Have you ever been mocked for being a Jesus follower? If so, you’re in good company.
In 1857, explorers uncovered a bit of anti-Christian graffiti in a room of a building called the domus Gelotiana on the Palatine Hill in Rome. The hand-drawn cartoon depicts a person hanging on a cross. The figure has the head of a donkey rather than that of a human. The caption of the cartoon reads something like “Alexamenos worships his (or a) god.” At the foot of the cross is a figure, presumably said Alexamenos, raising a hand in salute or worship.
In the next room is an inscription that reads “Alexamenos is faithful.” This may be a reply or rebuttal to the graffiti in the first room. Of course, we cannot discern the tone either of the cartoon or the response. This may have been a hostile exchange. It may have been a bit of good-natured ribbing between friends. It may have been a way to identify the location of Alexamenos to authorities seeking to regulate or persecute Alexamanos and other Jesus followers. We can’t know for sure.
Scholars believe the graffito was drawn sometime in the late 100s to the early 200s of the Common Era, about a century after the four canonical gospels were put to the page. At this time, pagan writers regularly ridiculed Christians for worshipping a crucified and dishonored criminal. It may be that some of these pagan authors believed that Christians practiced donkey worship, an accusation applied to Jews before the Christian era.
Depicting a character with the head of an ass is a time-honored trope in the literature of lampooning. I am reminded, for example, of the fate of Nick Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bottom and his hapless colleagues provide the comic relief during the drama.
Bottom’s head is transformed by Puck into that of a donkey. In that guise, he becomes the object of infatuation for Titania, the fairy queen, who has been bewitched by a love potion. The situation provides no end of hilarity, mostly at Bottom’s expense. Bottom merits some of this treatment, in Shakespeare’s telling, because he has an inappropriately high opinion of himself and his own dramatic talents. The script takes him down a notch, and (as the Bard might say), all’s well that ends well.
Mockery is in the historical DNA of the Jesus followers movement (what I abbreviate as the JFM). This is especially true in the Markan composition. In his climactic “passion prediction” in Mark 10, Jesus declares that the Gentiles who execute Jesus will begin the process by mocking him and spitting on him. That description comes to pass in Mark 15:20 when the soldiers mock him as part of their practice of torture. Those who pass by the cross continue the mocking in Mark 15:31.
It was no worse treatment than a failed revolutionary messiah deserved. Jesus made it clear that members of the JFM could expect similar treatment in the future. In Mark 13, he tells the disciples that they can anticipate betrayals and beatings, interrogations and internment, humiliation and hatred. This sort of treatment, Jesus declares, is not a sign of failure but rather of faithfulness.
I don’t know about you, but I have rarely been subjected to mockery because I’m a Jesus follower. When I was in college, I took a three-year sojourn into philosophical atheism. I thought at the time that this was the only reasonable path for intelligent people. I discovered that I could not survive the existential vacuum such a perspective seemed to demand of me. After a bit of personal drama, I returned to the path of Jesus following.
Even then, I was not really “mocked.” An honored mentor received the news of my lapse from atheism with a rueful and puzzled shake of the head. Friends and classmates simply thought I had gone crazy in a new but not particularly novel sort of way. Other Jesus followers rejoiced that I had returned to the fold and hoped that I had learned my lesson. Only one of my former atheist compatriots had the integrity to call me “a stupid ass who exchanged hard truth for easy certainty.”
Coming back to the life of the Church did not subject me to ridicule. Instead, it was celebrated and rewarded. Obviously, it led me to my life’s work inside the confines of the Church. I’m not complaining in the least. I’m simply observing. In my experience, being identified as a Jesus follower presented no downside. No one was drawing donkey-headed cartoons to mock me and lampoon my faith. Instead, I was on the path to privilege and respectability.
That hardly sounds like mocking. It has nothing to do with dying. I am not sure I’ve ever gotten very far as a member of the JFM.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that persecution and pain are the means to demonstrate my belonging. The Christian gospels do not valorize victimhood or celebrate suffering. But the gospel accounts certainly remind us that faithful following is likely to get us into real trouble with the guarantors of the status quo. If our discipleship doesn’t get us into “good trouble,” we may need to wonder if we’re on the right path. Donkey-headed cartoons are not the goal of following Jesus, but they are often the outcome of such faithful following.
There is nothing attractive or virtuous about Jesus’ suffering and death in the Markan composition of the gospel. There’s lots of groaning and crying out. There’s lots of blood and screams. There’s plenty of mockery and humiliation. It’s not attractive or controlled. There’s lots of human cruelty and straight-up tyranny.
In the midst of it, however, something strange happens. The world gets turned upside down. In spite of the cruel ignorance of the torturers, “the reader understands that these characters’ actions and words point toward a truth unknown to them,” Joel Marcus writes, “royal garments and crowns rightfully do belong to Jesus, who will show his kingship precisely by not saving himself by dying on the cross. Although the degrading slave’s death of crucifixion seems to the mockers to be a decisive contradiction of the claim that Jesus is a king,” Marcus concludes, “the reader knows the opposite is true” (page 74).
Marcus notes that Jesus does not claim the title, “King of the Jews,” for himself. It is assigned to him by his mocking torturers and the contemptuous crowd. The titulus, the sign on the cross, “was meant not only to indicate the charge against Jesus,” Marcus suggests, “but also to continue the mockery that was intrinsic to the process of crucifixion” (page 83).
But what happens, Marcus asks, if the mockery itself is mocked? “And what happened,” he wonders, “if the prisoner mocked by crucifixion as a person of high status or a presumptive monarch responded to his torture with unaccountable dignity?” (pages 86-87). This may best account, for example, for the response from the centurion in Mark 15:39 – “Truly, this man was the son of God.”
The centurion’s confession “represents the Christological high point of Mark’s Gospel and echoes the repeated declaration that Jesus is God’s son,” Kelly Iverson notes. The confession contradicts Jesus’ opponents and is made just when their victory seems assured. And the statement itself has a phonetic and a rhythmic pattern that makes it both memorable and impactful. It comes at the end of a long, tense, and potentially disastrous narrative and creates the opportunity for the good news to break through that tension.
It is the very visibility of the cross and the dignity of the sufferer that bring about this unmasking. I can’t help but think about the televised images and video, for example, of the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s. It was the combination of Bull Connors’ cruelty and the nonviolent dignity of the protesters that filled our small screens. It was that combination which provoked the nationwide outrage that led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act and related legislation.
It is not that suffering as a victim is good in itself. However, bearing up under the weight of punishment with faith, hope, and love has the power to convert those who are watching – some of whom had previously been in the company of the mockers. Suddenly the joke was on them.
We Jesus followers believe that God ratifies this power to change the world by…changing the world. That’s what the Good News of Resurrection is all about. The powers of sin, death, and the Devil are turned upside down and inside out. The mockery of Creation – the captivity of all things under an alien power – is mocked by the Creator who deigns to be crucified. Suddenly the joke is on the jerks.
If I embrace that Good News and the power of the Resurrection, then I might be given the courage to resist the Powers by mocking the mockers. That would mean stepping out of my safe, establishment, institutional Church bubble and into the hurly-burly world of pagans in power. These days, a number of those pagans in power call themselves “Christians,” so the confrontation has become ever so much more complicated.
At the end of our year with the Markan composition, this is where we find ourselves. Will I put myself in places where someone wants to put an ass’s head on me and laugh themselves silly? Will I keep pushing until the laughter turns to rage and some wish to bash in my ass’s head? I don’t know. I’m not sure. I want to flee in fear like any self-respecting disciple in Mark’s account. But perhaps I’ll do better once in a while.
After all, my story is no more complete than Mark’s story…
References and Resources
Alexamenos graffito: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexamenos_graffito.
Burton, Oliver Vernon, and Defner, Armand. Justice Deferred: Race and the Supreme Court. Cambridge, MA.: The Belknap Press, 2021.
Equal Justice Initiative. Lynching in America (Third Edition). https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/.
IVERSON, KELLY R. “A Centurion’s ‘Confession’: A Performance-Critical Analysis of Mark 15:39.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 130, no. 2, The Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, pp. 329–50, https://doi.org/10.2307/41304204.
Marcus, Joel. “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 125, no. 1, Society of Biblical Literature, 2006, pp. 73–87, https://doi.org/10.2307/27638347.
Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. (2021). The Book of Torture. The Gospel of Mark, Crucifixion, and Trauma (forthcoming in Journal of the American Academy of Religion). Journal of the American Academy of Religion. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/353804044_The_Book_of_Torture_The_Gospel_of_Mark_Crucifixion_and_Trauma_forthcoming_in_Journal_of_the_American_Academy_of_Religion.
Popovic, Srdja, and Joksic, Mladen. “Why Dictators Don’t Like Jokes.” https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/04/05/why-dictators-dont-like-jokes/.
Serwer, Adam. “The Cruelty is the Point.” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/the-cruelty-is-the-point/572104/.