Above is a lecture presented on November 11th at Duke Divinity School, in which Prof. N.T. Wright explains the role “theology” played in the mission and ministry of the apostle Paul, and in the communities he founded. This argument is also the substance of the thesis of his large recent book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. In short, Paul viewed (what we call) theology as the church’s central task of reflecting upon God in the light of Christ and the Spirit, so as to implement the project of new creation that had been inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Christ, and to live within that new reality as its faithful representatives.
Martin Hengel’s argument in chapter 3 of Crucifixion presents the obverse of his findings in chapter two: the hellenistic world of the ancient Mediterranean did influence Christianity’s understanding of the cross. But it did so in the opposite way some have claimed. In other words, the philosophical and religious ideas of Greco-Roman antiquity didn’t produce the Christian idea of the “crucified god”—they actually eroded it, softening and toning down the reality of the shame involved in the crucifixion by saying that the sufferings weren’t “real,” but only “appeared” (dokeô, hence “docetism”) to be so. Greek ideas about the nature of the divine being, both at the level of philosophical reflection and in mythology, actually demanded this: “the suffering of a god soon had to be shown to be mere simulation, rapidly followed by punishment for those humans who had been so wicked as to cause it” (107; Hengel mentions several stories about the god Dionysus to illustrate the point). It was axiomatic in the ancient world that God is, by his very nature, incapable of experiencing suffering. In the early centuries of the church, this axiom was applied to the incarnation itself to say that not only the sufferings of Jesus, but even his very humanity, were merely apparent, not real.
The way this played out both in paganism and in early Christian heretical circles was to speak of a deity’s experience of corporeal existence in terms of their “representations”: Hera and Helen of Troy, for example, are available to their human lovers (Ixion and Paris) only as phantoms “made out of heavenly ether;” Vesta snatches the real Caesar up so that his “phantom” is the one assassinated (cf. 108). Hengel notes that Celsus, the great opponent of early Christianity who wrote a treatise attempting to refute it, argues in this vein against the divinity of Jesus: “But if he was really so great he ought, in order to display his divinity, to have disappeared suddenly from the cross” (Cited by Origen in Contra Celsum 2.68; cf. 109).
This, in fact, was precisely how some later Christian sects, particularly the gnostics, presented Jesus. At this point, I was quite surprised that Hengel did not cite any actual examples, since this is well-attested in the surviving gnostic literature. I will provide three, the first of which focuses on the humanity of Christ in general, and the second and third of which focus on his “suffering.”
Acts of John 93:
[S]ometimes when I [John] meant to touch him [Christ] I encountered a material, solid body; but at other times again when I felt him, his substance was immaterial and incorporeal…as if he did not exist at all.
Apocalypse of Peter 81:
I saw him apparently being seized by them. And I said, “What am I seeing, O Lord? Is it really you whom they take? And are you holding on to me? And are they hammering the feet and hands of another? Who is the one above the cross, who is glad and laughing?” The Savior said to me, “He whom you saw being glad and laughing above the cross is the Living Jesus. But he into whose hands and feet they are driving the nails is his fleshy part, which is the substitute. They put to shame that which remained in his likeness.”
Second Treatise of Seth 56:
It was another…who drank the gall and vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. It was another upon whom they placed the crown of thorns. But I was rejoicing in the height…over their error… And I was laughing at their ignorance.
Views such as these abounded in some circles of the early church, and later on would show their influence in Islamic accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, which present him as being saved from the shame of the cross and replaced by Judas (still appearing as though he were Jesus). This is what the influence of ancient pagan philosophy and mythology on the Christian faith really looks like. It is the softening of original Christianity’s shocking claim—that in Jesus Christ God suffered, and not only suffered in the physical experience of pain, but underwent the utmost shame and humiliation a human being could face, naked and bloody and nailed in public view to a wooden stake suffocating to death. The gravity of ancient culture moved Christians away from this conviction, not toward it.
Was the idea of a “crucified god” utterly foreign to the pagan world until the preaching of the Christian gospel? In the second chapter of Crucifixion, Hengel considers a mythological story that comes close to such an idea: the story of Prometheus the Titan, who is punished by Zeus for giving humans fire. In the story (as it is told, at least, by Lucian) the punishment is described in a manner that appears deliberately to evoke crucifixion: Prometheus is nailed to two rocks in public display with his arms stretched out, the contrivance functioning as “a most serviceable cross” (cf. 103). Prometheus tells Zeus that it was a “petty” act to “deliver so old a god to crucifixion,” particularly in view of the favor he felt he’d done the gods by equipping humanity with fire that could be used to sacrifice to them (104).
This already sounds quite different from the Christian story, of course. But what is most distinctly different is how the story of Prometheus ends: Heracles (i.e. Hercules) will eventually come to his rescue—and Prometheus, being immortal, simply has to wait for that to happen, as unpleasant as his suffering until that time may be. As Hengel puts it, “a crucified god can at best be tormented for a while; he can never die” (104). (According to most of the myth’s traditions, his organs are pecked at by a carrion bird, and are restored overnight so as to repeat the process all over again day after day.) Moreover, while Prometheus is the protagonist of the story, none of this ennobles crucifixion in any way in Lucian’s mind—it simply demeans Zeus. Elsewhere in his writings Lucian refers to Christians as “poor devils…who deny the Greek gods and instead honour that crucified sophist and live according to his laws” (De morte Peregrini 13; cf. p. 104). All of this supports Hengel’s assessment of the Prometheus story as a candidate for comparison with the Christian message of a crucified god: it appears only “in the form of a malicious parody, intended to mock the arbitrariness and wickedness of the father of the gods on Olympus [Zeus], who had now become obsolete” (103).
In this chapter, Hengel also notes only one other story, in which Dionysus crucifies Lycurgus king of Thrace (after brutally torturing him “in every conceivable way,” cf. 105) for violating a peace treaty with the god, whom he should have rightly acknowledged as the conqueror of the world. Here, of course, the point of the story is of a different order entirely from what we find in the biblical writings: the conquering deity does the crucifying, not the reverse. Hengel’s conclusion to the chapter is fitting: “The extraordinary paucity of the theme of crucifixion in the mythical tradition, even in the Hellenistic and Roman period, shows the deep aversion from this cruellest of all penalties in the literary world” (106). Though the notion of a “dying god” was more commonplace in the ancient Mediterranean world—something Hengel does not explore in detail, since it lies outside the topic of crucifixion specifically—the Christian message cannot neatly be treated as a predictable or natural development of the mythologies and philosophies of its day. In that it presented the Son of God willingly undergoing the most shameful torture and punishment known to man, and doing so as the very means of his redemptive victory, Christianity stood quite apart from its contemporary counterparts.