Friday, March 18, 2011

Degradation Rituals and Ass Heads

We have been looking at the humiliation of Jesus. It has several steps. We are in a series of postings about the third step: his crucifixion.

We have seen that, while the physical pains of flogging and crucifixion were excruciating, the point was dishonor and shame. This is a historical fact, and it provides support to our understanding of what the cross means. Jesus as King should have had glory, but he turned away from glory to the cross. He volunteered for the shame and humiliation of it.

In this posting, we continue to focus on the shame of the cross and see a typical example of the Roman reaction to the preaching of Christ crucified.

Status Degradation Rituals

The purpose of public trials varies from nation to nation. It has varied from age to age. We have our idea of trials from our place and time. It does not work to read our place and time into the three public trials of Jesus.[1]

In the time of Jesus, public trials served a purpose alien to us. They were status degradation rituals.[2] Their purpose was to destroy the status a person had absolutely. By absolutely I mean two things:
  • To label the accused not merely as someone who did wrong in the case, but as a shameful person.
  • To saturate the shame through and through.
The idea was to condemn the accused not only for conduct, but for motives. The accused was exposed as shameful from the inside out. The ascription of deviant motives was not limited to one facet of the accused's character. It had an "essentializing" function. The ascribed motives became the accused's essential or real self. Certain socially identified perverse motives were made to constitute the total identity of the accused. The shame was penetrating, thorough, and encompassing. He was completely shame, and nothing else.[3]

Stages of Degradation

The trial was just a cog in the gears of degradation. The whole machine ground out shame, and the trial was just a part of the machinery.

Classical authors report crucifixion as having typical stages. The purpose of the stages was progressive humiliation and loss of honor.
  • Arrest
  • Sleep and food deprivation
  • Public trial
  • Flogging and torture
  • Nakedness
  • Mockery by soldiers or executioners
  • Carrying the cross beam
  • Placard of indictment and verdict
  • Confiscation of property
  • Pinioning of hands and arms
  • Mutilation
  • Contorted bodily positions
  • Impalement causing penile enlargement
  • Crude and macabre public entertainment
  • Mockery by jeerers at the crucifixion site
  • Death and dishonor dragged out
  • Denial of burial
  • Exposure to scavengers and insects
“It was not merely the excruciating physical torture that made crucifixion so unspeakable, but the devastation of shame that this death, above all others, represented.”[4] “The issue … lies not in the brutal pain endured. For among the warrior elite, at least, the endurance of pain and suffering were marks of andreia or manly courage.”[5]

In ancient society, people would choose pain and death for the sake of honor. This continued nearly into modern times as fans of Sharpe’s Rifles know.[6] Paul catalogues his hardships (2 Cor. 6:3-10), and his endurance makes him heroic. Crucifixion made a person so much the opposite. A crucified person did not “go down swinging.” The last shred, the last thread, the last fiber from the last thread of honor was stripped off and the worthless trash of pretended humanity was left to the vultures without burial.[7]

The Word “Cross”

The Roman Senator Cicero said the very word “cross” should be “far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears.”[8]

In light of the crucified’s degraded status and the heinous nature of the punishment, Gentiles understandably and not surprisingly viewed the victim with the utmost contempt. Indeed, “crucifixion” was a virtual obscenity not to be discussed in polite company. The cultured world did not want to hear about crucifixion, and consequently, as a rule, they kept quiet about it.[9]

Alexamenos Worships His God

In this and the last few postings we have seen the shame of crucifixion generally. Did the Roman world ascribe this shame to Jesus in particular?

They did. The Alexamenos Graffito provides an example.

This wall-scratching was discovered in 1857 in a building called the Paedagogium that had been constructed by Nero. It was on Palantine Hill near Circus Maximus in Rome. Besides imperial offices, it housed a school for servants and barracks rooms where palace guards and gladiators lived while on duty. Soldiers scratched rough pictures and slogans, called graffiti, into the plaster walls of the barracks. Archeologists discovered a number of these graffiti in the fourth room on the left of the entrance to the Paedagogium.

One graffito shows a young man raising his hands as if in prayer or adoration. He is raising them to Jesus on a cross. This graffito is now housed in Rome's Museo Kircheriano at the Collegion Romano.  It is dated from 193 to 235 A.D. The text in Greek reads:


The soldier might have muffed his grammar a little bit,[10] but this text is generally translated as "Alexamenos worships [his] God". The graffito depicts Jesus as a man with an ass’s head being crucified. “This comparison of Christ to an ass, so repulsive to believers today, vividly illustrates pagan contempt toward the crucified Christ whom Paul proclaimed.”[11]

The following images show the Alexamenos Graffito and a tracing of it.

When Jesus, in the Devil’s wilderness temptation of him, turned away from glory to the cross, He knew what “cross” meant.  Jesus volunteered for this multi-staged degradation ritual. He volunteered to become essentially and completely shame, and nothing but shame. He fulfilled prophesy that says:

Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Rm 9:33; Is 28:16)

Paul, after much suffering and shame for preaching Christ crucified, said:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Rm 1:16)

1.  In all, Jesus was tried four times. The first was before the Sanhedrin. Mosaic law is the best in the world and the best in history at protecting people from false accusation. The Sanhedrin did not follow Moses, however, when they tried Jesus. Just two of the irregularities are that He was tried at night and He was tried in secret, not in public. Their objective for quite some time had been simply to kill Jesus. Their motive was envy, and Pilate could see that.
2.  Jerome H. Neyrey, “Despising the Shame of the Cross: Honor and Shame in the Johannine Passion Narrative." Semeia 68 (1994[96]):113-37.
3.  This was not the purpose of a trial under Moses’ law. But the Sanhedrin did not follow Moses law in Jesus’ case. They acted somewhat like the heathen in his case. Jesus was accused of healing on the Sabbath. But his accusers couldn’t be content with an accusation of simple Sabbath-breaking. That would bring shame on Jesus only for specific conduct. No, Jesus was possessed by a demon, and He was healing by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of the demons. He broke the Sabbath because he wanted to destroy the Kingdom of God. That was his identity and motive, iniquities deeper than conduct on any particular day.
4.  Mark Goodacre, “Scripturalization in Mark’s Crucifixion Narrative” in Geert van Oyen and Thom Shepherd (eds.), The Trial and Death of Jesus: Essays on the Passion Narrative in Mark (Leuven: Peeters, 2006, pp. 33-34.
5.  Neyrey, op cit.
6.  Dialog follows from Shape’s Company, when young Matthews asks Richard Sharpe to take him along to be first to storm the breach of Ciudad Rodrigo’s wall, an action known as the Forlorn Hope.
Matthews: Richard, I would ask you …
Sharpe: What?
Matthews: Oh, it is this. Will you take me with you if you get command of the Forlorn Hope?
Sharpe: No.
Matthews: Oh, do, Richard, sir! It would make my name!
Sharpe: William … the Forlorn Hope are dead men the hour their names are called. First up the wall of the breach, first to die, blown apart by mine or cannon. That's why it is called Forlorn.
Matthews: But it is glorious, is it not? And of use. Some don't die. If it is not of use, then why is it done?
Sharpe: Somebody has to do first.
As pointless as this seems to us, Matthews rightly understood his place and time. It would have made his name, it would have been glorious, and that would have been motivation enough, despite certain suffering and nearly certain death.
7.  While Jesus was decently buried by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus with permission from Pilot, anyone hearing preaching of Christ crucified would visualize what usually happened.
8.  Cicero, “The Speech In Defense of Gaius Rabirius,” sec. 16, in The Speeches of Cicero, trans. H. Grose Hodge, The Loeb Classical Library (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927) 467.
9.  Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977) 38.
10.  Whether the second plural verb, SEBETE, is intended as an imperative or an indicative is unclear.
11.  Donald E. Green, “The Folly of the Cross,” The Master’s Seminary Journal, 15/1 (Spring 2004) 64.


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