The Shocking Symbol of Christianity

The cross is about divine self-identification. Calvary is God’s chosen location for articulating his character, heart, and intentions to the world. This was a provocative choice for revealing himself. Paul calls the cross ‘folly’ and a ‘stumbling block.’ God intentionally chose a very difficult and shocking symbol. In this post, I want to share with you a small portion of an excellent book that captures the offensive nature of the cross. The following block of quotation comes from Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1977, 1-10).

In I Corinthians 1.18 Paul says that in the eyes of ‘those who are perishing’, the ‘word of the cross’ is ‘folly’. He goes on to emphasize the point further in v. 23 by saying that the crucified Christ is a ‘stumbling-block’ for the Jews and ‘folly’ for the Gentiles. The Greek word, which he uses here does not denote either a purely intellectual defect nor a lack of transcendental wisdom. Something more is involved.

Justin puts us on the right track when he describes the offence caused by the Christian message to the ancient world as madness, and sees the basis for this objection in Christian belief in the divine status of the crucified Jesus and his significance for salvation: ‘They say that our madness consists in the fact that we put a crucified man in second place after the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of the world’ {Apology 1,134).

Justin later concedes that demons have caused stories to be told about miraculous powers of the ‘sons of Zeus’ and of their ascensions to heaven, ‘but in no case…is there any imitation of the crucifixion.’ It is the crucifixion that distinguishes the new message from the mythologies of all other peoples.

The ‘folly’ and ‘madness’ of the crucifixion can be illustrated from the earliest pagan judgment on Christians. The younger Pliny, who calls the new sect a form of amentia (Epistulae 10.964-8), had heard from apostate Christians that Christians sang hymns to their Lord ‘as to a god, and went on to examine two slave girls under torture. Of course the result was disappointing: ‘I discovered nothing but a perverse and extravagant superstition.’

It must have been particularly offensive for a Roman governor that the one who was honored ‘as a god’ had been nailed to the cross by the Roman authorities as a state criminal. His friend Tacitus speaks no less harshly of a ‘pernicious superstition’ and knows of the shameful fate of the founder: Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate. The ‘evil’ which he instigated spread all too quickly to Rome, ‘where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular.’

Augustine has preserved for us an oracle of Apollo recorded by Porphyry, given in answer to a man’s question what he can do to dissuade his wife from Christian belief.  The god holds out little hope: ‘Let her continue as she pleases, persisting in her vain delusions, and lamenting in song a god who died in delusions, who was condemned by judges whose verdict was just, and executed in the prime of life by the worst of deaths, a death bound with iron.’

This oracle, originally in Greek, admirably confirms the verdicts of Pliny, Tacitus and Caecilius. The one whom Christians claim as their God is a ‘dead God’—a contradiction in itself. And if that were not enough, he had been condemned justly, as a criminal, by his judges in the prime of life, i.e. before his time, to the worst form of death: he had to endure being fastened to the cross with iron nails.

All this evidence shows us the constantly varying forms of abhorrence at the [message of the cross]. In comparison with the religious ideals of the ancient world the Christian message had inevitably to be described in Suetonius’ words as a ‘new and pernicious superstition.’ These accounts, with their marked contemptuous characterizations, are no coincidence. The heart of the Christian message, which Paul described as the ‘word of the cross’ ran counter not only to Roman political thinking, but to the whole ethos of religion in ancient times and in particular to the ideas of God held by educated people.

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.

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