Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – Would Ancient Jews or Romans Invent a Crucified God?

Alexamenos Graffiti

As we explore what the ancient Romans thought of Christians, it’s worth taking a little more time to speak of the absurdity to Roman sensibilities that Christians would worship a crucified person.

Crucifixion – It Ain’t Pretty

One doesn’t have to contemplate crucifixion long to grasp the ultimate horror of it. Simply imagine being laid out naked on a rough wooden beam and spikes being driven through your wrists or forearms and feet or ankles. Some ropes may be used to prevent your flesh from ripping to prevent you from falling from the cross once it has been stood upright. As gravity pulls your bodyweight down on the stakes that have been driven through your flesh and bones, then begins the long wait for your slow death to play out – in public for all to see, in the heat of the sun and chill of the night.

A small, slanted piece of wood for your feet to sit on helps support a bit of your weight. Some studies say the weight of your body and the position of your outstretched arms may have made it hard to breath, and thus, the crucified would have to push up on the spikes piercing their feet and pull up on the spikes through their arms to raise their bodies enough to a position to take in good, deep breaths of air.

Torture usually preceded crucifixion. With the Romans, this often came in the form of being beaten by a leather whip with bits of metal and bones weaved into it to rip the flesh, exposing muscle and bone. Once hung on the cross, the cause of death could be many things: shock from loss of blood, exhaustion, suffocation, exposure, or any combination.

What Did Ancient People Think of Crucifixion?

Martin Hengel in his book Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross looks at ancient historical sources and brings to light several things about this cruelest form of execution.

Crucifixion, wide-spread in antiquity, was seen as the ultimate deterrent. A risk that may lead one to be put up on that cross was a risk not worth taking. The cruel and public (not to mention inexpensive) nature of crucifixion was an appealing tool in keeping order. After being tortured, the Romans made the victim carry his own cross to the crucifixion location. After death, the executed was left on the cross as food for wild animals and birds of prey. To ancient people, the victim going unburied would have grim religious significance. It was all a brutal, public spectacle.

In the Roman Empire, the elite inflicted crucifixion primarily on the lower classes (especially slaves), violent criminals, and rebellious upstarts. Such criminals held no rights in the Roman world, and any challenge to the Roman authority would not be tolerated.

What Hengel displays convincingly is that crucifixion was the ultimate humiliation and offense to the Romans. It was a slave’s death. It had such a stigma, the word “crucifixion” itself was not used in polite company. Even writings mentioning this horrible practice avoided using the word. Among the lower classes “crux” was considered one of the most derogatory, offensive things you could say to a person. Having a family member hung on a cross was disgraceful. In no uncertain terms, crucifixion was scandalous to the ancient Romans (and Jews) and a source of dread.

Why is this significant to Christians today?

First, if the first Christians of the first century had decided to invent a story so they could start a new religion (for whatever motivation), creating a story about a crucified God-man who rose from the dead would not be the way to do it. In fact, it would be a good way to make sure your new religion died a quick death. The idea of following the teachings of a crucified man would have been scandalous and offensive to the extreme. If a Jewish or Roman family would have been ashamed and humiliated knowing one of their own family members had been punished by crucifixion, why would anyone want to adamantly declare that they worship a crucified person?  The idea of worshiping a crucified God-man would sound more absurd to ancient Jewish and Roman ears than to modern, secular ears.

Paul wrote in 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… 

21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Our second concluding point is this: when we get a clearer understanding of the terror and dehumanizing nature of crucifixion, we understand more fully the length Christ went to because of his love for us. Hengel writes, “Death on the cross was the penalty for slaves, as everyone knew; as such it symbolized extreme humiliation, shame and torture.”

“Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,] but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:6-11)

Read Part 1: Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – What Does a Piece of Ancient Graffiti Tell Us About Christianity?

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Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – What Does a Piece of Ancient Graffiti Tell Us About Christianity?

Alexamenos Graffiti

The above photo is of the earliest known visual depiction of Jesus of Nazareth. Interestingly, it doesn’t come from an ancient church or even from Christian hands. It’s a piece of ancient graffiti scratched into a wall in Rome, dated to just before 200 AD. In it, a man looks upon a naked man with a donkey’s head crucified on a cross. The Greek reads, “Alexamenos worships god.”

When studying history, what is sometimes called “enemy attestation” is considered the strongest sort of evidence. The idea is that all historical writings have the bias of the authors, so a historical record from a certain people about themselves will likely have a positive spin. On the other hand, historical writings about those same people by those who opposed them will likely have a negative spin. Thus, enemy attention is valuable when it affirms the same information as the other side. Such harmony is of high value to the historian.

The ancient graffiti above appears to have been created by a Roman mocking Christian beliefs. The graffiti artist degrades the beliefs of the Christian Alexamenos for worshipping a crucified man, going so far as to portray Alexamenos’ God with the head of an ass.

This piece of enemy attestation from just before 200 AD not only confirms the crucifixion of Jesus, but also confirms that ancient Christians worshipped Jesus as a God. (This is confirmed in the earliest Roman writings about Christians as well.)

This is significant to Christians today because many modern skeptics often explain away Christian beliefs about Jesus as legends that developed long after Christ walked the earth. A popular claim (which is not argued in the academic world but lives on thanks to the internet and the book The Da Vinci Code) is that Jesus was deified at the Council of Nicea over 300 years after Jesus’ ministry or, at least, some time after Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 AD and – as the dead theory goes – mixed pagan beliefs with Christian beliefs. This simple piece of scratched slander on a Roman wall alone disproves that theory.

Another point of interest about this piece of crude ancient art is that it gives us a glimpse into what the ancient Romans thought of this strange new cult that worshipped a crucified God-man.

In this series, we’ll look more at what the Romans thought of Christians and see how it helps us to understand our faith today.

NEXT: The folly of the Cross continued…

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