Ancient Christian parody/mockery- we worship an ass?

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:

ALE
XAMENOS
SEBETE
THEON

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].

3 thoughts on “Ancient Christian parody/mockery- we worship an ass?

  1. Please read very interesting email and tell me what you think. God Bless in Yeshua’s name

    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:
    ALE
    XAMENOS
    SEBETE
    THEON
    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)

    Interesting finding I came some a crossed the Midrash Rabbah a few years back and it is also in the Talmud and a Piyyut in the Maczor the goes along these lines.

    Shabbath 116 A and B
    Imma Shalom, R. Eliezer's wife, was R. Gamaliel's sister. Now, a certain philosopher30 lived in his vicinity,and he bore a reputation that he did not accept bribes.1 They wished to expose him,2 so she brought him a golden lamp, went before him, [and] said to him, ‘I desire that a share be given me in my [deceased] father’s estate.’ ‘Divide,’ ordered he. Said he [R. Gamaliel] to him, ‘It is decreed for us, Where there is a son, a daughter does not inherit.’ [He replied], ‘Since the day that you were exiled from your land the Law of Moses has been superseded3 and another book4 given, wherein it is written, ‘A son and a daughter inherit equally.’5 The next day, he [R. Gamaliel] brought him a Lybian ass. Said he to them, ‘Look6 at the end of the book, wherein it is written, I came not to destroy the Law of Moses nor7 to add to the Law of Moses,8 and it is written therein, A daughter does not inherit where there is a son. Said she to him, ‘Let thy light shine forth like a lamp.’9 Said R. Gamaliel to him, ‘An ass came and knocked the lamp over!’10
    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)

    And I am going to give you now the next thing which is what we say on Yom Kippur, ten days after Rosh Hoshanah. After we have just said the name of Yeshua during the time of the blowing of the shofar or the ram’s horn, we then come ten days later to Yom Kippur, and on Yom Kippur we come to the high point of the service which is called “Mussaf,” the additional service. And at the Mussaf of Yom Kippur we have another aspect of the service called the Kedushah. And in the Kedushah we interrupt that holy point, that high point of the service to say what we call a “Piyut.” A piyut is like a poem. It is really more than a poem, but I don’t have a better word for it. And we read these words:
    Notice, Pinah menu Mashiach Tzidkeinu, “Torn away from us is Messiah our Righteousness.” Someone tore him away from us. Someone ripped him away from us. Pulatznu v’ein mi l’tzadkeinu. “We are in a state of collapse, for we have no one to justify us.”Avonoteinu v’ol p’sha’einu omeis, that “our transgressions and our cryings are burdened upon him.” V’hu m’cholal, “And he has become desecrated.” He—he has become, that one that we have seen as Yeshua—has become desecrated. Mipe’sha’einu, “from our cryings.” Soveil al shechem chatoteinu, “he suffers from the shoulder, the brunt of, our sins,” Slichah m’tzo la’avonoteinu, “he finds forgiveness for our transgressions.” Nirpah lanu b’chaburato, “though we are healed by his wounds, by his stripes.” Netzach briah chadashah et livroto, “that he is eternally recreated anew.” Mei’chug ha’aleihu, “from the circle of the Gentiles, raise him up, cause him to ascend.” Let’s get him back, let’s bring him home.Mi’Seir, Seir means Mt. Seir. By the way, here we’re sitting just a few kilometers to the east of us, where Mt. Seir is.Mt. Seir is another word for the mountain of Edom. Edomis another word for Rome. Rome is another word for, in Jewish eschatology, for the Christian religion under theRoman Kingdom. And it says, “from Seir,” or from the Christian faith, hadleihu
    Also within the Zohar
    Mishpatim
    479. But of the level of Messiah, son of Joseph, it is indicated: “Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field” (Bemidbar 22:4), REFERRING TO MESSIAH, THE SON OF JOSEPH, CALLED ‘OX’. About them it is written: “When wicked spring like grass” (Tehilim 92:8). From Pesach until Tishrei will be the Redemption CALLED ‘forever’; from then on will come their destruction, as written, “that they shall be destroyed forever” (Ibid.), until Tishrei arrives, being an ox. Then it will be fulfilled, “as the ox licks.”

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