chapter  5
19 Pages

Image, Text and Incarnation in the Second Century

In the previous chapter, two epistemologies were contrasted. On the one hand, Philo held, as a Jew, that any plastic representation of God is sacrilegious and that even his self-disclosures through his angels or his Word are perceptible only to the elevated or enraptured faculties of his prophets. By the exercise of a kindred faculty, lovers of God can penetrate the meaning of his written word, the Torah, which is at once the record and the interpretant of the prophetic visions. On the other hand, a cultivated polytheist could hold that the daemonic was the visible integument of the divine, and that even statuary, though inferior to the literary arts, was able at times to reproduce an impression of more potent forms that had been revealed to the sculptor’s imagination. The authors who furnish matter for the present chapter all agreed with Philo in rejecting the graven idol; they also held, with equal unanimity, that an image of the unseen power to which the world owes its origin still abides in the world, though whether the world was its prison, its paradise or both there was no consensus. Again, they all believed that an image of this unseen power had lately assumed a more visible guise, though there was no one view as to whether he had taken on palpable flesh in this epiphany, and there were some who ascribed more efficacy to his teaching, some to his life and some to the spectacle of his death. All concurred in granting both prescriptive and prophetic authority to at least some portion of the Torah, while believing that they now possessed a more tangible key to its hidden sense in the advent of the Saviour who, to some, was nothing less than the Word made flesh. If this was not exactly true of the earliest theologians, whom we call Gnostics, it will be evident that – no less than the apologists who succeeded them and the bishop who immortalized their doctrines by reviling them – they believed they were disinterring the image from the shadow and expounding an ancient cryptogram in the light of a new revelation, which the text at once foreshadowed and belied.