What do I think of Martin Hengel’s book on crucifixion? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
Martin Hengel was one of the best scholars out there in the field and is a valuable resource still five years after his death. He was a member of what we would call the Early High Christology Club and provided some of the best scholarship out there. This is apparent also in his short little book on the nature of crucifixion.
When I say short, I mean it. You can read this one easily in a couple of hours. Doing so will be an excellent investment of those two hours. That it is short does not mean that it is not scholarly. It is incredibly packed with information. Those who want to say they seriously question the New Testament should have no problem as hardly any of it comes from the New Testament. Crucifixion is talked about from various sources. Of course, the New Testament has a lot to say about it, but others at the time had their own statements about it as well.
If there was really in fact one lesson that could be learned from this book and one that I wish all readers would learn, Christian and non, it is this.
The cross was a scandal.
Many people have not really had this sink in. We say Jesus died by crucifixion and this is certainly true, but we don’t realize just what that would mean to the people of the time. To say that the crucified Jesus was the Messiah and you worshiped Him as God would be like saying that you think a pimp on the streets should be the next Pope or that you think a child molester would make a great president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
This is one reason docetism and gnosticism both found their way into Christianity early on. Both of these would have a way of denying the crucifixion. Is it any shock that even in Islam, you have it being denied that Jesus died by crucifixion? At least there’s something that all of these beliefs recognize. It is incredible to think that the Messiah who was seen as sharing in the divine identity of the God of Israel would be crucified.
Hengel in his work goes through several quotes from writers at the time who put crucifixion on the lowest point possible. It was certainly not something you would casually talk about over dinner when you were together. Say the word and it is quite likely that people would fall back in disgust at the very thought of it.
Crucifixion was simply as Hengel says, barbaric, and it was in fact the worst penalty that could be given to someone. The act of crucifixion was designed to not only kill the person involved, but shamefully kill then in a highly painful process. In fact, this is where we get the word “excruciating” from. The word means “out of the cross.”
We today don’t really get the way that shame worked back then. It was designed to be a deterrent to others and a way of making an object lesson of the person involved and saying “You don’t want to be like this guy.” Jesus’s death would have been the most shameful of all. That is not the kind of event that would draw sympathy from others. Instead, it would have been the exact opposite. It would have cemented any idea of Jesus being the Messiah as false. This is why Paul in 1 Cor. 1 says that the cross is a stumbling block.
In all of this, somehow Christianity survived. It must have been something massive that overcame the shame of the cross.
It’s important to point out that if you’re wanting to learn about the theology of the cross or the work of the atonement, you’re not going to find it in Hengel’s book. His is looking at the nature of crucifixion from a historical point of view. It is wanting the reader to learn how crucifixion was viewed at the time of Jesus and a few centuries before and after. It should open the eyes of the reader still to what exactly Jesus went through and how this would have been perceived.
As I said, this is a short book, but if you want to learn about crucifixion, it is a massively important one to read. Go invest that couple of hours. It will be worth it.