Friday, 24 May 2019

Peter-Ben Smit, Hagit Amirav: The Naked Demon: Alternative Interpretations of the Alexamenos Graffito

One of the oddities of the history of Christianity is the lack of early depictions—save tau-signs in manuscripts—of the crucifixion. Frequently, an appeal is made to the so-called Alexamenos Graffito, discovered in 1856 in a building, the Paedagogium (a kind of boarding school for imperial pages, dating to the reign of Domitian), on the Palatine Hill in Rome, as one of the earliest, if not the earliest example of such a depiction (the dating is debated with a dates being prosed between the third and fifth centuries, most popular is a date in the mid-third century CE). This graffito, scratched into a wall, shows a humanoid figure with a donkey’s head and fully human figure who raises one of his arms. As the humanoid figure with an donkey’s head can be seen as being attached to a cruciform structure and the text that goes with the depiction can be read as a mocking one—it would be well in line with the coarse nature of many graffiti, past and present—, the dominant interpretation is that it is a pagan inscription, made by someone who is ridiculing a man called Alexamenos, who is engaged in worshiping a crucified demon-God. In this short communication, we would like to challenge a few traditional concepts regarding this tantalizingly-minimalistic, yet thought-provoking, drawing, while offering an alternative interpretation, according to which Jewish ridicule of both pagan and Christian beliefs may be the key to resolving the enigma behind this unique graffito.

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