Saturday, April 08, 2017

Onolatry: Did early Christians worship the head of an ass?

Jesus separating the ass (symbolizing
heresy) from the sheep. A 3rd century
fresco from the catacomb
of Prætextatus
     Then it flashed on me that they were Christians.
     "Oh nurse, nurse, how can you? How can you? Oh what will become of you and of me?"
     "Become of me?" she said. "Why, by God's goodness, in a few hours I shall be where that poor beggar now is. And there, sweet lamb, I want you to be."
     "Never! Never! Worship an ass's head? Never!"
     “My child,” said the old man, “Some day you will learn, I hope, that we do none of these wicked things that are imputed to us; that we worship none but God, and His only Son, our Lord; with Whom your dear nurse is soon going to live.” 
The above scene is drawn from John Mason Neale's novella, The Daughters of Pola, and it describes the moment when the main character, Agnella, discovers that her beloved dying nurse, Apollonia, is a Christian.

"Alexamenos worships his god."
3rd century graffito from the
Palatine in Rome.
When I first read this passage, I was struck by the accusation that Christians worship the head of an ass. I had heard of the various slanders attributed to early Christians by hostile pagans: that Christians engaged in cannibalism, incest, and drank the blood of infants. But worshiping an ass's head was a new one.

With a little research, I soon discovered that this slander even had a name: onolatry—literally "ass worship." I was aware of the famous Alexamenos graffito (ca. 3rd century AD) which may be seen to this day at the Palatine Museum in Rome (see at right). But I did not know that the onolatry slander has a history which predates Christianity, at least as far back to an accusation leveled against the Jews by the Greco-Egyptian historian, Apion. Though Apion's works have not survived, we have fragments of them from Josephus's response, Against Apion, which was likely written in the early 1st century AD. Josephus writes:
Apion hath the impudence to pretend, that “The Jews placed an asse’s head in their holy place.” And he affirms, that “this was discovered when Antiochus Epiphanes spoiled our temple; and found that asse’s head there made of gold; and worth a great deal of money.” [Against Apion, Book II]
Josephus then goes on to effectively dismantle Apion's claim at some length.

The slander was repeated, along with numerous other half-truths and outright falsehoods, by the Roman historian, Tacitus, at about the same time. In describing the origins of the unusual religious practices of the Jews, Tacitus says that the Jews were expelled from Egypt and cast out into the desert. Here is where their ass-worship began:
Thus a multitude of sufferers was rounded up, herded together, and abandoned in the wilderness. Here the exiles tearfully resigned themselves to their fate. But one of them, who was called Moses, urged his companions not to wait passively for help from god or man, for both had deserted them: they should trust to their own initiative and to whatever guidance first helped them to extricate themselves from their present plight. They agreed, and started off at random into the unknown.
     But exhaustion set in, chiefly through lack of water, and the level plain was already strewn with the bodies of those who had collapsed and were at their last gasp when a herd of wild asses left their pasture and made for the spade of a wooded crag. Moses followed them and was able to bring to light a number of abundant channels of water whose presence he had deduced from a grassy patch of ground....
     In order to secure the allegiance of his people in the future, Moses prescribed for them a novel religion quite different from those of the rest of mankind....In the innermost part of the Temple, they consecrated an image of the animal which had delivered them from their wandering and thirst. [Tacitus, Histories, Book V:2]
That this slander was later applied to Christians, presumably as a sect or offshoot from Judaism, can be seen in the works of two Christian apologists from the third century. The first, Minucius Felix, a Roman from Africa, writes the following to dispute the slander:
Thence arises what you say that you hear, that an ass's head is esteemed among us a divine thing. Who is such a fool as to worship this? Who is so much more foolish as to believe that it is an object of worship? Unless that you even consecrate whole asses in your stables, together with your Epona [pagan goddess, protector of horses, ponies, mules and donkeys], and religiously devour those same asses with Isis. Also you offer up and worship the heads of oxen and of wethers, and you dedicate gods mingled also of a goat and a man, and gods with the faces of dogs and lions. Do you not adore and feed Apis the ox, with the Egyptians? [Minucius Felix, Octavius, Ch. 28]
At about the same time or somewhat later, Tertullian also sought to dispel the attribution of onolatry to Christians. He also turns the tables quite effectively on the pagan critics of Christianity, writing:
We are (said to be) guilty not merely of forsaking the religion of the community, but of introducing a monstrous superstition; for some among you have dreamed that our god is an ass's head—an absurdity which Cornelius Tacitus first suggested....The same Cornelius Tacitus, however—who, to say the truth, is most loquacious in falsehood— forgetting his later statement, relates how Pompey the Great, after conquering the Jews and capturing Jerusalem, entered the temple, but found nothing in the shape of an image, though he examined the place carefully. Where, then, should their God have been found? Nowhere else, of course, than in so memorable a temple which was carefully shut to all but the priests, and into which there could be no fear of a stranger entering. But what apology must I here offer for what I am going to say, when I have no other object at the moment than to make a passing remark or two in a general way which shall be equally applicable to yourselves? Suppose that our God, then, be an asinine person, will you at all events deny that you possess the same characteristics with ourselves in that matter? (Not their heads only, but) entire asses, are, to be sure, objects of adoration to you, along with their tutelar Epona; and all herds, and cattle, and beasts you consecrate, and their stables into the bargain! This, perhaps, is your grievance against us, that, when surrounded by cattle-worshippers of every kind we are simply devoted to asses! [Tertullian, Ad Nationes, Book I.]
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Perhaps the fictional priest Anastasius in The Daughters of Pola would have used a similar line of argument to persuade Agnella that the scandalous tales told about the Christians were nothing more than fables made up by people of ill will. He says:
"At that time, we talked for two hours, and I do not mean to say that all her difficulties, nay, that the half of them, were removed. The fables of the ass’s head and the infants’ blood I think she no longer regards. But her stumblingblock, as of old, is a suffering God."
Here, John Mason Neale gets to the heart of the difficulties faced by early Christians in carrying out Our Lord's great commission to teach the Gospel to all nations. Particularly when dealing with the Romans, early Christians faced a civilization for whom the highest goods were personal glory, victory, comfort, and the pleasures of life. For them, disgrace and suffering were anathema and the greatest evils. Thus, Christians who suffered willingly had to be despicable and it was therefore easy to give credence to any slanders offered against them and their practices. It was easier for Romans to believe that Christians worshiped the head of an ass than a God who suffered an ignominious death on a cross.

For early Christians, forced to defend themselves against the charge of onolatry and all variety of ridiculous lies and calumnies, the prophetic words of Jesus must have been constantly recalled to their minds:
"Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you." [Matthew 5:11-12].

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