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If 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.

A couple of summers ago I read a little book by 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, my emphasis).

Christianity makes sense in the ancient world—it reflects the Jewish and Greco-Roman 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 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 I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)

Why would Paul even need to mention the potential shame of the gospel? Because the idea of a crucified divine representative was shameful.

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. . . . But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. . .(1 Corinthians 1:18-21; 27)

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. Shame and weakness become power and triumph.

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 the Jesus we follow:

. . . looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrew 12:2)

I think what Hengel says is too often lost on modern ears.

This blog was orginally posted in August 2017.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.