"You shall not make for yourself a carved image — any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments." (Exodus 20:4-6).

The commandment prohibits two things: 'bowing down' and 'serving' graven images. The Greek words as they appear in the Septuagint are 'proskuneo' and 'latreuo.' As will be seen, after a period of tumult, the larger church decided it was OK to 'bow down,' but not OK to 'serve' graven images. Of the two things criminalized, one was allowed, one disallowed. How did this strange result, amounting to abrogation of a divine command, come about?

Graven Image And, or Or?
Practice Pictures of God
As the Pagans Do Fathers Know Best
Excluded Middle Synod of Hieria
Second Nicaea Proskynesis
Zero Tolerance The Kabah

Graven Image

"You shall not make idols for yourselves; neither a carved image nor a sacred pillar shall you rear up for yourselves; nor shall you set up an engraved stone in your land, to bow down to it; for I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 26:1).

Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of anything which the LORD your God has forbidden you." (Deuteronomy 4:23).

"You shall make no molded gods for yourselves." (Exodus 34:17).

"Do not turn to idols, nor make for yourselves molded gods: I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 19:4).

"‘Cursed is the one who makes a carved or molded image, an abomination to the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and sets it up in secret.’" (Deuteronomy 27:15).

And, or Or?

In those periods when Muslims honor Mohammed's prohibition of all representational art, they also interpret the second of the ten commandments disjunctively, as intending to prohibit all representation. What is the status of the KJV's colon, separating the two clauses of this command?:

"(1.) Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: (2.) Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments." (Exodus 20:4-6 KJV).

Is that colon effectively a period, so that the second commandment intends to prohibit all image-making, regardless of function: instruction manuals, driver's license photos, children's refrigerator art? Is the second clause then a non-functioning appendix, a coda hanging useless to further criminalize a certain behavior connected with a sub-category of the now non-existent imagery, just wiped out by a stroke of the Legislator's pen? Or do these two clauses work together?

Christians usually understand this commandment to prohibit two things in conjunction, namely 1.) making graven images, AND 2.) bowing down to them. As Gracie Allen used to say, Never put a period where God puts a comma. During their abstract periods, Muslims understand the commandment disjunctively: do not make graven images at all, whether you subsequently bow down to them or not. Experience fails to show that making graven images inevitably leads to idolatry.


Indirect corroboration against the disjunctive interpretation of the second commandment (which puts a period after the 'make no graven images' clause) appears in the same law code's instructions to make figurative images:

"And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work you shall make them at the two ends of the mercy seat....And the cherubim shall stretch out their wings above, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and they shall face one another; the faces of the cherubim shall be toward the mercy seat." (Exodus 25:18-20).

Since the same law code which prohibits bowing down to graven images also commands making these winged figures, the offense would seem to lie more in the intended use of the imagery than in the mere fact of representation.

Solomon made a brazen 'sea' for the temple:

"Then he made the molten sea; it was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high...It stood on twelve oxen, three facing north, three facing west, three facing south, and three facing east; the sea was set on them." (1 Kings 7:23-25).

It can be very tricky to argue from what people do, to what people ought to do; it is not the legislator's goal to tell the world, 'As you were.' But the prophets do not condemn these images as they do the calves of Bethel. Israel's critics did not fail to notice inconsistency, as legend tells, at the time of Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of the temple:

"To disgrace the faith of Israel, they [the Ammonites and the Moabites] plucked the Cherubim from the Holy of Holies and dragged them through the streets of Jerusalem, crying aloud at the same time: 'Behold these sacred things that belong to the Israelites, who say ever they have no idols.'" (Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Volume 4, Kindle location 3173).

The cherubim were a product of the artist's skill, but were not worshipped and adored. It seems this element is essential to the crime of idolatry.

Pictures of God

The prohibition of idolatry forbids, not making images as such,— though it has at times been so interpreted by Jews and Muslims,— but rather making images and then bowing down before them in worship. It is not just false gods who may not be served by this means, but also the true and living God:

"Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth." (Deuteronomy 4:15-18).

What is a statue of Jesus Christ but an image of God? To suppose that it is possible to craft a likeness of the 'humanity' of Christ which is not also an image of God is the Nestorian heresy. And worshipping images of God are unlawful: "For it is unlawful for a Christian to set up any such image for God in a temple; much more nefarious is it, [therefore], to set it up in the heart, in which truly is the temple of God, provided it be purged of earthly lust and error." (St. Augustine, Faith and the Creed, vii. 14). Augustine seems to have been unacquainted with any statuary in human form in use in Christian worship: "But, it will be said, we also have very many instruments and vessels made of materials or metal of this description for the purpose of celebrating the Sacraments...But have they mouth, and yet speak not? have they eyes, and see not?...This is the chief cause of this insane profanity, that the figure resembling the living person, which induces men to worship it, hath more influence in the minds of these miserable persons, than the evident fact that it is not living, so that it ought to be despised by the living." (Augustine, Commentary on Psalms, Psalm 115:7).

In becoming incarnate, Jesus Christ made it possible to sculpt a true-to-life image of God. Prior to the incarnation, drawing pictures of God led to confusion: "Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things." (Romans 1:22-23). Imagery which may have been intended as symbolical caused grave confusion about the nature of God, and polytheism luxuriated.

Roman Catholics defend sculpting an image of God, and then bowing down before it. This even extends to images of God the Father, such as those found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, though crafting images of God the Father seems to be the special province of gnostic artists like Michelangelo and William Blake. Certain strains of the Reformation prohibited, not only bowing down before images of God, but even making them at all, whether out of artistic, historical or didactic motives:

"Images of God. Since God as Spirit is in essence invisible and immense, he cannot really be expressed by any art or image. For this reason we have no fear pronouncing with Scripture that images of God are mere lies. Therefore we reject not only the idols of the Gentiles, but also the images of Christians.

"Images of Christ. Although Christ assumed human nature, yet he did not on that account assume it in order to provide a model for carvers and painters. He denied that he had come "to abolish the law and the prophets" (Matt. 5:17). But images are forbidden by the law and the prophets (Deut. 4:15; Isa. 44:9). He denied that his bodily presence would be profitable for the Church, and promised that he would be near us by his Spirit forever (John 16:7). Who, therefore, would believe that a shadow or likeness of his body would contribute any benefit to the pious? (2 Cor. 5:5). Since he abides in us by his Spirit, we are therefore the temple of God (2 Cor. 3:16). But "what agreement has the temple of God with idols?" (2 Cor. 6:16)." (Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 4.)

Both overshoot, though in opposite directions. Certainly allowing use of images in worship is the graver deflection, however. God prohibited bowing down before graven images. It is not obvious why this prohibition should be construed as lifted once better quality, more true-to-life, images come onto the market.


As the Pagans Do

Roman Catholics distinguish their practice of kneeling before statues from pagan idolatry by noting they do not worship the object itself, but that which it represents. Graven images are mnemonic devices:

"The fact that someone kneels before a statue to pray does not mean that he is praying to the statue, just as the fact that one kneels with a Bible in his hands—as fundamentalists at times do—does not mean that he is worshipping the Bible. Statues or paintings or other artistic devices are used to recall to the mind the person or thing depicted. Just as it is easier to remember one's mother by looking at her photograph, so it is easier to recall the lives of the saints, and thus be edified by their examples, by looking at representations of them." (Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, p. 261).

The pagans defended their own practices...just the same way. The pagan theologian Plutarch chided the silly people who thought the stone "memorials of the gods" were themselves gods:

"And men employ consecrated symbols, some of them obscure and others clearer, and thereby guide their understanding to a knowledge of things divine, though not without hazard...Among the Greeks, for instance, there are persons who have not learned or trained themselves to speak of bronze and painted and stone images as statues and memorials of gods, but call them gods themselves." (Plutarch, 'Isis and Osiris,' 68-71).

Likewise the pagan controversialist Porphyry explains that images 'evoke the memory' of the god:

"[And those] who make images as objects of veneration for the gods do not imagine that God [himself] is in the wood or the stone or the bronze used in the making of the image. They do not think for a moment that if a part of the image is cut off that the power of God is thereby lessened. Such images -- such as those of animals and those in temples -- were erected by ancient peoples for the sake of evoking the memory of the god. They were created so that those who saw them would remember the god..." (Porphyry's Against the Christians, The Literary Remains, R. Joseph Hoffmann, p. 85).

Pagan theologian Maximus of Tyre concurs that statues are a mnemonic device:

"Those, therefore, whose memory is robust, and who are able, by directly extending their soul to heaven, to meet with divinity, have, perhaps, no need of statues. This race is, however, rare among men, and in a whole nation you will not find one who recollects divinity, and who is not in want of this kind of assistance, which resembles that devised by writing-masters for boys, who give them obscure marks as copies, by writing over which, their hand being guided by that of the master, they become, through memory, accustomed to the art. It appears to me, therefore, that legislators devised these statues for men, as if for a certain kind of boys, as tokens of the honor which should be paid to divinity, and a certain manuduction as it were and path to reminiscence." (Maximus of Tyre, The Dissertations, Dissertation XXXVIII, Volume II, pp. 189-190).

Maximus reverts to the common idea of the lover's locket: "And in thus acting we are affected in the same manner as lovers, who are delighted with surveying the images of the objects of their love, and with recollecting the lyre, the dart, and the seat of these, the circus in which they ran, and every thing, in short, which excites the memory of the beloved object." (Maximus of Tyre, The Dissertations, Volume II, Dissertation XXXVIII, p. 197). The renegade pagan Emperor Julian the Apostate ridiculed the idea that anyone worships stone or wood:

"How, then, do we not consider as wood and stones those statues which are fashioned by the hands of men? O more stupid than even stones themselves! Do you fancy that all men are to be drawn by the nose as you are drawn by execrable daemons, so as to think that the artificial resemblances of the gods are the gods themselves?. . .Whoever, therefore, loves his king, beholds with pleasure the image of his king; whoever loves his child is delighted with his image; and whoever loves his father surveys his image with delight. Hence, also, he who is a lover of divinity gladly surveys the statues and images of the gods; at the same time venerating and fearing with a holy dread the gods who invisibly behold him." (Julian the Apostate, Extracts from the Fragment of an Oration or Epistle on the Duties of a Priest, quoted Kindle location 706, Arguments of Celsus, Porphyry, and the Emperor Julian, Against the Christians, Thomas Taylor).

These arguments have a familiar ring. Who does not know that a portrait statue is a copy of a living being, not the living being itself? Nevertheless, the prophets of Israel accused the pagans of worshipping sticks and stones: "Saying to a tree, ‘You are my father,’ and to a stone, ‘You gave birth to me.’ For they have turned their back to Me, and not their face." (Jeremiah 2:27). The prophets are not offering descriptive psychology, as if the pagans had said, 'We worship sticks and stones.' Rather, the pagans said, we worship our splendiferous gods. But the prophets looked around and said, where are they?: "But in the time of their trouble they will say, ‘Arise and save us.’ But where are your gods that you have made for yourselves? Let them arise, if they can save you in the time of your trouble..." (Jeremiah 2:27-28). There ain't nobody home; there is no magnificent heavenly being under, in, behind, or around the idol. It is owing to the nullity of the pagan gods that the idolaters are left worshipping sticks and stones, not because that is their stated preference.

Who are the other gods?

 Who are the other gods?

Fathers Know Best

  • "For I ask, if any one should often contemplate the likeness of a man who has settled in a foreign land, that he may thus solace himself for him who is absent, would he also appear to be of sound mind, if, when the other had returned and was present, he should persevere in contemplating the likeness, and should prefer the enjoyment of it, rather than the sight of the man himself? Assuredly not. For the likeness of a man appears to be necessary at that time when he is far away; and it will become superfluous when he is at hand. But in the case of God, whose spirit and influence are diffused everywhere, and can never be absent, it is plain that an image is always superfluous."
  • (Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, Book 2, Chapter 2).
  • "...but it is not possible at the same time to know God and to address prayers to images."
  • (Origen, Against Celsus, Book 7, Chapter 65).
  • "And what greater wrong, disgrace, hardship, can be inflicted than to acknowledge one God, and yet make supplication to something else — to hope for help from a deity, and pray to an image without feeling?"
  • (Arnobius, Case Against the Pagans, Book 6, Chapter 9).
  • "But the devil has always slipped into the human mind in the guise of someone righteous, and made human images with a great variety of arts, to deify mortal human nature in human eyes. And yet the men who are worshipped have died, and their images, which have never lived, are introduced for worship -- and since they've never lived they can't be called dead either! And with adulterous intent they have rebelled against the one and only God, like a common whore who has been excited to the wickedness of many relations and rejected the temperate course of lawful marriage to one husband...Which scripture has spoken of it? Which prophet permitted the worship of a man, let alone a woman?"
  • (Epiphanius, Panarion, Section VII, 59 [79], 4.4-5.1).
  • "The senseless earth is dishonoured by the makers of images, who change it by their art from its proper nature, and induce men to worship it; and the makers of gods worship not gods and demons, but in my view earth and art, which go to make up images. For, in sooth, the image is only dead matter shaped by the craftsman’s hand. But we have no sensible image of sensible matter, but an image that is perceived by the mind alone,—God, who alone is truly God."
  • (Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks, Chapter 4).

Use of images in Christian worship apparently originated with the gnostics: "They style themselves Gnostics. They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world, that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honoring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 26.6).

As is commonly the pattern with 'Catholic' practices, like for instance infant baptism, we first hear about paintings in the churches from the 'anti's:'

"About the year 300, the Council of Elvira, in Spain, made a canon forbidding pictures in church, which shows that the practice had then begun, and was growing; and also that, in Spain, at least, it was thought to be dangerous (as indeed it too surely proved to be)." (J. C. Robertson, Sketches of Church History, Part One: A.D. 33 - 604, Chapter 18, Christian Worship).

"At the very beginning of the fourth century the Council of Elvira (in Spain) had ruled 'that there must be no pictures (picturas) in the church, that the walls should have no images of that which is revered and worshipped' (ne quod colitur et adoratur in parietibus depingatur)." (Alexander Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire, 324 to 1453, Kindle location 3815).

Excluded Middle

A conflict raged in the eighth century between 'iconoclasts,' who smashed the images, and 'iconodules,' who frankly and unapologetically wanted to worship the images. Many Roman Catholics today are under the impression that their church chose the sane middle ground in this conflict. It did not, but rather embraced one of the indefensible extremes.

The pictures and statuary in a Roman Catholic Church are not harmless artwork offered for expressive or instructional purposes. These images are intended to be "venerated": "Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787) justified against the iconoclasts the veneration of icons -- of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and the saints." (2131, Catechism of the Catholic Church).

What Second Nicaea permits is precisely what the Bible forbids: images to bow down before, to venerate ['proskyneo'].

Synod of Hieria

It was in the eighth century that the Byzantine Emperor Leo II began smashing images. Leo's son Constantine V called the Synod of Hieria in mid-century which affirmed his father's icon-smashing policy. It is sometimes suggested that Leo II was responding to Islam's challenge. There must have been many conversations in those days which ran something like this:

Muslim.--Do you believe the ten commandments have been abrogated or superseded, or are they still in force?

Christian.---Still in force. Didn't Jesus say, "You know the commandments..." (Mark 10:19).

Muslim.--Does this include the second, which prohibits making graven images and bowing down before them?


Muslim.--So why do you bow down before images?

Christian.--But we don't...

Muslim.--Yes you do, I've seen you. You genuflect before your statues, and kiss them. I've even seen worn spots on the statues which have been ground down by worshippers' repeated kisses. What do you think the Bible means by 'bow down'?


The plain fact is, the Christians of the day were bowing down before images, precisely the behavior which the second commandment criminalizes. As pagans entered the church, they had brought with them habits and patterns of worship. The solution? Stop doing it—stop bowing down before the images. This is what's prohibited.

Leo's solution, however, was to smash the images. If their presence in the churches was a snare to the weak, why not privatize them? The Byzantine Emperor was the power in the church in those days; the bishop of Rome could only weakly protest. One can only weep at the wonderful artwork left in pieces on the pavement.

Second Nicaea

Here is the language justified by the Second Council at Nicaea:

"Proceeding as it were on the royal road and following the divinely inspired teaching of our holy Fathers, and the tradition of the Catholic Church (for we know that this tradition is of the Holy Spirit which dwells in the Church), we define, with all care and exactitude, that the venerable and holy images are set up in just the same way as the figure of the precious and life-giving cross; painted images, and those in mosaic and those of other suitable material, in the holy churches of God, on holy vessels and vestments, on walls and in pictures, in houses and by the roadsides; images of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ and of our undefiled Lady, the holy God-bearer, and of the honourable angels, and of all saintly and holy men. For the more continually these are observed by means of such representations, so much the more will the beholders be aroused to recollect the originals and to long after them, and to pay to the images the tribute of an embrace and a reverence of honour ['timetike proskynesis], not to pay to them the actual worship ['alethine latreia'] which is according to our faith, and which is proper only to the divine nature: but as to the figure of the venerable and life-giving cross, and to the holy Gospels and the other sacred monuments, so to those images to accord the honor of incense and oblation of lights, as it has been the pious custom of antiquity. For the honour paid to the image passes to its original, and he that adores an image adores in it the person depicted thereby..." (Definition of the Second Council of Nicaea, 787 A.D., p. 94, Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettenson).

This cannot be considered an effort to understand the second commandment, but rather a defiant statement that one does not intend to observe it.


This word,-- 'proskynesis',- is the very word the translators of the Septuagint saw fit to use in translating the second commandment: "Thou shalt not make to thyself an idol, nor likeness of anything, whatever things are in the heaven above, and whatever are in the earth beneath, and whatever are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down ['proskuneo'] to them, nor serve ['latreuo'] them; for I am the Lord thy God, a jealous God, recompensing the sins of the fathers upon the children, to the third and fourth generation to them that hate me..." (Exodus 20:4-5, Brenton Septuagint).  Exactly what God forbade: bowing down ['proskuneo'] before graven images -- is precisely what Empress Irene's Council legalized! "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!" (Isaiah 5:20). Bowing before images was common enough in pagan worship, as here in a besieged city: "From Trebonius's camp and all the higher grounds it was easy to see into the town — how all the youth which remained in it, and all persons of more advanced years, with their wives and children, and the public guards, were either extending their hands from the wall to the heavens or were repairing to the temples of the immortal gods, and, prostrating themselves before their images, were entreating them to grant them victory." (Julius Caesar, The Civil War, Book II, Chapter V).

God does not allow bowing down and forbid serving, He says you shall do neither one nor the other: "And the Lord made a covenant with them, and charged them, saying, Ye shall not fear other gods, neither shall ye worship ['proskuneo'] them, nor serve ['latreuo'] them, nor sacrifice to them: but only to the Lord, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt with great strength and with a high arm: him shall ye fear, and him shall ye worship; to him shall ye sacrifice." (2 Kings 17:35 Brenton Septuagint).

Roman Catholics claim 'proskynesis' is a lower form of worship than 'latreia,' the latter being reserved for God but the former available to the creature. But the way the Bible uses these Greek words does not reflect any intent to set up a two-tier scheme of worship. The Roman Catholics themselves translate 'proskuneo' in Matthew 4:10 as "worship." Satan demanded 'proskynesis' not 'latreia,' eliciting this rebuke from the Lord: "Then Jesus replied, 'Be off, Satan! For scripture says: You must worship ['proskuneo'] the Lord your God, and serve him alone.'" (Jerusalem Bible). See the handsprings the flexible lexicographers must perform: "In many verses in the New Testament, προσκυνεω is used to refer to the stance one is to have in exclusive relationship to God (e.g., Matt. 4:10, Luke 4:7-8). When used in this sense, προσκυνεω expresses submission to God's supreme and ultimate authority." (Karen H. Jobes, Biblical Words and Their Meaning, Moises Silva, Kindle location 2958). So here we have a general rule to which one makes exception whenever one pleases, by redefining the operative term? 'You must worship God alone, though of course you can 'worship' whatever you like.' This would be no rule at all, yet plainly, there it is. It is like reading in a news report, 'Joe murdered Jack.' 'But you're not supposed to murder! It must mean, "tapped lightly on the shoulder."'

The background of these words in classical Greek is that 'proskynesis' means 'worship,' 'latreia' means 'menial service': " make obeisance to the gods, fall down and worship, to worship, adore..." (Liddell & Scott); "latreia...the state of a hired workman, service, servitude" (Liddell & Scott); "latreuo, to work for hire or pay, to be in servitude, serve..." (Liddell & Scott). Part of what was wrapped up with proskynesis was prostration, i.e., a face-plant. When Themistocles intended to present himself to the Persian king as a suppliant, he went first to Artabanus the chiliarch, who read him the rules:

"He replied, 'Stranger, the customs of different races are different, and each has its own standard of right and wrong; yet among all men it is thought right to honor, admire, and to defend one's own customs. Now we are told that you chiefly prize freedom and equality; we on the other hand think it the best of all our laws to honor the king, and to worship him as we should worship the statue of a god that preserves us all. Wherefore if you are come with the intention of adopting our customs, and of prostrating yourself before the king, you may be permitted to see the king, and speak with him; but if not, you must use some other person to communicate with him; for it is not the custom for the king to converse with any one who does not prostrate himself before him.'" (Plutarch, Life of Themistocles, Chapter XXVII, Plutarch's Lives, Volume I, p. 143).

But there was more. The literal meaning of the word is roughly 'make like a dog,' originally referring to a peculiar gesture employed by the pagans: kissing the hand, then blowing the kiss toward the object of adoration, sort of the way a dog licks its master's hand. Job seems to be referring to the gesture: "If I beheld the sun when it shined, or the moon walking in brightness; And my heart hath been secretly enticed, or my mouth hath kissed my hand:..." (Job 31:26-27). "...the payer of 'proskynesis' would bring a hand, usually his right one, to his lips and kiss the tips of his fingers, perhaps blowing the kiss towards his king or god, though the blowing of kisses is only known for certain in Roman society. In the carvings of Persepolis, the nobles mounting the palace staircase or the attendants on King Artaxerxes's tomb can be seen in the middle of the gesture, while the Steward of the Royal Household kisses his hand before the Great King, bending slightly forwards as he does so. These Persian pictures and the Greeks' own choice of words show that in Alexander's day, 'proskynesis' could be conducted with the body upright, bowed or prostrate...In Greece it was a gesture reserved for the gods alone, but in Persia it was also paid to men..." (Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, pp. 320-321).

Darius and Xerxes, Persepolis

Alexander the Great 'went Persian' according to Arrian, "For the tale goes that Alexander even desired people to bow to the earth before him, from the idea that Ammon was his father rather than Philip, and since he now emulated the ways of the Persians and Medes, both by the change of his garb and the altered arrangements of his general way of life." (Arrian, Anabasis, Book IV, Chapter IX). When Alexander demanded worship from his subjects,— 'proskynesis'— they understood him to be demanding, not the honor a monarch might reasonably expect from the populace, but divine honors: "It is true that in Greece 'proskynesis' was only paid to the gods, and that Alexander was doubtless aware of this...he had been wearing the diadem, which among Greeks was a claim to represent Zeus...It was to be the same with 'proskynesis': his own Master of Ceremonies described the first attempt to introduce it and as the incident took place at a dinner party, he would have been present in the dining-room and able to see the result for himself...Then they went Oriental: they paid 'proskynesis' to Alexander, kissing their hand and perhaps bowing slightly...This unassuming little ceremony went the round of all the guests, each drinking, kissing his hand and being kissed in return by the king, until it came to Callisthenes, cousin of Aristotle. He drank from the cup, ignored the 'proskynesis' and walked straight up to Alexander, hoping to receive a proper kiss...Alexander refused to kiss him. 'Very well,' said Callisthenes, 'I go away the poorer by a kiss.'" (Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, pp. 322-323). This poverty of a kiss would cost Callisthenes his life; he was executed as a traitor. Even a pagan like Callisthenes aware one should not offer 'proskynesis' to a mortal, while Roman Catholics are not aware of this!

What would the sputtering Macedonian have said about Alexander? Something like this:

"For as soon as the king gave orders that he should be saluted as the son of Jupiter, Hegelochus, indignant at that, said: 'Are we then to recognize this king, who disdains Philip as his father? It is all over with us if we can endure that. He scorns, not only men, but even the gods, who demands to be believed a god. . .Have we at the price of our blood created a god who disdains us, who is reluctant to enter into council with mortals?'" (Quintus Curtius Rufus, History of Alexander, Book VI, Section 23-24).

This indictment, of blasphemy and presumption, is the common lot of men who claim to be gods; even Jesus, wholly innocent, was taken for a blasphemer. It is not understood to be 'business as usual' for a human being to receive divine worship.

The lexicographers reassure us that, if slaves were willing to call their master 'Lord,' and they were, then surely 'Lord' cannot mean anything more than 'boss.' But that is not the whole story. Free men were expected to be willing to die rather than to live as a slave and call a fellow man 'Lord:' ". . .while as for freedom, and the refusal to acknowledge any man as lord — the standard and rule of good to the Helenes of old — they have flung it to the ground." (Demosthenes, On the Crown, Oration XVIII, Chapter 296, The Public Orations of Demosthenes, p. 76, Volume 2). It is likely few moderns would abide by that rule of the Greeks of old, that a free man was expected to be willing to die rather than to live as a slave; life is sweet. But this is not a matter that the dictionary-makers can smooth over. The ancient Greeks were sure it is slavish to prostrate oneself to another man, no matter how the practice is defined or redefined. Speaking of the Persians, Isocrates says, "Those who have the highest reputation among them have, without exception, never any care for the interest of other people or the state, but they spend all their time offending some and acting as slaves to others. . .They let themselves be inspected at the palace gates, prostrate themselves, practice every form of humility, fall on their knees for a mortal man whom they address as god, caring less for divinity than for men." (Isocrates, Panegyricus, 10-151, quoted p. 285, Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity). Maybe they were wrong in thinking it mattered so much, or maybe we are wrong in following them, and thinking that government of the people, for the people, and by the people, is actually all that consequential. There are other ways of doing things, of course. Maybe the people who write dictionaries can fix this. It may be that by adopting sufficiently mild and namby-pamby redefinitions of the acts which are apt to prove a flash point for controversy, we can regularize and normalize all human behavior, leaving nothing to quarrel about. Or maybe not.

Let us try a thought experiment: suppose the American President began to demand, not the short bow and curtsy expected by the British monarch, not even genuflection, but full face prostration. This would be controversial. It is even possible that some people, who could not move beyond the old style hand-shaking, might be escorted out of the Oval Office sputtering, to land at Guantanamo Bay. This gesture might be perceived as slavish, as a kind of homage not belonging to a fellow human being. Oddly enough, the Greek heavens were permeable; the gods and men were enough of a kind that unions were fertile, and offspring, the 'heroes,' god-men, could be born. Still what Alexander did was controversial:

"Regarding his native customs and the discipline of the Macedonian kings, wholesomely restrained and democratic, as too low for his grandeur, he strove to rival the loftiness of the Persian court, equal to the power of the gods; he demanded that the victors over so many nations in paying their respects to him should prostrate themselves upon the ground, and gradually sought to accustom them to servile duties and to treat them like captives." (Quintus Curtius Rufus, History of Alexander, Book VI, Chapter VI. Section 2-4).

It won't do to say it was expected. Expected by whom? Not by the Macedonians. Linguists place immense faith in the power of their profession to normalize all human conduct; if 'proskynesis' is offered to an inappropriate object, just define it down to mean 'make entreaty:' "In addition to its sense of worship, προσκυνεω is found in reference to paying political homage and in a third sense is used to refer to entreaty, often accompanied by the posture of kneeling or prostration." (Karen H. Jobes, Biblical Words and Their Meaning, Moises Silva, Kindle location 2910). Who can object to making entreaty? But this leaves unexplained discontent and assassination attempts. When a society is transitioning from democracy to autocratic rule by Asiatic god-kings, some dislocation must be expected. Simply redefining things cannot bridge the gap, force must be used, just as the stiff-arm salute Hitler popularized in formerly democratic Weimar Germany did not catch on spontaneously, though one might define it as similar to the ever popular 'waving.' People might have rigid, even theologically informed, ideas about what is appropriate and what is not.

Pagans continued to offer this gesture of adoration to the idols they worshipped down into the Christian era:

"And thus, when in the early morning we were going towards the sea along the shore (of the Tiber), that both the breathing air might gently refresh our limbs, and that the yielding sand might sink down under our easy footsteps with excessive pleasure; Caecilius, observing an image of Serapis, raised his hand to his mouth, as is the custom of the superstitious common people, and pressed a kiss on it with his lips." (Minucius Felix, Octavius, Chapter 2, ECF p. 340).

Once 'proskynesis' came to be used to translate foreign words that more properly mean 'bow down' or 'prostrate oneself', the word's meaning broadened beyond this original sense, but the various gestures of obeisance the Greeks called 'proskynesis' were bound by the common thread that these were gestures of such servility the democratically-minded Greeks did not think them appropriate for one mortal to offer to another. 'Proskynesis' is a strong word, not a weak one, albeit if you read the LXX you'll find it used to translate 'bowing down' without theological implications, for instance, "And Moses went forth to meet his father-in-law, and did him reverence ['proskuneo' LXX], and kissed him, and they embraced each other, and he brought them into the tent." (Exodus 18:7 Brenton Septuagint). Neither Jews nor Christians employed the peculiar gesture the word originally described; the word is properly understood in the New Testament as meaning 'worship,' which is how the King James version consistently translates it. It carries that meaning in the Septuagint, as for instance:

"And it shall come to pass, that as all the good things are come upon us which the Lord God will bring upon you all the evil things, until he shall have destroyed you from off this good land, which the Lord has given you, when ye transgress the covenant of the Lord our God, which he has charged us, and go and serve other gods, and bow down to them [προσκυνησητε αυτοις]." (Joshua 23:15-16 Brenton Septuagint).

". . .and lest having looked up to the sky, and having seen the sun and the moon and the stars, and all the heavenly bodies, thou shouldest go astray and worship them [προσκυνησης αυτοις], and serve them, which the Lord thy God has distributed to all the nations under heaven." (Deuteronomy 4:19 Brenton Septuagint).

What is here prohibited isn't a posture, but false and idolatrous worship. This is the word you would use if you wanted to say that. It is not a weak or casual word. The Ethiopian eunuch came to Jerusalem to worship: "And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship [προσκυνησων], was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet." (Acts 8:27-28). Paul went to the same place for the same reason: "Because that thou mayest understand, that there are yet but twelve days since I went up to Jerusalem for to worship [προσκυνησων]." (Acts 24:11).

'Latreia,' whose original sense is 'menial service' or 'slave-service', is used in the Bible to describe the ministrations in the Hebrew temple: "Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service ['latreia'] and the earthly sanctuary." (Hebrews 9:1). It remains unclear how Roman Catholics have convinced themselves that it's OK to "worship" ['proskuneo'] all and sundry, provided one does not "serve" ['latreuo'] all comers. The definitions of Second Nicaea allow that worship ('proskynesis') belongs to the creature, but service ('latreia') only to God. God's word says otherwise:

"And I fell at his feet to worship ['proskuneo'] him. But he said to me, 'See that you do not do that! I am your fellow servant, and of your brethren who have the testimony of Jesus. Worship ['proskuneo'] God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.'" (Revelation 19:10).

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Zero Tolerance

As noted, some Bible-readers have interpreted the Second Commandment as prohibiting, not only the making of images and bowing down to them, but the making of any images at all. Jews, Christians and Muslims have all defended this view. Philo so thought:

  • "And the second commandment is the summary of all those laws which can possibly be enacted, about all the things made by hands, such as images and statues, and, in short, erections of any kind, of which the painters' and statuaries' arts are pernicious creators, for that commandment forbids such images to be made, and prohibits the cleaving to any of the fabulous inventions about the marriage of gods and the birth of gods, and the number of indescribable and painful calamities which are represented to have ensued from both such circumstances."
  • (Philo Judaeus, The Decalogue, Section XXIX).

He mentions in 'On the Giants' that the law forbids painting and statuary, ". . .in consequence of which principle, he has banished from the constitution, which he has established, those celebrated and beautiful arts of statuary and painting, because they, falsely imitating the nature of the truth, contrive deceits and snares, in order, through the medium of the eyes, to beguile the souls which are liable to be easily won over." (Philo Judaeus of Alexandria. Delphi Complete Works of Philo of Alexandria (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 77) (Kindle Locations 6125-6128). On the Giants, Chapter XIII.). The literalist reader protests, but the Law criminalizes no such activities! This interpretation goes beyond the letter of the law.

Flavius Josephus took a similar view:

  • "Moreover, Apion would lay a blot upon us, because we do not erect images for our emperors; as if those emperors did not know this before, or stood in need of Apion as their defender; whereas he ought rather to have admired the magnanimity and modesty of the Romans, whereby they do not compel those that are subject to them to transgress the laws of their countries, but are willing to receive the honors due to them after such a manner as those who are to pay them esteem consistent with piety and with their own laws; for they do not thank people for conferring honors upon them, when they are compelled by violence so to do. Accordingly, since the Grecians and some other nations think it a right thing to make images, nay, when they have painted the pictures of their parents, and wives, and children, they exult for joy; and some there are who take pictures for themselves of such persons as were no way related to them; nay, some take the pictures of such servants as they were fond of; what wonder is it then if such as these appear willing to pay the same respect to their princes and lords? But then our legislator hath forbidden us to make images, not by way of denunciation beforehand, that the Roman authority was not to be honored, but as despising a thing that was neither necessary nor useful for either God or man; and he forbade them, as we shall prove hereafter, to make these images for any part of the animal creation, and much less for God himself, who is no part of such animal creation."
  • (Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, Book II, Chapter 6).

This proposal to put images of the emperors in synagogues and even the temple was a contentious issue, because as Philo says no such thing had ever been done:

"And when the multitude perceived this, I do not mean the ordinary and well-regulated population of the city, but the mob which, out of its restlessness and love of an unquiet and disorderly life, was always filling every place with tumult and confusion, and who, because of their habitual idleness and laziness, were full of treachery and revolutionary plans, they, flocking to the theater the first thing in the morning, having already purchased Flaccus for a miserable price, which he with his mad desire for glory and with his slavish disposition, condescended to take to the injury not only of himself, but also of the safety of the commonwealth, all cried out, as if at a signal given, to erect images in the synagogues, proposing a most novel and unprecedented violation of the law." (Philo Judaeus, Against Flaccus, Chapter VI).

This total prohibition would seem to be an instance of 'putting a hedge around the law,' because the Second Commandment does not require it. The rule is stated in Pirke Aboth: "Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah." (Pirke Aboth, Chapter 1.1). What this involves is extending the law, to make doubly sure it cannot be violated. Since Jesus criticized the tendency, already evident in the days of His earthly ministry, it need hardly be thought binding on Christians; nevertheless, some of the early Christians picked up the absolute prohibition of images, or so the defender of paganism Celsus heard:

  • “Let us pass on. . .to another point. They cannot tolerate temples, altars, or images. In this they are like the Scythians, the nomadic tribes of Libya, the Seres who worship no god, and some other of the most barbarous and impious nations in the world.
    That the Persians hold the same notions is shown by Herodotus in these words: ‘I know that among the Persians it is considered unlawful to erect images, altars, or temples; but they charge those with folly who do so, because, as I conjecture, they do not, like the Greeks, suppose the gods to be of the nature of men.’”
  • (Celsus, On True Doctrine, quoted in Origen, Against Celsus, Book 7, Chapter 65).

In his response, Origen does not dispute the accusation but freely admits its truth: "To this our answer is, that if the Scythians, the nomadic tribes of Libya, the Seres, who according to Celsus have no god, if those other most barbarous and impious nations in the world, and if the Persians even cannot bear the sight of temples, altars, and images, it does not follow because we cannot suffer them any more than they, that the grounds on which we object to them are the same as theirs." (Origen, Against Celsus, Book 7, Chapter 63).

The iconoclastic Council of Hieria, gathered in 754 A.D., sent down the same double condemnation: not only were images not to be worshipped, they were not even to be made, for any purpose:

"'Supported by the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers, we declare unanimously in the name of the Holy Trinity, that there shall be rejected and removed and cursed out of the Christian Church every likeness which is made out of any material whatever by the evil art of painters. Whoever in the future dares to make such a thing or to venerate it, or set it up in a church or in a private house, or possesses it in secret, shall, if bishop, priest or deacon, be deposed, if monk or layman, anathematized and become liable to be tried by the secular laws as an adversary of God and an enemy of the doctrines handed down by the Fathers.'" (Alexander Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire, 324 to 1453, Kindle location 3920).

This injunction prohibits not only venerating images, which is indeed unbiblical, but even making OR possessing images, for whatever reason or whatever their intended function. It would appear that Mohammed ibn Abdallah and his immediate successors likewise permitted no images, but as will be seen there is also an interesting counter-tradition. All three of these faith communities have also, in various times and places, allowed image-making, including realistic, representational art:

The Kabah

The story of how Mohammed entered the Kabah in Mecca and cleansed it from idols, as told by his early biographer Ibn Ishaq, is so strange and compromising it has actually been suppressed. Mohammed and his triumphant band came marching in, destroyed the idols and cleansed the Kabah; so far so good. But what remained in the Kabah after its cleansing from idolatry might surprise some people:

"Quraysh had put pictures in the Ka'ba including two of Jesus son of Mary and Mary (on both of whom be peace!). I. Shihab said: Asma' d. Shaqr said that a woman of Ghassan joined in the pilgrimage of the Arabs and when she saw the picture of Mary in the Ka'ba she said, 'My father and my mother be your ransom! You are surely an Arab woman!' The apostle ordered that the pictures should be erased except those of Jesus and Mary." (Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Mohammed, translated by A. Guillaume, p.552, Ibn Ishaq from Hakim b. 'Abbad b. Hanif and other traditionalists.)


Empress Irene's resolution of this debate remains in force with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. The Orthodox even count the woman a saint, though unnatural in her treatment of her son: "Knowing that the Church was wroth with Constantine for this outbreak of self-will, and that the army no longer loved him as before, the wicked Irene determined to strike a blow against her son. She suborned some of the young emperor’s attendants to seize their master, and, when he fell into her hands, had his eyes put out." (Oman, Charles. The Dark Ages 476-918 A.D. (p. 253). Augustine Books). The Protestant Reformers pointed out the obvious problem with Second Nicaea:

"Now, I believe, I should have said quite enough of this matter but for the fact that the Nicene Council commands my attention — not that most celebrated council called by Constantine the Great, but the one held eight hundred years ago at the command and under the auspices of the Empress Irene. For it decreed not only that there were to be images in churches but also that they were to be worshipped." (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.11.14)

With some notable exceptions, the Reformers did not rule out all image-making, only that associated with worship. It is unclear what case can be made for any other policy. What was lost in the Roman Catholic's Church embrace of image-worship was the common-sense middle ground of Pope Gregory I, who responded to an contemporary iconoclastic bishop of Marseilles by pointing out he was right to condemn image-worship, which is idolatry, but wrong to destroy them:

"Pope Gregory I the Great wrote to him praising him for his zeal in advocating that nothing created by human hands should serve as an object of adoration (nequid manufactum adorari posset), but at the same time reprimanding him for the destruction of the images since thereby he had taken away all chance for historical education from people who are ignorant of letters but 'could at least read by looking at the walls what they cannot read in books.' In another letter to the same bishop the pope wrote: 'In that thou forbadest them to be adored, we altogether praise thee; but we blame thee for having broken them. To adore a picture is one thing (picturam adorare), but to learn through the story of the picture what is to be adored, is another.'" (Alexander Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire, 324 to 1453, Kindle location 3827).

This balanced view, that pictures are by no means to be worshipped or venerated as Empress Irene allowed, but that neither are they useless or worthy of destruction, is the right one.