Recently, I’ve been reading The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge. Rutledge makes the great point that our historical distance from the first century Mediterranean world inures us to the absolute horror of Roman crucifixion.
And what we often miss is that the essential point of crucifixion was not that it was a long and agonizing death, but that it was for public display. Roman crosses were placed at major thoroughfares, trading crossroads or near city gates. Passersby would stop and gape at the condemned man; mockery and ridicule was encouraged and an essential part of the event.
The condemned man was stripped completely naked, lifted up on a wooden crossbeam, stretched out and exposed, and then slowly tortured. The prolonged death was designed to strip the victim of dignity and humanity. The assembled crowd would watch the victim writhe in pain, crying and screaming in agony. It was an utterly degrading and dehumanizing form of death.
The essential point was its very public nature. It served as a ghastly warning and a deterrent for anyone who would oppose Rome. Thousands of crucifixions occurred yearly throughout the Empire, and even little children were exposed to these public executions from an early age. It was unavoidable and seared into the memory. In the ancient world, crucifixions were not spoken of in polite company. The Latin word crux was equivalent to a curse word. It was the most horrifying way to possibly die. To be crucified meant you were cursed by God.
Here is the astonishing truth of Christianity. At its heart is a community worshiping a crucified man as lord and king. It is difficult to describe how vile and reprehensible this idea was to ancient peoples. And indeed, early Christian writers, like Paul of Tarsus, wrote about the scandal of “preaching Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Converts were subject to ridicule, persecution and even death. And yet almost immediately after Jesus’ death, there were thousands of early believers. How can this be accounted for? What historical explanation is sufficient for the rise of Christianity?
Only the resurrection of Jesus is historically strong enough to give a satisfying answer. Only the vindication and reversal of the verdict of the cross that rising from the dead provides can explain how Christianity not only begun, but eventually became the dominant religion of the ancient Mediterranean world.
by Pastor Michael Chung