I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this, but many crucifixes have a skull included as part of their depiction of Christ on the cross. Whether it’s a picture or a painting, a sculpture, or even a crucifix on a chain such as a minister might wear around his neck, many times if the base of the cross has a rocky outcropping attached to it or depicted with it, a skull will be sitting by the foot of the cross.

I always wondered why that was. I assumed that it was because Christ conquered death by His death on the cross — by His holy, innocent death He died the death we all deserved to die under God’s punishment, and thus He paid the sinner’s price by forfeiting His life. Christ conquered death; death is depicted by the skull; ’nuff said.

Then I ran across the quote below on another blog the other day which taught me something I hadn’t known before. Apparently there was a tradition in the early church that Christ was crucified on the very spot where Adam was buried. The early church definitely picked up on the parallels that St. Paul draws between Adam and Christ in places like Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. All people fell into sin because of Adam, and all people have life because of Christ, if they trust in Him; in Adam all died, but in Christ all will be made alive. Christ restores what Adam ruined, He puts back what Adam lost for us, etc. (They also drew the same parallels between Eve and Mary – which Scripture does NOT – and that led to some unfortunate consequences later on, but that’s beside the present point.)

So it made a certain amount of sense to me to find out that they thought that Adam was buried on Golgotha. The early church really read the Scriptures closely — that was all they had, they didn’t have hundreds of years of other teachers to be distracted by as we do — and they noticed what was there in a way that we don’t always nowadays. That’s part of what makes reading the church fathers such a useful thing. They notice what’s there, which is the most difficult art for an exegete or student of the Scriptures.

Jerome, the Latin father whose name is most identified with the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible that the Roman church used for many centuries, is also usually depicted with a skull nearby. (See the painting by Caravaggio on the sidebar for an example.) Again, I don’t know why that is, but while on a study tour to Israel one time, I heard a plausible explanation. We were in Bethlehem, where Jerome lived for a time and where he was once buried (I think he’s buried in Rome now.) We saw a statue of Jerome standing with a skull on the ground by his feet, and we asked ourselves what the deal was with the skull. Pr. Paul Prange, a very learned and scholarly man, ventured a guess: “Because God’s Word overcomes death,” he said, “and Jerome translated the Bible.” We looked at each other and shrugged. Made sense to us.

Here’s the quote about the skull:

“Furthermore, in prior history, in this very area (namely, the land of Moriah) Abraham was willing to offer up his son Isaac to God the Lord.  Since in this Isaac was a prototypical portrayal of Christ, so also Christ especially wanted to offer Himself up to God in the very same place.  Not to mention the fact that many of the fathers held the belief that even Adam lay buried at the very same place where Christ was crucified, Golgotha, Christ wanted to offer Himself up to God in this very place in order to show that He, as the second, heavenly Adam, wanted to once more win back for us what we had lost through the first Adam.”

— Blessed Johann Gerhard, Homily on Quinquagesima, Postilla I:215.

[Note the skull of Adam in the icon depicting the Crucifixion, testifying to the same tradition Gerhard mentions]

(ht: weedon’s blog)