Catching a Glimpse: Musings on being a student of ancient history and an expectant father

A few months ago, I came across an inscription that I hadn’t looked at for a while, the Alexamenos Graffito. The graffito (that’s not a typo; ‘graffiti’ is plural) is the earliest known visual depiction of the crucified Jesus, as almost all students and scholars of early Christianity are aware. Others may never have seen it. Here is a photograph of the graffito in situ, followed by a tracing of the inscription:

For those who can’t read messily scrawled Greek, it says: Αλεξαμενος ϲεβετε θεον

In English: Alexamenos worships (his) god

Many will notice that the image is rather striking. To the left, the graffiti artist has portrayed Alexamenos, a Christian, worshiping his god, who hangs on a cross (the intersecting horizontal and vertical lines). More striking still, Jesus, Alexamenos’s crucified God, is here caricatured as a man with the head of a donkey, an ass. It is crude and intentionally vulgar. Whoever scrawled this image and text into the wall was being antagonistic.

Most everyone in my field knows about the Alexamenos graffito, but I must confess an initial ignorance of a related graffito found in the same location in what was once an adjoining room. Alexamenos, or someone on his behalf, responds:

Alexamenos Fidelis

This text of this graffito, written in Greek and Latin (“Alexamenos” is in Greek, “fidelis” in Latin), is probably obvious to even those who don’t read Greek and Latin: Alexamenos is faithful.

Having known about the former graffito for some time, I was surprised at my own ignorance of the Alexamenos Graffito’s companion. (Actually, my own ignorance of important things in this field is pretty unsurprising.) The inscription itself, which I read as a response to the antagonistic depiction of Alexamenos worshipping a donkey-headed Jesus, is what arrested me. When I first read this text, Alexamenos became more than the butt of a joke in an ancient graffito. He became a person with feelings, who responds to stimuli and leaves his mark. As I reflected upon his pithy, two-word response (“Alexamenos is faithful”), Alexamenos became a person and I felt like, for a fleeting moment, I saw him.

A few months later, my wife, Naomi, announced to me that she was pregnant. Within a day or two we were in a doctor’s office for Naomi’s medical pregnancy test. The next day we found out she was four weeks along and our baby was the size of a poppy seed. For me, over the next eight weeks or so, the baby was more of an idea lodged in my mind than an actual living being with ontic reality. Then we went in for an ultrasound at around ten weeks and, for the first time, I saw our baby. I saw her. I watched him. S/he had a heart beat and responded to stimuli. For the first time the baby was real to me, not just an idea and not just a text on the readout of a pregnancy test, but a living thing that can be seen, if only for a moment.

As a student of early Christian history, I don’t have the ability to actually see Alexamenos, Jesus, Paul, or any other character from the ancient texts that I study. All they are to me—to all of us, if we’re honest—are texts. Reading the Bible, which is itself a difficult task of crossing cultures and millennia, we have no direct conduit through which to see and observe these people. There is no video screen for watching Paul embark on his gentile mission. Beyond our imaginations, we cannot see Jesus cast out Legion and drive them into the Sea of Galilee. We cannot observe the women approaching the tomb and hear them wonder who will roll away the stone. We reconstruct these people and their acts, painstakingly, through careful study. But every once in awhile, we catch a fleeting glimpse and they become real: subjects who felt and did things, rather than simply objects fossilized in texts.

Any serious reader of the Bible (or any text, for that matter) will grapple with the reality that there is not a neat one-to-one connection between printed text and the reality to which it points. But still, many of us read in an effort to see the living things beyond the printed page, even if we admittedly do so only through a glass darkly.

The fleeting glimpses that I catch of Alexamenos, Paul, Jesus, and Phoebe (and on and on…) energize me as I work my way through a rigorous graduate program. I never fully bridge the gap (Lessing’s “ugly broad ditch”), never fully see through anything but Paul’s darkened glass (and never will this side of the eschaton), but every once in a while I reckon that I catch a flicker and glimpse a life on the other side.

Similarly, I cannot see my child on a day-to-day basis. I have an ultrasound picture set as the background on my phone, so I see a representation of that life, frozen in time, many times a day. But the image, the text, the idea of my child only points to his or her reality. I don’t see her. I don’t observe him.

But I do catch a glimpse. And for that I am profoundly thankful.