Religious statuary was ubiquitous among the ancients. That which the eye can perceive is so much better for focusing the attention than the amorphous unknown. In methods reminiscent of my days of toy soldiers and action figures (not dolls!), priests of Near Eastern temples would dress their statues, offer them refreshment, and take them for a public parade to reassure the populace that they were still being cared for. Citizens didn’t regularly “go to church” or synagogue, the temple was the work-space of the priesthood. So regularly scheduled public jaunts with the goods, or gods, on the shoulders helped to reassure ancient folk that all was well. If a city-state or nation lost in battle, their statuary was taken captive by the victors — what could you do if they’d taken your gods? Even in the Bible the ark is taken as spoils of war by the Philistines. They knew the drill.
Monotheism and aniconic religion go hand-in-glove. If there is only one god, then multiple images only cause confusion. Although the ancients were more sophisticated than we often suppose — they knew the statues were not the actual gods, thank you Second Isaiah — when monotheism took hold in emergent Judaism, the divine images had to go. Early Christianity shared this antipathy for graven images, for a while. Soon paintings in catacombs represented Jesus and an industry in religious art was about to boom. If the image represents a holy person, the image itself must be holy. It’s a hard idea to shake.
In the paper the other day, an article explained how a couple of people stole Jesus in Hackensack, New Jersey. “2 charged in theft of Jesus” the headline read (in part). Our would-be godnappers tried to sell a 200-pound bronze statue of Jesus for scrap metal. Even with advanced training in religious studies, and a skepticism borne of too many years as a professional religionist, I wouldn’t try to scrap Jesus for cash. The image might have some ark-of-the-covenant-type power! Once while jogging through a church parking lot, a pagan bug flew into my mouth.
This posed a serious ethical dilemma — if I swallowed it my decade-long clean record as a vegetarian went down the drain; on the other hand, expectoration on consecrated ground surely posed a potentially personal apocalypse with The Landlord! As I forcefully released the confused (and slightly gooey) insect back into nature, I had a moment of Kierkegaardian aangst that the job I’d recently applied for would now go to someone else. I had defiled a church parking lot with a little spittle! Religious symbols indeed have power. It takes a brave thief to sell a stolen divinity into the hands of sinners. And I didn’t get that job after all.