It is that time of the year when many people will attend a Good Friday service this weekend. Also, since many of us think the Messiah is the fulfillment of Passover, some of us may attend a Passover event as well. But as many of us gather to remember the death of the Messiah and all that He has accomplished for humanity, it made me think of the following: How many cross necklaces have you seen around the necks of people? What about the crosses that are seen on the necks of movie stars and sports figures? If you ask the average person who is wearing a cross what it means, they may say the following:
” Jesus died for me on the cross”
” The cross is a symbol of love”
“The cross saved me”
The First Century
I don’t doubt the sincerity of some of these people. But what is interesting is that many of us don’t know how the cross was viewed in the first century. Roman crucifixion was viewed as a punishment for those a lower status- dangerous criminals, slaves, or anyone who caused a threat to Roman order and authority. According to Cicero (Vern. 2.5.168) and Josephus (J. W. 7.203), crucifixion was the worst form of death. Given that Jewish nationalism was quite prevalent in the first century, the Romans also used crucifixion to end the uprising of any revolts. Thus, the primary political and social purpose of crucifixion was deterrence. The concept of deterrence has two key assumptions: The first is that specific punishments imposed on offenders will “deter” or prevent them from committing further crimes. The second is that fear of punishment will prevent others from committing similar crimes.
But for the Jewish person, there is a relevant verse about crucifixion in Deuteronomy 21:22-23:
“If a person commits a sin punishable by death and is executed, and you hang the corpse on a tree, his body must not remain all night on the tree; instead you must make certain you bury him that same day, for the one who is left exposed on a tree is cursed by God. You must not defile your land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.”
The context of this verse is describing the public display of the corpse of an executed criminal. The New Testament writers expanded this theme to include persons who had been crucified (Acts 5:30; 13:29; Gal 3:13;1 Pet.2:24). To say that crucifixion was portrayed in a negative light within Judaism in the first century is an understatement. Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:13-14 is rather telling:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith
The very method of death brought a divine curse upon the crucified. In other words, anyone who was crucified was assumed not to be the Anointed One of God. So what is seen in these verses is not the execution itself but what is done to the body after the person is executed–it is displayed as a warning to others. For Jewish people at the time of Paul, the crucified victim could be viewed as either a victim or a villain. If it is the latter, the person being condemned as a criminal would be considered cursed by God because of their actions.
Paul commented about the challenge of proclaiming a dying Messiah to his fellow countrymen:
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor.1:21-22)
Even well known skeptical scholar Bart Ehmran says:
“Christians who wanted to proclaim Jesus as messiah would not have invented the notion that he was crucified because his crucifixion created such a scandal. Indeed, the apostle Paul calls it the chief “stumbling block” for Jews (1 Cor. 1:23). Where did the tradition come from? It must have actually happened” (2)
A Dead Messiah and Sheol
In light of what Jewish people knew about Sheol (the realm of the dead), a dead Messiah was an absurdity. In the Jewish Scriptures, the pictures of the fate of the wicked are presented as consciously suffering in Sheol, or the grave. It is also described as the place that both the righteous and the unrighteous are expected to go upon death (Ps. 89:48). God does no wonders for those that are in Sheol; those that are there cannot praise God. Let’s look at some of these passages:
1. “For there is no mention of You in death; In Sheol who will give You thanks?” (Ps. 6:5).
2. “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise You? Will it declare Your faithfulness?” (Ps. 30:9).
3. “Will You perform wonders for the dead? Will the departed spirits rise and praise You? Selah. Will Your loving-kindness be declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Abaddon?” (Ps. 88:10-11).
4. “The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor do any who go down into silence” (Ps. 115:17).
5. “For Sheol cannot thank You, Death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness (Isa. 38:18).”
It can be concluded that any attempt to proclaim a dead Messiah who had been consigned to Sheol would have created a tremendous barrier for a Jewish person in Second Temple Period. Furthermore, a dead Messiah would have extinguished any hopes of the restoration of the Davidic Dynasty.
Blessing and Curses
In the context of the covenant of Israel, the Near Eastern pattern was of both blessing and curse. The blessing is for those who obey the stipulations of the covenant while the curse is upon those who violate the stipulations.
Deuteronomy 27:6 says “Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.”
If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all the commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God” (Deut. 28:1-2).
For a Jewish person to be blessed was to be in the presence of God and enjoy his presence and all the benefits that this entailed. The blessing was to experience God’s shalom in one’s life. In contrast to blessing, to be cursed was to be outside the presence of God. To be declared “unclean” or defiled meant was an offense to the Jewish people. So for the Messiah to die on a crucifixion stake was not a sign of blessing from God. If anything, it was the opposite.
“And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. “- Luke 9: 23
The death of the Messiah may be viewed as a symbol of love. But when we look at the first century context, to a Jewish person, a Messiah who was crucified was not a badge of honor. In reality it was a sign of rejection and embarrassment. When the disciples heard Jesus talk about the cross and self-denial here, they knew to make Jesus the Lord of their lives was going to be a life of commitment and an abandonment of autonomy.
1. Pamela Eisenbaum, Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 144-145).
2. Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Third Edition New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 221-222.