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Crucifixion (Facets) Paperback – September 1, 1977
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In the ancient world, the belief that a group of people would worship a god that allowed himself to be crucified was incomprehensible and idiotic. In his work "Octavius", Minucius Felix blasts Christians for this absurdity in the following way:
"To say that their ceremonies centre on a man put to death for his crime and on the fatal wood of the cross is to assign to these abandoned wretches sanctuaries which are appropriate to them and the kind of worship they deserve."
In the so-called Alexamenos graffito, an ancient mocker chiseled the following pictured of a crucified donkey with the caption "Alexamenos worships his god"
If this was a book from one of the scholars of the Context Group, we would be illuminated by Martin Hengel on exactly why a crucified person was so reviled and why the Christian Gospel was so offensive to ancient ears; but we only get tantalizing glimpses of this in "Crucifixion", however what we do get is no less useful. Hengel devotes a little under 100 pages to examining so-called pagan parallels of crucified deities (SPOILER ALERT: none can really compare to Jesus), early church responses to overcoming this "stumbling block", how crucifixion was thought of to Roman thinkers and philosophers and how it applies to Roman citizens, how crucifixion was considered a penalty imposed mainly on slaves, and a short examination on crucifixion in Greece and Judea.
Thankfully, Martin is liberal in his quotations from ancient sources discussing crucifixion but its almost to his detriment. Firstly, he often likes to give the citations in their original language and alphabet followed by an English translation. This is fine but its utility is limited unless you are yourself a scholar. Secondly, Hengel likes to use the terminology relevant to this study in the original language and alphabet which is infuriating if you forget what those strange Greek characters mean in the first place! Perhaps "Crucifixion" was meant for a scholar in the first place instead of little ol' me, but I would have liked the book to be less opaque.
This is a fine book if you want to understand the historical bedrock of crucifixions. Martin Hengel is a Christian, but his book's main focus, however, is far from the crucifixion of Jesus (although he does speak of it) but in crucifixion in general so keep that in mind.
Lots of footnotes and references.
Why 4 stars? The paperback edition is so poorly bound that many pages are falling out. One of the worst paperback books ever. Too bad, because the content is top notch.
Hengel calls in credible witnesses, like Cicero, who call it: "the most cruel and frightful of all punishments, combining as it did, extreme body pain, the tortures of hunger, thirst, heat, and insects all endured in conditions of rigid immobility." Therein, Seneca asks: "Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals (welts) on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross."
Hengel tells us, "The cross was succeeded in gravity only by `burning' (the body covered with pitch) and `decapitation.' It was a sign of shame which had been known as the `infamous stake,' the `criminal wood' and, the `terrible cross.' Punished with limbs outstretched, they see the stake as their fate; they are fastened (and) nailed to it in the most bitter torment, evil food for birds of prey and grim pickings for dogs."
He explains that Crucifixion was reserved for the lowest class of society. If you died this way, people would assume you were a slave. Hence, we find in the early Christian hymn, "... he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross." (Ph 2:6-11).
Slave and Cross went together! That Jesus died on a cross meant he died as a slave, a common criminal, accompanied with extreme torture beforehand, stripped, involving utmost humiliation, and dying naked. Except for Jews, the person was not buried. There were no rules--it was "anything goes!" Jesus consented to this extreme human wretchedness.
Many people saw the movie "The Passion." I chose not to. Having read this several times, I was afraid the movie might misrepresent what I learned from Hengel's harrowing description of this barbaric practice, "the folly" of which our Savior submitted to, to save us.
Highly recommended, but not for the fainthearted!
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