Martin Hengel’s Crucifixion is a short little book which gives scholarly treatment to the practice of crucifixion in the ancient world. Hengel makes some interesting arguments, which help those of us who are significantly removed from the Roman Empire in time, place, and culture.
First, Hengel discusses crucifixion as a deterrent. In the Roman Empire, crucifixion was rarely used on Roman citizens and was primarily used on criminals of the lowest classes and slaves. This is fairly common knowledge, and you have likely heard it before. What is particularly fascinating is the degree to which Hengel argues that the use of crucifixion on slaves was a means of stirring up fear among the enslaved in hopes of preventing any sort of rebellion. In places like Rome, where the slave population outnumbered those who were free, the fear of rebellion was real, and keeping the slaves paralyzed with the fear of crucifixion was seen as necessary.
Also, Hengel makes the argument that crucifixion was seen as taboo. Crucifixion was so horrific, so feared, and so reviled that it was essentially the sort of thing that was not talked or written about. This leads to what may seem like a surprising lack of references to it in ancient sources. This lack of references doesn’t mean that the use of crucifixion wasn’t widespread (it was), but simply that it was so horrible that people avoided writing about it:
“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.” (Hengel, p. 38)
But the overarching claim of Hengel’s book is the folly of the cross of Christ. He argues that the Apostle Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 1.18 that the “word of the cross is folly” to unbelievers is a reflection of the repeated reception that Paul would have received as he went about preaching the message of a crucified Christ.
Crucifixion was so hated and despised that, for the ancient world, following and worshipping someone who had been crucified was sheer madness—it was not a message that easily attracted followers. In a culture that uses crosses on jewelry and as part of tattoo design, this part of the message has been downplayed somewhat today, but at its core, the message of the gospel is completely shocking:
“…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…This radical kenosis of God was the revolutionary new element in the preaching of the gospel. It caused offense, but in this very offense it revealed itself as the centre of the gospel.” (Hengel, p.89)
Hengel rightfully seeks to reclaim the scandal of Christianity as central to the message of the Gospel—God loved us so much that Jesus identified with the lowest extreme of humanity in order to reclaim us. Even 2000 years later, this is something that the world simply cannot understand.
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