P. Solomon Raj


Christus bei den Flüchtlingen von BangladeshP. Solomon Raj: 
Images in the Bible and
How the Church in India had made Use of
the Cultural Iconographic Symbols in it's
Communication of the Gospel

Images and Culture

Every culture has it own wealth of images. Some can be interpreted across the cultures, but many are special to a particular culture. Each culture draws from its collective memory archetypes like one draws from a computer. Symbols like the sun, water, etc. can be easily interpreted across cultures as symbolizing light, wisdom, knowledge etc in the case of the sun. But some specific symbols like the Indian symbol of the Lotus bloom are not easy to understand till the meaning is shared across cultures. When we come later in this paper to Indian symbols and how the church has used them to communicate their faith, we shall see this point. God of the Bible has used the symbols from the contemporary heathen cultures to bring new messages to his people: 

  • The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac is an example. God used to teach his chosen race that he does not seek child sacrifice even if it was considered the highest sacrifice to the religions of that day (Micah 6,7). 
  • And we have another good example in the book of Genesis where God uses one of the Canaanite ritual symbols to establish his covenant with Abraham  (see Genesis 15,4 ff). This elaborate ritual, scholars of Canaanite cultural history tell us, was something people used in their culture to establish a covenant between to two partners. 
  • And God of the Bible made use of this enacted ritual to establish his covenant with Abraham.

Thus we see many pictures, images, enacted parable already in the Old Testament where God revealed himself to his people in images and parables in the Bible.

Christianity and Picture language

Taking the idea from the Bible the Christian Church from the very beginning used pictures to express and experience its faith. It has also borrowed images from the host culture wherever Christianity has gone to other cultures. Some times it gave a new meaning to the old symbols. This process of adaptation has already begun in the New Testament. 

St Paul for example, has used the image of the circumcision of the Hebrew religion and gave a new Christian meaning to it. He also many times used Greek symbols like fighting a good fight, running a race and wearing a crown -- of course a never fading one, not the crown of leafs. This is all Greek cultural imagery. 

The Church historian R.H. Bainton gave us an interesting example of this process of inculturation with images, already happening in the early church (R.H. Bainton, Images of Christ). He showed us a second century rock picture from one of the catacombs showing the head of Christ surrounded by a circle and on either side the letters Alpha ad Omega. Here he points out that three cultures join: 

  • The hairstyle and the beard of Christ the Syrian, 
  • the Alpha and Omega from the Greek culture, 
  • and the nimbus or the surrounding circle most probably from Asian and Buddhist cultures, if it is not the Roman emperors' symbol of Glory. 

St John's Logos language also is borrowed from Greek philosophy, as we know. This basic process of inculturation, selection and variation, and taking what is in consonance with the revealed faith and rejecting what is not, is found all through the Bible. Bishop Victor Premsagar, the former moderator of the Church of South India (CSI), has made this point very strongly in his article on „Faith of Our Fathers“ (International Missionary Review).

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Copyright & Impressum  Dr. P. Solomon Raj, 1999-2007;  Web-Design:  Gerhard Ruediger  07.09.2007