Sunday, January 20, 2008


The graffito was discovered in 1857, when a building called the domus Gelotiana was unearthed on the Palatine Hill. The emperor Caligula had acquired the house for the imperial palace, which after Caligula died became used as a Paedagogium or boarding-school for the imperial page boys. Later the street on which the house sat was walled off to give support to extensions to the buildings above, and it thus remained sealed for centuries. The graffito is today housed in the Palatine antiquarium in Rome. Said to date from the third century AD, some scholars put it as early as 85 AD, just six years after the destruction of Pompeii.

The image depicts a man with the head of a donkey who appears to be attached to a cross. To the left is a young man raising one hand in a gesture suggesting worship. The inscription reads "Alexamenos worships his god". The general consensus is that the graffito dates from some time in the third century, although dates as early as AD 85 have been suggested.

The idea that Christians worshipped a man born of a donkey who was judicially executed was quite a common one in the Roman Empire. The early Christian Father, Tertullian, wrote about it, "In this matter we are [said to be] guilty not merely of forsaking the religion of the community, but of introducing a monstrous superstition; for some among you have dreamed that our god is the head of an ass, an absurdity which Cornelius Tacitus first suggested",

In Mark 15:16-20 Jesus was mocked by the Roman soldiers. They dressed him up in an old scarlet robe that had turned purple with age, they plaited a crown from thorns and placed it on his head and gave him a staff in his hand as a mock sceptre. They bent down and called out to him, "Hail, Jesus, King of the Jews!" Then they took the staff and beat him about the head repeatedly with it and spat upon him.

Mockery is too mild a word for it. It sounds like a bit of tomfoolery, badinage or banter, but this was vicious. Ridicule, derision, insult; those are more appropriate terms. The soldiers weren't just drawing a caricature or making catcalls, they were bullying Jesus in a humiliating way. A crown of thorns is painful and draws blood. Beating around the head with a stave hurts. Remember this was a man who had just been flogged.

Some Christians with tender consciences read this and think, "Is my worship of God a mockery?" When I sing "All to Jesus, I surrender," am I guilty of mockery because I know I hold things back?

The answer is no. This passage is not directed at them. It is pointed at unbelief. Unbelievers still scoff at Jesus and those who follow him. Why is that? Who scoffs at Hindus? Who laughs at Buddhists? Mike Huckabee draws the ridicule of the BBC but Mitt Romney doesn't. Why is that? Who makes jokes about Moslems? (Who would dare?) If they mocked Christ, why would they stop at his followers? The Alexamenos graffito demonstrates that this is something that has always gone on.

How should we react? When the BBC decided to screen "Jerry Springer - the Opera" there were more protests from viewers than for any program ever. The BBC rejected the complaints and this was upheld in the High Court and the Court of Appeal. When Danish cartoonists drew cartoons that mocked Mohammad there were worldwide violent protests by Moslems and the media, for the most part, caved in.

How did Jesus react? He stayed silent and absorbed it. Don't doubt he could have called down legions of Angels. He could have made these mockers scorched shadows on the earth. Yet he withheld his power. Later on the cross he was to pray, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

A story is told of a group of people standing in line awaiting the opening of a bank at 9 a.m. when a man walks straight to the front of the line and is first in to be served. The people waiting in line make no protest. You see the man who queue-jumped was carrying a white stick and was guided by a dog. He was blind to the fact that there was a line.

Jesus was not willing to punish people for ignorance. There will come a time when they will be judged, but there was a time when we were ignorant. If we understand why the man queue jumped we are able to forgive him. Jesus looked at the scoffers and understood them and loved them. He loved them so much that we died for them.

Do you love your enemies? Do you do good to those who despitefully use you? When people mock you for being a Christian, forgive them, love them, pray for them.