travelling that Jesus must do to spread the word of God; this is expressed in Mark in the journey Jesus takes to Decapolis. There is also the need for privacy to teach which complements the idea that Jesus wished to get away from the crowds; if not to keep his divine identity a secret, then to teach his disciples in peace. Luke 4.44 shows that Luke’s audience and motive were unlike Mark’s which may explain the summarising of this miracle. Luke clearly highlights synagogues and Judea. From this, we see that Luke wrote for a Jewish audience or at least one with foreknowledge of Jewish customs. Luke, and similarly Matthew, did not need to provide such a Gentile orientated and specific miracle, so they could have easily decided to omit it or summarise it. Mark’s audience and motive benefitted from the inclusion of this miracle in full.

The miraculous healing in Mark 7.31-37 is part of two cycles of stories which each contain a water based miracle, three healings and a feeding. The healing of the deaf and mute man is accompanied by the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 6.45-51), and the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7.24-30). The placement of the miracle in Mark 7.31-37 is interesting considering its placement between the two feeding stories in Mark (the feeding of the 5000 and of the 4000). The healing of the blind and mute man illustrates the opening of the mind, mouth and ears.

During the feeding of the 5000, the disciples question the motives and actions of Jesus which requires Jesus to use strong imperatives. During the feeding of the 4000, after the miracle story has occurred, the disciples are more cooperative and confess their lack of understanding. The healing of the deaf and mute man represents the need for open ears to the teaching and actions of Jesus, and it is with this understanding that the attitude of the disciples appears to change as seen in the second feeding. This is further shown in the use of words within the two feedings; ‘During those days ANOTHER large crowd gathered’ (Mark 8.1), the repetition of ‘How many loaves do you have,’ and ‘ this remote place.’ The repetition suggests that the two feedings are meant to be at least associated with each other if not with the miracle stories which separate them.

Mark 7.31-37 is indicative of Mark’s writing for a specific audience. Mark probably wrote for the Christian community of which he himself was a part of; a mainly gentile audience. This is exhibited in Mark’s explanatory remarks such as with Ephphatha, ‘which means “Open up”’.  A Jewish/Palestinian audience likely would be aware of its meaning due to its Aramaic and Hebrew connections; a Gentile audience would require the explanation. Mark’s decision to write in Greek also suggests that his audience was made up of non-Jews. If Mark was writing for a Jewish audience it falls to reason that he would not have included such explanations and language.

Mark’s audience is important because the audience is in the role of the ‘privileged observer.’ In this role they are able to experience things that only the character of Jesus is privy to, such as the meaning beside the seclusion from the crowd, the importance of the detour in his journey and the actions of sighing and looking towards heaven before undertaking the healing miracle act. This is emphasised elsewhere in Mark, for instance, at the baptism when God speaks “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Only Jesus and the audience are privy to this event.

Where this miracle story originally was sourced from is highly debatable, especially since the synoptics do not have specific parallels. As discussed earlier, both Luke and Matthew have accounts of Jesus healing the deaf and the mute; however, these accounts are highly generalised in comparison to Mark.  From other parallels it is fairly certain that Luke and Matthew had access to Mark.  This makes for an interesting point of enquiry, especially for Matthew who usually expressed a Markan priority. It is possible that Luke and Matthew both decided that the miracle was not significant enough to express the Markan priority in this case.  Considering the differing motives of all three synoptics, this is plausible, especially when one considers that they did not make entirely the same decision. This is seen in Matthew’s placement of the healing miracle account at the same point as Mark’s where Luke decides to place it closer to the beginning of his gospel with even less emphasis.

All the synoptics appear to have knowledge of the healing miracles which suggests that both Luke and Matthew either used independent sources or summaries or made the personal decision to summarise the account. It is plausible that Mark’s choice to include the account in detail was a decision relating to his audience and motifs.

Mark could have viewed this story as an opportunity to express the link to his Gentile audience. Tyre, Sidon and Decapolis, as mentioned, were historically areas of non-Jews; this would have created an association which appealed to his audience; made them part of Jesus’ journey and teachings. Matthew and Luke did not require this association with their not specifically Gentile audiences. Mark’s secrecy motif is also strongly expressed in this miracle story and Mark could have consciously chosen to convey the story with this in mind, catering his account to further highlight and evolve this motif to include not just the identity of Jesus in himself but his identity through the acts which he performed.

The parallels to this miracle story are not confined to the biblical texts. There are parallels which suggest further that the healing of the deaf and mute man was a story based in history and tradition. Tradition is exhibited by the healing spells that make up a large part of the Greek Magical Papyri.  In the time of Jesus, there was a strong tradition of miraculous healing with the use of bodily fluids, magical words and the touching of afflicted areas.  The Epidauros inscriptions contain parallels where the God Asklepios was said to touch the afflicted area and heal the ailments in dreams.

A man who had the fingers of the hand crippled except one came to the God as a supplicant…While sleeping he saw a vision…the God appeared and seized upon the hand and stretched out its fingers. As it turned out, he seemed to bend the hand to stretch the fingers one by one. When he straightened all of them, the God asked him if he still disbelieved the inscriptions upon the tablets of the temple. He said “No.”[7]

Like the miracle story in Mark, this inscription tells of belief on witnessing the acts of a divine figure. Such parallels show that there is a historical acknowledgement of these forms of healing and also a basis, if not in biblical traditions, then in the healing traditions of the society in which the authors lived.

There is the idea that obstructions can be removed in order to cure ailments; an acknowledged healing tradition which could refer to both physical and metaphorical obstructions. Tacitus tells of how deformities and ailments could be healed if a healing for e were applied.[8] This refers to the will of the Gods and divine service an interest similarity to the looking up to heaven and the divine identity of Jesus in Mark 7.31-37.

Mark 7.31-37 and the synoptic miracles certainly have a basis in Jewish tradition. jBerakoth 9.1 and Deuteronomy 4.7 both tell of a Jewish boy who calms the sea with prayers to God. The divine presence and prayer appears to be an important part of many of these miracle stories, just as it is in Mark 7.31-37 with Jesus’ sigh and silent appeal towards heaven.

The miracle stories in the synoptics make up only a fraction of the miracle or miracle-like stories which are recorded or referred to in ancient literature. It is a genre which the biblical authors adopt for their own purposes. Iamblichus in his Life of Pythagoras records that Pythagorus mastered the Daunian bear, a miracle in that it was thought impossible; a creature that harmed the surrounding population.[9] He also tells of omens, symbols and signs that are often related to miracles, which parallels miracle stories such as the appearance of the doves at the baptism of Jesus. Iamblichus even refers to the calming of storms; a parallel to one of the most well known synoptic miracles.

Mark 7.31-37 appears to be a collection of redactional, historical and traditional features which have been brought together to best fit the motive and audience of Mark.  The miracle of tis healing specifically caters for the understanding of Mark’s Gentile audience which suggests that Mark could have manufactured the story.  At the same time, there are indications of the historical Jesus in the use of Aramaic, the detour and the human side shown.  Ancient and biblical traditions also appear as seen by the magical and healing parallels throughout contemporary literature.

The question of sources here is a difficult one.  It is believed that Matthew and Luke both had access to the Markan account; and Matthew had a Markan priority.  Why then would Matthew not include the miracle in its Markan form? For Luke it was usual to omit Markan text in favour of independent sources or summaries.  This could suggest that Luke and Matthew had a source/s that they held in higher regard for this area of the text.  It is more likely that this miracle story was so heavily Markan and catering for Gentiles, that both Luke and Matthew independently decided to change it to suit them by making it generic. This hypothesis is based also on Matthew’s addition of the healing miracles at the same temporal place as Mark, showing a remnant of that Markan priority prevalent throughout the rest of Matthew.

Further Reading

Betz, H.D., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Chicago, 1986)

Cartlidge, D.R. and Dungan, D.L., Documents for the Study of the Gospels (Minneapolis, 1994), pp.151-164

Drane, J., Introducing The New Testament (Oxford, 1993)

Eusebius, Onomasticon, s.v

Goodrick, E.W. and Kohlenberger III, J.R., The NIV Handy Concordance (London, 1982)

Guthrie, D., Motyer, J.A., Stibbs, A.M., and Wiseman, D.J. (eds.) New Bible Commentary (Leicester, 1992)

Hay, L.S., Mark’s Use of the Messianic Secret, in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol.35, No.1 (Mar., 1967), pp.16-27

Lockyer, H., Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Cambridge, 1986)

Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (London, 1978)

Perrin, N., The Christology of Mark: A Study in Methodology, in The Journal of Religion, Vol.51, No.3 (Jul., 1971), pp.173-187

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (Trans. Bostock, J.)(London, 1855)

Tacitus, The Histories [http://www.novaroma.org/camenaeum/tacitus5.html] 4.81


[1] Guthrie, D., Motyer, J.A., Stibbs, A.M., and Wiseman, D.J. (eds.) New Bible Commentary (Leicester, 1992)

[2] Eusebius, Onomasticon, s.v

[3] Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (London, 1978)

[4] Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (Trans. Bostock, J.)(London, 1855) 28.38

[5] Guthrie, D., Motyer, J.A., Stibbs, A.M., and Wiseman, D.J. (Leicester, 1992), op.cit.,

[6] Hay, L.S., Mark’s Use of the Messianic Secret, in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol.35, No.1 (Mar., 1967), p.21

[7] Cartlidge, D.R. and Dungan, D.L., Documents for the Study of the Gospels (Minneapolis, 1994), p.151

[9] Cartlidge, D.R. and Dungan, D.L., (Minneapolis, 1994), op.cit., p.153

Theodora of Justinian: The Protectress of the Poor!

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Theodora. Detail from the 6th-century mosaic &...
Theodora. Detail from the 6th-century mosaic “Empress Theodora and Her Court” in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna.

Theodora was the wife of the Emperor Justinian of Byzantium who reigned from around 527AD.  Procopius explains that Theodora was born into a poor family in Constantinople and was one of three daughters; Theodora received no education and acted as would a male prostitute and a dancer.  Justinian fell in love with Theodora but was unable to marry her due laws relating to her low position in society.  However, Treadgold explains that Justinian managed to change the laws to allow repented prostitutes and actresses to be exempt from this law.  Theodora was an extremely clever and beautiful woman who became very educated after marrying Justinian and improving her status considerably.  Sarris accounts that Theodora was referred to by Procopius though as a meddlesome whore indicating controversy relating to her personality and background.  Treadgold assesses Theodora as being a Protectress to women as she used her influence to help them gain rights, she is also seen in popular legend as a protector and defender of the poor and weak.   Theodora was seen as a faithful wife and a close collaborator of Justinian with a strong will, though she was a Monophysite.

Theodora is a character of popular Greek legend who possessed many of the qualities that are seen in the definition of a hero.  Campbell assesses that heroes are partly defined as protectors and defenders.  These attributes are shown is Theodora’s character as she was Protectress to the poor and women, she was also wise and beautiful, qualities often attributed to classical heroes.  Theodora effectively changed the course of history in dissuading her husband to take flight and influencing the changes in laws and rights, in this way she is sometimes referred to as a heroine even though Procopius and some other historians focus on the deaths that this dissuasion cost.  Theodora also possessed three of the five Christian values which are suggested to make her a Christian heroine.  The value of faith is expressed by Treadgold as she was pious as well as faithful to her husband, she was also charitable to those who were less fortunate as she had once been, and she is said to have had penitence which was parallel to Mary Magdalene.  These values uphold Theodora as a heroine in a religious and Christian sense.

There is considerable controversy on the personality of Theodora which plays a significant role in determining whether or not Theodora was a heroine.  Procopius greatly disapproved of Theodora’s personality and background, blaming her for political and financial upheaval. Foss describes her as “less than saintly”. Procopius’s notorious account of Theodora in his ‘Secret History’ shows extreme dislike for her character by evaluating her former occupations as very near the bottom of the “hierarchy of the arts.”  Procopius’s writes that Theodora was secretive and unfaithful, yet this can be attributed mostly to his own personal bias against her because historians, and the way Theodora has been made into a prominent figure of Greek legend, suggests these ideas are not completely accurate.  Theodora was a very commanding personality with great influence as seen in her persuading Justinian to change laws and her reaction to disloyalty when she was left effectively in control.  Treadgold comments that because of her interference “Justinian faced…financial and military crises…without his best administrator and his best general.”  Theodora’s personality was seen as controversial but this was generally due to bias of historians and how she acted against ideas of females in society as she was strong willed, opinionated and believed that women should have rights.  This view of women in itself was controversial in what was primarily a patriarchal society.

Further Reading:

Campbell, J., The Hero With a Thousand Faces (Princeton, 1993), pp. 30-40

Foss, C., Life in City and Country, The Oxford History of Byzantium (Oxford, 2002), pp. 82-83

James, L., Women, Men and Eunuchs: Gender in Byzantium (London, 1997), pp. 121, 128, 131

Mallet, C. E., The Empress Theodora, The English Historical Review, Vol. 2, No. 5 (Jan, 1887), pp. 1-20

Procopius, (1966).  Tran. With introduction by G. A. Williamson, pp.114-129

Sarris, P., The Eastern Empire from Constantinople to Heraclius (306-641), The Oxford History of Byzantium (Oxford, 2002), pp. 46-47

Treadgold, W., A Concise History of Byzantium (London, 2001), pp. 58, 61-64, 68, 82-83

I Have My Eye On You: The Evil Eye in Antiquity

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Nazar

Here in Turkey there are several things that leave to a foreigner’s attention: the awful driving, shameless staring, psychic rabbits, and what I used to think was the Evil Eye. Well as interesting as psychic bunnies are, from a historical perspective I would like to take a moment to tell you about Nazars, or what foreigners often call the Evil Eye.

Roman charms to ward off the evil eye

The evil eye is a look which is believed to cause harm and bad luck to the person it is directed at. It is a look of envy, dislike and ill-will and everywhere in Turkey you see charms, ‘Nazars’, to ward off this evil eye. The evil eye is a concept which is believed in many countries in the middle east and around the world. The Arabs know it as عين الحسود (ayn al-hasud), the Greek as το μάτι, and the Spanish as mal de ojo. Its significance in these cultures can vary widely but essentially it is the same, an evil wish against someone without their knowing which can cause bad-luck and needs to be protected against. Truthfully these Nazars have become a highly popular tourist item so we see hundreds of the everywhere in shops, but you also see them in homes, behind counters, in local jewellery and in rural non-tourist areas.

The evil eye has been a belief from as far back as Classical antiquity. There are mentions of it in Hesiod, Plato, Diodorus Siculus, Aulus Gellius, Pliny the Elder, Theocritus and Plutarch to name but a few of the hundreds of references made in the ancient literature. All these sources express the idea of the evil eye in slightly differing and often fragmentary terms but the basis for our understanding of the ancient belief comes from Aristophanes, Athenaeus, Plutarch and Heliodorus. Plutarch attempts to explain the evil eye in scientific terms by relating it to deadly rays and poisoned darts from the inner recesses of a person who possesses the evil eye. Different areas of the Greek and Roman world looked at the evil eye differently and with certain degrees of fear and trepidation. The people of Pontus and Scythia were particularly thought to possess the evil eye and were to be kept wary about. And Alexander the Great himself is believed to be the transmitter of the belief into the East with his influential campaigns in the fourth century BC.

Among references are:

Demosthenes, On the Crown 18.307: It was not his duty to look with an evil eye upon a man who had made it his business to support or propose measures worthy of our traditions, and was resolved to stand by such measures; nor to treasure vindictively the memory of private annoyances. Nor was it his duty to hold his peace dishonestly and deceptively, as you so often do.

Plato, Phaedo 95b: “My friend,” said Socrates, “do not be boastful, lest some evil eye put to rout the argument that is to come. That, however, is in the hands of God. Let us, in Homeric fashion, charge the foe and test the worth of what you say. Now the sum total of what you seek is this: You demand a proof that our soul is indestructible…”

Fredrick Thomas Elworthy wrote an interesting piece published in 1895 entitled ‘The Evil Eye’. Elworthy examines the power of evil working upon an object it beholds. He tells us that the origin of the belief itself is lost in the obscurity of prehistoric ages and while one may coin it as superstition, it is a belief that holds its sway over the people of many countries and must be set down as one the hereditary and instinctive convictions of mankind.

The evil eye has become more than mere superstition, but a tradition transmitted from antiquity when they used to use phallic symbols as one way of warding it off. The oldest testimonies of the eye in antiquity come from monuments in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians are believed to have believed in and dreaded the evil eye which was ever present. Elworthy points to evidence for this in the mythology of Ptah the Opener. He explains that Ptah brought forth all other gods from his eye and men from his mouth instituting the idea that that which emanates from the eye in the most potent.