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Monday, January 5, 2015

The Witness of an Early Graffiti Artist

The above is a reconstruction of a Graffiti discovered on the Palatine Hill in Rome in 1857.  The structure was originally part of Caligula's palace, and used as a boarding school for imperial page boys after his death in 41 A.D. Called the Alexamneos Graffito from the Greek writing in it, it has been dated variously from the mid first century to the early third century; the latter date being when the building ceased to be used and was sealed off to accommodate the expansion of other buildings around it.

Translated, the Greek inscroption reads, "Alexamenos worships his god"; Alexamenos apparently being the figure on the left who raises his hand in salute to a crucified figure with the head of a donkey or a horse. Beneath it, in a different hand, is the Latin inscription "Alexamenos fidelis", or, Alexamenos the Faithful. Many have taken it to be one of the earliest extra-biblical references to Jesus Christ and the Christian religion.  While others have argued it may reference some Gnostic cult and that the crucified figure is horse-headed rather than donkey-headed, there is much to commend the common conclusion that it is anti-Christian graffiti--and that it may well date from the earlier end of the proposed spectrum of possible dates. Certainly interpreting Alexamenos as a Christian makes the most sense,; for very little else, if even that, would be known about some other cult that worshiped a horse-headed deity; and the figure being worshiped definitely seems to be crucified, and what is known about Gnosticism suggests that Gnostics were very uncomfortable about Jesus' connection with material life and death, especially something as shocking as crucifixion.

Most readers probably know the New Testament testimony that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. However, other sources close to the time note this as well. The Roman writers Tacitus and Pliny the younger, both writing in the early 2d century, unsympathetically note the crucifixion of Jesus, and mock the Christians for their honoring a crucified man.  Tacitus further upbraids the Jews for worshiping an ass's head; a calumny earlier answered by Flavius Josephus in his Reply to Apion, written shortly after 70 A.D. Debate rages over the authenticity of a passage in Josephus concerning Jesus, which also notes that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, with a wide consensus that Josephus' testimony probably contains a core from Josephus himself which was later interpolated by Christian scribes.

If Alexamenos was in fact a Christian mocked by an unsympathetic contemporary,several things stand out from the graffito.

(1) The crucifixion is central to the early Christian faith.

(2) Jesus is associated with the Jewish God.

(3) Early Christians saw Jesus as an appropriate object of worship.

(4) The Christian faith first spread in Rome among persons more familiar with Greek than Latin, and hence of likely eastern Mediterranean provenance.

Clearly, someone unsympathetic to Jesus and his followers is impressed by a Christian's worship of a crucified figure that points as well to a common Graeco-Roman calumny against the Jews.  Hence, we have in this crude graffito not only an early record of Christianity, but perhaps as well testimony to faith in the divinity of Jesus as far antedating the Council of Nicaea.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

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