"Crucifixion" by Martin Hengel
"Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross" by Martin Hengel is a small book (originally in German) at only around 100 pages that packs a large wallop and it wasn't quite was I expected. What I expected from the book was an examination on the social implications of crucifixion and how it relates to an honor-shame dynamic. And while there's some nuggets like this in there, it's actually more of a historical examination of where crucifixion was practiced in the ancient world, to what degree, and why they were carried out. But it's also a historical examination inspired by a Biblical passage, namely to explain why Paul in 1st Corinthians 1:18 said: "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God," and in vs. 23: "but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles". 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:
In the so-called Alexamenos graffito, an ancient mocker chiseled the following pictured of a crucified donkey with the caption "Alexamenos worships his god":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.
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 (well, to be more precise, a German translation later translated into English for an English publication). 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.
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