Understand the historical context of Crucifixion and its usage in the Roman world (Sect. Scholar’s Box: Crucifixion).
1. Scholar’s Box: CrucifixionFor the Romans, crucifixion was the highest form of capital punishment; normally, it could not be administered to citizens. Rome used this despised death (which included torture and humiliation) to control its slaves and aliens. After Spartacus’ slave-revolt was crushed, 6,000 captives were crucified on the Appian Way, leading into Rome (Spartacus died, 71 BC). This massive execution warned against further uprisings. Later, when the Jews revolted against Rome and Jerusalem was under siege, Titus, the Roman commander, crucified captives daily around the city until he ran out of wood for the crosses. This was primitive psychological warfare – a similar fate awaited the defenders of the city unless they surrendered. Jerusalem fell, AD 70.No one in polite Roman society would even mention crucifixion; it was vulgar and tasteless. As Cicero writes, “How grievous a thing it is to be disgraced by a public court; how grievous to suffer a fine, how grievous to suffer banishment; and yet in the midst of any such disaster we retain some degree of liberty. Even if threatened with death, we may die free men. But the executioner, the veiling of the head and the very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears. For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things or the endurance of them, but liability to them, the expectation, indeed the very mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man.” In this world, the apostles proclaimed Christ crucified. As Martin Hengel reports, it is the Gospels which give us the most detailed account of crucifixion in the ancient world. The church shoved the cross in the face of Rome, and gloried in it (cf. Gal. 6:14).The Stoic philosopher Seneca asks, “Is it worthwhile to weigh down on one’s own wound and hang impaled on a gibbet in order to postpone something which is the balm of troubles, the end of punishment [i.e. death]? Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain and 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 welts on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn-out agony?” These rhetorical questions demand the answer, “No, no one can be found.” But Seneca is wrong. One man can be found, Jesus of Nazareth, the Suffering Servant of the Lord. As Isaiah prophecies, “Surely he took our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4-6, compare I Peter 2:21-25). Hengel comments: “The heart of the Christian message, which Paul described as the ‘word of the cross,’ ran counter not only to Roman political thinking, but to the whole ethos of religion in ancient times and in particular to the ideas of God held by educated people…. To believe that the one pre-existent Son of the one true God, the mediator at creation and the redeemer of the world, had appeared in very recent times in out-of-the-way Galilee as a member of the obscure people of the Jews and even worse, had died the death of a common criminal on the cross, could only be regarded as a sign of madness.”___________________________________________________ Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Fortress Press, 1977