Tom Wright: The Word of the Cross

I’m reading Tom Wright‘s book, The Day The Revolution Began, and it’s giving me great insight into Jesus’ death on the Cross.  Here is a fairly long section I found very helpful:

Few readers of this book are likely to have seen, except on screen, the kind of violence that was common in the first century. Even those who watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ might either screen out the gratuitous horror of it all or be so overwhelmed by the physical brutality as to miss the point that such a death was designed to degrade as well as kill. Crucifixion was one of the central ways in which authorities in the ancient world set out quite deliberately to show subject peoples who was in charge and to break the spirit of any resistance.

The point is often made but bears repetition: we in the modern West, who wear jewelled crosses around our necks, stamp them on Bibles and prayer books, and carry them in cheerful processions, need regularly to be reminded that the very word “cross” was a word you would most likely not utter in polite society. The thought of it would not only put you off your dinner; it could give you sleepless nights. And if you had actually seen a crucifixion or two, as many in the Roman world would have, your sleep itself would have been invaded by nightmares as the memories came flooding back unbidden, memories of humans half alive and half dead, lingering on perhaps for days on end, covered in blood and flies, nibbled by rats, pecked at by crows, with weeping but helpless relatives still keeping watch, and with hostile or mocking crowds adding their insults to the terrible injuries.

The horrible personal and physical aspects of crucifixion were matched by the social, communal, and political meaning. This is important not just as the “context” for our understanding of the Jesus’s execution (as though the barbaric practice were just a dark backdrop to a theology produced from somewhere else), but as part of the very stuff of the theology itself. We might already have figured this out from the careful placing of Philippians 2.8b, thanatou de staurou, “even the death of the cross,” at the dead centre of the poem that some think antedates Paul himself. As we shall see later, the first half of that poem is a downward journey, down to the lowest place to which a human being could sink with regard to pain or shame, personal fate or public perception. This was precisely the point.  Those who crucified people did so because it was the sharpest and nastiest way of asserting their own absolute power and guaranteeing their victim’s absolute degradation. The early Christians did not suppose that Jesus might in principle have died in one of a number of ways (being stoned, killed in battle, assassinated with a dagger in a crowd, or whatever). Reading backward in the light of the subsequent events, they interpreted the crucifixion as part of the strange, dark divine plan in which the
shame and horror were part of the intended meaning. Jesus, they believed, had gone to the lowest point possible for a human being, never mind a Jew, never mind one whose followers had hoped he was the coming king.

So how had crucifixion come to be used in this way?  Recent scholarly work has
surveyed the evidence from the entire ancient world and has stressed that part of the point of crucifixion itself, as opposed to impaling or hanging, was that the victim was often able to see, to speak, to cry out in pain or protest for hours or even days. In some cases it was even possible for a victim to be rescued, to be brought down from the cross in time to recover. Part of the point of crucifixion, then, was precisely the lingering, extended process, which added to the horror as well as the pain. Seneca describes it as a long-drawn-out affair, in which the victim would be “wasting away in pain, dying limb by limb, letting out his life drop by drop . . . fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly tumours on chest and shoulders, and drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn-out agony” (Epistle 101.12–14).

The Romans, then, didn’t invent crucifixion. But they quickly made it their own, and it became the “death of choice” for two categories of undesirables in particular: slaves and rebels—and of course especially slaves who were also rebels or rebel leaders whom the Romans wanted to display as no better than slaves.

Crucifying people beside busy roads or by the entrance to a city was of course designed to make a statement and issue a warning. People with business on those highways would walk past these terrible spectacles every day, and we may presume that many slaves who might have toyed with the idea of running away or joining the revolt would look, shudder, and decide that even their present miserable life was better than that. No doubt the authorities would often tell themselves that this was the only language such people understood. And, though there is evidence of friends or relatives taking away a corpse for burial, the more usual outcome was that the remains would stay there for several days and nights, becoming food for vultures and vermin, until (as with Jezebel in 2 Kings 9:21–37) there was nothing much left to bury. Nobody who had witnessed such a horror would be likely to regard such a death as “noble.” The point was emphasised by the harsh and degrading physical treatment that preceded crucifixion itself. The routine whipping and scourging were designed partly to weaken the victim and prevent a struggle, but also as part of the total public humiliation.

The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, most likely in AD 33, is poised historically in between two large-scale crucifixions. Nobody in that world would have been able to hear the word “cross” or be reminded of someone dying in that way without feeling instinctively the horror and shame of the whole thing. So too Saul of Tarsus, travelling the Roman world, must have seen plenty of crosses in his time: plenty of blood, plenty of rotting flesh, plenty of carrion and vermin picking over squirming carcasses. He must have known in his gut, more perhaps than we ever can, why the “word of the cross” was shocking, scandalous, and foolish beyond all measure. All of this needs to be in our minds and imaginations if we are even to glimpse, let alone understand, why that “word” was so utterly revolutionary.

The second point of special interest for us is the way in which the Romans sometimes used crucifixion as a way of mocking a victim with social or political pretensions. “You want to be high and lifted up?” they said in effect. “All right, we’ll give you ‘high and lifted up.’” Crucifixion thus meant not only killing by slow torture, not only shaming, not only issuing a warning, but also parodying the ambitions of the uppity rebels. They wanted to move up the social scale? Let them be lifted up above the common herd, then—on a cross! When the emperor Galba was governor of his native Spain, a man condemned to crucifixion objected that he was a Roman citizen. Galba’s response was to make his cross higher than before and to have it painted white, signifying his high social status. When Pilate had “The King of the Jews” written on a placard above Jesus’s head, that’s the kind of message he intended to send—not only about Jesus, but about the Jews in general: “This is what we think of your kind.”

All this helps us to understand the symbolic meanings of a crucifixion in that world. The early Christians very quickly gave Jesus’s cross meanings that were deep, rich, and revolutionary, but this was done in the teeth of the meanings that the cross already possessed. It already had a social meaning: “We are superior, and you are vastly inferior.” It had a political meaning: “We’re in charge here, and you and your nation count for nothing.” It therefore had a theological or religious meaning:  the goddess Roma and Caesar, the son of a god, were superior to any and all local gods. As Jesus of Nazareth hung dying that Friday afternoon, all those meanings would have been deeply intuited and understood not only by the Roman soldiers, but by the weeping women at the foot of the cross and the disgraced disciples behind their locked doors. Unless we grasp and hang on to not only the physical horror of the cross, but also its multiple symbolic meanings in late antiquity, we will fail to understand why the early preaching of the cross was what it was. We will fail too to understand the questions the historian and theologian must ask: How and why did the cross so quickly acquire a radically different symbolic meaning? And what precisely did that revolutionary meaning say about God, the world, Israel, and the human race?

All this means that when we are attempting to understand the crucifixion of Jesus, to think the early Christians’ thoughts after them, we are entering a dark and dangerous area. We should not expect to be able to “capture” this theme, to summarise it in an easy slogan. The early Christians’ shorthand summaries point beyond themselves into areas with which the thought of our own day, including contemporary Christian thought, is not nearly as familiar as it should be. Just as the resurrection of Jesus cannot be fitted into any other worldview, but must be either rejected altogether or allowed to reshape existing worldviews around itself, so the cross itself demands the rethinking of categories. We cannot capture it; to be Christian means, among other things, that it has captured us. If we make it our own too easily, fitting it into the theories and preachers’ illustrations that explain it all neatly, we will have shrunk it, reduced it to a size that we can manage and perhaps manipulate. The aim of the present book is to do the opposite: to point to new visions more robustly biblical and more deeply revolutionary of what the cross meant to the first Christians and even to Jesus himself.

Tom Wright, The Day The Revolution Began.

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