The Donkey Man

1 Corinthians 1:18 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.

Boys can be cruel, and such was the case 1,800 years ago on the Palatine Hill in Rome. Alexamenos was a Christian at a school for imperial pages. We don’t know more about his story except some poorly educated bully scratched this crude image into one of the plaster walls: 

It shows Alexamenos blowing a kiss towards a crucified man with a donkey’s head. The words on the drawing read, “Alexamenos worships his god.”[1] The picture was intended to be a cruel taunt in two ways. First, a cross was an instrument of execution. In modern imagery, it would be like picturing someone with a hangman’s noose around his neck. The man must be a common criminal. The second and most challenging image for us to understand is the man with a donkey’s head.

Do you remember, in the Temple in Jerusalem, there was the Holy Place (where the altar of incense, the lampstand, and the Table of Showbread were) and the Holy of Holies. A curtain separated them. Except for the High Priest, no one passed through the curtain into the Holy of Holies (and then only once a year). 

Likewise, there were no pictures of the Lord. Idolatry was strictly forbidden. This seemed so strange to the pagans. The Jews (and consequently the Christians) must be ashamed of their God, the pagans concluded. So, a rumor circulated that the Jews worshipped a donkey! (There is a word for that: onolatry.) This was so embarrassing; the Jews had to hide His image behind the curtain.

Now let’s return to the page’s school in Rome. That insulting image shows us Alexamenos worshipping a donkey-man – the God-Man! Today, Christians believe Jesus was wholly God and wholly man. So did young Alexamenos in Rome around 200 A.D.!

I can hardly wait to meet this young Christian and learn the rest of his story!

  [1] There are two Greek words we translate “worship” in English: proskuneo (προσκυνέω) and sebo (σέβω). The first means “to kiss towards.” That describes Alexamenos’ gesture in the drawing. The second means “to worship in gestures and rituals.” That is the word used in the graffiti. (Do you see the inscription “CEBETE” in the second line from the bottom? C = S in the ancient script. The ETE ending is 2nd person plural. It should be EIS, 2nd person singular, so either the boy making fun of Alexamenos was a lousy speller, or he included all Christians in his insult.) The original inscription is preserved in the Palatine Museum in Rome.

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