Crucifixion and The Cursed Messiah

 

Jesus’ crucifixion is attested by all four Gospels. Therefore, it passes the test of multiple attestation. It is also one of the earliest proclamations in the early Messianic Movement (see Acts 2:23; 36; 4:10). It is also recorded early in Paul’s writings (1 Cor.15), and by non-Christian authors Josephus, Ant.18:64; Tacitus, Ann.15.44.3. Historian and author Dr. Ian Wilson says the following about crucifixion:

Even the Roman statesman Cicero (106-43 BC) deplored it as “a most cruel and disgusting punishment.” And further, he would remark, “To bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him is an abomination, to kill him is almost an act of murder; but to crucify him is what? There is no fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed . .(1)

Regarding the historicity of the event, Even John Dominic Crossan, one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar even says the following:

“Jesus death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be. For if not follower of Jesus had written anything for one hundred years after his crucifixion, we would still know about him from two authors not among his supporters. Their names are Flavius Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus.” (2)

According to Martin Hengel, “The social stigma and disgrace associated with crucifixion in the Roman world can hardly be overstated.” (3)

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. Given that Jewish nationalism was quite prevalent in the first century, the Romans also used crucifixion as a means to end the uprising of any revolts.

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. “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse”-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.

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)

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 Hebrew Bible, 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).” (4)

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.” We see this in the following passage:

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 being 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. 

To see a longer version of this topic, see our post here called The Death of Messiah.

To see The Death of Jesus: Why Was Jesus Accused of Blasphemy?- see here:

Sources: 1. John Stott, The Cross of Christ. Downers Grove:InterVarsity, 1986, p. 24. (Quoting Cicero in his Against Verres II. v64, para. 165. (Interestingly, the Apostle Paul was not crucified (but rather, “beheaded,” according to tradition) because he was in fact a Roman citizen, and Roman citizens were exempt from crucifixion) — cf. Cicero., Verr. Act., I, 5; II, 3, 5; III, 2, 24, 26; IV, 10 sqq.; V, 28, 52, 61, 66).
 2. J.D. Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. 1994), 45. While it is true that scholars agree that there are some interpolations in Josephus, it should be noted that while the manuscript tradition of Testimonium of Josephus has the interpolations, a solid case can be made that the original passage is accurate- especially the part about Jesus being crucified under Pilate. Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. Tacitus confirmed Jesus died by crucifixion during the reign of Tiberius (14-37 CE), under Pilate’s governship (26-36 CE).

3. See Martin Hengel: Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).

4. Roy A. Harrisville, Fracture: The Cross as Irreconcilable in the Language and Thought of the Biblical Writers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2006), 17-18.

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