Crucifixion, by Martin Hengel (ch. 2, “Prometheus and Dionysus: the ‘Crucified’ and the ‘Crucifying’ God”)

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.

One thought on “Crucifixion, by Martin Hengel (ch. 2, “Prometheus and Dionysus: the ‘Crucified’ and the ‘Crucifying’ God”)

  1. Quite informative, glad to have this part of the background picture better defined and colored in. I’ve been researching Prometheus off and on since this summer for creative purposes, so it was interesting to see how Lucian utilized the myth in his contemporary setting.

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