The story we all know about Jesus' crucifixion has taken many forms over the years. Here's how it all began
It is important to get clear on what ancient crucifixion was. The word "crucifixion" comes from the Latin word cruciare— "torture." The Roman Cicero describes it as suma supplicum, "the most extreme form of punishment," and goes on to say: "To bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him an abomination, to slay him is almost an act of murder, to crucify him is—what? There is not a fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed." The Jewish historian Josephus describes it as "the most pitiable of deaths." The victim was first brutally whipped or otherwise tortured. Then his arms were attached to a crosspiece of wood, usually by nails, sometimes by rope. Finally, the victim was hoisted by way of the crosspiece (crux in Latin) onto a pole, and the crosspiece was attached to the pole so that his feet did not touch the ground. There the victim was left on public display until he died. Sometimes death came quickly through suffocation or thirst, but sometimes death was postponed by giving the victim drink. After the victim was dead, the Romans often left the body on the cross as a public display, rotting and eaten by birds. The point was not just to hurt and kill a person but to utterly humiliate a rebel or upstart slave, while terrorizing anyone who looked up to them. Crucifixion was empire-imposed trauma intended to shatter anyone and any movement that opposed Rome.
The impact of the crucifixion can be felt palpably in the earliest narrative about the crucifixion of Jesus found in the New Testament. This narrative is preserved particularly in chapters 14 through 16 of the book of Mark, the earliest gospel in the New Testament.
The exact contents of this early crucifixion narrative are unknown, but it seems that a form of the story of Jesus' death was known by the authors of the gospels of Mark and John. These two gospels overlap in how they tell of Jesus' death and rarely elsewhere. In addition, these final chapters in Mark stand out from the rest of the gospel in their style and depiction of Jesus. As a result, most scholars agree that parts of Mark 14–16 are an early crucifixion narrative used by Mark's author, though they disagree on whether one can determine its exact contents.
From here the crucifixion narrative describes step by step the torture, mocking, and execution of Jesus. Jesus is flogged. Then Roman soldiers dress him up as "the king of the Jews," strip him, taunt him, and divide his clothes. Finally, they take Jesus to Golgotha, "the place of the skull," and crucify him between two criminals, who mock him too. Around noon the soldiers offer the dying Jesus sour wine to drink, and he soon dies, crying out in his native Aramaic tongue, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Hung on the cross, Jesus has been abandoned by all who know him except for three women watching from a distance, among them Mary of Magdala and another Mary identified here in Mark as the mother of "the younger James and Joses." Jesus is hurriedly buried just before the Sabbath. Then, in a section that may or may not have been part of the early crucifixion narrative, three women come after the Sabbath to anoint his body, but they find the tomb empty, and a young man instructs them to tell the disciples that Jesus has risen from the dead. The narrative (and the Gospel of Mark) closes with the women running away "in terror, telling no one anything because of their fear" (Mark 16:8).
Now, thousands of years later, with Christianity a worldwide movement, it is easy to overlook the fact that this Roman attempt to obliterate the Jesus movement was almost successful. One of Paul's early letters, the first one to the Corinthians, acknowledges decades after the fact that "the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing" (1 Corinthians 1:18) and "a stumbling block to Jews, folly to gentiles" (1:23). Even a couple of centuries later we find a prominent critic of the church, Celsus, mocking Christians for following a figure, Jesus, who was "punished to his utter disgrace." For many in the Greco-Roman world, there was not much more to say about a movement that had its leader, a demonstrable failure, crucified. End of story.
But it was not the end of the story. The Messianist community centered on Jesus reinterpreted the crucifixion in ways unanticipated by the Romans. Jesus' crucifixion became the founding event of the movement and not its end. The move was so radical that many Christians now wear symbols of the cross as a mark of their membership in the movement. The cross is no sign of humiliating defeat for Christians. Instead, it is a proud symbol of movement membership. Jesus' followers did not end up fleeing from the reality of his crucifixion, but "took up the cross" themselves. Such a thing would have been incomprehensible to Romans. It is an excellent example of the adaptability of symbols, especially in cases like imperial domination, where a dominated group confronts symbolic actions imposed on it by its oppressor. The Roman symbol of ultimate defeat became the Christian symbol of ultimate victory.
How did the first generation of Jesus' followers accomplish this reinterpretation of crucifixion?
Answering this question is no easy task, since even the above-discussed "crucifixion narrative" probably was written years after Jesus' death. Yet we have another resource available for uncovering early responses to Jesus' crucifixion: the traditions of Jesus' followers preserved in the letters of the New Testament. These letters sometimes date from earlier periods, especially the letters most clearly written by Paul (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon). Through uncovering early traditions known by Paul and other early Jesus followers, we may gain clues to how the early church first responded to Jesus' death and reinterpreted it. These traditions about the crucifixion may date only years or even mere months after Jesus' death.
I start with a quotation of early tradition about Jesus found in Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth, which he had founded. Writing about 53 or 54 ce, about twenty years after Jesus' death, Paul says in chapter 15 of that letter:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15:3–4)
Paul's reference to "what I in turn received" indicates that he is reciting here an earlier teaching, one Paul himself was told in the founding years of the church. And this brief teaching tells us at least two important things up front. Both assertions, that "Christ died for our sins" and that "he was buried and then raised on the third day" are according to the (Hebrew) scriptures.
This indicates the importance for early followers of Jesus of interpreting Jesus' death and resurrection through the lens of scripture. These early followers of Jesus, like Jesus himself, were Jewish. Being Jewish, they drew on the Hebrew Bible to make sense of their lives. They readily identified themselves and figures like Jesus with the major actors of the Bible, and they could invoke a given text from the Torah and Prophets through mentioning just some key phrases or a mere rare word found in the given text.
But let us turn to Paul's other statement that "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures." This quote is reminiscent of the suffering servant song in Isaiah 53 formed amidst Babylonian trauma. Recall its repeated focus on the servant's bearing of the community's sin—"ours were the sins that he bore; our pains he endured" (verse 4); "he was wounded for our crimes, crushed because of our bloodguilt"(5); "Yahweh allowed the bloodguilt belonging to all of us to harm him" (6). The tradition quoted by Paul looks back on this song, asserting that Jesus' death on the cross for "our sins" was analogous to the exilic servant's suffering for the sins of his community. In this sense, Jesus "died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures" and was a "suffering servant."
Through singing this hymn, early Jesus Jews make themselves the "we" seen in Isaiah 53, the "us" whose sins were borne by Jesus, and the "many" made righteous by his pain. Thanks to this redescription and reinterpretation of his death, they behold not just the Roman humiliation but the suffering and vindication of Jesus. They see how his suffering on the cross benefited them.
This link of the suffering servant song to the death of a contemporary figure Jesus was unprecedented. Earlier Jewish texts do not depict Jewish heroes, like those who died resisting Antiochus IV in the Hellenistic crisis, as suffering servants. And Jews before Jesus did not read Isaiah 53 as a prediction of a suffering Messiah. Instead, the closest contemporary analogy to the idea that "Christ died for our sins" was the widespread idea in Greco-Roman culture of heroic figures dying "for" others—their family, friends, or their community. These Greco-Roman ideas probably helped Jesus' followers understand the significance of his death as well.
Excerpted from "Holy Resilience: The Bible's Traumatic Origins," by David M. Carr, published by Yale University Press in November 2014. Reproduced by permission.
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