I cannot rightly remember, but I believe I picked up Martin Hengel’s wonderfully helpful little book,Crucifixion, while a student at Southwestern Seminary in the mid 90’s. At that time, I did a thorough skimming of it, highlighting and underlining some of the more fascinating references to crucifixion from antiquity which I have subsequently used throughout the years in sermons. I found it, at that time, extremely helpful and promising and I determined, after that initial approach, to read it more thoroughly later. Having finally done so, I can say that this book is even more helpful than I previously realized. Furthermore, it is strangely moving and inspiring in its theological reflections on the cross.
That being said, the work is not primarily theological. It is rather a historical compendium of ancient references to the act of crucifixion. Hengel primarily considers references from Roman and Greek antiquity, returning time and again to scriptural references throughout.
The book is significant for a number of reasons. First, it is a fascinating compendium of primary citations demonstrating the ancient view of crucifixion. Hengel combs historical narratives, ancient literary works and the mythologies of the time for any reference to the act of crucifixion. The result is the construction of an illuminating and compelling case for the monolithic disdain of the cross throughout antiquity. It definitively demonstrates the opprobrium with which the word and the act were greeted in that time.
Second, there is a helpful commentary element to this work. While not intended to be a commentary, Hengel’s deftly-handled interaction between ancient references to crucifixion and the biblical references are extremely helpful. After reading Hengel’s work, you will read the biblical references to the cross with a heightened sense of the cultural context in which the cross of Christ was raised. This is most beneficial.
Third, and most importantly, Hengel’s book goes a long way towards returning the scandal back to the original gospel proclamation. Few ancient ideas have been so domesticated as the cross. After two millennia of religious cultural diminishment, the cross stands as a mere religious symbol. It is very difficult for those of us who have grown up in a culture in which the cross is a piece of jewelry, a tattoo, a sign on a billboard or a graphic design on a t-shirt to appreciate the horror and outrage that the original proclamation of Christ and him crucified received. Hengel’s work will jolt you into appreciating this forgotten but crucial dynamic.
I mentioned that the work is strangely moving. That is true. In fact, it has an almost devotional quality about it, though that was not Hengel’s intent. I daresay that no believer can read this book and not be struck once again by the beauty and grace of our crucified and risen Savior. I daresay you will marvel, after reading the citations that Hengel has assembled and the explanations that he offers, that God chose to redeem His people in just this way.
Read this book.