Appendix III. Rabbinic Views as to the Lawfulness of Images, Pictorial Representations on Coins, etc.

(See Book I. chap. vii., note )

On this point, especially as regarded images, statues, and coins, the views of the Rabbis underwent (as stated in the text) changes and modifications according to the outward circumstances of the people. The earlier and strictest opinions, which absolutely forbade any representation, were relaxed in the Mishnah, and still further in the Talmud.

In tracing this development, we mark as a first stage that a distinction was made between having such pictorial representations and making use of them, in the sense of selling or bartering them; and again between making and finding them. The Mishnah forbids only such representations of human beings as carry in their hand some symbol of power, such as a staff, bird, globe, or, as the Talmud adds, a sword, or even a signet-ring (Ab. Z. iii. 1). The Commentaries explain that this must refer to the making use of them, since their possession was, at any rate, prohibited. The Talmud adds (Ab. Z. 40b, 41a) that these were generally representations of kings, that they were used for purposes of worship, and that their prohibition applied only to villages, not to towns, where they were used for ornament. Similarly the Mishnah directs that everything bearing a representation of sun or moon, or of a dragon, was to be thrown into the Dead Sea (Ab. Z. iii. 3). On the other hand, the Talmud quotes (Ab. Z. 42b) a proposition (boraita), to the effect that all representations of the planets were allowed, except those of the sun and moon, likewise all statues except those of man, and all pictures except those of a dragon, the discussion leading to the conclusion that in two, if not in all the cases mentioned, the Talmudic directions refer to finding, not making such. So stringent, indeed, was the law as regarded signet-rings, that it was forbidden to have raised work on them, and only such figures were allowed as were sunk beneath the surface, although even then they were not to be used for sealing (Ab. Z. 43b). But this already marks a concession, accorded apparently to a celebrated Rabbi, who had such a ring. Still further in the same direction is the excuse, framed at a later period, for the Rabbis who worshipped in a Synagogue that had a statue of a king, to the effect that they could not be suspected of idolatry, since the place, and hence their conduct, was under the inspection of all men. This more liberal tendency had, indeed, appeared at a much earlier period, in the case of the Nasi Gamaliel II., who made use of a public bath at Acco in which there was a statue of Aphrodite. The Mishnah (Ab. Z. iii. 4) puts this twofold plea into his mouth, that he had not gone into the domain of the idol, but the idol came into his, and that the statue was there for ornament, not for worship. The Talmud endorses, indeed, these arguments, but in a manner showing that the conduct of the great Gamaliel was not really approved of (Ab. Z. 44b). But a statue used for idolatrous purposes was not only to be pulverized, but the dust cast to the winds or into the sea, lest it might possibly serve as manure to the soil! (Ab. Z. iii. 3.) This may explain how Josephus ventured even to blame King Solomon for the figures on the brazen sea and on his throne (Ant. viii. 7. 5), and how he could excite a fanatical rabble at Tiberias to destroy the palace of Herod Antipas because it contained ‘figures of living creatures.’ (Life 12).