The Social Factor: The Shame Of The Crucifixion.

How was the crucifixion of Jesus Christ looked upon in the 1st century?

Today the image of the cross is the very thing that defines Christianity. Churches display the cross on their steeples and their altars. The cross can even be a fashion accessory, often proudly worn around the neck. We see the image of the cross today and we’re rightly filled with gratitude and awe at the love of Jesus. We’re moved by the preacher proclaiming the love of Christ and, in some circumstances, it may just be enough to bring us to our knees. The emotion is so powerful, in fact, that we assume the audience of the 1st century felt the same way.

Things couldn’t be further from the truth.

The ancient world didn’t look upon the crucifixion with sentimental eyes, nor were they ever moved by the sight. We feel these because we are already familiar with the Christian message of the cross and what comes after. The ancients had no such familiarity with what Jesus came to accomplish. They hated Him and they looked upon the cross with scorn and abhorrence. As historian and scholar Martin Hengel notes,

“Crucifixion was an utterly offensive affair, ‘obscene’ in the original sense of the word.” Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Fortress 1977), 22

Paul himself notes that,

But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; (1 Corinthians 1:23)

Why was this so? To understand why crucifixion was such an offense to the ancients we need to have a grasp on the social customs of the 1st century. Anthropologists note that the ancient world was an agonistic society, meaning they were a people who competed for honor and did all they could to avoid shame. The concepts of honor and shame were behind every decision made in the ancient world. Scholar Bruce Malina describes honor as,

…..a claim to worth that is publicly acknowledged. “To have honor” is to have publicly acknowledged worth. “To be honored” is to be ascribed such worth or be acclaimed for it.

Pilch, John J.. Handbook of Biblical Social Values, Third Edition (Matrix: The Bible in Mediterranean Context 10) . Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

And on shame he notes,

Shame, as the opposite of honor, is a claim to worth that is publicly denied and repudiated. “To be shamed” is always negative; it means to be denied or to be diminished in honor. On the other hand, “to have shame” is always positive; it means to be concerned about one’s honor. All human beings seek to have shame, no human being cares to be shamed.

Pilch, John J.. Handbook of Biblical Social Values, Third Edition (Matrix: The Bible in Mediterranean Context 10) . Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

The ancient rubric of honor and shame can completely change the way we view the ancient world and the meanings inherent in their writings. This is precisely why the aspects of Christianity that may seem trivial to us (the crucifixion, the women at the tomb, Jesus’ place of birth, etc.) are deal-breakers for the ancients. Christianity had everything going against it, which is to say, it was in no way bound to the traditions of a certain culture the same way skeptics argue that the religions of today are. Indeed, if you were born in Jerusalem in the 1st century you would have been opposed to Christianity, not for it!

This brings us back to the crucifixion, which was perhaps the most shameful experience one would ever endure. The entire passion narrative describes attempts to publically shame Jesus, from spitting, mocking, insulting, clothing Him with a royal robe, and, of course, the crucifixion itself….

The third mocking scene presents Jesus hanging on the cross, utterly humiliated, publicly shamed (Mark 15:29–32). Passers-by shook their heads in contempt, adding words of insult. The chief priests and scribes add to his injury by their contemptuous and vengeful observations: “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross, that we may see and believe” (15:29–31). In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is mocked as “the Christ of God, his chosen one” (Luke 23:35). In Matthew’s gospel, the revilers also say, “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, I am the Son of God” (Matt 27:43).

Pilch, John J.. Handbook of Biblical Social Values, Third Edition (Matrix: The Bible in Mediterranean Context 10) . Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Crucifixion was so shameful to the ancients that the Gospel accounts are the most detailed and graphic descriptions of crucifixion we have. This is an astonishing admission, for if the divinity of Jesus was fabricated by His earliest followers, these shameful, vulgar details would be left out entirely or, at the very least, the crucifixion would be relegated to a single sentence. However, in the Gospels, the passion narrative is extended throughout multiple chapters. That the passion narrative is included at all is exemplary evidence that something magnificent really did follow them in order to put them in a completely different light.

If the Resurrection had never happened and Christianity began either through deliberate forgery or hallucination, the fact remains that the crucifixion had to have been erased or covered up if the disciples hoped to ever gain followers of Jesus other than themselves. How, then, did Christianity not only survive but grow in the face of these abhorrent details about its leader? The only conclusion that makes sense, in light of the social context, is that something really did happen that vindicated the crucified messiah and restored His honor, that from the cross came victory over death and triumph over shame.

Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.  (Hebrews 12:2 bold mine)


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