In 1857, some early graffiti was discovered in an unearthed guardroom on the Palatine Hill. Known as the Alexamenos Graffito, it is an image which is scratched into the plaster of the wall and shows a man with the head of an ass being crucified, and then a man next to him- his hands possibly raised in prayer. This graffito is thought to be conceived sometime between 50 CE and 200 CE and is the earliest depiction of the crucifixion that we possess, with the first Christian depictions not arising until the early 6th century. The text in Greek reads:
which means, “Alexamenos worships his god.”
Interestingly enough, this was a common charge against the Jews and later the Christians in the infancy of the Christian faith. Marcus Cornelius Fronto, a pagan orator and rhetorician, condemned the Christians in a lost speech, fragments of which are preserved by Minucius Felix in the Octavius. In it he writes
“the religion of the Christians is foolish, inasmuch as they worship a crucified man, and even the instrument itself of his punishment. They are said to worship the head of an ass, and even the nature of their father” (Octavius IX).
Tertullian mentioned that the pagans think “our god is an ass’s head” (Apology, XVI). when he writes
“For, like some others, you are under the delusion that our god is an ass’s head”
Tertullian refers again to this notion that “our god is actually the head of an ass” in Book I of Ad Nationes, where he accuses pagans of being no better and in fact gets a little feisty at the end. [a quip that can’t help but make me smile.
Some of you have entertained the dream that our god is actually the head of an ass. Cornelius Tacitus first launched this fantasy in the fourth book of his Histories where he recounts the Jewish war. Starting with the origins of the Jewish people, he traces the source of their religion and its name. He relates how the Jewish people, hard-pressed for water and wondering abroad in desolate places, were delivered by following the lead of a herd of wild asses thought to be in search of water after feeding. For this reason the likeness of this animal is worshiped by the Jew. This is why I believe that we Christians, being linked to the Jewish religion, are associated with the same image. You in fact worship the ass in its entirety, not just the head. And then you throw in Epona, the patron saint of donkeys and all the beasts of burden, cattle, and wild animals. You even worship their stables. Perhaps this is your charge against us that in the midst of all these indiscriminate animal lovers, we save our devotion for asses alone!” (XI)
He also defends Christians against the charge of a Roman Jew.
There is now a new rumor about our God going the rounds. Recently a most depraved individual from Rome, your city, had defected from his own faith and allowed his skin to be shredded by wild beasts. Every day he would hire himself out for viewing while his skin was stripped. He would carry around a picture directed against us with the heading “Onocoetes,” meaning Donkey Priest. It was a picture of a man wearing a toga and the ears of the donkey with a book in hand and one leg ending in a hoof. And the crowd believed this Jewish man. Who else plants the seed of our infamous reputation? As a result the whole city is talking about the Donkey Priest.” (XIV)
The graffito also represents how contemptible and absurd the idea of a crucified god was to pagan thinking, and harkens pack to when St. Paul remarked that the crucifixion was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” [1 Corinthians 1:23].