The Apostle Paul and The Power of Images

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Scholar Davina Lopez says that we live in a highly visual environment in which we are exposed to a “world of images” (Lopez, 2012: 93). Images incorporate “a series of visual elements that, together, participate in the construction of a reality and vision of social relations…” (Lopez, 2012: 107). Lopez thus suggests the importance of “visual literacy,” the ability to perceive, interpret, and learn from images in their environment (Lopez, 2012: 93). This paper examines the power of images both in the ancient world of the Apostle Paul and within a South African post-apartheid context too.

Images in the Apostle Paul’s Letters

Understanding Paul’s letters and the images he constructs is important (Lopez, 2012: 95-98). Interpretations of Paul’s letters have been used to condone moral evils such as anti-semitism, homophobia, and slavery. However, Paul’s same letters have also been used to oppose such evils. Such conflicting interpretations are suggestive of the importance in understanding and interpreting Paul’s letters. This is further imperative given that his letters are foundational for the beliefs and practices of Christians today, and therefore, like numerous other holy and sacred religious texts, exert considerable power and influence.

We can access the images of Paul’s world through archaeological remains (Lopez, 2012: 98). Such “raw data” is valuable and almost always pregnant with crucial information. Lopez illustrates this point through a statue of the Roman military leader Augustus Caesar (Augsutus of Prima Porta) which is important for understanding Paul’s world within a Roman context (Lopez, 2012: 98). Paul’s letters were penned within the “Augustan age” (43 BC -18 AD), and therefore constitute a significant backdrop of his lived experience. We find this influence exerted elsewhere too within the New Testament, for example, in that Luke’s gospel deems it important enough to mention Augustus by name (Luke 2:1).

Lopez observes the importance of engaging this particular image Augustus (Lopez, 2012: 98). One of Augustus’ statues was constructed in the Roman province of Galatia, a province to whom Paul forwarded a letter in the 50s AD. In many areas of the Roman Empire, Augustus was worshiped as a divine being after his death as the worship of emperors were common in cults as well as the cities we find mentioned in the New Testament. Augustus’ statue is suggestive of his perceived significance as he is depicted barefoot which to the Romans meant he was likely viewed as a god while the dolphin at his foot was symbolic of his divine lineage (Janson, 1995: 191). Understanding these images are significant for historians examining the relationship between Paul, Augustus, and the Roman context although word limit unfortunately presents any further exploration (Lopez, 2012: 98).

It’s More Than Just An Image

It is then clear that images are far more than simply images as they always serve ideological functions (Lopez, 2012: 101). Images “suggest and produce social relations and hierarchies,” that are universal and eternal. They are thus always communicating circumstances to viewers, are the creation of human hands, are reflective of human beliefs, and are therefore directly tied to human relationships. They often seem to display who holds power, over whom such power is held, and they can deliberately and sometimes expertly distort or exaggerate reality (Lopez, 2012: 103).

Lopez thus emphasizes a careful examination of images (Lopez, 2012: 99-100): What do they attempt to communicate? How do we determine what they communicate? And what social relations to they seek to construct and promote? The most obvious point of contact would be the information communicated on the image itself. If the image is a monument or a statue then what texts and symbols can be observed on it? Are symbols and objects repeated? What do they symbolize? And is there any meaning to the location in which the monument is found or the direction it was fashioned to face?

The Power of Images in Post-Apartheid South Africa & Public Opinion

As one writer explains, images are powerful in that they “tell stories of our past, and keep memories alive in cultural artifacts” (Buruma, 2017). In agreement with Lopez (Lopez, 2012: 103-104), he rightly observes the lack of neutrality in images, and how this can be harmful, a fact relevant to South Africa which has had a long and dark history of racial supremacy.

We can remember protesting South African students holding up placards reading “more than a statue” as they watched Cecil John Rhodes being torn from his concrete foundations on the University of Cape Town campus. Images exert enormous power in South Africa along racial lines. Many black South Africans oppose images of colonialists in the public space though South African opinion of these images is diverse. According to many black South Africans every image tells a story, and the narratives told by these monuments are ones of conquest and subjugation of black people. They are seen as symbols of white supremacy and their continued presence in public spaces seem to reaffirm such supremacy. Views are mixed, however. A survey found that 46% of South African wanted the statues removed, 12% wanted them destroyed, and 27% wished for them to be placed in museums (Anetos, 2016). 61% of white South Africans want the statues to be left alone, a view shared with only 29% of black South Africans. Most South Africans, independent of gender‚ race, and age, want the statues to be removed and placed in museums.

Such findings and statistics are suggestive of the power and emotional investment in these images. For millions of blacks (and whites) these monuments are images of past oppression, injustice, and evils. However, we are swamped with opposing voices on all sides of spectrum. It is apparent that some South Africans feel threatened at the prospects of the removal of statues in which they have emotional investment, which explains why they have defended them from desecration. Others hurt by such images have thrown human excrement at the statues in disgust, vandalized them, and have attempted to set them alight. Yet others have little emotional investment in these images and have cared little of their fate. Many would agree that racial tension stemming from these images are what are likely most concerning. The argument is that many white South Africans have not come to terms with the “fierce emotions” of black people towards these images when they view them in the public spaces.

Without labouring the point, there seems to be thought provoking arguments presented by the opposing camps. Some have argued that the presence of colonial and apartheid statues in the public space comes to the detriment of social cohesion and reconciliation. It is also naive to think that by removing them it will make the problems and issues somehow disappear. Other voices have suggested that new statues be constructed and erected to stand in dialogue with the colonial statues that already exist since both are part of South Africa’s story. The ruling party, the African National Congress, tends to agree that by removing these images it would come as a great loss to South Africa’s rich and painful history (Kubheka, 2015).


Through this brief engagement with Lopez’s views this paper has attempted to demonstrate the power that exist within and that are exerted by images. Just as learning to interpret images from the Apostle Paul’s world is crucial for understanding his context, so is visual literacy imperative for understanding the post-apartheid South African context some 2000 years later. As witnessed, images are full of emotional investment from which much pride, pain, and confusion can be drawn. The debate in democratic South Africa rages on, on how we ought to deal with such images from our history.


Anetos, P. 2016. Apartheid statues not monumental issue for some.

Buruma, I. 2017. The power of monuments and statues. Available:

Janson, H. 1995. History of Art. London: Thames & Hudson

Kubheka, T. 2015. ‘Removal of apartheid statues is an insult to SA’s rich history.’ Available:

Lopez, D. 2012. Visual Perspectives: Imag(in)ing the Big Pauline Picture. Marchal, Joseph A. (ed.). Studying Paul’s Letters: Contemporary Perspectives and Methods. Minneapolis: Fortress: 93-116

Smith, D. 2015. Vandalism of apartheid-era statues sparks fevered debate in South Africa. Available:



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