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E. I.Smith

Roman Legends, The Alexamenos Graffito, and Proof of Christ's Existence

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I wouldn’t say that the Alexamenos graffito is proof of the existence of Jesus Christ; it is rather proof that the legend of Jesus Christ was present in Rome, Italia, during the early third century. The Alexamenos graffito, which was drawn in A.D. 200, can be described as a stick-figure drawing of a Roman civilian worshipping an image of a crucified person that has a donkey’s head. The inscription, Ᾰλεξᾰ́μενος σέβεται θεόν, which is written in Greek, translates to “Alexamenos worships his god.”

The drawing was scratched onto a plaster wall in a house that is located on Palatine hill, which is one of the Seven Hills of Rome. The house was purchased by the Roman Emperor, Caligula, circa A.D. 40, and was later changed to a boarding school for Roman noble’s messenger boys. Some observers of the drawing conclude that the drawing is proof of Jesus’ existence as it was drawn a mere 166 years after his death, and describes the crucified being as a “god.”

The Alexamenos graffito can effectively be seen as a drawing that one student scratched onto a wall to tease another student named Alexamenos. Perhaps Alexamenos expressed an affinity for Christianity and his peer took the opportunity to make fun of the boy by scribbling a cartoon of Alexamenos’ god. It should be noted that Christianity was roundly derided in Rome at this time, and Christians were believed to engage in a religious practice called Onolatry (donkey worship,) which would explain the depiction of Jesus Christ as a humanoid donkey.

I am inclined to believe that the Alexamenos graffito was a childish prank, not much unlike the kinds of pranks that children of today engage in, e.g., writing puerile messages on bathroom stalls, school lockers, and classroom chalkboards. The boarding school for messenger boys was without a doubt filled with young boys that occasionally became bored and engaged in mischief. In A.D. 200, the Gospel of Mark, one of the books of the Four Gospels, had already been printed, and it is likely that the legend of Jesus Christ was fairly well-known in Rome.

Furthermore, by this time, in history, Christianity had already become an institution in the Roman Empire, although still a fledgling institution, as only one country in the entire world, namely Edessa, southeast Turkey, accepted it as the State religion. This would mean that the core doctrines of Christianity were already in the consciences of the populaces of quite a few Roman provinces, and certainly the capital city of the empire where the drawing was found. The drawing was taken out of the house at Palatine and is now located in the Palatine Hill Museum in Rome, Italy.

Public Domain Pictures of the original drawing and a trace-over of it can be seen here:

Picture 1 is the original and Picture 2 is the trace-over.

Picture 3 is a screen capture of a boss battle in Konami’s 1993 video game, Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. An image of a cross that resembles the Alexamenos graffito, on account of the humanoid figure on the cross accompanied by a deformed, animal-like, head, can be seen on the screen capture. This goes to show that Roman legends and Christianity have both had a profound influence on modern entertainment.

https://qph.fs.quoracdn.net/main-qimg-e2916d33ac96818729446c243d021f02.webp

https://qph.fs.quoracdn.net/main-qimg-aa7860139f294a1c26abc31521b4fed1.webp

https://qph.fs.quoracdn.net/main-qimg-3846b89f1f5fd6dbaef11fb2a0b23f7e

Edited by E. I.Smith

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Did the pre-Constantine Romans deride the legend of Jesus Christ to accomplish anything of note, or were they simply repulsed by Christianity by virtue of its apparent roots in Jewish superstition?

The issue here is that we're dealing with the opinion of the lower classes which is not well recorded to say the least. The judaean origin of superstitions was probably not a problem for them given how fashionable foreign cults could be, especially those from Syria - an area that seemed to be particularly inventive and catered for all tastes in religious practice. What bothered Romans was the monotheistic nature of judaean beliefs in that pagan gods or even famous Romans deified were discarded. Most notoriously the divinity of Roman caesars was held in abeyance by Judaeans although Hollywood has perpetuated the Caligula-esque ideal of elevation during lifetime as common practice - it wasn't - the vast majority who were deified received the honour posthumously and please note that when Caligula started demanding worship as a living god the Romans were not impressed despite his popularity with the masses. It is no coincidence that Caligula wanted to move the Roman capital to Alexandria, not just for political reasons (Senators were banned by Augustan regulations to enter Egypt) but because worship of living rulers was common to ordinary Egyptians.

Eye witnesses to early Christian rites misinterpreted their practises and were horrified that these cults apparently practised cannibalism, vampirism, baby sacrifice by drowning, and other grim tales. Rumour circulated and amplified these concerns. Then again, it is worth understanding that prior to Christian adoption the pagan gods were the protectors of the Romans, beings to whom one sacrificed in order to gain favour or good fortune, and that early Christianity was not a united movement but a collection of small cults each presenting their own vision of teachings.

To some extent the earlier imperial period would have seen some derision by the more vocal members of the lower classes, as evidenced by the graffito. But then again, the idea of Jesus as the 'Son of God' was not universally accepted for hundreds of years, and as simply another charismatic preacher who came to a sticky end by becoming too popular with the crowds a certain disrespect is easy to understand there too, especially in a society that perpetuated ancestor and personality cults themselves. It also points toward a more worldy view of Jesus from Romans than we would normally see today, a man who was a self appointed spokesman rather than a semi-divine prophet. Given the barbaric rumours the Romans described Christianity with back then, little wonder the artist interpreted Jesus as something mockingly primitive.

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So then, the Romans resented the Judeo-Christian's disregard for their gods and god-men in favor of a single all-powerful God, were repulsed by legends of grotesque rituals and saw early Christians as undesirable "hillbillies" that were incapable of becoming useful. 

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Hillbillies? No, rather followers of a dodgy cult. However it is worth remembering - as I did shortly after I posted previously, that Judaea was a discontented province - they did not really take too well to Roman culture and domination - and that radicals mixing politics and religion were active in Rome as well as their home province. The activities of the zealots for instance were a major part of the Jewish Revolt described by Josephus.

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It is worth noting that most scholars (with the exception of the "Jesus mythicists," whom even atheist Bart Ehrman dismisses as "pseudo-scholars") agree that all 27 books of the New Testament were completed by the end of the First Century, and that their common theme is that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Son of God.  While later variations of Christianity disputed the nature of that divinity - hence the Gnostic Gospels, most of them composed between 150 and 400 AD, and the debates between the Arians and more traditional bishops at Nicaea -  the idea that the divinity of Jesus was something that gradually developed within the church is really not historically accurate.  The early Christians may have been wrong in regarding Jesus as divine, but all available evidence indicates that was indeed their belief.

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In the first-century A.D., Jesus, being from Nazareth, was considered a hillbilly on account of Nazareth being a rural hill town, that was not a particularly thriving town, especially in comparison to Jerusalem, Old Nineveh, or Damascus. Christians were seen by the Romans as hillbillies on account of their perceived superstitious and "backward" ways and beliefs. I believe that Christians were seen as a cult in the sense that they were independent of the oversight of their respective governments, they had beliefs that did not coincide with the beliefs of established Judaic religions, they professed a belief in a divine figure that was also a mortal, and they met in secret meetings and adhered to a common creed. In the Alexamenos Graffito, the perception of Christianity by the early third-century Romans was on full display. The really amazing this about the Graffito is that is has survived for 1818 years to this very day. It goes to show that non-traditional depictions of Jesus Christ, especially bold ones like the Graffito, inspire contemplation in people.

Edited by E. I.Smith

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This 'hillbilly' thing doesn't work for me. Of course the Romans were not going to be especially impressed by Judaeans who did not adopt Romanesque ideals such as regular bathing, language, or so forth. It is also true that elite Romans often displayed a somewhat snotty view of common provincial folk. Nonetheless, the manner in which Judaeans were viewed does not carry the same scorn the Romans reserved for the Britons. It is fundamental to the success of the Roman Empire that individuals in provincial regions felt a connection with the greater whole, and one cannot avoid the cosmopolitan mix of cultures that Rome tolerated or even enjoyed - they did after all praise Palmyra in modern Syria for these very cultural influences in one place.

Jesus is something of a non-entity to the Romans. Even if we accept the event of 'miracles' - regardless of interpretation or validity - one is struck by the lack of Roman interest, particularly since they were a superstitious people. Had Jesus actually cured disease, restored eyesight, fed thousands from meagre resources, and so forth - why was Jesus not given an express ticket to Capri for a personal investigation by Tiberius? Instead of being crucified, a fall from the cliffs of Capri would more likely have been his fate, and then again I cannot excuse the similarities between supposed miracles and stories of miracles then current in India. He does not 'die for our sins' - that's a later rationale for his death to avoid overt attention to a criminal execution and insert religious significance - but he dies because he's becoming an embarrassment, popular, and influential among the common folk, thus like the charismatic preachers before him who suffered a grim fate, a decision to remove him is made, and him alone - his disciples are not arrested or executed at that time. Indeed, even with the influence he had won for himself, Jesus merits barely a mention or two in the sources even if the ambiguous statements are actually about him.

Of course Judaea was a province that had been under Roman control for something like forty or fifty years. Not an especially notable province either - the Romans do not praise Judaea for civic advances or loyalty to the empire, which would tend to agree with your concept. Nonetheless, our perceptions are different from the Romans. They accepted that a citizen anywhere should have free will and self determination, thus the tendency for Judaeans to hold on to their own cultural emphasis is neither unexpected or notable. As long as the Judaeans paid taxes, provided troops, and remained subject to Roman law - the Romans weren't worried. Hillbillies? Well, some Judaeans were of course important citizens, some linked in to the Roman system as per normal. The bottom line is that the Romans do not describe the Judaeans in any bucolic sense. Roman subjects, citizens some of them, others radicals and rebels. But hillbillies? The concept just doesn't work.

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