The cross of Jesus Christ is at the center of the gospel message and defines what it means to be a Christian. For that reason alone it is a huge privilege traveling around the country with one of the most effective preachers of the cross. My boss does it about as well as anyone, especially when it comes to the frankness of the Savior’s cruel death (the cross is too easily sterilized in our modern context) and the saving results of the cross work of Christ that are now offered to ill-deserving sinners like me.
This week we flew to Palm Springs for the Resolved conference and during the flight I read Martin Hengel’s survey of crucifixion in the Greco-Roman world published in 1977 under the title Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. It is a technical book, but also brief, readable, and valuable. And while I don’t agree with all of his theological or political conclusions (clearly the author disagrees with any and all forms of capital punishment), I do agree with the author’s overarching purpose for writing it, which is stated in the final sentences of the book: “Reflection on the harsh reality of crucifixion in antiquity may help us to overcome the acute loss of reality which is to be found so often in present theology and preaching” (90). Doubtless it will have that effect.
What follows are a few excerpts I marked to share with you:
“The heart of the Christian message, which Paul described as the ‘word of the cross’ (λόγος τοῦ σταυροῦ), ran counter not only to Roman political thinking, but to the whole ethos of religion in ancient times and in particular to the ideas of God held by educated people.” (5)
“Even Paul’s Greek audience could hardly have approved of the λόγος τοῦ σταυροῦ, much less the Jews who could see the Roman crosses erected in Palestine, especially when they could hardly forget the saying about the curse laid upon anyone hanged on a tree (Deut. 21.23). A crucified messiah, son of God or God must have seemed a contradiction in terms to anyone, Jew, Greek, Roman or barbarian, asked to believe such a claim, and it will certainly have been thought offensive and foolish.” (10)
“For Paul and his contemporaries the cross of Jesus was not a didactic, symbolic or speculative element but a very specific and highly offensive matter which imposed a burden on the earliest Christian missionary preaching. No wonder that the young community in Corinth sought to escape from the crucified Christ into the enthusiastic life of the spirit, the enjoyment of heavenly revelations and an assurance of salvation connected with mysteries and sacraments. When in the face of this Paul points out to the community which he founded that his preaching of the crucified messiah is a religious ‘stumbling block’ for the Jews and ‘madness’ for his Greek hearers, we are hearing in his confession not least the twenty-year experience of the greatest Christian missionary, who had often reaped no more than mockery and bitter rejection with his message of the Lord Jesus, who had died a criminal’s death on the tree of shame.” (19)
“The passion narratives in the gospels are in fact the most detailed [crucifixion accounts] of all. No ancient writer wanted to dwell too long on this cruel procedure.” (25)
“Even in the Roman empire, where there might be said to be some kind of ‘norm’ for the course of the execution (it included a flogging beforehand, and the victim often carried the beam to the place of execution, where he was nailed to it with outstretched arms, raised up and seated on a small wooden peg), the form of the execution could vary considerably: crucifixion was a punishment in which the caprice and sadism of the executioners were given full rein. All attempts to give a perfect description of the crucifixion in archeological terms are therefore in vain; there were too many different possibilities for the executioner.” (25)
“In terms of severity, crucifixion can only be compared with the ‘popular entertainment’ of throwing victims to the wild beasts (bestiis obici); however, this was not listed among the regular forms of execution because whether or not it was carried out depended on the chance circumstances that such a popular festival had been arranged. By comparison crucifixion was a much more common punishment; it could be carried out almost anywhere, whereas bestiis obici required a city arena and the necessary facilities. Of course, crucifixion too could serve as a ‘popular entertainment.'” (35)
“The relative scarcity of references to crucifixions in antiquity, and their fortuitousness, are less a historical problem than an aesthetic one, connected with the sociology of literature. Crucifixion was widespread and frequent, above all in Roman times, but the cultured literary world wanted to have nothing to do with it, and as a rule kept quiet about it.” (38)
“In most Roman writers crucifixion appears as the typical punishment for slaves. … This basic theme of the supplicium servile illuminates the hymn in Philippians 2.6–11. Anyone who was present at the worship of the churches founded by Paul in the course of his mission, in which this hymn was sung, and indeed any reader of Philippians in ancient times, would inevitably have seen a direct connection between the ’emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’ (ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών) and the end of the first strophe: ‘he humbled himself and was obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’ Death on the cross was the penalty for slaves, as everyone knew; as such it symbolized extreme humiliation, shame and torture.” (51, 62)
“In the Greek world the cross is never, so far as I can see, used in a metaphorical sense. Presumably the word was too offensive for it to be used as a metaphor by the Greeks.” (68)
“The ‘word of the cross’ is the spearhead of [Paul’s] message. And because Paul still understands the cross as the real, cruel instrument of execution, as the instrument of the bloody execution of Jesus, it is impossible to dissociate talk of the atoning death of Jesus or the blood of Jesus from this ‘word of the cross.’ The spearhead cannot be broken off the spear. Rather, the complex of the death of Jesus as a single entity for the apostle, in which he never forgets the fact that Jesus did not die a gentle death like Socrates, with his cup of hemlock, much less passing on ‘old and full of years’ like the patriarchs of the Old Testament. Rather, he died like a slave or a common criminal, in torment, on the tree of shame. Paul’s Jesus did not just die any death; he was ‘given up for us all’ on the cross, in a cruel and a contemptible way.” (89–90)