Shame and the Cross

5. Shame and the Cross

A crucifixion was a shame-burdened event, “an utterly offensive affair,” (Hengel: p22; cf., Clapp: p28). The cross was known as a place of shame (Heb.12:2; cf.Albers: p103; Clapp: p28; Moffatt: p197) throughout the Mediterranean: “When Paul spoke … about the ‘crucified Christ’ (1 Cor.1:23; 2:2; Gal.3:1), every hearer in the Greek-speaking East … knew that this ‘Christ’ … had suffered a particularly cruel and shameful death, which as a rule was reserved for hardened criminals, rebellious slaves and rebels against the Roman state. That this crucified Jew, Jesus Christ, could truly be a divine being sent on earth, God’s Son, the Lord of all and the coming judge of the world, must inevitably have been thought by any educated man to be utter ‘madness’.” (Hengel: p83.)

“When Paul talks of the ‘folly’ of the message of the crucified Jesus(1 Cor. 1:18ff), he is therefore not speaking in riddles or using an abstract cipher. He is expressing the harsh experience of his missionary preaching and the offence that it caused. … [Jesus] died like a slave or a common criminal, in torment, on the tree of shame. … He was ‘given up for us all’ on the cross, in a cruel and a contemptible way,” (Hengel: pp89-90).

We need also to recognise that a cross was not so much a place of torture as a place of shame; There were and have been many extremely horrendous ways to die, and many have experienced torture and dying of unimaginable brutality. The cross was not the worst possible way to die. It was a death reserved for those the Roman empire felt free to shame, it was never used by them for their own citizens, for people of honour. It was used for slaves, for foreigners, for insurrectionists, all of whom needed to be shamed in the clearest possible of ways.

“This may be a little hard for us to grasp, for the cross has become an emblem of honour today. We wear polished crosses as jewellery; we “lift high the cross” and bear it into our services with pride. But in the first century the cross was the supreme emblem of shame. To be crucified was to be stripped naked and nailed up high, where one’s vulnerability and agony were exposed to public contempt. As we can learn from accounts of Jesus’ death, crucifixion was as much a ceremony of shame as of torture. In a Jewish culture that avoided any exposure of private bodily parts, crucifixion was shockingly obscene. Furthermore, only the most shameful elements of society were subject to crucifixion. If you were a Roman citizen, you would not be executed in this way; crucifixion was for slaves, prisoners of war, revolutionaries and bandits.” (Jewett: pp42-43.)

Jurgen Moltmann maintains that the only way to know God is to know God hidden in the cross and shame. He calls the crucified Christ alone “humanity’s true theology and knowledge of God.” (Moltmann: p212.)

In addition to the cross itself, the events surrounding the crucifixion were designed to bring the greatest possible humiliation/shame. Torture, mockery and shaming are particularly evident in the passion narratives of Matthew (Mt.26:67f; 27:27-31,39-44; cf.Morris: p686, 709-12, 716-9), Mark (Mk.15: 1,5,13f,16f,29,31f,34; cf., Clapp:p28; Cranfield:p452,456) Luke (Lk.22:63ff; 23:11,35-39; cf.Hendriksen: p996,1001f,1012f,1029ff,1040f; Marshall: p845,856,868ff) and John (Jn.18:34f; 19:1-5; cf., Beasley-Murray: p334-7; Neyrey: p123ff). We see Jesus facing not only physical pain, but deep humiliation/shame.

However, far from seeing the crucifixion as shameful, the early church saw it as the place of Christ’s glory. What was shameful in the eyes of the world was glorious to the eyes of faith (Stott:p40: cf.1 Cor.1:18-25.) Christ’s shame was his true glory. (Carey:p91ff; Neyrey:p114,118f; Stott:p40; cf.Lk.24:26; Jn.7:39; 12:28; 17:5.)


Please see the bibliography on this site.

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