God’s Acts of Providence (28)

The Alexamenos graffitoThe Way that Refused to Go Away (6)

Pentacost (2)

Acts 2:37-41

37Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?”

How can we account for this reaction?  Skeptics will seek to cast doubt on this narrative.  However, the undeniable fact of Christ’s church’s existence means that this response in some form had to have occurred thousands of times over, and in rapid succession for the movement to take hold.

We also know with as much certainty as anything can be from antiquity that the core of the Gospel preached in the primitive church was Christ crucified, risen and reigning as Lord and God.  How can we, after centuries of Christianity as the dominant religion of the West, after the sanitization of the disgrace of the cross, possibly understand the impossibility of such a gospel were it powered merely by human belief?

Perhaps the “Alexamenos graffito,” the earliest known depiction (parody) of Christ’s crucifixion will provide a small sense of the shame and scandal of this gospel’s foundation.  The description from Wikipedia (on January 16, 2008) reads.

The image depicts a man with the head of a donkey who appears to be attached to a cross. To the left is a young man raising one hand in a gesture suggesting worship.

Beneath the cross there is a caption written in crude Greek: Αλεξαμενος ϲεβετε θεον, “Alexamenos worships [his] God”. ϲεβετε appears to be a misspelling of ϲεβεται = “worships.”

The general consensus is that the graffito dates from some time in the third century, although dates as early as AD 85 have been suggested.

The graffito was discovered in 1857, when a building called the domus Gelotiana was unearthed on the Palatine Hill. The emperor Caligula had acquired the house for the imperial palace, which after Caligula died became used as a Paedagogium or boarding school for the imperial page boys. Later the street on which the house sat was walled off to give support to extensions to the buildings above, and it thus remained sealed for centuries. The graffito is today housed in the Palatine antiquarium in Rome.

Look closely on both the original and tracing.

The overwhelming weight of scholarly opinion is that this is a derisive depiction of early Christian worship.

1045123-electric_chairIf we want to gain a more immediate sense of the emotional impact of claiming our Savior is a crucified man, consider the notion of God having waited until modern times to send Christ.  In the place of a cross might be an electric chair.  Imagine the Apostles preaching Christ electrocuted, dead and risen.  In this case we would find ourselves transforming an electric chair from a device of death to a symbol of eternal hope and love.

If you are shocked and a bit sickened by such an idea then you can begin to appreciate the cultural chasm across which the Apostles and Saints had to cross with their gospel.  To imagine that human power is sufficient for such a task requires a greater leap of faith than anything that Christianity has ever asked.

38And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Peter’s response only adds to the already astounding nature of this new faith.  Let’s enumerate.  First, since it is only God who can forgive sins[1], it would appear that Jesus is being announced to a monotheistic crowd as in some sense God as opposed to just the Messiah.

Second, Peter was promising the general gift of the “Holy Spirit” to this crowd.  If you think that mainline Christians have difficulty with this Person of the Trinity, that’s nothing compared to the issues that traditional Jews of ca. AD 30 would have had.  In Jewish theology the Holy Spirit was conceived of as an aspect of God’s action in the world as it applied to specific (and very selective) people and situations.  Here Peter was promising this gift as a part of each person’s conversion experience and continuing relationship with God.  This was no small change in theological situation that was being announced.

Third, and finally, Peter announces that the boundaries of this faith are uncertain but expansive.  Anyone who had knowledge of Jesus’ ministry would remember His inclusion of the Samaritans, the Roman Centurion, and the outcast within His circle of grace.  Thus, to speak in these terms left open the real possibility of a faith that would ultimately expand beyond its Jewish center.  Chances are that only the most knowledgeable and perceptive would have made such a connection.  It’s even doubtful that Peter understood the full import of these words.

But let there be no doubt – though this new faith would begin as a sect within Judaism, its self-understood theology from the very beginning guaranteed that it would be ejected and persecuted.  And, on this glorious day, the multitudes were being told the truth about the nature of this new faith; were they to fall upon their knees and accept it as their own.

40And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

The crowd must have been huge and the rate of conversion extremely high for such a result.  Can we but conclude that the Holy Spirit was moving with tremendous power to bring Christ’s Church into being?


[1] See Mark 2:7 and Luke 5:21.  Jewish theology held that God alone could forgive sins (Isaiah 43:25), which left out even the Messiah.  Thus, this formulation directly confronts the charge by which Jesus was condemned by the religious leaders – blasphemy (see Mark 14:64).

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