Bible Stories and Imagination

Bible Stories and Imagination

I have heard Bible passages read at church every Sunday. Sometimes also during the week. I have read the Bible on my own at home as well. But it wasn’t until I joined Bible study groups that I looked into the stories and lessons in greater depth. But even before I began Bible studies, I still imagined the stories I read. I couldn’t help it.
The only problem was that I limited my imagination to my own life span and experiences. I imagined scenes as they would have happened wherever I was living. I was not familiar with and had not studied the people, history, and customs of Jesus’ day.
Famous religious art also influenced my imagination, not realizing the artists were translating biblical stories through the lens of their own times and cultures. Their imagination was also limited by what they knew.
Take, for example, Michaelangelo’s painting of the Last Supper. We see men sitting on one side of a very long table. The artist depicted Jesus as sitting in the middle with John resting his head on Jesus’ shoulder. So, what is wrong with the picture?
Men in Jesus’ culture didn’t “sit” at a table, they “reclined.” Normally there would be a “head of the table” as well as “the foot of the table.” We know this because one of Jesus’ teaching was that invited guests should not automatically take a place at the high end of the table (closest to the host) in case someone with higher status arrived and the host wanted that spot to put the new guest in. Notice the story of the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. (Luke 7:36–50) Although the passage clearly reads that Jesus “reclined” at the table, my mind translated that as “sitting at the table” simply because that was my experience. I wondered how the prostitute got to Jesus’ feet. Did she have to crawl under the table?
Another famous religious painting is of Paul being knocked off his horse on his way to Damascus. There is no mention of Paul riding a horse in Acts, in fact, it was more likely that he walked. But the picture made an enormous impression on people who firmly believed Paul was “knocked off his horse.” The story is told in Acts 9:1-19 and retold by Paul in Acts 22:6-21 and Acts 26:12-18. “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Acts 9:3-4. There is no mention of a horse.
The imaginations of artists in depicting the life of Jesus have had an enormous impact on the beliefs of Christians. Early Christian churches commissioned paintings based upon biblical stories as most people could not read.
Not only do Pius artists paint their impressions of Jesus and Mary based upon their own times and class, but they also base them according to their own racial characteristics. African artists portray Jesus and Mary as Africans. Asians depict them as Asians. Europeans paint them as Europeans. Our imaginations are limited by our own experiences.
Whether it is the luxurious clothing the women wear or the depiction of the newborn baby Jesus as a six-month-old baby, artists have distorted reality. But only those who have studied the life and culture of Jews during the first century would know that. For illiterate people, it is the painting that has taught them biblical stories. That the painting is historically and culturally inaccurate has made no difference. It is the painting that sticks in people’s minds, not the actual story.
What about Cupid? We have shown him for centuries as a naked baby boy, complete with genitals and wings. Can this possibly be accurate? Yet, it doesn’t change our ideas about what Cupid looks like.
I wrote a piece about my imaginary visit to Jesus and his parents. In my imagination, I saw their home as a small cottage, surrounded by climbing vines and roses, with a white picket fence and a small lawn. Imagine my surprise and shock when I saw a photograph of a first-century small stone house, discovered during an archaeology project. (That house illustrates this post.) Although I know it isn’t true, I can’t get my picture of Jesus’ home out of my head.
The older I become and the more I dip into Bible studies, the less I depend upon artists’ depictions of biblical stories. Instead, I let my imagination dictate the meditation. I now see the biblical paintings as art and not message.

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