By Walid Shoebat
When I first attended church they told me that when it comes to church, that we needed to follow the Book of Acts model. I began to ask myself, what was the church like that was described in Acts? What was the church that Peter and Paul established in Rome like? Did they have incense and icons, liturgy or hymnal books?
Prior to my conversion to Christianity, when I was still Muslim, my Catholic wife Maria insisted to go to church since she was Catholic to Saint Francis de Assisi in Concord, California—I would insist that while she went to church that I would wait for her in the back with both kids, of course, lest they contracted the Catholic plague.
And while she was worshipping, I would have the kids learn some Palestinian style stone throwing at the statues of Mary and Joseph in the back as these were the right size for Palestinian style target practice.
What Maria wasn’t aware of was that I was training our children to be iconoclast.
Until she caught us on one fateful Sunday, red handed, the target practice was all over. Maria never understood why I hated these statues.
But then when I became Christian, I talked Maria into leaving St. Francis since I was more comfortable attending a Baptist church in which they had no icons. Later I began to ask myself; did my hatred for icons stem from my new faith in Christ, or was it reminiscing my clinging to Islam?
But as I researched the oldest Christians and their churches from the first century to the fourth, they presented a problem since all these churches used icons and incense. They all (even including Jesus and the apostles) used the Deuterocanonical books that are in Catholic bibles. They all had priests, altars, images and saints.
As I shared my findings, it was too difficult to believe by my evangelical brethren. Of course, my friends never examined archeology, history and even the Bible itself to see if Icons were biblical or not.
The first question I asked myself after I did my discoveries was: Is God an iconoclast?
Solomon after all “made two cherubims of olive tree, each ten cubits high.” (I Kings 6:23)
I asked myself if icons were such a problem, then why do we I find “the brazen serpent” which God commanded Moses to make, (Numbers 21:8-9) and the golden Cherubim and Seraphim, which were purely an ornament in the figured fashion of the ark.
Archeology, one of my interests, provides ample evidence. The image of Jonah and the fish was a Christian image that with several crosses cut into the walls in first century catacombs.
There is an abundance of evidence that the early Christians during Acts did make use of icons along with statues and decorated liturgical elements, such as chalices with the image of Christ engraved upon them. A simple crawl through the Roman catacombs or the remains of Dura Europos (Syria) would provide a pointed demonstration.
As I shared my findings the first thing they told me was that Catholics worship these images. When I asked Catholics they told me that they “venerated” these images and never worshipped them.
The ancient Jews understood this distinction (between veneration and worship/adoration), as did the Christians who came forth from Judaism as its true fulfillment in Christ.
Everything from the Jewish Mezuzah to the Torah was venerated (kissed) by pious Jews even until today. Christ would have done the same; this is an ancient custom. And regardless if one doesn’t find some of these customs in the Bible, it was practiced by the faithful from time immemorial.
I was quite impressed to see Messianic believers carry out such customs, yet found it an irony that they refuse Catholics to do the same while they do not have incense.
The Roman catacombs are filled with predominantly Old Testament imagery, demonstrating that the early iconographers came from the Jewish Christians and not only the Greeks.
The tabernacle/temple itself was replete with images, practically everywhere that one would look (and while prostrating before them): on the ark of the covenant (Ex. 25:18), on the curtains (Ex. 26:1), on the veil of the Most Holy place (Ex. 26:31), the statues of cherubim (1 Kings 6:23) on the walls (1 Kings 6:29), on the doors (1 Kings 6:32), and on the furnishings (1 Kings 7:29,36).
The objection is always when many quote Exodus 20:3-5 and Deuteronomy 4:15 God was proscribing against idolatry, that is the worship of images as gods. But in Exodus 25:18-22 and Ezekiel 41:18-19 He ordains the proper use of images in worship. Did God contradict Himself? Hardly.
Even pre-Acts, the temple itself was an image (or “icon”) of heaven; it was made to represent heaven itself (Heb. 8:5; cf. Ex. 25:40). One can even read examples of favorable attitudes towards images in the Palestinian Talmud:
“In the days of Rabbi Jochanan, men began to paint pictures on the walls, and he did not hinder them … In the days of Rabbi Abbun, men began to make designs on mosaics, and he did not hinder them” (Abodah Zarah, 48d).
In the age of the Apostles, the earliest Christians believed that physical phenomena, such as shadows and handkerchiefs, could be used to heal people. Acts 5:15 records how sick Christians believed that healing could come through being overshadowed by St. Peter’s shadow:
Insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them.
St. Paul used handkerchiefs to heal the sick:
So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them. (Acts 19:12)
As already mentioned, the synagogue (and house church) of Dura Europos (Syria, ca. early-3rd century AD) is filled, wall-to-ceiling, with images of Old Testament stories and saints — and all in places where the Jews would’ve been prostrating before the Torah scrolls. The assertion that either ancient or Second Temple Judaism was inherently iconoclastic is truly a modern polemical myth. (see Is There Really a Patristic Critique of Icons, By Gabe Martini, May 25, 2013 http://onbehalfofall.org/?p=6335)
Iconoclasm is rampant in the American church, and this is concerning, for it is in common with the iconoclasm of Islam.
The formidable Jesuit polemicists for Catholicism Robert Bellarmine defend icons stating:
“When God the Father is represented as an old man, the Holy Ghost as a dove, and angels as winged youths, this is not done because they are really like that. They are bodiless spirits, we all know. But we give them human and earthly forms because it was under such that they revealed themselves to men. God the Father appeared as an old man in a vision to the prophet Daniel. The Holy Ghost is shown as a dove because it was in that form that he appeared at the baptism of our Lord. The pictures and statues we make are not intended to show us things in themselves but rather the quality of things, or the effects they produce. For instance, the Holy Spirit is represented as a dove to signify the gifts of innocence, purity and holiness, which he endows in our souls. Similarly, angels are given wings because we know that their heavenly strength and beauty never decline, and they are always on tiptoe to do God’s bidding. Sometimes we even see them in white robes and sacred stoles, signifying their sinlessness and service of the divine majesty.” (The Catholic Protestant Debate: Robert Bellarmine’s Spirited Polemics by Dinesh D’Souza)
When Bellarmine states, “under such that they revealed themselves to men,” he is correct, The New Testament did depict the holy spirit as a “dove” in the Bible when Christ was baptized in the Jordan river, also God was depicted as a man with white hair as Daniel described Him. (Daniel 7)
The idea that icons were introduced by Roman paganism by Constantine is a myth developed by Alexander Hislop in his Two Babylons. In fact, it was Islam that forbade icons a millennia before Hislop invented his myths.
It was the Muslim Abd al-Jabbar was the first to propagate these myths in his “Critique of Christian Origins,” which is considered the first Islamic history on Christianity in the late tenth century. Without knowing that the author is Muslim, quoting some of al-Jabbar writings is similar to what anti-Constantine Messianic and Evangelicals say:
“Constantine was wicked and calculating … he made an external show of venerating Christ and the Cross. Yet he confirmed the Roman religious practices as they were, including praying to the East and other things that have been mentioned. He removed nothing other than the worship of the planets, espousal of his [Christ’s] divinity and veneration of the Cross.” (Abd al-Jabbar in his “Critique of Christian Origins”, Part III, 213-214, trans. Gabriel Said Reylonds)
That Constantine invented Christmas, he states:
“The Romans and the Greeks had a holiday which they called the “Birth of Time.” It was at the return of sunlight in December. They made it the birthday of Christ, adding and subtracting [things from it]. This is the great holiday for them, which the Chritsians celebrate and call Christmas or Christmas Eve. The Christians in the time of Christ, and his companions after him, did not know this holiday and did not celebrate it (Ibid, 244-247)
Pertaining to Lent, he writes:
“The Romans and the Sabi’un [Sabians] had a day on which they fasted, the days of the planetary perigees, during which they [Christians] refrained from eating meat. When they began to espouse the divinity of Jesus, they confirmed [these fatsts], and then added to them in some ways and subtracted from them. Today they fast fifty days, until the zenith of the sun, then they break their fasts on some days.” (Ibid, 248-250)
Al-Jabbar even claimed that incense, icons, veneration of Mary and the Apostles, all came from pagan origins:
“The Romans and the Sabi’un [Sabians] used smoke and incense in the temples of the planets and idols. This continues to this day among the Christians who have not annulled it … the Romans, along with their worship of the planets, venerated idols, erected representations of them in the temples. They continued in this way even after they accepted the veneration of the Cross, without any decrease, with Christ, his mother, and his companions [desciples] in the place of those idols.” (Ibid, 279-284)
The hatred of Constantine and icons in the church is a modern manmade tradition that goes in line with Muslim views, which I had to endure listening to for two decades in my church and Messianic circles. It was as if my new evangelical faith needed to have something in common with Islam; they denounced Constantine’s vision of the cross in the sky, they even circulated throughout the nation, a mythical scenario I learned fairly quickly which goes like this; it was the evil Constantine who founded the Catholic Church and was its first pope. He established it after he suppressed the original church that comprised of true Bible believing Christians. He prohibited the Bible from being read, changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday and mixed paganism with Christianity and that is why Catholics in reality worship The Queen of Heaven, saints, pagan icons, the Sun Disk (Eucharist) and statues.
The church bought into Cumont’s popularized idea that Constantine founded the Catholic Church. But this assertion, like al-Jabbar, came as a result of his anti-Christian perspective and was not accurate history. He wrote that Christianity took from its opponents their own weapons, and used them; the better elements of paganism were transferred to the new religion. (Cumont, The Oriental Religions, intro, p. xi)
And before Cumont, Alexander Hislop, the Scottish ‘ordained Anglican minister’ who wrote The Two Babylons, that many evangelicals, especially Messianics refer to pointing the pagan origins in the Catholic practices.
But the ‘sheep’ were unaware that Hislop attacked the Trinity, which is an issue that both Evangelicals and Catholics agree on.
His pitfall was a self-defeating claim. He falsely pointed out the antiquity of the theological concept of the Trinity by Roman Catholics as pagan in origin and definition. Hislop by giving examples of pagan trinities in Siberia, Japan, and India made the Trinity as a “universal in all the ancient nations of the world”. He went so far as to say that, “the supreme divinity in almost all heathen nations was triune”. (Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons (Neptune, NJ: Loizeau Bros, 1959)
But were all these assertions the truth stated by promoters of truth, or is this a mythical description and a slanderous fabrication of history?
I was a man acquainted with slander, so I decided to fight this with the same passion and vigorousness as I fought the promoters of the Protocols of The Elders of Zion.
Hislop’s fallacies on the Trinity can be demonstrated by simply exercising his methods ourselves. If we have an agenda, it is possible to contrive any number of links between two entirely disparate religious systems. Odin, for example, is the father of the gods in the Nordic tradition. He sits upon a throne called “High Seat”, from which he can observe Midgard (the realms of men.) Two large ravens (whose names are “Thought” and “Memory”) roost upon opposite shoulders of the throne. Each morning they leave their perches and fly down to Midgard, where they spend the entire day. At evening they return, and whisper everything they have seen and heard into the ears of Odin. Sometimes the father of the gods will visit Midgard in person. On these occasions he manifests himself as a one-eyed man attended by two large wolves. The Vikings believed that Odin, Vili and Ve (three divine brothers of equal power) were responsible for creation. Later, Odin became Father of the gods, while his brothers vanish from the narrative.
When King Gylfi (a mortal man) makes his way to the home of the gods, he is met by three divine entities, who impart a series of prophetic revelations. The names of these entities are “High”, “Just-as-High”, and “The Third.” At the end of his audience, Gylfi realises that he has spoken to none other than Odin himself, manifested in three equal persons. Odin’s wife Frigga has a magic ring, which creates nine other rings of equal value every ninth night. The numbers “3” and “9” are powerful symbols in Norse mythology, because three is the number of Odin and nine is the cube of three. They occur many times throughout the Nordic tradition. (Burk, D. The Two Babylons – Hislop’s hypothesis debunked)
Here we have more than enough material from which we might fabricate a “Norse Trinity” and claim that the Vikings themselves were Trinitarians. (Ibid).
We can even use Frigga’s nine rings, and if we wish to attack Judaism, we would attribute it to the nine candle Menorah. Then we package our findings in a book as it is a new discovery into debunking the entire Judeo-Christian history and it becomes a bestseller that when the truth responds as “Hislop’s hypothesis debunked,” no one reads it.
And that is how sheep are taken to the slaughterhouse after they have consumed their last meal; a concoction that ‘builds on similarities while ignoring volumes of differences’ is a lethal meal.