Jesus’s crucifixion: not exactly a selling point in the ancient world

Jesus’s crucifixion: not exactly a selling point in the ancient world June 21, 2015

HengelIf you’re living in the Mediterranean world of the 1st century and you want to promote your religion, a “crucified god” is not your headline.

Yet that is exactly what we find in the New Testament.

I’m reading a little book my Martin Hengel, Crucifixion, written about 40 years ago. Hengel (d. 2009) was a scholar of the New Testament and freakishly smart.

I just thought you might like some excerpts from the book that made me think.

The only possibility of something like a ‘crucified god’ appearing on the periphery of the ancient world of gods was in the form of a malicious parody, intended to mock the arbitrariness and wickedness of the father of the gods on Olympus, who now had become obsolete. (p. 11)

Hengel goes on to discuss as an example Lucian’s Prometheus, the story of the crucifixion of the god Prometheus by Zeus. Hengel continues…

It does not seem to me to be a coincidence that the author [Lucian] of this biting parody in his De morte Peregrini, mocks Christians as “poor devils. . . who deny the Greek gods and instead honour that crucified sophist and live according to his laws. (p. 12)

Several pages later…

With its paradoxical contrast between the divine nature of the pre-existent Son of God and his shameful death on the cross the first Christian proclamation shattered all analogies and parallels to christology which could be produced in the world of the time, whether from polytheism or from monotheistic philosophy. We have points of comparison [between Christianity and other ancient religions] for the conceptions of exaltation, ascension and even resurrection. But 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. . . . (p. 15)

By “mere simulation,” Hengel means,

On many occasions in the Graeco-Roman world we come across the idea that offensive happenings should not be ascribed to revered divine beings or demi-gods themselves, but only to their ‘representations.’ . . . . Jesus should have demonstrated his divinity by being transported either at the time of his capture or later, from the cross (p. 16).

Judaism and Christianity make sense in the ancient world–they reflect the cultures of the times. But there is also a weirdness to Christianity that Hengel describes here.

“Hi everyone! The one we worship was crucified by the Romans. Come follow us.”

That opening line did not “fit” among Greco-Roman religions. Claiming a divine figure was helplessly beaten, tortured, and gruesomely–shamefully–executed, would have been proof positive that such a religion was joke worthy only of the late night monologs–whatever the ancient analog is for Jimmy Fallon.

The ridiculousness of the crucifixion of the Son of God is can easily be lost on modern people, including Christians.

But without grasping firmly the “offense of the cross” (Galatians 5:11), we miss an important reversal that so typifies the gospel.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.  (1 Corinthians 1:18-21)

Rather than remaining a humiliation, in an ironic, counterintuitive twist, the cross became the grand reversal, God’s means of triumphing over the kingdoms of men.

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [the cross]. (Colossians 2:15)

And that is my thought for this Sunday morning.

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  • Wasn’t the message, “They crucified our Messiah, but He is risen from the dead!”? It was the resurrection that changed everything. Which is why I believe we are overemphasizing the crucifixion over the resurrection today. We build our lives at the foot of the cross when that is only the starting point in our journey. We should be living out of the empty tomb.

    • Edward Colcord

      The empty tomb is precisely what should lead sentient (and non-sentient) to truth. Thank you again.

    • Why did the Romans persecute the Christian faith? It wasn’t because they were proclaiming a resurrection.

      • …but it was because they proclaimed that God has raised Jesus from the dead. Crucifixion emphasised the superiority of the Empire. But only as long as the crucified stayed dead. When Peter and the other apostles announce that Jesus is risen, they also declare that he is Lord – the true Lord, superior to the Emperor. The resurrection subverts the power of the Empire (epitomised in crucifixion) and reveals the world’s true Lord. Hence persecution…

        • peteenns

          Ed (and David), This post is about crucifixion as an offense, not why Christians were persecuted. I understand the “but you’re leaving out the resurrection” rejoinder, but it is irrelevant to the post. You are asking something I am not trying to answer. Can’t I just talk about crucifixion?!

          Plus, we need to go beyond resurrection, don’t we? What made the early Christian movement a real problem wasn’t “resurrection” but it’s proclamation, which would not have happened without ascension and Pentecost. I can’t believe you two missed that “message” 🙂

          • thanks Pete…humble apologies… and of course you’re right. And yes, of course you can talk about the crucifixion…it’s your post after all…
            And I do agree, for the early disciples to talk about crucifixion was nuts.

        • Very close.

          I was just reading in Acts last night about Festus telling Agrippa about Paul. The Jews in Jerusalem are upset about Paul proclaiming resurrection from the dead, but Paul defends himself to the Romans by saying, “This is why I’m on trial.” In Acts at least, the Romans are clueless as to why they should care or what they should do about this. My favorite is Festus’ comment, “Apparently, there is a Jesus whom the Jews claim is dead, but Paul asserts is alive,” in trying to explain to Agrippa why the Jews have it out for Paul.

          Within the eschatology of Israel, the resurrection is meaningful, because it means God is about to save them and judge the current power structure through this Jesus whom the priests persecuted and killed.

          To the Gentile nations, the resurrection is just an Jewish internicene debate. But once these people begin to form a rival kingdom under a rival Caesar, that’s a different story. The good news to the Gentiles is that they can be a part of what God is doing for Israel. The resurrection is part of the story, but I wouldn’t say any more or less so than the crucifixion. Paul says that he wishes to know nothing but Christ crucified.

    • Steven M. Espinosa

      Kinda what I’m thinking; Even the local superpower couldn’t stop Christ, even with his death by their worst way possible.

  • Edward Colcord

    Always great to apologize first. Can’t find reference. The point made was Yeshua ben Yusef was trained (during ‘lost years’?) as Mahaskapaya Buddhist. So, being hung on a tree was payback for cursing the fig tree. Great series,look for it daily. E

  • Jerry Shepherd

    A very good thought for a Sunday morning, indeed. Thank you.

  • charlesburchfield

    As marginized person who would fit many categories of ‘useless eaters’ (if I had been born at the time of nazi terror) i am exceedingly grateful for the exit fr the world that being crucified w christ is not a myth to my felt sense of being loved & provided for by a living god of the marginal.

  • Brandon

    Great stuff, Dr. Enns.

  • Evergreen

    Actually, a crucified god is depicted on ancient Roman coins, as even the Bible mentions. The crucified god is called a tropaeum, when Caesar “armor of God” was ceremonially crucified on a tree as a symbol of victory, and a museum in Berlin has this one on display:

    • James M

      Ah, but, hanging a living man on a cross is qualitatively different from hanging a coat of armour. The “message of the Cross” was offensive because:

      1. it claimed that this “gallows-bird”, who as such was accursed by God as per Deuteronomy 21.21-23, was “the Lord of Glory”, & the Messiah;

      2. it offended “the wisdom of this age” that God should use so horrible & shameful a mode of death.

      3. as Hengel emphasises, “polite society” did not talk about or dwell on so hideous a subject; yet it was “crucial” to the Christian message

      4. Crucifixion was, in the words of Cicero, a “*servile supplicium*”, a “punishment for slaves”. And slaves were regarded as the lowest of the lowest.

      5. 4 meant, IOW, that the God of the Christians had – according to them – undergone the most shameful of deaths for the scum of society.

      6. The “Kurios” of the Christians was a provincial who was not only a Jew, but one who had been crucified by Imperial authority. As if that were not bad enough, his death was recent – Christianity was recent, therefore, false.

      As Hengel points out, one of the temptations for Christians was to soften the offensiveness of the Cross. One example of this is the tendency to deny the reality of the Death, as Docetism did, or to adopt Gnosticism. Another, is to do as Arnobius of Sicca (writing c.297) did, & simply not mention the Cross. Arnobius is a good read, but his Christ sounds like a travelling philosopher.

      Hengel’s book is not to be missed. No-one who reads it will doubt that the Cross was “folly” and a “stumbling-block”. He gives plenty of references & quotations.

      • Tom Schuessler

        Peter wants to stay on point – the scandal of crucifixion which is what the post is about. Ok, but believers have a hard time talking about Good Friday alone. I am studying G John. Reading Fr. Dan Harrington SJ’s little commentary (John’s Thought and Theology) at page 77, he talks about the chapter 12 “hour” of Jesus which is his “passion, death, resurrection, and exaltation ….” Early believers at least from the G John community with eyes of faith looked back at these events as one great glorification.

        • peteenns

          OK, but….Hengel can’t write a book on just the crucifixion?

          • Tom Schuessler

            Yes he can, and I’m anxious to read it! You can’t beat Hengel, a great writer.

    • No_one_significant

      There is no crucified god on the coin. There is Roman armor hanging on a cross symbolizing Roman victory. The only 2 people are the Gallic captives on the ground. The coin commemorates Caesar’s conquests in the Gallic Wars in mid-first century BCE.

  • Russ

    I’d never really questioned these (implicitly apologetic) assumptions about the scandal of a crucified god until I read about the popularity of the Attis cult in the Roman empire. Note, I’m not trying to conflate Attis with Christ; I’m only noting that self-castration isn’t exactly a selling point in the ancient world. So, if worship of a self-castrating god could gain traction among the Romans, is it really all that significant that a crucified god could as well?

  • Deane

    Your mention of Galatians 5:11 and the “offense of the cross” is interesting for considering what was truly offensive, and what provoked “persecution” of Paul. For in this verse (cf Gal 6:12), Paul claims that one thing would eliminate persecution and the offense of the cross. That one thing has nothing to do with worship of Jesus as a god. Rather, if Paul were to preach circumcision, adherence to the Jewish Law, he acknowledges that the offense of the cross would be “removed” (5.11).

    For Paul, the question of Jesus’s identity is not something that separates him from other Jews. Interpretation of Torah and its application is the only obstacle which led to his persecution by other Jews. At this time, the Christian acclamation of Jesus as Yahweh’s Son or as a special eschatological agent would not separate Pauline Christians from either Jewish Christians or non-Christian Jews. The Christian identification of this messianic eschatological agent as the suffering servant of Isaiah or as the martyred Righteous One did not cause the same level of disagreement with other Jews as non-observance of Torah.

    Sure, by the end of the first century, Jesus was being identified with God/Yahweh by some Christian writers such as John, and Christians were being opposed by other Jews. But by this stage the Christian cult was well underway, having gained a level of popularity before the more grand claims of divinity were developed. Seen in this evolutionary perspective, the cult of a crucified god is a new development in the ancient world, but hardly an unexpected one.

    • charlesburchfield

      so…are you having a relationship w god & others? if so how is that working out?

  • James

    The cross was a cruel instrument of death, a very poignant picture in Roman times. It seems to me it was the witness of the cross in light of the resurrection–a mind blowing experience unique to Jesus Christ–that grabbed the imagination of the apostles and of many others with them when the news got out. And we’ve said nothings of the Holy Spirit’s power unleashed at Pentecost! All this together surely surpasses the wisdom of the world.

  • Thanks for this Peter…
    But you’re absolutely correct David. The cross / the death of Jesus of itself is meaningless. Without the resurrection there is nothing. 1 Corinthians 15:17, ‘If Christ has not been raised from the dead, you are still in your sins and your faith is futile.’ Don’t think you could get any clearer than that.
    The death of Jesus reminds the world that the Empire is victorious – they can crucify whomever they want, whenever they want – even the King of the Jews. The cross is intended to vaporise hope…and it did. Until the resurrection of course. But it is the resurrection upon which the Christian faith stands not the cross/death of Jesus.
    However, it may also be worth affirming that discipleship rooted in the resurrection is still cross-shaped. Jesus said, ‘if anyone would come after me let them take up their cross daily and follow me.’ The point being, if you are going to be a disciple of Jesus you may as well carry your cross as the call to follow Jesus is a call to love no matter what…even if they kill you for it. But we love no matter what in the confident hope that we will be saved through resurrection.

    • The death of Jesus itself is not meaningless, anymore than the deaths of the martyred Maccabees were meaningless. They were condemnations of the tyrant and assertions of God’s promise of everlasting life for the faithful, as well as a desire that God would find their sacrifice a ransom for their nation such that He would forgive their transgressions and deliver them from their oppressors (the situation brought about because of their sin).

      The resurrection is the evidence that this is exactly what God plans to do. This is why Paul says what he says. Without the resurrection, Israel will still be under oppression and there is no reason to believe in a promised deliverance.

      I understand how certain segments of Christianity get all fired up about the Crucifixion and don’t think much of the Resurrection (or Ascension), but let’s not make the opposite mistake and just think of the Crucifixion as a necessary pit stop on the way to Resurrection.

    • Agreed. I’m not suggesting we minimize the cross. We already have sufficient emphasis on it. I’m suggesting that we should give the resurrection its rightful place.

      • peteenns

        But what “rightful place” does resurrection have in a post that is aimed at the offensiveness of crucifixion in antiquity?

        • newenglandsun

          What about the crucifixion in modern times as well? I had taken my dad to a Byzantine Catholic Church once for Christmas and they always gather outside their parish after the service to kiss the crucifix (everyone can do it whether Catholic or not). I eagerly kissed it but my dad did not considering the crucifix a pointless symbol because of the resurrection. I think even modernists have trouble with the crucifixion part of the Gospel.

  • newenglandsun

    The atheists over on DebunkingChristianity might be upset that the crucified gods of Greek mythology were actually derogatory toward Greek mythology.

  • Daniel Pape

    Good stuff, Pete! I too often hear the wisdom of man as an admonition against the results of biblical scholarship, usually from biblical literalists. Would you suggest that the “wisdom of the world” be understood as applying specifically to the Greco-Roman view of a suffering deity on a cross? Are other contexts applied anachronistically?

  • Peter, Sounds like you are working toward the notion that Christianity was an impossible faith for Hellenists to believe in. Yet they did. The question is why? Did it require supernatural intervention just to get Hellenists attracted to such ideas? Depends on which historians you are talking to. Hengel’s view is not the only one.

    See Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God
    by M. David Litwa Christians depicted Jesus with the specific and widely-recognized traits of Mediterranean deities. Relying on the methods of the history of religions school and ranging judiciously across Hellenistic literature, M. David Litwa shows that at each stage in their depiction of Jesus’ life and ministry, early Christian writings from the beginning relied on categories drawn not from Judaism alone, but on a wide, pan-Mediterranean understanding of deity: how gods were born, how they acted to manifest power, even how they died—-and, after death, how they were taken up into heaven and pronounced divine. Litwa’s samples take us beyond the realm of abstract theology to dwell in the second- and third-century imagination of what it meant to be a god and shows that the Christian depiction of Christ was quite at home there.

    Richard Carrier took on the question in Not the Impossible Faith Haven’t yet read Carrier’s new book on the Historical Jesus, but it looks interesting, especially the chapters devoted to what biblical scholars are saying about the evidence that each Gospel author scripted Jesus in their own way, and signs of their editing are evident throughout each Gospel.

    At the very least those who consider mythicism probable have examined a host of possible links between Paul and ancient religions such that even if Jesus did exist, Paul’s Christianity might be an amalgamation of practices and ideas that Hellenists could and did find attractive. Paul after all came from Tarsus, a city presumably named after a god, so he knew a bit about the festivities and ideas that attracted others just from living in that city. And Paul did preach that it was necessary to become all things to all people. And Paul did claim special revelations not based on what Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem told him, including apparently the Pauline practice of the Lord’s supper, received via revelation says Paul. Paul also hesitated visiting the disciples in Jerusalem for years after his conversion, and when he did finally visit them he only spent three weeks there, probably spending much of that time arguing over Gentile inclusion.

    Paul also taught that the Lord would arrive soon, a message not often heard in rival Hellenistic religions, and bound to prick up the ears of more nervous nellies seeking to join the latest authoritative cult. The Roman Empire at that time was also filled with nervous nellies seeking any kind of promise of eternal life, having grown more superstitious than during previous Roman epochs. Paul’s promises of eternal life also would have attracted Hellenists regardless of how Jesus died.

    • peteenns

      I hear you, Ed and have no issue with the portrayal of Jesus in Mediterranean categories. I am simply focusing on the idea of a crucified god.

  • Joshua Gritter

    Dr. Enns, thanks for this thoughtful post on Hengel’s book. Recently I have been reading Buackham’s “testimony of the beloved disciple,” where he interacts with Hengel’s scholarship on John with frequency and appreciation. I have spent much of the last year thinking about the intersection of NT scholarship, Theology, Ethics, and persons with cognitive disability. There is something in their weakness, in their lowliness, a cruciform mystery and hidden nature of the kingdom of God, that has shown me glimpses of what the reality of power might look like. I often wonder, and I think Hengel did, too, if the reason our world doesn’t as often react to a crucified God with such disdain is because we have stripped the cross of its theological freight. We have asked Christ to apparate, to get off the tree, or we have been tricked into thinking that the cross does something to our hearts but not to our optic for seeing the world. If God was crucified, then Jesus took upon himself the terror of the very systemic sins and systems that are at work in events like Charlsetown, SC–amongst others. I guess what I’m saying is I wonder what living this kind of foolish power might look like as a community. Passages such as 1 Cor. 1-2 that you sighted above have always left me with a distaste for Christian apologetics that aberrantly misunderstand that God Crucified was never a logical contention. Thanks again, Dr. Enns.

  • R Vogel

    How much weight are we to give to the idea of religious innovation? Does innovation qua innovation signify anything beyond people developing new metaphors to understand their world?