By Nick Gier
In July 2002, Rita Brock, a Disciples of Christ minister, and Rebecca Ann Parker, former president of Starr King Theological School, set out on a Mediterranean journey to confirm a claim that had been made for many years: Christian art did not show a crucified Christ until the 10th century.
Brock and Parker confessed: “Initially we didn’t believe it could be true. Surely the art historians were wrong.”
They found Christ as a victorious king and as a good shepherd with a live lamb on his shoulders, but they did not find any images of Jesus dying on a cross. When Jesus is shown on the cross in these early centuries, he is very much alive and looking straight out into the world.
In the 6th century St. Apollinare Nouvo Church, there are 26 panels depicting the life of Christ. The tenth panel is Simon of Cyrene carrying a cross, and the next and final panel shows the angel and the two women at the tomb. Curiously but significantly, Christ crucified is not represented.
Cyril of Jerusalem preached that the Eucharist represented a “spiritual sacrifice of a bloodless offering.” At the moment that the bread and wine were consecrated the Holy Spirit descended to earth and reopened the gates of a New Eden and a new humanity was restored by Christ.
In some early churches, those being baptized were stripped naked so that they were like Adam and Eve in the Garden. As Cyril of Jerusalem states: “You are in the image of the first man, Adam, who in the Garden was likewise naked and did not blush.”
Many early churches were decorated in ways that made them an earthly paradise. St. Ambrose, the Italian bishop who baptized St. Augustine in AD 387, believed that Paradise was not only present in churches but also in the souls of all believers at baptism.
Before the 10th century the sacramental bread and wine represented a heavenly transfer of Christ’s glorified body and blood, but after that orthodoxy required that one believe that it was the crucified body and blood. It is clear, however, that Jesus declared that the wine and bread were his blood and body before he was executed.
The first known crucifix was made by a Saxon artist who carved a life-size dead Jesus from oak. Called the Gero Crucifix it was produced in AD 965-70 and is now displayed in the cathedral in Cologne, Germany.
The ancient Saxons worshiped trees, and they were converted by Charlemagne’s troops at the point of the sword. As Parker and Brock state: “The cross — once a sign of life — became for them a sign of terror. Pressed by violence into Christian obedience, the Saxons produced art that bore the marks of their baptism in blood.”
In a supreme and terrible irony, the humiliated Saxons identified with the crucified Jesus, and they saw their own wounds — physically and spiritually — in his tortured figure.
Church authorities imprisoned and tortured Saxon theologians, who continued to believe the Eucharist contained the heavenly Christ rather than the new view that was the judging crucified Christ.
Brock and Parker draw political conclusions from the replacement of Churches of Paradise with Churches of Crucifixion: “Charlamagne fused church and state in new ways, altered the long-standing Christian prohibition against the shedding of human blood, and made Christianity a colonizing tool. He aligned the cross with military victory and laid the axe to the root of sacred trees.”
Over the next hundred years, pogroms against Jews increased dramatically. Significantly, the few Christian leaders who did focus on the crucifixion, such as Melito of Sardis, were also those who called the Jews “Christ killers.” As Brock and Parker state: “Melito’s sermons show how easily a focus on the death of Jesus spilled over into the vilification of Jews.”
Under the banner of a huge red cross the Crusades sent huge military expeditions against infidels in Asia, killing many innocents on the way. In the centuries to come it would be witches and heretics who would die, and Christian violence continued in the great European empires of the 15-19th centuries.
In 1455 Pope Nicholas V exhorted Catholic rulers to conquer, even those “in the remotest parts unknown to us,” all who were enemies of Christ. The Pope gave them permission “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens (Muslims) and pagans,” take their possessions, and “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.”
The title of Brock and Parker’s book sums up their thesis: Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion and Empire.
Nick Gier taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years.