I just finished a unique little book. It is 90 pages of excerpts from ancient Latin, Greek and Jewish writings surveying how people felt about crucifixion around the time Jesus was alive. The author’s name is Martin Hengel, and it’s titled Crucifixion (in the Ancient World and the Folly of Message of the Cross).
I decided to post a long selection of two main passages here for you to check out (thanks to Sara Gallagher for all the typing). If it’s too long to read online, you can download a Word document to print and read here.
It’s worth the time to read. The main thing to see is that, in every age, there has been something offensive about preaching Christ. We might get tempted to look at our cultural situation and feel that it’s especially hard to share the Gospel. But that’s probably not true. For the first Christians, they had to deal with the fact that the very way Jesus died was itself an offensive and culturally taboo thing to talk about. Just to mention that Jesus was crucified was to make people want to stop the conversation.
Of course, it’s not as hard for us to mention the cross since we’ve been so culturally used to the idea (and because modern people are so unaware of what crucifixion really was). People find other things more offensive about the gospel. But then…is that really the case? If you think about it, isn’t it true that the idea of what the cross represents—the utter sinfulness of humanity and our inability to redeem ourselves—is an offensive concept? There’s lots to think about there. But enough of me, here’s Hengel:
… 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. This negative reception which was given to the Pauline theology of the cross is continued in the anti-Christian polemic of the ancient world.” (pg. 18-19)
1. Crucifixion as a penalty was remarkably widespread in antiquity. It appears in various forms among numerous peoples of the ancient world, even among the Greeks. There was evidently neither the desire nor the power to abolish it, even where people were fully aware of extreme cruelty. It thus formed a harsh contradiction to the idealistic picture of antiquity…[as being a time]of ‘noble simplicity and quiet greatness’...
2. Crucifixion was and remained a political and military punishment…
3. The chief reason for its use was its allegedly supreme efficacy as a deterrent; it was, of course, carried out publicly. As a rule the crucified man was regarded as a criminal who was receiving just and necessary punishment…
4. At the same time, crucifixion satisfied the primitive lust for revenge and the sadistic cruelty of individual rulers and of the masses. It was usually associated with other forms of torture, including at least flogging. At relatively small expense and to great public effect the criminal could tortured to death for days in an unspeakable way. Crucifixion is thus a specific expression of the inhumanity dormant within men… It is a manifestation of trans-subjective evil, a form of execution which manifests the demonic character of human cruelty and bestiality.
5. By the public display of a naked victim at a prominent place at a crossroads, in the theatre, on high ground, at the place of his crime – crucifixion also represented his uttermost humiliation, which had a numinous dimension to it. With Deuteronomy 21:23 in the background, the Jew in particular was very aware of this. This form of execution, more than any other, had associations with the idea of human sacrifice, which was never completely suppressed in antiquity…
6. Crucifixion was aggravated further by the fact that quite often its victims were never buried. It was a stereotyped picture that the crucified victim served as a food for wild beasts and birds of prey. In this way his humiliation was made complete…
7. In Roman In roman times, crucifixion was practiced above all on dangerous criminals and members of the lowest classes. These were primarily people who had been outlawed from society or slaves who on the whole had no rights, in other words, groups whose development had to be suppressed by all possible means to safeguard law and order in the state. Because large strata of the population welcomed the security and the world-wide peace which the empire brought with it, the crucified victim was defamed both socially and ethically in popular awareness, and this impression has heightened still further by the religious elements involved.
8. Relatively few attempts at criticism or even at a philosophical development of the theme of the boundless suffering of countless victims of crucifixion can be found..
9. In this context, the earliest Christian message of the crucified messiah demonstrated the ‘solidarity’ of the love of God with the unspeakable suffering of those who were tortured and put to death by human cruelty, as this can be seen from the ancient sources. This suffering has continued down to the present century in a ‘passion story’ which we cannot even begin to asses, a ‘passion story’ which is based on human sin, in which we all without exception participate, as beings who live under the power of death. In the person and the one man Jesus of Nazareth this saving ‘solidarity’ of God with us is given its historical and physical form. In him, the ‘Son of God,’ God himself took up the ‘existence of a slave’ and died the ‘slaves’ death on the tree of martyrdom (Philippians 2:8), given up to public shame (Hebrews 12:2) and the ‘curse of the law’ (Galatians 3:13), so that in the ‘death of God’ life might win victory over death. In other words, in the death of Jesus of Nazareth God identified himself with the extreme of human wretchedness, which Jesus endured as a representative of us all, in order to bring us to the freedom of the children of God: He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with Him? (Romans 8:32)
This radical kenosis [Greek for “emptying”] of God was the revolutionary new element in the preaching of the gospel. It caused offense, but in this very offense in revealed itself as the centre of the gospel. For the death of Jesus on the cross is very much more than a religious symbol, say of the uttermost readiness of a man for suffering and sacrifice; it is more than just an ethical model which calls for discipleship, though it is all this as well. What we have here is God’s communication of Himself, the free action through which he establishes the effective basis of our salvation. In ancient thought, e.g. among the Stoics, an ethical and symbolic interpretation of the crucifixion was still possible, but to assert that God himself accepted death in the form of a crucified Jewish manual worker from Galilee in order to break the power of death and bring salvation to all men could only seem folly and madness to men of ancient times. Even now, any genuine theology will have to be measured against the test of this scandal.
10. When Paul talks of the ‘folly’ of the message of the crucified Jesus, he is therefore not speaking in riddles or using an abstract cipher. He is expressing the harsh experience of his missionary preaching and the offence that is caused, in particular the experience of his preaching among non-Jews, with whom his apostleship was particularly concerned. The reason why in his letters he talks about the cross above all in a polemical context is that he deliberately wants to provoke his opponents, who are attempting to water down the offence caused by the cross. Thus in a way the ‘word of the cross’ is the spearhead of his message. And because Paul still understands the cross as the real, cruel instrument of execution, and the instrument of the bloody execution of Jesus, it is impossible to disassociate talk of the atoning death of Jesus or the blood of Jesus from his ‘word of the cross’. The spearhead cannot be broken off the spear. Rather, the complex of the death of Jesus is a single entity for the apostle, in which he never forgets the facts 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 die just any death; he was “given up for us all” on the cross, in a cruel and a contemptible way.
The theological reasoning of our time shows very clearly that the particular form of the death of Jesus, the man and the messiah, represents the scandal which people would like to blunt, remove or domesticate in any way possible. We shall have to guarantee the truth of our theological thinking at this point. 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.” (pg. 86-90)