The Passion of the Icon: On the Origin, Context, and Dissemination of an Edifying Narrative

par István M. Bugár (University of Debrecen)

A narrative homily preserved under the name of one of the largest authorities of Christian theology, Athanasius of Alexandria (CPG 2262), comprises a highly symbolic and dramatized portrayal of religious conflict as it describes how a Jewish community would have desacralized an image of Jesus by enacting the abuse he suffered while dying on the cross. The story can be understood as symbolic in a double way. First, the acts performed correspond tothose of the Byzantine Eucharistic liturgy interpreted widely from the early Byzantine period as a recapitulation of Christ’s life, and especially of his passion. In this sense the narrative emphasizes the sacramental aspect of icons. Secondly, the passion of the icon is an allusion to iconoclasm. Such parallelism between Christ’s execution and destroying sacred images is displayed at least somewhat later in the well-known Khludov Psalter completed during the Second Iconoclasm.

Khludov Psalter (Moscow, Hitorical Museum, coll. Chludov, Ms 129D, saec. ix), fol. 67r,
source: http://projects.leadr.msu.edu/medievalart/exhibits/show/iconographyofchrist/item/92

The wide dissemination of the text in Greek-speaking Christianity – besides its rich Latin tradition and occurrence in Oriental Christianity – is indicated by the sheer number of surviving manuscripts (well over a hundred). After Second Iconoclasm it was read on the Sunday of Orthodoxy and thus survives largely in homiletic collections. Homilists, however, often handled their prototype at their liberty and thus a variety of textual forms emerged through centuries. Some slightly emended or embellished, while others freely rewrote what they received. A quick comparison shows that the main classes only partially correspond to the classification in BHG (Nos 780-789; 1389). The different groups, however, display a linear evolution of the text on several branches, while the version read at the Second Council of Nicaea is – apart from a few features – a common ancestor to all of them.

The textual history thus naturally leads to the question of the origin of the text, a question obviously appealing to historians of religion, art, and society. Philological research, however – as indicated above – does not help us to see beyond the Second Nicaean Council, although the text cited under the name of Athanasius is evidently earlier. The question is, then, of course, whether we can tell how much earlier it is. In the following I shall give some clues as to the probable context of the emergence of the narrative.

While other answers have also been proposed, I suggest hints are supplied by the two central topics of the narrative; the abuse of an image and the conversion from Judaism. These features appear conjointly and prominently in sources around the first half of the seventh century, at the time of the Persian crises, before the Arab conquest. It is at this period that we find a large number of reports on alleged mistreatment of Christian images by Jews in different genres, more or less akin to our narrative. Religious polemics in literary works, too, is exceptionally flourishing at the time and some sources explicitly refer to Christian missionary activity among the faithful of Judaism. It is at this period that the issue of sacred images first comes to the forefront of these documents. Moreover, contemporary Jewish anti-Christian literature also highlights the subject of Christian images. Whether this religious dialogue and polemics remained virtual and confined within literary production, as has been suggested, or has really taken place, is indifferent for our present question. Be that as it may, the context into which our literary work fits is this milieu. An important consequence is that in the early seventh century we find a proto-iconoclastic controversy embedded in Christian and Jewish polemical literature. This development concurs with an intra-religious dispute in the Armenian Church. The arguments advanced in both debates furnished the first theologies of icons and of iconoclasm respectively and have significantly contributed to the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy nearly a century later, following the Arab conquest.

Our investigation gives also some insight into Late Antique/Early Byzantine textual history. We can trace crude and stylistically refined versions of a text circulating in a period of cultural transition. This development can be observed also in the textual tradition of the closely related text of Leontius of Neapolis. In the case of the Narrative on the Image in Beirut, we can follow the later freer reworking process too.

A Select Bibliography

Gilbert DAGRON, Vincent DEROCHE, Juifs et chrétiens en Orient byzantin Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’Histoire et Civilisation de Byzance, XI (Paris, 1991 ; repr. Paris, 2010 : Association des amis du Centre d’histoire et civilisation de Byzance, Bilans de Recherche 5).

Averil CAMERON, «Disputations, Polemical Literature and the Formation of Opinion in the Early Byzantine Period», dans Averil CAMERON, Changing Cultures in Early Byzantium (Aldershot, Variorum, 1996), p. 91-108.

Averil CAMERON, «Texts as Weapons», dans Alan K. BOWMAN et Greg WOOLF, Literacy and Power in the Ancient World (Cambridge, 1994), p. 198-215.

Sivan HAGITH, «From Byzantine to Persian Jerusalem. Jewish Perspectives and Jewish/Christian Polemics», Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 41 (2000), p. 277-306.

Wout Jac VAN BEKKUM, «Anti-Christian Polemics in Hebrew liturgical Poetry (Piyyut) of the Sixth and Seventh Centuries», dans Jan DEN BOEFT and Antonius HILHORST, Early Christian Poetry. A Collection of Essays (Leiden, 1991), p. 297-308.

Patrick ANDRIST, «Les Objections des Hébreux. Un document du premier iconoclasme?» Revue des études byzantines 57 (1999), p. 99-140.

István M. BUGÁR, «Images of Jews and Christians in the Seventh Century. The Narratio de Imagine in Beryto and its Context», Studia Patristica 44 (2010), p. 35-40.

Ernst VON DOBSCHÜTZ, «Eine Fastenpredigt über das Christusbild von Beryt», Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Theologie 45 (1902), p. 382‑94.

Katarzyna URBANIAK-WALCZAK, «Zwei verschiedene Rezensionen der Homilie über die Auferstehung der Jungfrau Maria von Theophilus von Alexandrien», Göttinger Miszellen. Beiträge zur ägyptologischen Diskussion 101 (1988), p. 73‑74.

Paul VAN DEN VEN, «La patristique et l’hagiographie du Concile de Nicée de 787», Byzantion 25-7 (1955-1957), p. 325-62. Albert EHRHARD, Überlieferung und Bestand der hagiographischen und homiletischen Literatur der griechischen Kirche von den Anfängen bis zum Ende des 16. Jahrhunderts, 3 vols. (Leipzig, Berlin, 1936-1952).

Albert EHRHARD, Überlieferung und Bestand der hagiographischen und homiletischen Literatur der griechischen Kirche von den Anfängen bis zum Ende des 16. Jahrhunderts, 3 vols. (Leipzig, Berlin, 1936-1952).


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