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The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Alexamenos Graffito
March 28, 2013
In this ongoing series of articles we are tracing the history of the Christian faith by pausing to look at 25 objects, 25 historical relics that survive to our day. From the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester we return to the city of Rome and this time we travel to the Palatine Antiquarium Museum, a museum dedicated to the history of the Palatine Hill. Rome is the city built upon seven hills and the Palatine Hill is at the center of them all, rising up above what remains of the Roman Forum on the one side and the Circus Maximus on the other. It has been the context for many of history’s most significant moments. Some of the museum’s exhibitions display models of the early villages that predate the founding of Rome while others hold relics of ancient temples and other buildings that used to adorn the hill. Among the relics, secured high on one wall, is a curious piece of graffiti.
This graffiti, carved into plaster, was discovered in 1857 during archeological excavations and was soon dubbed Alexamenos graffito. It is old and faded and the original design is difficult to discern, yet a careful tracing reveals two roughly-drawn figures and a string of Greek characters. To the left is a man raising his hand in adoration, in worship or prayer. To his side, rising above him, is a second man suspended from a cross. Crucifixions were commonplace in ancient Rome and this man looks like we would expect: his arms are outstretched, pinned to a crossbar, his feet are planted upon a platform, he is wearing some kind of a garment that covers his lower body. What distinguishes him from any other crucified criminal is that while he has the body of a man, he has the head of a donkey. The inscription says, “Alexamenos sebetai theon,” “Alexamenos worships his God.”
Historians date Alexamenos’ graffiti to approximately 200 A.D., making it the earliest surviving depiction of Jesus upon the cross. Yet this is not a religious icon meant to elicit awe or worship. This graffiti is a mockery of Alexamenos, an ancient Christian, and a mockery of a God who would die the shameful death of a criminal.
The first object we looked at, Augustus of Prima Porta, reminded us that Christianity was birthed in a time when Rome was the world’s dominant power. In that statue of Caesar Augustus, Rome’s first and greatest Emperor, we saw the context for Christianity’s rapid expansion and at the same time we saw the seed of her early persecution. The relationship between Rome and the Christian faith was always complicated and often changing. There were times in which the ancient church faced systemic persecution, in which Christians were hunted down and put to death for daring to reject the gods of Rome and for daring to deny the divinity of her Emperor. There were also times of peace and freedom in which Christians were allowed to bow before Jesus.
Yet even in these times of freedom from systemic persecution, Christians were mocked and belittled. Even in these times they faced the shame of worshipping a God so many others denied. They faced the shame of worshipping a God who had been put to death as a common criminal.
Alexamenos was a Christian, a man who proclaimed that Jesus is Lord. He worshipped a God who became man and who endured the most painful and shameful death devised by the minds of that day. And as with so many Christians before and after him, he was mocked for what he believed. 150 years before Alexamenos, the Apostle Paul had written “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Every Christian knows the shame of believing in something so unusual, so unexpected, so unfathomable, so seemingly foolish. But despite all of that, every Christian trusts that what appears to be folly is in reality the very power of God that accomplishes salvation.
Every Christian can attest that the call to follow Jesus is the call to bear shame and to face mockery, to be the butt of jokes, to be an object of scorn. This is a very different kind of suffering from those who faced the lions or the stake, but it is suffering still. In this ancient graffiti we see that what is true today has been true from the earliest days. Our ancient brother Alexamenos also knew the shame and foolishness of worshipping a crucified God, of raising his hands to a Savior on a cross. Though 1,800 years stand between him and us, we are very much the same.