Martin Hengel, trans. John Bowden. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1977. 99 pages.
The full title, “Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross,” adequately indicates the content of this scholarly, comprehensive, detailed study of this cruel form of execution in the ancient world. Execution by crucifixion was recognized as the most contemptible degradation that could be heaped on an individual. And it was precisely the natural revulsion against the horrors of crucifixion that made the message of salvation through a crucified Christ such a scandal in the ancient world. The very message constituted “a scandal which people would like to blunt, remove or domesticate in any way possible” (p. 90). The very repugnance of “the word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18) makes it understandable why the preaching of Christianity came to be “described in Suetonius’ words as a ‘new and pernicious superstition’ ” (p. 5). It helps to explain the appeal of Gnosticism for the early church. Even today, its adherence to “the theology of the Cross” is the basic test of Christendom’s adherence to the apostolic message of salvation. Hengel’s book helps the reader better to understand the nature and extent of the scandal of the cross.
This volume does not formulate a biblical theology of the cross, but rather provides the historical background which enables us to understand the “foolishness” of Christianity’s message of the cross.
Abundant footnotes, a comprehensive bibliography, and indexes of ancient writers and of modern scholars cited enhance the value of this small volume.