A while back, I read Martin Hengel’s Crucifixion, which is a short little book that gives scholarly treatment to the practice of crucifixion in the ancient world. In some ways, I was a little disappointed—I had hoped for more of a detailed description of what a “historically accurate” crucifixion looked like, and Hengel didn’t really provide that (largely because crucifixion was a widespread practice in the ancient world that differed depending on time, location, and whim). That being said, the book was very interesting, specifically in three respects:
(1) Crucifixion as a deterrent:
In the Roman Empire, crucifixion was rarely used on Roman citizens and was primarily used on criminals of the lowest classes and slaves. This is pretty common knowledge, and Hengel supports it. What is particularly fascinating is the degree to which Hengel argues that the use of crucifixion on slaves was a means of stirring up fear among the enslaved in hopes of preventing any sort of rebellion. In places like Rome, where the slave population outnumbered those who were free, the fear of rebellion was real, and keeping the slaves paralyzed with the fear of crucifixion was seen as necessary.
(2) Crucifixion as taboo:
Hengel also makes the argument that crucifixion was so horrific, so feared, and so reviled, that it was essentially the sort of thing that was not talked or written about. This leads to what may seem like a surprising lack of references to it in ancient sources. This lack of references doesn’t mean that the use of crucifixion wasn’t widespread (it was), but simply that it was so horrible that people avoided writing about it:
“Crucifixion was widespread and frequent, above all in Roman times, but the cultured literary world wanted to have nothing to do with it, and as a rule kept quiet about it.”
(Hengel, p. 38)
(3) Crucifixion (of Jesus) as “folly”:
The overarching claim of Hengel’s book is that the Apostle Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 1.18 that the “word of the cross is folly” to unbelievers is a reflection of the repeated reception that Paul would have received as he went about preaching the message of a crucified Christ.
Crucifixion was so hated and despised that, for the ancient world, following and worshipping someone who had been crucified was sheer madness—it was not a message that easily attracted followers. This part of the message has been downplayed somewhat today (largely because we fail to grasp the level of shame and horror associated with crucifixion) but at its core, the message of the gospel is completely shocking:
“…In the death of Jesus of Nazareth God identified himself with the extreme of human wretchedness, which Jesus endured as a representative of us all, in order to bring us to the freedom of the children of God…This radical kenosis of God was the revolutionary new element in the preaching of the gospel. It caused offense, but in this very offense it revealed itself as the centre of the gospel.”
This last point alone makes Crucifixion worth the read, as Hengel seeks to reclaim the scandal of Christianity as central to the message of the Gospel—God loved us so much that Jesus identified with the lowest extreme of humanity in order to reclaim us.