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Did the Early Christians Have Icons?

The 4th-century historian Eusebius: “we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings”

Early Christian catacombs. Wikimedia Commons.

John Calvin, who doesn’t have as much knowledge of archeology as we do today, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion wrote:

“Let us remember that for five hundred years, during which religion was in a more prosperous condition, and a purer doctrine flourished, Christian churches were completely free from visible representations”

In Chapter 13 of Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up, Protestant apologist David Bercot quotes the historian Eusebius no less than 10 times to fit his narrative about Constantine, which is acceptable. However, he doesn’t mention Eusebius once in his lecture titled: “What the Early Christians Believed About Images and Prayers to Saints”.

As usual, the reason, I can’t help but assume, is because Eusebius, in his early 4th-century book Church History, recounts a story of an icon (statue) of Jesus in the early church. And this evidence is contrary to the Bercot narrative that “there is no proof of the early Christians having icons or images.”


“Since I have mentioned this city [Caesarea] I do not think it proper to omit an account which is worthy of record for posterity. For they say that the woman with an issue of blood, who, as we learn from the sacred Gospel, received from our Saviour deliverance from her affliction, came from this place, and that her house is shown in the city, and that remarkable memorials of the kindness of the Saviour to her remain there.
“For there stands upon an elevated stone, by the gates of her house, a brazen image of a woman kneeling, with her hands stretched out, as if she were praying. Opposite this is another upright image of a man, made of the same material, clothed decently in a double cloak, and extending his hand toward the woman. At his feet, beside the statue itself, is a certain strange plant, which climbs up to the hem of the brazen cloak, and is a remedy for all kinds of diseases.
“They say that this statue is an image of Jesus. It has remained to our day, so that we ourselves also saw it when we were staying in the city. Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Saviour, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.”

An icon is “a picture, image, or other representation,” according to

Archeological evidence of early Christian sculptures (circa 200 AD) still exist, see here two of them: The Good Shepherd, Jonah. Christian icons, in the form of paintings, filled the ancient catacombs before the era of Constantine: see here.

The Good Sheperd, Asia Minor (c. A.D. 280)

During the Roman persecutions, the early Christians worshiped in the midst of these paintings

The Reason for Icons

An icon is no different than a picture of family you hang up on the wall. They act as reminders. You wouldn’t look at a picture of your family on the wall and believe that they are really your family, and you wouldn’t worship them — that would be strange. There is nothing special inside the icon except the reminder it puts in one’s mind.

Icons in the Bible

There is a difference between graven idols (of false gods), which God prohibits, which the pagans worshipped as gods, and licit icons, which there is no Scriptural prohibition of, and some of which God Himself commanded the Jews to make. Again, if God commands something, as in the case of incense, one can’t say it is evil, or that would make God evil, which He can’t be.

The Jews often used iconography:

Numbers 21:8–9: The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.

The rod didn’t have power in and of itself. What it represented, which was trust and faith in God, had power.

Exodus 25:18–22: “And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.”

The Jews also prayed before icons. Here is one example out of many, of Joshua praying in front of the golden ark of the Old Covenant:

Joshua 7:6: Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the Lord, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads.

Mary is the ark of the New Covenant. Jesus is the Word of God, once kept inside this new ark (as were the two tablets which God inscribed the Ten Commandments on kept inside the ark of the Old Testament; these also being the Word of God).

The early Christian Gregory Thaumaturgus (c. 213–c. 270) says that Mary is the new ark: “Let us chant the melody that has been taught us by the inspired harp of David, and say, ‘Arise, O Lord, into thy rest; thou, and the ark of thy sanctuary.’ For the Holy Virgin is in truth an ark, wrought with gold both within and without, that has received the whole treasury of the sanctuary”

If Joshua prayed before the ark of the Old Covenant (an icon), in Joshua 7:6, why aren’t Christians allowed to pray before an icon of Mary, the ark of the New Covenant? Hold your answer to this question for a moment.

In the New Testament itself, the Magi pray before Mary, a parallel of the above verse from Joshua.

Matthew 2:11: “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him

The parallels between the old ark and the new ark are simply amazing:

“Dressed as a priest, David danced and leapt in front of the ark (2 Sam. 6:14). John the Baptist — of priestly lineage — leapt in his mother’s womb at the approach of Mary (Luke 1:41). David asks, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Sam. 6:9). Elizabeth asks, “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). David shouts in the presence of the ark (2 Sam. 6:15). Elizabeth “exclaimed with a loud cry” in the presence of Mary (Luke 1:42).” See more.

Since the Jews prayed before an icon, the old ark in Joshua 7:6, a representation of God, why wouldn’t Christians be allowed to pray in front of an icon representation of Mary, the new ark? The Jews in Joshua were not praying to the old ark, they were praying to what it represented, God. Neither do Christians pray to a statue of the new ark, they are praying to what it represents, Mary.

If icons are not allowed, what if one was placed in a jail cell, hypothetically, with a statue of Jesus. Could they not pray in the presence of that statue? That would be silly. In that case, the prisoner doesn’t have to pray to the icon, he can pray to what it represents, Jesus.

An icon is a reminder of what it represents, just as a picture of family on the wall is a reminder of what it represents. Neither should be worshipped. Their representation is what should matter.

The Baltimore Catechism states: “We do not pray to the crucifix or to the images and relics of the saints, but to the persons they represent.”

Idolatry, which Bercot speaks of, is not a ban on icons. Idolatry is a worship of idols, or things that aren’t God, but which can include icons. As with his case against the use of incense, Bercot uses Christian writers who were writing against pagans who worshipped their gods with icons. Context is often excluded. Selection of quotes is apt to be exclusive.

Further Historical Evidence

Eusebius, in book 3 of The Life of Constantine, tells a story of the Emperor. He tells how the icons of false idols were destroyed in Rome, and how icons of Christian nature were created to replace them.

“And [Constantine] being fully resolved to distinguish the city which bore his name with especial honor, he embellished it with numerous sacred edifices, both memorials of martyrs on the largest scale, and other buildings of the most splendid kind, not only within the city itself, but in its vicinity: and thus at the same time he rendered honor to the memory of the martyrs, and consecrated his city to the martyrs’ God. Being filled, too, with Divine wisdom, he determined to purge the city which was to be distinguished by his own name from idolatry of every kind, that henceforth no statues might be worshiped there in the temples of those falsely reputed to be gods, nor any altars defiled by the pollution of blood: that there might be no sacrifices consumed by fire, no demon festivals, nor any of the other ceremonies usually observed by the superstitious.
On the other hand one might see the fountains in the midst of the market place graced with figures representing the good Shepherd, well known to those who study the sacred oracles, and that of Daniel also with the lions, forged in brass, and resplendent with plates of gold.”

The early theologian Tertullian speaks of paintings on cups, another proof that the early Christians were fond of icons.

Let the very paintings upon your cups come forward to show whether even in them the figurative meaning of that sheep will shine through (the outward semblance, to teach) whether a Christian or heathen sinner be the object it aims at in the matter of restoration.” (On Modesty 7, Tertullian ca. 160–220)

Did the Early Christians Venerate Relics?

There is a story about how Elisha’s bones resurrected a man:

“Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.” (2 Kings 13:21)

The bones of the Christian martyrs, or saints, have always been held in the same regard as Elisha’s bones were regarded amongst the Jews. The belief is that since there is so much grace imparted into these saints by God, it is left behind in their relics after their earthly deaths.

The bodies of Polycarp and Ignatius are two notable examples of bones of martyrs kept by the early Christians:

“Accordingly, we afterwards took up his [Polycarp’s] bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.”

— Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch 18 (69–155 ad)

“For only the harder portions of his holy remains were left, which were conveyed to Antioch and wrapped in linen, as an inestimable treasure left to the holy Church by the grace which was in the martyr.”

— Marytrdom of Ignatius of Antioch, Ch 6 (50–117 ad)

And here is one last quote:

“In the meanwhile a spirited body of senators of those who are engaged in the public transport service, seeing what had happened, for they were near the sea, prepared a boat, and suddenly seizing upon the sacred relics, they placed them in it, and scaling the Pharos from behind, by a quarter which has the name of Leucado, they came to the church of the most blessed mother of God, and Ever-Virgin Mary, which, as we began to say, he had constructed in the western quarter, in a suburb, for a cemetery of the martyrs

— Peter of Alexandria, Genuine Acts of Peter (260–311AD)


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