Jesus and Lazarus Christ the Magician

A survey of ancient Christian sarcophagus imagery

William Storage and Laura Maish

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Jesus commonly appears on ancient Christian sarcophagi in the role of a magician. This comes as a surprise to many modern viewers. Catholic tradition holds that the diversity in early Christian belief stems from heresies that branched out from an original kernel of orthodoxy. This view of the roots of the early diversity in Christian belief is difficult to reconcile with the books of the New Testament - which presumably represent the earliest Christian writings - let alone the heretical works refuted by early apologists like Justin Martyr and Tertullian. Christian history also holds that, while Gnostic sects like the Valentinians existed in the city of Rome, they had died off there or conformed by the third century, and that Christian belief at that time was very similar to that of today. In contrast, the imagery from ancient Roman sarcophagi, carved in stone, is evidence of incompletely-formed Christianity in Rome late into the 4th century. This funerary imagery clearly shows the problem with interpreting the ancient Christian community solely through texts of the clergy.

Sarcophagus if Junius Bassus

Christian sarcophagi have been grossly overlooked as a tool for studying early Christianity. They're much less vulnerable to being revised to alter their details or meaning to conform to current theology than are written materials. This is true despite the merciless "restoration" work visible on many of the sarcophagi, performed, for example, by antique dealers seeking to increase an item's value or perhaps by 18th century apologists nervous about the lack of crosses in early Christian art. These restorations are usually very apparent, and rarely obscure the original composition (occasionally providing humor, when the deceased woman's portrait is recarved as Jesus, or when a soldier is recarved as Peter). Furthermore, extant sarcophagi have come down to us through a much more random (less selective) process than have Christian texts, which, independent of any rewriting, have been selected for their suitability to ecclesiastic agendas while others were either banned or abandoned and forgotten. Where we have only tiny scraps of the earliest Christian manuscripts, there is a wealth of ancient information written in stone that can be inspected first-hand by anyone with access to the world's great museums and churches. To be sure, some sarcophagi have been reworked and others are modern forgeries, but many exist, particularly in Rome, with imagery that can be solidly identified as 3rd and 4th century work. Surprisingly, the stories told by sarcophagus imagery are often different from those of the gospels.

No Christian sarcophagi can be firmly dated to earlier than the third century, and even these are rare and disputed[1]. Various theories have been proposed for this lack of evidence of early Christianity. Some suggest, on the basis of Exodus 20:4 ("shall not make for yourself an idol"), that the earliest Christians rejected icons like the Jews of the same period. This seems unlikely, especially since evidence shows that Judaism was not completely aniconic during the same period. For example, 20th century excavations at Dura Europos revealed an early synagogue with rich iconography.  The earliest Christian writers report that Christian clothing and household objects were richly decorated with biblical illustrations. These early writers, such as Tertullian (On Modesty, 7.1) and Clement of Alexandria (The Instructor, 3.11.59 - "let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre...") did not appear to be critical of such usages of Christian art. Charles Murray, in his exhaustive investigation, concluded that there was no real condemnation by early church fathers of non-idolatrous iconography in the early centuries of Christianity. Archaeological evidence suggests that lively art was a prominent feature of early Christianity.

A more likely reason for the lack of Christian art before the fourth century is that the number of Christians was very small. Written accounts describing Christianity as an important component of first and second century Rome are now increasingly thought to be later forgeries. Analysis of the authenticity of secular mentions of Christianity are beyond the scope of this discussion, but a few summary points are useful. For example, the brief mentions of Christianity in Josephus, and Suetonius are sufficiently problematic (e.g., brevity, inconsistent language, lack of citation by subsequent writers whose point would benefit from citing it) to raise questions of their authenticity. Likewise, Tacitus's description of the "vast multitude" of Christians persecuted by Nero is inconsistent with other contemporaneous Roman histories, Even the descriptions of Paul's ministry in Rome in the Acts of the Apostles suggest that Christianity was a tiny club at the time of Nero. If authentic, Tacitus's passage indicates his disgust with Nero and perhaps the attitudes toward Christians in Tacitus' time. Against its authenticity, Eusebius, the church historian of the fourth century, makes no mention of the passage when it clearly would have been in his interest to do so.

Many biblical scholars conclude that Acts was a late addition to the books of the Christian proto-canon; an attempt both to meld together the epistles attributed to Paul and certain of the large body of then-circulating gospels. Perhaps more importantly - at least for Christianity's presence in Rome - Acts introduces - and develops at great length – the idea of apostolic succession, absent from the gospels, but absolutely essential to a hierarchically organized sect of Christianity that was the ancestor to Catholicism. Acts alone - not the gospels or epistles - placed Paul in Rome. Christian tradition - not any book of the Bible - placed Peter in Rome.

Whether Christians were in Rome before the third century, scant archaeological evidence exists. The late third century then shows an explosion in popularity of biblical themes, probably the result of the rapid growth of Christian sects at that time. As mentioned above, ancient writings reveal a great variation in beliefs between these sects, which show gnostic and docetic elements to various degrees. Marcionism and Valentinism, against which the church fathers railed, were popular in Rome. These sects were either extinguished or absorbed by what later became Catholic orthodoxy. Their writings are now commonly referred to by the misleading term, apocrypha. As stressed by David Cartlidge, the term brands these books as clandestine; and they were nothing of the sort. Despite later condemnation by church authorities there is no basis for the notion that those who used these books saw themselves as members of splinter groups, or that the distinction of orthodox was in any way meaningful in the third century. Christian sarcophagi portray stories from what must have been thought by their patrons to be the key events of the Christian story, whether those stories were transmitted orally or in scriptures.

Granted, the sarcophagi, due to limitations of their medium, cannot describe Christian belief as richly as the books of the New Testament or the writings of the early church fathers. But they do tell quite a bit; and of what they do tell we can be certain, since it is carved in stone. Christian sarcophagi have mainly been the focus of the fields of history of art and Christian apologetics and devotion. There has been an astounding lack of interest in Christian art by those involved in the study of Christian origins, an enterprise almost solely devoted to ancient texts.

Ox and AssOver the past decade we have visited Roman churches and museums to study Christian sarcophagi and funerary art having scriptural parallels. We've taken several thousand photos of these ancient carvings. We have catalogued the images, and have identified scriptural references where they exist. Many images on the earliest Christian gravestones are purely iconic or symbolic. Many of the earliest images are identical to those of pagan funerary art, thus their identification as Christian is solely contextual. Whether certain pieces have Christian origins is uncertain, particularly those involving grape harvests, philosophers, orants and the good shepherd - all images popular before the dawn of Christianity. Even in a Christian context these images cannot be linked to any specific biblical story, so they aren't listed here. Scenes with scriptural parallels, mostly involving miracles, dominate fourth and early fifth century sarcophagi, gradually being replaced by images of Christ as supreme ruler, saints, and images unrelated to scripture. Our focus here is the relatively short period of narrative imagery that can be correlated with early Christian writings, many of which are not canonical, some of which are now considered heretical.

The rendering of characters from the gospel stories is remarkably consistent on the sarcophagi. Jesus appears as a young man with a boyish features and an expression that's usually both joyful and confident. This is the blond Jesus of the catacombs and early Christian wall paintings, not the dark-haired, solemn, "oriental" Jesus of later Christianity. His face, hair, and effeminate body features are indistinguishable from those in the Roman rendering of youthful Apollo, from whom Jesus can be differentiated only by context. Peter's looks vary little from specimen to specimen, despite the fact that the sarcophagi seem to span two centuries. Even Pontius Pilate and the soldier who crowns Jesus are recognizable from one sample to the next. We can be certain of identifications of most figures in the sarcophagus scenes, based on details of the scene, such as the rooster from the story of Peter's denial, the hand-washing of Pilate, the lions with Daniel, and the jugs of wine at Cana. A few of the scenes are less easy to correlate with Bible stories - is that Jesus raising Lazarus or Ezekiel -sculpted to resemble Jesus - bringing life to the dry bones? Finally, some common scenes don't correlate with stories in the Christian canon at all, but do correlate with stories from Christian books deemed heretical by the increasingly catholic church.

 Miracles are by far the largest group of scriptural subjects found on Christian sarcophagi of the period. At the turn of the 20th century Alexander Soper concluded that the prominence of miracle scenes resulted from the fact that they fit well into traditional frieze and panel sarcophagi. Soper reported a higher rate of certain scenes in Christian catacombs than on sarcophagi, including the three youths in the furnace, and the Jonah story - these requiring more horizontal space to show. While layout restrictions may be a factor in the difference between sarcophagus and catacomb images, we observe that most of the important non-miracle events of the Old and New Testament fit the frieze or paneled sarcophagus format equally well. It seems more likely to us that the reason for the prominence of miracle images wasn't a matter of format but simply the obvious one; they were the most popular with patrons of the sculpture. From the evidence of sarcophagi, it seems inescapable that for ordinary people - those buried in sarcophagi or with simple grave slabs - Jesus was first and foremost a miracle man. More interesting still, unlike his representation in the gospels, he was seen as a magician.

Other departures from scripture are common on sarcophagi. For example, all images of the entry into Jerusalem also include a small figure peering down from his perch in a tree.Jesus crowned by Roman soldier This would seem to be Zacchaeus, the man short of stature from Luke 19:1 but Zacchaeus lives in Jericho, not Jerusalem, at least as the story is told by Luke. Perhaps in a lost counterpart to Luke's gospel, or in oral tradition at the time, Zacheaus was in Jerusalem. The prominence given to this incidental character from whom even evangelists struggle to extract a lesson is surprising. It's possible that in an alternate gospel Zacheaus played a more significant role.

Another minor oddity is the crown placed on Jesus' head by a Roman. It is a normal corona, not made of thorns, and contains a diadem. The Roman, gingerly placing the crown, does not appear to mock Jesus, whose mood seems more joyous than solemn.

In some cases the departure from scripture seems to be a matter of artistic practicality; this typically takes the form of abbreviating and distilling a scene into its most identifiable symbols. For example, Nebuchadnezzar's giant golden monument is reduced to something like a life-sized statue. Some departures seem to point to pagan parallels, like the reclining Jonah, who instead of lamenting, appears as Endymion, proud and handsome. The artist may have meant to force an association between the biblical story and a pagan precedent, or merely have unconsciously introduced familiar pagan elements into the biblical scene. The latter appears to be the case in the rendering of Peter's denial. The cock on the column is an image that can be soundly traced to a sequence of pagan precedents. But this is not the case with the wand-miracle images.

Of 414 total scenes, we counted 68 where Jesus or Peter use wands to perform miracles. In a few other scenes, Moses and Ezekiel also use a wand to bring water from a stone or to resurrect dry bones. Also, very rarely, Jesus carries a wand but is not using it to conduct power by contact. Nowhere in the Bible is there any indication that Jesus would use a wand. Some claim the wand is in fact a staff of authority, but on the sarcophagi the wand doesn't appear with Jesus in any role of authority. The meaning of a wand would have been completely unambiguous in ancient times; it was the primary symbol of magic in eastern and western art of the period. The wand is a common symbol of the Roman mystery cults - Mithraism in particular - whose savior-heroes, like Jesus, performed magic healing, and whose followers formed intense personal bonds with a savior-hero.

IdolModern Christianity differentiates magic from divine powers, but this was not always the case. The pagan writer Celsus, as quoted by the Christian writer Origen, asked whether we should regard all the other magicians trained by the Egyptians as son of God also. Origen, in his multi-volume diatribe against Celsus, did not claim that Jesus' magic itself was unique. He instead argued about its source. Clement of Alexandria and Acts of Peter describe contests of magic between Peter and Simon the Magus. Justin Martyr made desperate but unconvincing attempts to differentiate Jesus' magic from that of others. Athanasius tied himself in a bit of a logical knot, explaining that Jesus was not a magician, but that his magic triumphed over that of other magicians.

Jesus' wand is almost always present in scenes of the multiplication of loaves and fishes, but it is never used for healing the blind man, the paralytic, or the woman with an issue of blood. These healing scenes instead involve direct bodily contact - the laying on of hands. Margaret Jensen suggests that early Christians may have thus seen healing as a less magical feat, performable by mere wise men, differentiating "medicine" from real magic. The biblical Jesus defends himself against accusation of being a magician. It seems unlikely that Jesus would have confused his audience by denouncing magic while using a magician's wand, particularly if his message was that the source of his healing power was God the Father. Thus we cannot reconcile certain parts of the canonical gospels with some of what we see on the sarcophagi.

The wand was not merely an artistic device to ensure that viewers could identify the scriptural miracle being shown. Scenes of Lazarus, the miracle at Cana, and the loaves and fishes did not require the wand to allow their association to the biblical stories for anyone even remotely familiar with the biblical stories. If viewers were expected to recognize less dramatic scenes such as the abduction of Habakkuk and Jesus before Pilate, they certainly wouldn't need to see a wand in order to recognize the resurrection of Lazarus. It thus seems fairly certain that at least the typical 4th-century Christian consumers of sarcophagi pictured Jesus as a magician - a divinely powered one perhaps, but a magician nonetheless. Apologists have argued that such imagery could be the product of those on the fringe of orthodoxy or of illiterates without firsthand access to the scriptures. This argument is weak on several counts. First, since the magician images are the most common images on Christian sarcophagi of the period, if they were out of step with authors of scriptures or other early Christian writings, it was those writers who were in the minority position and therefore out of step with popular belief. Second, portraits of the deceased holding scrolls on many sarcophagi indicate that they were in fact educated and literate. Finally, illiterate peasants could not afford ornate marble sarcophagi.

Raising Lazarus, miracle at Cana, multiplication of loaves, and the widow's son

By our count, the two most common scenes from scriptures appearing on sarcophagi both involve wands. The most common is the well known story of multiplication of loaves and fishes - actually, stories, since the four canonical gospels include six descriptions of feeding the multitude - all describe feeding the 5000 (Matthew 14:17, Mark 6:37, Luke 9:13, John 6:7), and only Mark and Matthew include the 4000 (Matthew 15:32, Mark 8.1). Multiplication of loaves and fishes also appear in many apocryphal gospels and is the only miracle story common to all canonical gospels. The number of baskets represented on sarcophagi varies, probably due to space and composition limitations. There seems to be some interaction of the multiplication of loaves and Eucharist scenes, although the latter never correlates with a Last Supper. The number of guests in all Eucharist scenes is seven, a possible reference to the post-resurrection appearance to the seven disciples (John 21). For Clement of Alexandria, the loaves represent the Jewish Law "and the fishes signified the Hellenic philosophy that was produced and moved in the midst of the Gentile billow, given, as they were, for copious food to those lying on the ground, increasing no more, like the fragments of the loaves, but having partaken of the Lord's blessing" (Stromata 6.11.94).

Peter's water miracleSince the most repeated miracle story in the Bible is the story most commonly shown on sarcophagi, it may come as a surprise that the second most common sarcophagus scene does not appear in the Bible at all. Nor is it ever mentioned by early church fathers in extant writings. However, it does appear in the apocryphal book, Acts of Saints Processus and Martinianus. In it Peter strikes a rock and produces water, echoing Moses in Exodus 17:6, and then baptizes his jailers. Roman Christian tradition holds that this event took place in the Mamertine Prison (Tullianum), on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. The prominence of this image and its absence in the Bible suggest to us that Christianity in Rome was far less catholic than what was reported by the church fathers including Ignatius, Irenaeus, Origen, and even Eusebius.

Peter is again the subject of the fourth most common sarcophagus image - the related scene of his capture and arrest, again not present in the canon. Joseph Wilpert concluded that the images of Peter's arrest were derived from the story of his arrest by Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:3-19)[2]. This seems highly unlikely, given that Peter's water miracle is absent from Acts, the Roman dress of his jailers, and the tradition of Peter in Rome. Furthermore, none of Peter's miracles that actually do appear in Acts ever appear on sarcophagi. Some of Peter's miracles from Acts would make impressive carvings, such as his resurrection of Tabitha or his miraculous murder of Ananias and Sapphira.

The table below lists the scenes by number of occurrences. Of the scenes listed above, 196, or just under 50%, include Jesus. Seventy three (17%) depict Peter, who always uses a wand to perform his miracles. Of Jesus' miracles, about 45% include wand usage, and 1/3 involve healing by direct contact. Just over 1/4 of the sarcophagus scenes are from the Old Testament, including several Old Testament books whose canonicity is disputed. The most common Old Testament book represented is Daniel, the basis for six sarcophagus scenes, including 18 images (4% of total) of Daniel in the lions' den. Scenes not present in most versions of Daniel, but present on the sarcophagi, include the judgment of Susanna, Habakkuk in his field, and Bel and the dragon. We are specifically excluding a large number of images of the good shepherd from our count. Despite gospel references, e.g., John 10.11. Christian use of the shepherd on sarcophagi is identical to the pagan use of the same image for charity, and cannot really be correlated to a Bible story.

Perhaps more interesting than the frequency of non-canonical imagery is the absence of references to scenes that are central to modern Christianity. There is no passion, no last supper, no crucifixion, no post-resurrection appearances, no annunciation, few nativity scenes, very few images of Paul, and nothing from Acts of the Apostles.

Careful observers will note that most of the images of the visit by the magi to the infant Jesus depart from scriptures in an important detail. Gospel Mark has no magi story, but in the other gospels the wise men follow a star to the location of Jesus' birth. Most of the sarcophagus images show a toddler Jesus, with a full head of curly hair, sitting on his mother's lap, arms outstretched to directly receive the gifts offered by the magi. In other nativity scenes an ox and an ass peer through an opening at Jesus in his crib. Both scenes correlate with apocryphal texts. In the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew the ox and ass are described just as they appear on the sarcophagi. Early Christians no doubt saw this scene as fulfillment of a prophecy they read into Isaiah 1:3 ("The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner's manger"). In the Protoevangelium of James, the magi visit Jesus when he is two years old. Henry Wansbrough and Thomas Matthews see the magi incident as not a celebration of the birth of a spiritual ruler, but as a surrender of the magi to a newborn supermagician. The gifts are not random items of high value, they are instruments these magi used to cast spells, now rendered impotent in the presence of stronger magic. If they're correct we can see the scenes of visitation by magi as yet another reference to the connection between Jesus and magic.

Jonah ranks fifth in frequency on sarcophagi - the most common Old Testament scene. A reason given by ancient and modern writers for Jonah's popularity is that the Jonah story is a metaphor for Christ's resurrection. Matthew 12:40 explains Jonah in this way, comparing Jonah's three nights in the fish to Jesus' three (?) nights in the heart of the earth. This cannot be the whole story of Jonah's popularity, however. Jonah is usually shown relaxing, nude on the beach after being cast from the fish, looking rather suave, unlike the worried state one would expect based on Jonah 4:5. The popularity of Jonah at rest is easily explained, however, by its similarity to other heroes in the same pose on contemporaneous pagan sarcophagi. Silenus, Bacchus, Endymion and Arianna appear in the same pose and in similar settings. Endymion, popular on pagan sarcophagi because his peaceful sleep under the spell of Selene presents a pleasant image of the deceased at rest, was no doubt a model for the image of Jonah at rest.

Jonan and Silenus
Jonah on the beach (left) compared to Silenus in banquet, both from Roman sarcophagi

The raising of Lazarus (6th most common sarcophagus image) is the only New Testament scene on the Jonah Sarcophagus. Jensen and others read this image as foretelling the resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps so, but since the wand is always present, and the Lazarus image usually accompanies other wand-miracle images, it is equally likely that the Lazarus image celebrates Jesus' magic healing powers like the other scenes where he uses a wand. As with many of the other images, the rendering of the Lazarus story departs from the text. Instead of a burial cave with a stone covering, the carved images show an above-ground structure with a facade common to Roman temples. This may simply indicate a Roman idealization of burial, and may be influenced by the interest ancient Romans took in more ancient Egyptian cults and myths. Texts from pyramids of the 5th and 6th dynasties regarding the resurrection of Lazarus also align closely with the sarcophagus imagery. This imagery also relates to the story of resurrection of an anonymous man in the Secret Gospel of Mark as quoted in a letter (authenticity disputed) of Clement of Alexandria.

25% of identifiable images on these sarcophagi are of Old Testament scenes. Most of these involve Daniel and Jonah. This may point to Jonah and Daniel as metaphors for Christ's resurrection, though one might ask why indirect refers would be given priory over direct references. Virtually no images directly related to the resurrection appear. Images of the empty tomb and the ascended Christ appear later in Christian art, but rarely on sarcophagi, particularly sarcophagi bearing other images with scriptural parallels. Ernest Cadman Colwell argued that common sarcophagus scenes such as the sacrifice of Isaac, Noah in the ark, Jonah and Daniel all, in fact, do appear in the New Testament as references to the Old Testament text. Thus it is possible that these secondary references were the basis for the sarcophagus images. But this seems a stretch. Daniel, for example is mentioned in name only (Matthew 24:15 - mentions Daniel's reference to the abomination of desolation) and perhaps an oblique reference in Hebrews to prophets who shut the mouths of lions. One possibility is that images directly referring to crucifixion would be deemed too gruesome for the early Christian audience. Another is that details of Jesus' resurrection were unknown or undeveloped in oral tradition and writings of early Christianity. Readers who find this prospect incredible should note that early versions of Mark stopped at chapter 16, giving no explanation of the empty tomb and reporting no post-resurrection appearances. It's also worth noting that Clement of Rome shows no knowledge of any of the Gospel events; he never mentions them.

The popularity of images of Daniel may stem from association with Jesus' resurrection, but they can also likely be linked to magic. The book of Daniel describes him as being a magician whose magic, sourced by his God, greatly surpasses that of all the Chaldeans and the magicians of Nebuchadnezzar's court.

Peter always uses a wand to draw water from the rock in his prison; but unlike Jesus, he also sometimes carries a wand but is not in the act of using it. According to the apocryphal Acts of Peter, Peter often found himself in magician showdowns. He defeated his nemesis by making a dog talk and resurrecting a smoked fish in response to a levitation trick performed by Simon's the Magus. Peter's unique position as wand-bearer at rest does might assert more than his magical prowess. It could also remind viewers that Jesus has passed his powers as well as his authority to Peter. This message was key to apostolic succession, securing Rome's position as the seat of the Christian church. A sarcophagus seems an odd vehicle for this message, however, and if it were intended by the sculptor it could have been expressed much more directly.

Arguments against Christianity by pagans identified similarities between Jesus and other legendary healers of the day including Apollonius of Tyana, Orpheus of Thrace, and Asclepius. As with Jesus, there was and still is debate as to the extent that to which these figures were based on living people. Unlike the case of Jesus, no imagery of the other healers exists that shows them in the act of healing. If this type of image is in fact a Christian invention, it might have contributed significantly to Christianity's explosion of popularity in 4th century Rome, a place where it appears the citizens had grown tired of the impersonal and static imagery of state gods and were attuned to decoding messages encoded in sculpture.

Paul appears in very few images. His name is inscribed in one fragment containing his easily identifiable image. His appearance on this fragment matches the description of him in the non-canonical Acts of Paul. Wilpert considered this piece to be a modern forgery. Another fragment may contain a reference to the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla. The fragment shows Paul commanding a sailing ship named Thecla. If this is truly a reference to the martyr, Thecla, in Acts of Paul, it is an indirect one. Images related to Paul's arrest (mentioned in the epistles and in Acts), and his martyrdom (non-canonical Acts of Paul only) appear rarely, all at the very end of the date range covered by these sarcophagi.


We find that a high percentage of sarcophagus images related to scriptural texts (whether canonical or not) depict acts that would be immediately identified by ancient viewers as magic. Patristic writings reinforce this view of Jesus as magician, but specify that his powers came from a different source than those of other magicians. Jesus is the most common figure on the sarcophagi, and often performs miracles or acts of magic. The only other New Testament miracle worker to appear is Peter, the second most common figure on the sarcophagi, though the two most common scenes of Peter are noncanonical. Peter's water miracle is the second most common scene on the sarcophagi, and he always uses a wand for his miracles. The disagreement between the narratives in existing texts and the details of sarcophagus imagery suggest that Christian thought was not nearly as uniform as Christian history suggests it was.

Browse all sarcophagus images

Scene Count Examples
Loaves and fishes miracle 32 Vat 31410, Vat 31610, Vat 31427 (Dogmatic), Claudianus, Paolo 1, Massimo 2
Pieter and the jailers 27 Massimo 1 (Claudianus),, Vat 31408, Vat 31452, Vat 31464, Vat 31484
Jesus heals the blind man 25 Vat 31408 ("Ludovisi"), Vat 31427 (Dogmatic), Vat 31461 Bethesda, Vat 31472
Arrest of Peter 24 Vat 28591 (Anastasis), Vat 31439, Vat 31509 Sabinus), Vat 31508, Vat 31527
Jonah 32 Vat 31496 (Jonah), Vat 31533, Vat 31535, Vat 31593, Lorenzo 1, Vat 28592
Lazarus 21 Vat 31408 ("Ludovisi"), Vat 31427 (Dogmatic), Vat 31431, Vat 31464
Miracle at Cana 19 Vat 31472, Vat 31482, Vat 31499, Vat 31508, Vat 31515, Vat 31516
Jesus heals the paralytic 19 Vat 31461 Bethesda, Vat 31464, Vat 31472, Vat 31482, Vat 31499
Daniel with lions 18 Vat 31427 (Dogmatic), Vat 31459, Vat 31472, Vat 31474, Vat 31511
Issue of blood 18 Vat 31484 (Crescens), Vat 31489 (Agape), Vat 31505, Vat 31508
Sacrifice of Isaac 17 Vat 31470, Vat 31472, Vat 31474, Vat 31528, Vat 31556
Magi in adoration 16 Vat 31533, Vat 31404, Vat 31443, Vat 31450
Peter's denial 16 Vat 31427 (Dogmatic), Vat 31472, Vat 31475
Arrest of Jesus / Jesus with Pilate 16 Vat 31485, Vat 31486, Vat 31487, Vat 31528
Noah 11 Vat 31533, Vat 31541, Vat 31593
Original sin 10 Vat 31664 ("Ambrose"), Vat 31569, Vat 31533
Fiery furnace 9 Vat 31541, Vat 31553, Vat 31565, Vat 31564
Moses receives the Law 9 Vat 31532, Vat 31533, Vat 31546
Raising the widow's son 9 Vat 31532, Vat 31436, Vat 31536
Traditio legis 7 Vat 31528, Vat 31486, Vat 31487
Entry into Jerusalem 7 Vat 31461 (Bethesda),  Vat 31486, Vat 31511, Vat 31537, Vat 31551
Symbols of work 5 Vat 31427 (Dogmatic), , Vat 31489, Vat 31535
Ezekiel and bones 5 Vat 31408 (Ludovisi), Vat 31450, Vat 31472
Christ teaching 5 Vat 31527, , Vat 31573, Vat 31651, Massimo
Judgment of Susana 5 Vat 31473, Vat 31558, Vat 31664
Pilate washes hands 4 Vat 31543, Vat 31598a>, Vat 31653, Vat 31660
Red Sea crossing 4 Vat 31434, Vat 31435 , Vat 31569, Vat 31660
Caan and Abel 3 Vat 28591, Vat 31513, Vat 31556
Paul's beheading 3 Vat 28591, Vat 31513, Vat 31556
Adam and Eve 3 Vat 31426, Vat 31648 (Junius Bassus), Vat 32458, Vat 32458
Jesus baptized 2 Vat 31491, Vat 31542
Daniel kills serpent 2 Vat 31473, Vat 31536
Moses strikes rock 2 Vat 31533
Jesus before Caiaphas 1 Vat 31542
Job 1 Vat 28591
Arrest of Paul 1 Vat 31648 (Junius Bassus)
Peter's martyrdom 1 Vat 31653
Vision of Ezekiel 1 Vat 31439
Noah and family 1 Vat 31662
Paul and Thecla 1 Vat 31645
Washing of feet 1 Vat 31487
Moses removes sandals 1 Vat 31535
Creation of Eve 1 Vat 31427 (Dogmatic)
Paul (named) 1 Vat 31524
Jesus hands keys to Peter 1 Vat 31649
The three youths refuse the idol 1 Vat 31664
Ascension of Elijah 1 Vat 31664
Habakkuk in his field 1 ? Vat 32458 - possibly another ref. to plowing, e.g., Psalms 129:3 or Isaiah 28:24



[1] Graydon Snyder, in Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine, lists several dozen pre-Nicene funerary artworks, the vast majority of which are in catacombs. There is some debate about the accuracy of their dating.

[2] Joseph Wilpert, Walter Lowrie, and Adolph von Harnack are constantly cited in discussions of Christian art and archaeology, and they contributed greatly to our knowledge of this subject matter. They all assumed biblical inerrancy and leapt (great distances) to conclusions about history based on wild extrapolations from vague statements in Acts. For example, both Harnack and Wilpert derive from Acts 12:17 ("[Peter] departed and went to another place") that Peter arrived in Rome in the year 42. Note that Acts never even states that Peter went to Rome. ("Another place" sounds to us like he died. We too love Rome, but equating it with heaven is going too far...) Similarly, Wilpert and Lowrie perpetuate the notions of crypto-Christian carvings and that catacombs were secret Christian hiding places, despite a complete lack of evidence and the utter implausibility that catacomb burials could be kept secret.

Online Sources

All of the extant ancient writings we examined in relationship to Christian sarcophagi have been organized and formatted for the web by Peter Kirby at earlychristianwritings.com.

General Bibliography

David Cartlidge. Art and the Christian Apocrypha. 2001. ISBN-13: 978-0415233927.

Ernest Cadman Colwell. "The Fourth Gospel and Early Christian Art". The Journal of Religion, Vol. 15, No. 2. (Apr., 1935), pp. 191-206.

Paul Corby Finney. The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art. 1997. ISBN-13: 978-0195113815.

Robin Margaret Jensen. Understanding Early Christian Art. 2000. ISBN-13: 978-0415204552.

Robin Margaret Jensen. Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity. 2004. ISBN-13: 978-0800636784.

Jensen's books are probably the best sources on Christian art that are easily available. She seems to see Christian art as operating completely outside the realm of Hellenistic art. For example, she explores various theological reasons for Daniel's nudity, including issues surrounding baptism and his prefiguration of the resurrection, yet fails to consider the obvious: Christian sarcophagi were made by Romans. Daniel is both magician and hero. Roman heroes are nude. Voila.

Theodor Klauser. Fruhchristliche Sarkophage in Bild und Wort. Olten, Urs Graf-Verlag, 1966.

Walter Lowrie. Art in the Early Church, Pantheon Books. 1947. ASIN: B000PXTSCI.

Thomas F Matthews. The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art . 1999. ISBN-13: 978-0691009391.

Matthews's book, dedicated to destruction of what he calls "The Emperor Mystique" argues convincingly against the view that fourth century portrayal of Jesus was derived from Constantine-style political imagery. That view, once popular, is a bit of a straw man today. Matthews also seems to deny the possibility that ancient artisans might be influenced by the appearance or styling of an imperial image without intending to retain or convey any of the meaning behind the original image. Despite this, the book is a great overview of early Christian art.

Morton Smith. Jesus the Magician: Charlatan or Son of God? 1998. ISBN-13: 978-1569751558.

Joseph Wilpert. "Early Christian Sculpture: Its Restoration and Its Modern Manufacture". The Art Bulletin, Vol. 9, No. 2. (Dec., 1926), pp. 89-141.

Copyright 2007-2012 by William Storage and Laura Maish. All rights reserved.

Publication history:
8/6/2007 - Originally posted on bstorage.com.
3/20/2008 - Moved to www.rome101.com
1/10/2012 - Cleaned up some of Bill's tortured writing