Last month, as Afghanistan's ruling Taliban destroyed religious (particularly Buddhist) statues across the country, iconoclasm leaped into headlines. The practice has a long and complicated history, but a look back at some previous examples helps put this recent action in context.

Iconclasm has erupted among Jews, Christians, and Muslims periodically through history. Muslim iconoclasts support their position by pointing out that Muhammed cleared idols from Mecca and arguing that only Allah has the right to take on the role of creator. Jewish and Christian iconoclasts typically refer to the second commandment: "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below" (Ex. 20:4).

Jewish artists have long been limited and suspected because of this prohibition. For example, one of Marc Chagall's great-uncles refused to shake hands with him upon learning that he made images for a living. Christian artists, by contrast, frequently find recourse in the Incarnation: If God became flesh that humans could see and touch, than other physical manifestations of divinity must be acceptable as well. The question for Christians, then, is how to distinguish images of God from images as gods.

Artistic representations of sacred beings and events appear very early in Christianity. The catacombs feature rich iconography. But concern that these images might be worshiped for themselves also appears early. Canon 36 of the Synod of Elvira (305) prohibits images in churches for this very reason. Like many decrees made at Elvira, however, this one didn't stick. In 692 the Trullan Synod of the Third Council of Constantinople encouraged iconography, saying that through ...

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