If you think you know everything you need to about crucifixion and the cross, think again. During a 13-week series on The Apostles’ Creed, we arrived at this phrase about Jesus: “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.”

So, of course, my sermon was on the crucifixion. I used the text of 1 Corinthians 2:1-2, where Paul says when he arrived in Corinth he was determined to “know nothing … except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” It is a very strange statement when you really think about it, which I did.

Thinking about the crucifixion and the cross led me to Martin Hengel’s small book titled “Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross.” It’s an incredibly long title for such a short book of 90 pages, but Hengel, who died this year, packs more than you’d ever want to know about crucifixion and its significance into this brief work.

Hengel was emeritus professor of New Testament and early Judaism at the University of Tübingen and specialized in second-temple Judaism.

He traces the use of crucifixion from its invention by the Persians to its adoption by the Romans, who continued to describe it as barbaric. Roman literature considered the mention of this form of execution as too coarse for public sensibilities. Little was preserved in the more refined works of Greco-Roman authors.

When crucifixion is mentioned in ancient references, the descriptions are more horrific than even the depiction in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which was rated R because of the brutally violent acts shown. Did you know the following?

  • Dead people, as well as the living, could be crucified.
  • Crucifixion was one of three forms of capital punishment preferred by the Roman empire. The other two were burning and being torn apart by wild animals. Sometimes crucifixion was combined with one or both of the other methods.
  • The largest number of crucifixions known at one time was more than 500.
  • Bodies were often left on the crosses to decompose and be consumed by wild animals and vultures.
  • Jews were “scandalized” by the cross and crucifixions because of Deuteronomy 21, which says anyone hanged on a tree was cursed by God.
  • However, some in Judea liked the Roman system of justice because common robbers were crucified. Roving bands of robbers were a problem for rural Judeans.
  • Early Christians were ridiculed for following a common criminal who had met his death by being stripped naked and hung on a cross.
  • To wish someone a “cross” was to insult and curse them.
  • Crucifixion was reserved for common criminals and slaves who had attempted escape. The execution of slaves takes on new meaning when you read Philippians 2:5-11, where Jesus is said to have taken on the form of a “servant,” which usually mean a slave.

Okay, enough of that or I’ll have all 90 pages summarized right here. But the most enlightening chapter, which is also the last, was Hengel’s explanation of the Jews’ inability to believe Jesus was the Messiah.

Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Va. He blogs at Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor.

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