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The Offering of Isaac in Jewish and Christian Tradition

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image of Biblical Interpretation

Until recently, early Christian artistic representations of Abraham offering Isaac for sacrifice have been understood as symbols of Christ's passion and (simultaneously or alternately) typological references to the Eucharistic offering. This interpretation has been influenced by early Christian writings which understand Isaac to have been a type of Christ and his offering a prefigurement of Jesus' passion. In the past two decades some scholars have challenged that interpretation, particularly with reference to images that were made before the mid-fourth century CE, partly by offering arguments regarding the place of the artistic image in the religion's social matrix, and partly by distinguishing different purposes for images and texts. This paper examines the images themselves and re-opens the question of the artistic presentation of this biblical narrative and its interpretation. The first section of the study presents the most exemplary images, and then examines both early Christian and Jewish literature regarding the sacrifice of Isaac. The last section of the paper critiques various scholars' interpretations of the images' meaning in early Christian times by reflecting on the integration of text and image, as well as the methods and problems of iconographical study. Of particular concern is the question of what characterizes "popular" communication. The paper concludes that, although presented in a different form and possibly more available to a general audience, early Christian artistic representations may be vehicles for the same symbolic and allegorical typologies that are presented in documents from the same time period and geographical region.

Affiliations: 1: Andover Newton Theological School


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