I found the thoughtful responses by our respondents to be both perceptive and constructive, particularly in suggesting ways that the themes of these two books could spark many more and different kinds of conversations, although I am pretty sure neither Steve, nor I – nor even Harvard University Press – is eager to publish sequels, much less a series. Because we did not intend for our books to be a matched set, David’s question about comparisons is apt. I don’t believe Harvard has any plans for forthcoming books on the crescent or the Dharma wheel, Yet, even while I say this, I have to admit that I have been keeping my own list of items that I left out, images that I would like to have included, subjects that should have been expanded, or (gasp) silly mistakes that I made. No sequel intended, though, as I am pretty sure all of us have similar lists, especially once we start getting reviews of our books and letters from critical as well as appreciative readers.
Given that my subject, the cross, is one that just about everyone has some feelings about, whether positive or negative, I expected to get even more than usual of these suggestions, critiques, and corrections. My expectations have been fulfilled. I have a folder of letters and email messages from folks who cannot believe that I overlooked some crucial aspect of my topic, strongly disagree with my treatment of one detail or another, or just want to ask why I thought one thing or another worthy for discussion. I am mostly grateful for these missives, because they tell me that the effort of pulling this together must have been worth it. People are interested enough to write – which I find slightly amazing. To this list, I can now add those suggestions that came up in discussion back at the Society of Biblical Literature in Denver 2018. All good grist and I just wish I had been taking very careful notes. Although, I don’t think I will try to write a second, expanded and emended edition (nor do I know if the press would even entertain the idea), I certainly have the elements to make a start on it.
Having mentioned them, I must give great credit and thanks to the editors and staff at Harvard, who were initially responsible for recruiting me to write this book. I know that Steven Fine suggested me to them, but they followed up, were supportive (I was initially dubious), immensely helpful (I debated different approaches), and blessedly flexible (I changed my mind more than once). The pairing with Steven was one of the main reasons I even gave this serious consideration at first. Steve and I had worked together for many years, and I trust his judgment unequivocally. Unsure of how even to start on such a complicated subject, I first proposed simply to tell a series of interesting stories, but this ultimately proved too difficult, given the both the wealth and the often-controversial nature of the material I had agreed to tackle, organize, and describe in no more than my allotted 100,000 words.
Yet, even when I began to think about how I could do it, the project struck me as audacious in the extreme. I was also conscious that it would pull me well beyond my areas of academic specialization. That’s always risky and I fully expected to be criticized for some degree of ignorance. To my relief, readers have generally been very kind. I was particularly aware of how the works of so many other scholars were crucial to my research. It sounds corny, but I guess one could say that the writing of a book like this takes a whole village of good academics. They are in my footnotes as well as in my suggestions for further reading. Without them, this kind of study would be totally impossible.
So, without further preamble, let me respond to some comments. First,
I never intended to offer an overarching thesis, apart from the one that David Frankfurter identified – that the cross is a polyvalent symbol whose meaning is impossible to define, as it has evolved, changed, and been transformed over time, place, and context. Its signification also has everything to do the particular perception of different kinds of viewers, each with their own social, cultural, religious, and political contexts. So, if I have any kind of guiding argument, it is that this particular symbol has no single or even general implication. It can be as powerful and awe-inspiring as it can be banal or benign. The cross (and to a lesser degree the crucifix) is far more than an object that played a role in the Passion story. It claims its own agency, voice, and story. In some cases, it almost transcends the passion narrative altogether and takes on a potent, independent significance. It terrorizes and heals, proclaims identity and marks boundaries, comforts and afflicts, offends and inspires. There’s no simple way to deal with all of this. Thus, I was glad that David reinforced my assertion that the cross is a symbol serves (and served) various functions and means many different things. While it, as a symbol, points to Jesus’s crucifixion, it early came to have an independent meaning and even agency, apart from its role as an instrument of execution. It also points to other events than the death of Christ on Calvary – future ones like Jesus’s Second Coming, or past ones like the Tree in the Garden of Eden.
Steven and I met a few times while we were both developing our manuscripts, and I knew that we were approaching things differently, but we also both agreed that was okay. We weren’t trying to develop or follow some set template. Thus, it makes sense that Steve has more of a thesis than I do. Yet, as he kept reminding me, I had a lot more material to cover and even more visual images. So, we each did our books the ways we thought worked best and I am happy that they reflect our distinct scholarly approaches as well as our individual styles and intellectual passions.
I accept Pamela Eisenbaum’s critique, then, that in producing what comes across as more of a chronicle than an analysis, I undertheorized my subject. It’s true. Those who know me, also know that I proclaim that I first want to study the stuff, before I organize it into a grid. In a characteristic rebellious mood, I probably resisted imposing some guiding conceptual approach that could encompass all this in a cogent and beautifully developed theory. I rather like complicated culturally, theologically, and historically messy things to stay that way, actually. Still, I take your suggestion seriously and wonder, whether now that I have pulled all this together, if I should try to come up with some illuminating taxonomy. And then I worry that might create a different kind of problem of having to fit things into a scheme that is entirely artificial.
I do have to say something about the staurogram (Fig. 1), and to be sure to say that I didn’t leave it out of my discussion. I never intended to assert that material forms of crosses were absolutely absent from earliest Christian imagery. There were, in fact, all kinds of crosses and even figurative references to the crucifix before one finally sees what I would call a narrative image of Christ’s crucifixion (as in the Maskell ivory – Fig. 2). Early Christian apologists were adamant that the cross was a sign that appeared everywhere in the world—in masons’ tools, in ships’ masts, and even in the human body itself. But this is exactly what I was thinking of when I asserted that the cross image has a kind of life of its own, one that is not inextricably linked with the story of the Passion. It is, as you say, an “icon.” And, as such, it refers to many things at once. It’s finally the spectator who chooses how to regard it in one or another context, time, or place. And, of course, we cannot know how anyone else, much less those long gone, received and understood the things they saw.
Finally, let me complicate one of Pamela Eisenbaum’s points and answer her final question. Pamela suggests that the core of Christianity (or Christian teaching) is the death and resurrection of Jesus. In historical perspective, that’s a partially true statement, but that is precisely what is being challenged today by certain, passionately Christian theologians. That is a game-changer, of course, for the image of the cross and I hope that I gave this development some attention even if not at all adequate. And then you ask if there are any Christians who actually take offense at a plain cross. My answer is – yes – definitely. Some that I just referred to, of course, but there are now churches everywhere that avoid this symbol. Their reasons are varied and many, but among them are the fact that the cross has come to represent something that they find unwelcoming, challenging, disturbing, or even repellent. I think this issue – the cross as controversial—is the actual heart of my project. It’s part of my title, but perhaps the text did not return to it explicitly or frequently enough.
But let me go one step further. Does the cross always refer to Christ’s crucifixion? I am willing to say that it frequently becomes detached from that central narrative. Christians who make the Sign of the Cross perhaps think of the crucifixion when they do, but there are many ways in which it becomes simply a way of proclaiming religious identity, of warding off evil, or serving as a distinctive landmark. It might be a gesture or a piece of jewelry, a roadside memorial at the site of an accident, a military badge of honor, or a popular tattoo design. Even the earliest Christian theologians recognized that the cross was a simple intersection of horizontal and vertical lines, but also knew that these were indicated dimensions (height, depth, width) as well as compass points (North, South, East, and West). Do these always have religious import? Maybe in at least some derived sense, but they all don’t necessarily or directly refer to the death of Jesus. They are potentially as eternal and cosmic as scandalously particular.
In my institution, you will find a crucifix in every classroom. So far as I know, no one has yet challenged this (as at Georgetown University), but there is now a movement to replace the mass-produced items with crucifixes that are made by local artists, reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of our student body (and the Catholic church more broadly), be more aesthetically appealing, or simply provide some variety. Whether that initiative will go any further than that, I will soon know, as they have put me on the committee.
It was especially smart of David Frankfurter (who is always smart) to think of our two objects, menorah and cross, as being in motion, particularly in procession. As this relates to the cross, David doesn’t refer only to processional crosses but to the cross as it participates in an extended, multi-millennium and cosmically inclusive procession. He’s correct. The cross does not stay put. Splinters of its wood were dispersed across the world. It was carried by pilgrims from Jerusalem to Rome and Gaul, by missionaries to the British Isles, Africa, Asia; by warriors to Persia, then to Constantinople, back to Jerusalem, then over to Damascus. We even have a tiny sliver in South Bend, Indiana. Perhaps some, by now, have made it to the moon – or at least into space.
I also appreciate David’s pointing out the fact that the cross is not only in motion, but it has a performative dimension. It is an act as much as object; it talks, walks, and tells its own story. Fragments of the its wood can work miracles all by itself, no corpus needed, and even the smallest fragment is as powerful as the largest chunk. When Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, and others venerate the cross on Good Friday they venerate “the wood of the cross” – not the body of Christ hanging upon it. It is fashioned from the very wood of Eden’s Tree of Life and so comes back to undo the damage that sinful humans did to the first Creation. It even has its own feast day – one of the few official Church feasts the commemorate a material object rather than a holy person or sacred event.
I have referred to the fact that the symbol of the cross can offend and frighten. This little sign is implicated in horror. One only has to think of the burning cross of the KKK, the banners of Christian knights as they passed through Jewish communities on their way to the Holy Land, or the flags of colonizers imposing their religious beliefs on indigenous peoples. Feminists have argued that the cross sanctions suffering, especially of women and oppressed individuals and communities. At the same time, many of those suffering ones have found solace in the idea that God comprehends and has shared their plight. Controversial as it is, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ arguably is an instance of this. We are reminded the the very bodily incarnation of God comes with the physical vulnerability of all creatures.
But the cross has been shown to have power. Just as the cross can offend or harm, it can be offended and harmed. Hacked down and dragged through city streets to be dumped into a privy or having beer dumped over it by German Lutherans who inquire if Jesus still thirsts. Yet, it also fights back. From the time of the Emperor Constantine forward, it has been carried into battle and said to repel enemies. It has miraculous properties of healing and remains at the site of disasters as a witness to God’s presence in the midst of tragedy.
In conclusion, I want to say that I have been blessed and honored to be teamed up with my dear friend and colleague, Steven Fine. We have often discussed co-writing a different book about the ways Jews and Christians read and visually depict their shared narratives in different ways. We have even tried this out on various audiences: comparing Temple and Church, Jewish Moses and Christian Moses, Binding or Sacrifice of Isaac, etc. Such a project might be more in the realm of making comparisons than these two were. Yet, this has been our chance to think about how core religious symbols are integrated into our common history and how such things have enormous potential for projecting both positive and negative implications, evoking memories, inscribing meanings, and recollecting stories.
Robin M. Jensen is the Patrick O’Brien Professor of Theology and the University of Notre Dame, where she is also a concurrent professor in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design and a fellow of the Medieval Institute. Her research, publications, and teaching focus on the material evidence for the beliefs and practices of Christians, particularly in the first six centuries, CE.