Why Would a Jewish Person Want to Be Identified with the Crucifixion of Jesus in the First Century?

In discussions about the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, it is common to start with the Gospels. But in my opinion, I think it is best to  back up and start with Paul. After all, Paul’s writings are the earliest records we have for the resurrection of Jesus.

Paul, who was a very competent rabbi who was trained at the rabbinic academy called the House of Hillel by ‘Gamaliel,’ was a key rabbinic leader and member of the Sanhedrin. Of his 13 books, critical scholars even accept six of them as being authentic in that we can be certain of the author and date of these writings. There are other scholars such as Luke Timothy Johnson and Raymond Brown that think more than six of them are authored by Paul. The Letter to Romans is dated  55-56 A.D. In Romans 6: 1-5, Paul discusses our identification with Jesus in his death and resurrection.

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?  By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

Paul makes similar statements in 1 Corinthians 12.13; Colossians 2.12; 3.3 and goes onto say  that believers are united with Christ in the likeness of His death and resurrection (Romans 6.5, 8; Colossians 2.12; Philippians 3.10) . Therefore, for Paul our identification in the death and resurrection of Jesus is crucial to discipleship.

In many cases Christians take these texts for granted. But sometimes we really don’t know how much of a stumbling block this would have been to a Jewish person in Paul’s time period. Would it be difficult for a Jewish person to want to find their identification in a crucified Messiah?

Donald Juel says the following:

“The idea of a crucified Messiah is not only unprecedented within Jewish tradition; it is so contrary to the whole nation of a deliver from the line of David, so out of harmony with the constellation of biblical texts we can identify from various Jewish sources that catalyzed around the royal figure later known as the “the Christ” that terms like “scandal” and “foolishness” are the only appropriate responses. Irony is the only means of telling such a story, because it is so counterintuitive.[1]

Even 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)

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. According to Cicero (Vern. 2.5.168) and Josephus (J. W. 7.203), crucifixion was the worst form of death. Given that Jewish nationalism was quite prevalent in the first century, the Romans also used crucifixion to end the uprising of any revolts. Thus, the primary political and social purpose of crucifixion was deterrence. The concept of deterrence has two key assumptions: The first is that specific punishments imposed on offenders will “deter” or prevent them from committing further crimes. The second is that fear of punishment will prevent others from committing similar crime. In relation to a crucified Messiah, Jewish people in the first century were familiar with 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. Just look at Paul’s statement in Gal 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE.” Therefore, to say that crucifixion was portrayed in a negative light within Judaism in the first century is an understatement. In other words, anyone who was crucified was assumed not be the Anointed One of God.  Also, Deut. 21: 22-23 does not really speak directly to the matter of crucifixion, nor of the crucifixion of God’s Anointed One. So this passage could not of generated such a belief.

Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho the Jew:

Even as we move on after the time of Jesus, Justin Martyr, the Palestinian Christian who in his mature years taught and wrote in Rome, tries to make the case that Jesus’ Spirit empowered ministry fulfills Scripture at many points and offers proof that he really is Israel’s Messiah to Trypho the Jew. But Trypho is not persuaded by this argument. He replies:

“It has indeed been proved sufficiently by your Scriptural quotations that it was predicted in the Scriptures that Christ should suffer…But what we want you to prove to us is that he was to be crucified and be subjected to so disgraceful and shameful death…. We find it impossible to think this could be so.”[3]

So perhaps we may ask the following: Would a Jewish person at the time of Jesus want to be identified with a Jewish man who died a God cursed death? Perhaps the resurrection changed everything!

Just some food for thought.

Sources:
[1] Donald H. Juel, “The Trial and Death of the Historical Jesus” featured in The Quest For Jesus And The Christian Faith: Word &World Supplement Series 3 (St. Paul Minnesota: Word and World Luther Seminary, 1997), 105.

[2] See Martin Hengel: Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977).

[3] Saint Justin Martyr, The Fathers of the Church, trans. Thomas B. Falls (New York: Christian Heritage, Inc., 1949) pg, 208, 291.

 

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One thought on “Why Would a Jewish Person Want to Be Identified with the Crucifixion of Jesus in the First Century?

  1. chab123 December 4, 2013 / 2:38 am

    Not a clincher at all. I have been in mission work to Jewish people for several years and know the history of Jewish messianism. See our link with posts called Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus.

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