Background Considerations:

The earliest surviving picture of Jesus was scratched on a plaster wall in the city of Rome about 200 A.D. In the crude graffiti a human body, drawn from the backside, is stretched on a stick cross. The head of a donkey sprouts from the naked torso. Below this scene a single figure raises his right arm in a salute. The unknown satirist completed the sketch with the indictment, “Alexamenos worships his god”. Who was this Alexamenos? A close look at his headgear in the drawing suggests he was a Jew. Whether soldier or slave, he remains unknown to us today except for this perverse tribute to his loyalty. But there can be no question about the figure on the cross. Many religious movements, mysteries and philosophies vied for the loyalty of Rome’s citizens-Mithraism. Only one centered on a crucified Jew.

150 years earlier a wandering Jewish artisan who was devoted to Jesus admitted, “We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23). The extent of that foolishness may be measured by two facts. First, numerous vases from the Roman decorated with graphic erotic scenes have been recovered by archaeologists only to be deemed to be too pornographic for public display. Second, no artist in the Greco-Roman world would be commissioned to produce a portrait of a person, human or divine, exposed to public shame on a cross. Not that crucifixions were unknown to the Romans. Thousands of rebels and desperate criminals were stripped and nailed to crude crosses by Roman soldiers intent on putting down revolts. But the crude cartoon mocking Alexamenos and his Lord is the earliest depiction of this form of Roman execution. To be a Christian then and now is to be devoted to a crucified God.

For Discussion

  1. What basic assumptions do Christians hold about God, the universe, life, and personal existence? Are these shared by Jews, Muslims and even other religions of the world?
  2. What is the essence of Christianity? Is it primarily a belief system-that is, a theology? A way of describing or constructing reality-a philosophy? A whole set of cultural cues-a social system? The regular performance of rituals and sacred acts considered to be of immense significance-a religion? Or something more?
  3. As a Christian missionary, what did Paul have to offer that the advocates for the other religions did not? What might be said to be distinctive about Christianity?
  4. Would Jesus recognize Christianity today? Is it time to put the word, “Christian”, to rest and find a new tag to describe the deep commitment to the person of Jesus Christ? What if we chose to be known only as “followers of Jesus”?
  5. Can’t I just have a relationship with God on my own? Do I really need a Savior?
  6. If I had to draw a picture of Christianity what would it look like? Would it be at all like the picture of Alexamenos and his God? presented as accusations against God himself. God has been maligned as arbitrary and ultimately selfish by the one who exemplifies his own accusations against God. The watching universe sees the claims of Satan against the character of God stripped away at the cross. God’s plan to restore the kingdom to fallen sinners is also opposed by Satan who maintains they really belong to him. In the investigative judgement Satan’s accusations are again proven groundless for those who have given their loyalty to God have cooperated with the Spirit in the transformation of their character. In the final contest, their loyalty is tested and they emerge triumphant. The security of the universe is dependent on every inhabitant being convinced of the fairness of God in dealing with sin and Satan. All of this is consistent with the teachings of the Bible but cannot be explicitly attested with the words of Scripture at all points. Perhaps a parallel would be the teachings of the New Testament regarding the necessity of the death of the Messiah. Such a position is consistent with the Old Testament but would not be readily derived from the Old Testament in advance.

Comments are closed.