The Iconic Book

The Image of the Bible in Early Christian Rituals


  • Dorina Miller Parmenter Syracuse University



Martin Marty, icon, scripture, Gospel, Christian liturgies


To elucidate some of the origins of what Martin Marty has called “America’s Iconic Book,” this article analyzes early Christian rituals in which the Bible functions as an icon, that is, as a material object that invokes the presence of the divine. After an introductory discussion of icons, it shows that early Christian communal rituals of Gospel procession and display as well as popular and private ritual uses of scripture as a miracle-working object parallel the uses and functions of Orthodox portrait icons while circumventing issues of idolatry. Examples come from a survey of early Christian liturgies, conciliar and legal records, the physical appearance of Bibles and Gospel books, the representations of books in art, and written arguments from the iconoclastic controversies of the eighth and ninth centuries.

Author Biography

Dorina Miller Parmenter, Syracuse University

PhD candidate in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University.


Adamnan. 1874. Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy. Ed. William Reeves. Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas.

———. 1894. Adamnani Vita S. Columbae. Trans. and ed. J. T. Fowler. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ainalov, D. V. 1961. The Hellenistic Origins of Byzantine Art. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Augustine. 1886–89. Tractates on John. In In NPNF, 1st series, vol. 7, 7-452.

———. 1998. Confessions. Trans. Henry Chadwick. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Baranov, B. 2002. “The Theology of Early Iconoclasm as found in St. John of Damascus’ Apologies.” ???????????? ?????? (Khristianskii Vostok) 4(10): 23-55. (accessed 9/2/2006).

Belting, Hans. 1994. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Besa. 1983. The Life of Shenoute. Trans. David N. Bell. Cistercian Studies 73. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.

Betz, Hans Dieter. 1987. “Magic in Greco-Roman Antiquity.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, vol. 9, 93-97. New York: Macmillan.

Bianchi, Ugo. 1995. “History of Religions.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, vol. 6, 399-408. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.

Bogdanovi?, Jelena. 2002. “The Proclamation of the New Covenant: The Pre-Iconoclastic Altar Ciboria in Rome and Constantinople.” Athanor 20: 7-19.

Brandon, S. G. F. 1967. The Judgment of the Dead: The Idea of Life after Death in the Major Religions. New York: Scribners.

Broek, R. van den. 1979. “Popular Religious Practices and Ecclesiastical Policies in the Early Church.” In Official and Popular Religion: Analysis of a Theme for Religious Studies, ed. Pieter Hendrik Vrijhof and Jacques Waardenburg, 11-54. The Hague: Mouton.

Brooks, E. W. 1923–25. Lives of the Eastern Saints. Syriac texts ed. and trans. in 3 vols. Paris: Firmin-Didot. Repr., Turnhout: Brepols, 1974.

Brown, Michelle P. 2003. The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality, and the Scribe. London: The British Library.

Brown, Peter. 1971. The World of Antiquity. New York: W. W. Norton.

———. 1973. “A Dark-Age Crisis: Aspects of the Iconoclastic Controversy.” The English Historical Review 88(346): 1-34. doi:10.1093/ehr/LXXXVIII.CCCXLVI.1.

Canons of the Council of Ephesus. 1759–98. In Mansi 1903–27, vol. 4, 1237.

Canons of the Council of Trullo (Quinisext Council). 1890–1900. In NPNF, 2d series, vol. 14, 355-408.

Canons of the Fourth Council of Constantinople. 1759–98. In Mansi 1903–27, vol. 16, 400.

Canons of the Synod of Laodicea. 1890–1900. In NPNF, 2d series, vol. 14, 123-60.

Codex Justinianus. 1877. In Corpus Juris Civilis, vol. 2, ed. P. Krueger and T. Mommsen. Berlin: Weidmann.

Covino, William A. 1994. Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy: An Eccentric History of the Composing Imagination. Albany: SUNY Press.

Decree of the Second Council of Nicaea 1890–1900. In NPNF, 2d series, vol. 14, 549-54.

Dilasser, Maurice. 1999. Symbols of the Church. Trans. Mary Cabrini Durkin, Madeleine Beaumont, and Caroline Morson. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

Dix, Gregory. 1945. The Shape of the Liturgy. Westminster: Dacre Press.

Drogin, Marc. 1989. Biblioclasm: The Mythical Origins, Magic Powers, and Perishability of the Written Word. Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Egeria. 1971. Egeria and Her Travels. Trans. John Wilkinson. London: S.P.C.K.

Fowler, J. T., ed. 1894. Adamnani Vita S. Columbae. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Gamble, Harry Y. 1995. Books and Readers in the Early Church. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Gerard of Wales. 1978. The Journey through Wales and the Description of Wales. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin.

St. Germain of Paris. 1844-65. Expositio brevis antiquiae liturgiae gallicanae. In PL, vol. 72, 89-94.

Germanus of Constantinople. 1857–66. Historia ecclesiastica. In PG, vol. 98, 384-453.

Goody, Jack. 1977. The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grabar, André. 1968. Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins. Trans. Terry Grabar. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Graffin, Pierre. 1961. “La lettere de Philoxène de Mabboug à un supérieur de monastère sur la vie monastique.” L’orient syrien 6: 455-86.

Haines-Eitzen, Kim. 2005. “Miniature Books and Rituals of Private Reading in Late Antiquity.” Conference paper presented at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November.

Hippolytus. 1934. Apostolic Tradition. Trans. Burton Scott Easton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Reprint ed. Ann Arbor, MI: Archon Books, 1962.

Humfress, Caroline. 2007. “Judging By the Book: Christian Codices and Late Antique Legal Culture.” In Klingshirn and Safran 2007, 141-58.

Isidore of Pelusium. 1857–66. Epistles. In PG, vol. 78, 177-1646.

Jerome. Against Vigilantius. 1890–1900. In NPNF, 2d series, vol. 6, 417-23.

John of Damascus. 1857–66. Against Constantinus Cabalinus on the Images. In PG, vol. 95, 310-43.

John Chrysostom. 1886–89. Homilies on First Corinthians. In NPNF, 1st series, vol. 12, 258-62.

———. 1886–89. Homily on John. In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 14, 1-334.

———. 1886–89. Homily on the Statues. In NPNF, 1st series, vol. 9, 315-489.

Justin Martyr. 1868–73. First Apology In ANF, vol. 1, 159-93.

Kessler, Herbert L. 2006. “The Book as Icon.” In In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000, ed. Michelle P. Brown, 77-103. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

———. 2000. Spiritual Seeing: Picturing God’s Invisibility in Medieval Art. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Klingshirn, William E., and Linda Safran, eds. 2007. The Early Christian Book. Washington: Catholic University of America Press.

Layton, Bentley. 1987. The Gnostic Scriptures. New York: Doubleday.

Lesko, Leonard H. 1987. “Thoth.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, vol. 14, 493. New York: Macmillan.

Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott. Greek–English Lexicon, abridged ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Lowden, John. 1997. Early Christian and Byzantine Art. New York: Phaidon.

———. 2007. “The Word Made Visible: The Exterior of the Early Christian Book as Visual Argument.” In Klingshirn and Safran 2007, 13-47.

MacMullen, Ramsay. 1997. Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries. New Haven: Yale University Press.

———, and Eugene Lane, eds. 1990. Paganism and Christianity 100–425 C.E.: A Sourcebook. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.

Malinine, M. et al., eds. 1956. Gospel of Truth [Evangelium Veritatis]: Codex Jung f. VIIIv–XVIv, f. XIXr-XXIIr. Zürich: Rascher.

———. 1961. Gospel of Truth [Evangelium Veritatis]: Codex Jung f. XVIIr-F. XVIIIv. Zürich and Stuttgart: Rascher

Malley, Brian. 2004. How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism. New York: Altamira Press.

Maltomini, F., ed. and trans. 1998. “Letter of Abgar to Jesus.” In The Oxyrhynchs Papyri. ed. M. W. Haslam, A. Jones, F. Maltomini, and M. L. West, vol. 65, no. 4469, 122-29. London: The British Academy.

Manguel, Alberto. 1996. A History of Reading. New York: Viking.

Mansi, J. D., ed. 1759–98. Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio. 31 vols. Florence and Venice. Reprint ed.: Paris: H. Welter, 1903–27.

Marty, Martin. 1982. “America’s Iconic Book.” In Humanizing America’s Iconic Book: Society of Biblical Literature Centennial Addresses 1980, ed. Gene M. Tucker and Douglas A. Knight, 1-23. Chico, CA: Scholars Press.

Mathews, Thomas. 1971. The Early Churches of Constantinople: Architecture and Liturgy. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

———. 1993. The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Migne, J. P., ed. 1844–65. Patrologia cursus completus, series latina (= PL). 221 vols. Paris: Garnier. [1878 ed.]

———, ed. 1857–66. Patrologia cursus completus, series graeca (= PG). Series 1 and Series 2. 161 vols. Paris: Garnier. Reprint ed.: Turnhout: Brepols, 1967.

Miller, David L. 1987. “The Question of the Book: Religion as Texture.” Semeia 40: 53-64.

Miller, Harry. 1996. “Cumdachs and Polaires: Medieval Irish Book Shrines and Book Satchels.” Accessed 9/2/2006.

Miller, Patricia Cox. 1986. “In Praise of Nonsense.” In Classical Mediterranean Spirituality: Egyptian, Greek, Roman, ed. A. H. Armstrong, 481-505. New York: Crossroads.

Mioni, Elpidio. 1951. “Il Pratum Spirituale di Giovanni Mosco. Testi inediti del cod. Marc. gr. II, 21.” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 17: 61-94.

Nicephorus of Constantinople. 1857–66. Refutation. In PG, vol. 100, 202-534.

O’Reilly, Jennifer. 1997. “Reading the Scriptures in the Life of Columba.” In Studies in the Cult of Saint Columba, ed. Cormac Bourke, 80-106. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Parker, George F. 1911. Recollections of Grover Cleveland. New York: Century Company.

Paul the Silentiary. 1837. Descriptio ecclesiae sanctae Sophiae et ambonis. Ed. Immanuel Bekker. Bonn.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. 1974. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Vol. 2, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600–1700). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Petrucci, Armando. 1995. “The Christian Conception of the Book in the Sixth and Seventh Centuries.” In Writers and Readers in Medieval Italy, ed. and trans. Charles M. Radding, 19-42. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Pietz, William. 1985. “The Problem of the Fetish I.” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 9 (Spring): 5-17.

———. 1987. “The Problem of the Fetish II: The Origin of the Fetish.” Res 13 (Spring): 23-45.

———. 1988. “The Problem of the Fetish IIIa: Bosman’s Guinea and the Enlightenment Theory of Fetishism.” Res 16 (Autumn): 105-23.

Plato. Phaedrus. 1998. Trans. James H. Nichols, Jr. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Pliny. 1900. Letters. Trans. J. B. Firth. London: W. Scott.

Raftery, Joseph. 1941. Christian Art in Ancient Ireland, vol. 2. Dublin: Stationary Office of Ireland.

Rapp, Claudia. 2007. “Holy Texts, Holy Men and Holy Scribes: Aspects of Scriptural Holiness in Late Antiquity.” In Klingshirn and Safran 2007, 194-222.

Reeves, William, ed. 1874. Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy. Written by Adamnan, Ninth Abbot of that Monastery. Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas. (accessed 9/2/2006).

Roberts, Alexander, and James Donaldson, eds. 1868–73. Ante-Nicene Fathers (= ANF). 10 vols. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. Reprint ed.: Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.

Schaff, Philip, ed. 1886–89. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (= NPNF). First Series. 14 vols. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. Reprint ed.: Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.

Schaff, Philip, and Henry Wace, eds. 1890–1900. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (=NPNF). Second Series. 14 vols. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. Reprint ed.: Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.

Schroeder, H. J. 1937. Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils: Text, Translation, and Commentary. St. Louis: B. Herder. (accessed 6/23/2007).

Smith, Jonathan Z. 1978. Map is not Territory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

St. Clair, Archer. 1979. “The Visit to the Tomb: Narrative Liturgy on Three Early Christian Pyxides.” Gesta 18(1): 127-35. doi:10.2307/766798.

Stokes, Margaret. 1972. Early Christian Art in Ireland. First published 1887, rev. G. N. Count Plunkett, 1911. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press.

Stuart, John. 1975. Ikons. London: Faber & Faber.

Theodore the Studite. 1857–66. Refutations of the Iconoclasts. In PG, vol. 99, 328-436.

Toorn, Karel van der. 1997. “The Iconic Book: Analogies Between the Babylonian Cult of Images and the Veneration of the Torah.” In The Image and the Book: Iconic Cults, Aniconism, and the Rise of Book Religion in Israel and the Ancient Near East, ed. Karel van der Toorn, 229-48. Louven: Peeters.

Walter, Christopher. 1970. L’Iconographie des conciles dans la tradition byzantine. Paris: Institut français d’études byzantines.

Ward, Benedicta, ed. and trans. 1981. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. London and Oxford: Mowbray.

Wharton, Annabel. 2003. “Icon, Idol, Totem and Fetish.” In Icon and Word: The Power of Images in Byzantium, ed. Antony Eastmond and Liz James, 3-11. Aldershot: Ashgate.



How to Cite

Parmenter, D. M. (2008). The Iconic Book: The Image of the Bible in Early Christian Rituals. Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts, Cultural Histories, and Contemporary Contexts, 2(2-3), 160–189.