Any person who is on the road to becoming Orthodox will have to eventually come to grips with the place of icons and the practice of their veneration. There are, of course, many biblical and theological arguments to be made in favor of the practice and its theology. Two important such arguments are St. John Damascene’s account of icons and St. Theodore the Studite’s important work on icons.

But there are historical arguments as well. After all, even the most intransigent of Protestant iconoclasts has to reckon with the weight of history, especially when a belief or practice goes right back to the apostles. And Orthodox are always ready to affirm that icons and their veneration have apostolic foundations. In fact, not only are icons an ancient practice, both Jews and Christians practiced iconography–though surely with different theologies.

Evidence of this ancient practice goes back to the third century–for both Christians and Jews–and the site of Dura Europos. There, in the early 1920s, was discovered a very well preserved synagogue with extensive iconography, as well as a home that had been converted to a Christian temple (or what we today would call a church building). Both sites date back to as early as AD 230s. That is to say, the first third to half of the third century. Which implies that the practice of iconography at least dated from the second century, and to within the lifetimes of the disciples of the Apostles.

And that is just another way to say that icons go all the way back.

For an informative site that provides evidence for the early use of icons in both Christianity and Judaism, you can see photos here. (See also here.) Be sure to read this article, on a Sepphoris’ synagogue’s iconography, as well.

Gotta love archaeology.

4 thoughts on “Icons

  1. I made an argument based on these to a question on a message board I participate in “why didn’t early Christians draw pictures of Christ and Mary” about the catacombs and the tradition of St. Luke writing the first Icon.

    It didn’t go over well, something about the 3rd century not being all the way back (rolls eyes). I think it’s that we haven’t found it, or it was destroyed in the iconoclastic times, not that it wasn’t there.

  2. I think it is, in part, the Protestant amnesia about history. Protestants just don’t get that if something is a full-blown practice in AD 230, it had to have at least been an incipient practice a hundred years before. But if it was an incipient practice in AD 130-ish, then you’ve got men and women dying for the faith who knew for a fact what St. Paul and St. Peter did and didn’t say, and what practices were and weren’t part of the tradition from the time of the apostles. And if icon veneration was going on in their lifetimes, then it only stands to reason it was going on in the Apostles’ lifetimes.

    But that sort of argument–since it lacks a biblical reductionistic positivism–won’t fly. It’s the same reason many Protestants reject episcopal polity. They look at its form in the late third century and say, “Don’t see it in the NT.” But its also clear from history that the exact same fundamental pratices bishops were doing in the late second century were precisely the ones we know they were doing in the first century. So, yes, bishops are an apostolic form of Church leadership.

    But Protestants generally are so conditioned against Church history that they just won’t accept historical evidence unless it matches their preconceptions.

  3. But Protestants generally are so conditioned against Church history that they just won’t accept historical evidence unless it matches their preconceptions.


    I enjoyed your further thoughts on this!

    I wandered over to your blog from Huw’s, it’s quite lovely!

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