Cross Examination: The Cross of Christ in the Roman World

Cross Examination: The Cross of Christ in the Roman World

Did you know that those who study the history and culture of the Roman world of the first century affirm that the Roman Empire (consisting of Romans, Greeks, Jews, Egyptians, etc.) was founded on the cultural values of honor and shame? To quote David deSilva, “A person born into [this] culture was led from childhood to seek honor and to avoid disgrace. Honor comes from the affirmation of a person’s worth by peers and society, awarded on the basis of the individual’s ability to embody the virtues and attributes his or her society values” (An Introduction to the New Testament, IVP, 2004, p. 125). Words such as “honor,” “glory,” “praise,” and other synonyms, as well as “shame,” “reproach,” “mock,” and their synonyms, are part of the daily vocabulary of people who live in such a society. One can hardly turn a page of the Bible without finding one of these words, which suggests how an understanding of honor and shame might impact our understanding of Scripture. These articles are meant to be short and so I will not delve into the many ways in which our Bible reading can be enriched by understanding this cultural dynamic. Instead, I want to focus on how our understanding of crucifixion and the cross of Christ is enhanced when seen against this cultural background.

Shame and the Cross of Christ

Although none of us in the western world are exposed to crucifixion as a form of capital punishment, we are aware of the slow and horribly painful death experienced by its victims. But in the Roman world, a painful death was only one reason, and probably not the most important reason, for crucifixion. In a society built on honor, the cross was the most shameful death possible. The cross was not only intended to torture its victim, but to shame them so that no one would want to be affiliated with them. This is why a person was crucified naked, was beaten, mocked, and spit upon (e.g., Matt. 27:29-30, 39-44). If the Jewish leaders had only wanted Jesus dead, they could have sent someone into the throngs that surrounded him to stab him. Jesus’ death, however, was not enough; that would simply make a martyr of him. The Jewish leaders realized that he must die the most shameful death possible so that all of his followers would scatter and it would put an end to his influence. This idea of the shame of the cross is the backdrop for all of the passion narratives in the gospels and for passages such as Acts 18:32; 1 Cor. 1:18; and Heb. 12:2, to name only a few.

The Cross of Christ: A Sign of Victory

The fact is, Roman crucifixion was so effective that it quelled every rebellion in the ancient world. Whether we are talking about the slave rebellion under Spartacus, which saw the crucifixion of 6000 men, or the uprisings of would-be deliverers and messiahs, every movement was put down and silenced by the use of the cross. Every movement that is…except for one! The fact that the early disciples went about preaching “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) is an astonishing fact, given the cultural dynamics of honor and shame. No one in this society would think, “I believe I’ll start a new religion and base it on a man who was crucified.” Everyone wanted to stay as far away from the shame of crucifixion as possible. Even if, one person was crazy enough to imagine such an idea, it would never have gained a following. To identify with the cross was to guaranty a life of persecution and shame. This is why Paul said the “message of the cross [was] foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18). How then do we explain the fact that the cross of ChristChrist-on-the-Cross-Painting-by-Eugene-Delacroix, not only transformed many lives, but ultimately conquered the Roman Empire itself? The only logical explanation for this phenomenon is that there was a power behind the cross of Jesus that was not of this world; a power that went far beyond human intellect, social mores, and cultural norms. It was in fact, as Paul affirms, the power of God!

For a further explanation of honor and shame and how it impacts our understanding of the books of 1&2 Samuel, please see my book, Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel, especially chapters 4 and 18.

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