This week I had the great pleasure of presenting a paper alongside Gunnar Sammuelsson. You might remember Sammuelsson from Newsweek, The Telegraph, CNN, and almost every other major news outlet in 2010. His WUNT monograph, Crucifixion in Antiquity, gained him notoriety and created a bit of controversy a couple years ago. In Chicago on Tuesday, he presented a summary of his monograph (monograph is a fancy way to say “unethically expensive book”) alongside a very helpful power-point presentation. I read most of his very fine book a while back and was grateful for his distillation.
His thesis: There is no reliable evidence that Jesus was executed on a cross. He examines a massive amount of data and concludes that most of our ideas of a †-shaped cross are based on medieval European art. Even worse, most of the dictionary and encyclopedia work done by generations of scholars have mostly assumed what a crucifixion looked like during the time of Jesus. Definitions of stauro_n have been mistranslated by centuries to mean “cross”. But a proper interpretation of the evidence from antiquity demonstrates that what we have thought of as “crucifixion” is only one narrow way to interpret this practice of execution. In fact, some examples show that being dismembered might have been considered “crucifixion”. Bottom line: being suspended by nails on a †-shaped structure was one way to "crucify", but it was by no means the only way. Given this, we don't really know how Jesus was executed. For a more detailed synopsis see here.
One bit of evidence discussed was the Alexamenos Graffito, a 2nd/3rd cent. inscription that insultingly portrays a Christian worshiping a donkey-headed man on a cross. Here is a photograph of the graffito alongside a cleaned-up drawing:
But what Samuelsson points out is that the title "Christ" is not mentioned here. If so, can we be sure that this is a depiction of Jesus? It occurred to me during his presentation that he makes a very interesting point: I have simply assumed that this is a polemical portrait of Jesus.
Then I thought better. I asked Dr. Sammuelsson concerning the date of the inscription and he cited the normally given window of time. Then I asked if we have knowledge of any other "crucified gods" during this period. He answered no. He then said, "This is a challenge against me.... it is a very good one."
Here is my point: the best reading of this drawing is that someone in the 2nd/3rd cent. intended to show the absurdity of worshiping a crucified god. Jesus happens to be quite unique in this regard. He is the only "crucified god", so to speak. Given the strong likelihood that this executed donkey-man is a portrait of Jesus, we have here a relatively early visual of a T-formed cross. After the lecture, Dr. Sammuelsson invited me to remember my question and use it against him. I have done so here.
My challenge does not diminish the value of Sammuelsson's fine work. It still stands as the most comprehensive study of Roman crucifixion to date.