Martin Hengel’s Crucifixion

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.

Alister McGrath’s What Was God Doing on the Cross?

What Was God Doing on the Cross? was originally presented as a lecture, in a shorter form, at the Princeton Theological Seminary on October 22, 1990. Perhaps owing to this fact, what we have in this book is a highly conversational, “nuts and bolts” approach to the cross. While this keeps the book from becoming highly technical, it makes it an ideal introduction to the issues surrounding the cross of Christ.

The first two chapters of the book are presented from the perspective of an onlooker at Calvary. This is an interesting approach which allows McGrath to take the reader into the mind and possible thoughts of an original witness to the cross. These chapters serve as a foundation to the rest of the book which presents McGrath’s own perspective on the cross.

A rather refreshing aspect of this book is McGrath’s criticism of the tendency of many theologians to lose touch with the common person. McGrath (himself one of the most influential evangelical theologians in the world today) reminds us all that if our theological concepts cannot be communicated to the common man, then they are essentially worthless. He then goes on to back up what he says by presenting his discussion of the cross in terms that are highly readable and highly effective.

The book covers a wide range of topics: the act of crucifixion, the nature of Jesus, the idea of sin, the atonement, and the resurrection. McGrath does not fear to posit these traditional Christian concepts in new language, and, in fact, he seems intent on doing so. The result is that both Christians and non-Christians alike will be challenged to rethink what they know or think they know about traditional Chritian categories.

I would more than heartily recommend this book as I would more than heartily recommend anything Alister McGrath writes. There is a sincerity that comes through these pages that the reader will not miss. His aim is to have his audience grapple anew with the cross. In this, he succeeds wonderfully.