In a comprehensive and detailed survey on its remarkably widespread employment in the Roman empire, Dr. Hengel examines the way in which “the most vile death of the cross” was regarded in the Greek-speaking world and particularly in Roman-occupied Palestine.
His conclusions bring out more starkly than ever the offensiveness of the Christian message: Jesus not only died an unspeakably cruel death, he underwent the most contemptible abasement that could be imagined. So repugnant was the gruesome reality, that a natural tendency prevails to blunt, remove, or domesticate its scandalous impact. Yet any discussion of a “theology of the cross” must be preceded by adequate comprehension of both the nature and extent of this scandal.
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“A crucified messiah, son of God or God must have seemed a contradiction in terms to anyone, Jew, Greek, Roman or barbarian, asked to believe such a claim, and it will certainly have been thought offensive and foolish.” (Page 10)
“It is the crucifixion that distinguishes the new message from the mythologies of all other peoples.” (Page 1)
“It should be noted that in Roman times not only was it the rule to nail the victim by both hands and feet,25 but that the flogging which was a stereotyped part of the punishment would make the blood flow in streams. Binding the victim to the cross only with bonds remained the exception.26 Presumably Jesus was so weakened by loss of blood that he was unable to carry the beam of the cross to the place of execution; this is also the best explanation of his relatively speedy death.” (Pages 31–32)
“In Roman times, crucifixion was practised above all on dangerous criminals and members of the lowest classes.” (Page 88)
“Crucifixion was and remained a political and military punishment” (Page 86)
The book is rewarding both for the extensive amount of historical information about crucifixion which is provided and for an appreciation of the stigma which would have been attached to this punishment.
—Religious Studies Review
The author’s formidable survey of the classical literature gives new eloquence to Origen’s description of crucifixion as mors turpissima (more vile death), or to Paul’s preaching of the ‘scandal of the Cross.’
—The Bible Today
This valuable book deserves a wide circulation. It is worth reading and rereading. Its implications within the theological framework and message of the New Testament need to be most carefully thought through and meditated on.
One can probably find more about crucifixion in this book than anywhere else. . . . Teachers and ministers will not want to deal with the crucifixion of Christ again without first reading Hengel.
Martin Hengel (1926–2009) was emeritus professor of New Testament and early Judaism at the University of Tübingen. He specialized in early Christianity and the origins of Christianity.
Hengel began studying theology in 1947 in Tübingen before moving to the University of Heidelberg in 1949. He eventually earned his Ph.D. in 1959 from the University of Tübingen.
Hengel’s works include Studies in Early Christology, Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, and The Septuagint as Christian Scripture: Its Prehistory and the Problem of its Canon.