While my research for my doctoral topic focuses primarily on the theological importance seen in the cross of Christ, the historical and social significance of the cross in its ancient context form an important background against which Paul’s understanding of the death of Jesus makes the sense it does. Though more recent work has been done, Martin Hengel’s book, Crucifixion, remains one of the most competent and thorough discussions of the penalty’s meaning in the ancient world. The book organizes its topics into twelve brief (but very dense) chapters, each of which focuses on a particular aspect and the last of which draws together all the findings. I won’t be summarizing these chapters in their entirety, which would exhaust both me and you, but will present the basic idea of each chapter with some of the more interesting historical evidence he puts forward.
The first chapter, as its title indicates, tries to get at something of the uniqueness of Christianity in its ancient context, a uniqueness that resides not simply in the apparent absurdity of one of its claims—that the Son of God was executed on a Roman instrument of torture—but also in the absolute and utter centrality this claim had for the early church. In other words, what the ancient world saw as most shameful and most embarrassing about the Christian message was the very thing that the early Christians made the biggest deal about. As Hengel puts it, “The heart of the Christians message, which Paul described as the ‘word of the cross’…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.” (97). The cross, agreed Justin Martyr, the second century Christian apologist, was “madness” (mania) to non-believers, and various pagan sources from this early period (Pliny, Tacitus, Minucius Felix) regarded the Christians’ beliefs about it as “sick delusions” (cf. 93-95). One statement in a dialogue by Minucius Felix (cf. 95) is worth quoting further:
To say that their ceremonies centre on a man put to death for his crime and on the fatal wood of the cross is to assign to these abandoned wretches sanctuaries which are appropriate to them and the kind of worship they deserve.
In other words, the mere fact that Christians worship a crucified man reveals how disgusting they and their religion really are. It can be taken for granted—it need not even be argued—that anyone who holds such beliefs is a sick, perverse, deluded fool. “Cross” was a word that could never be accorded any kind of religious significance, nor be an object of reverence. It was the kind of word you would not mention in polite company—”a vulgar taunt among the lower classes” (101), something you would invite someone to undergo in the same way that we English-speakers say “Go to hell!” These and other such statements in ancient writings reflect “the constantly varying forms of abhorrence at the new religious teaching” (97), and reveal quite a lot to us, not just by what they say but by what they assume. The horror and godlessness of crucifixion was so obvious and so presupposed that the thought of its being the central means of divine revelation and redemptive action in the world was, to most people, not worth considering.
In the next post, we’ll look at some potential parallels with crucifixion in ancient mythology, noting their profound differences as well as their similarities.