The Alexamenos Graffito and Its Rhetorical Contribution to Anti-Christian Polemic

29 Pages Posted: 10 Jan 2015 Last revised: 21 Jan 2015

Date Written: January 7, 2015

Abstract

Since its discovery in 1857 in a room of the Domus Gelotiana, the Alexamenos Graffito has been one of the widely known inscriptions exhibiting Roman attitudes toward Christianity. Early on, the graffiti was described and interpreted by a host of nineteenth century international scholars. These scholars provided descriptions of the physical layout of the domus Gelatiana, speculated on the date of the inscription and its interpretation and sought to place the graffiti in the context of other graffiti that otherwise appeared on the domus’ plaster walls. A good amount of that commentary was merely descriptive in nature and did little to go beyond the guidebook content required of the typical Victorian traveler. Even after the passage of a century, few attempts have been made to transcend the typical and near cliché description of the Graffito as a “blasphemous representation of Jesus of Nazareth” and few appear to have been interested in compiling and analyzing the collective record involving the Graffito. This has led to the unfortunate situation where no understanding has been achieved of the greater rhetorical implications of the inscription nor has a place been assign to the Graffito in the realm of anti-Christian polemic discourse.

This paper seeks to advance scholarship regarding the Alexamenos Graffito by (1) surveying the available literature related to the inscription with the aim of understanding the physical context in which the Graffito was found; (2) assigning an approximate date to the Graffito; (3) understanding the polemical implications of the Graffito; and finally, (4) assigning a place for the Graffito in the larger conversation going on in the first through third centuries about Christianity’s place in Roman Empire. In doing so, the paper will argue first, that the Graffito belongs to the third century when the back and forth between pagan critics and Christian apologists was becoming most acute throughout the Empire; and second, that the Graffito is not a sincere expression of Gnostic religion as argued by John Henry Middleton, Marice Haupt and Richard Wünsch; and third, the Graffito is likely a polemical inscription aimed at denigrating Christianity, it is unique among pagan polemics against Christianity in that it raises arguments, albeit symbolically, that criticize Christianity as an offshoot of Judaism, lumping both together as religions not worthy of a citizen of Rome.

Keywords: Alexamenos Graffito, Roman Archeology, Early Christianity, Rome

Suggested Citation

Young, Thomas R., The Alexamenos Graffito and Its Rhetorical Contribution to Anti-Christian Polemic (January 7, 2015). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2546438 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2546438

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