Thursday, February 14, 2008

BOOK REIVEW - Crucifixion (Martin Hengel)

Title: Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross
Editor: Martin Hengel
: Fortress
Year: 1977
Cover: Paperback
Pages: 99
Binding: Glued
Reading level: 4.5
ISBN-13: 9780800612689
Price USD: $15.00 list price.

Amazon: $10.20

REVIEW: The cross is the heart and soul of the Christian message. In 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul states that the message of the cross is "folly to those who are perishing". Hengel maintains that in the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament time period, such a doctrine would have been considered sheer madness by the apostle's contemporaries.

Originally composed in German, this translation does tend to be cumbersome at times. However, the power of the original document comes through in English and the contemporary reader cannot help but feel the raw force of the original. Being only 100 pages in length, the book is divided into 10 short chapters. Most of these are surveys of Roman and Greek documents that shed light on the attitudes towards crucifixion in those cultures.

Hengel maintains that crucifixion was considered a 'slave's death' (p 51). Although societies like the Carthaginians practiced crucifixion among offending nobility, the Romans (by contrast) upheld a class distinction by allowing higher classes a more 'humane' for of death (p. 34). Among the Romans, crucifixion was reserved for slaves and the lower class. Among the later it was generally used as a punishment for (and deterrent of) theft, as well as to instill fear among those people groups who rebelled against Roman rule. Because of its close association with slaves and robbers, and due to its barbaric and cruel form, the cross was an "utterly offensive affair, 'obscene' in the original sense of the word" (p 22). It was something 'high class' Romans didn't discuss in polite societal functions.
In fact, while Greek and Roman sources frequently refer to crucifixion, the Gospel accounts are by far the most detailed accounts. Few ancient writers wished to dwell too long on this cruel procedure (p 25).

Hengel wisely notes that Paul penned the words of 1 Corinthians 1:18 as a life-long missionary who, during his 20 years of evangelistic ministry among the Gentiles, had often reaped mockery and bitter rejection with his message of the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus (p 19). Paul understood first hand how the very foundation of the Gospel--the Cross--was utter madness to the non-Christian world. As Hengel himself points in the summary, Paul's insistence upon the centrality of the cross despite its inherent offense to the non-believing world indicates to us something of the absolute importance of the cross for true Christianity.

Hengel's summary chapter is worth the price of the entire book. He makes some hard-hitting comparisons of the Roman practice of crucifixion with the modern defense of the death penalty. More importantly, Hengel indicates that genuine Christianity "will have to be measured against the test of this scandal" (p 89). In other words, any Christian theology or presentation that does not include the Cross--in the fullness of its true scandal to the modern mind--is not authentic Christian faith. He writes, "The theological reasoning of our time shows very clearly that the particular form of the death of Jesus, the man and the messiah, represents a scandal which people would like to blunt, remove, or domesticate in any way possible" (p 90). One of the underlying purposes of the book seems to be Hengel's desire to demonstrate that the modern attempt to rid Christian faith of the cross is not a new tension within Christianity. From the very beginning this tension and scandal existed. It was "folly and madness to men of ancient times" (p 89), as it is of mankind today.

I gave this book a 4.5 on the reading difficulty scale (out of 5) because of the author's frequent use of technical terms and reference to other languages, especially Latin and Greek. Only rarely does he provide a translation for these terms. He also includes extensive footnotes at the bottom of the page, which sometimes take up more than half a page or more. Nevertheless, the layman will still receive a great benefit for reading this work, and those will knowledge of the ancient languages will reap an even greater harvest.

The only drawback of the book is its length. I found myself wanting more from this author's pen on the subject and was frustrated Hengel didn't go into more depth. But, in the end he accomplished his objection. When I finished the book I began to see, as Hengel himself has, the sheer madness of the Cross, as well as its absolute importance for the Christian faith.

Physical Copy: Dimensions are 8.4 x 5.4 x 0.3 inches. Shipping weight is 5.6 ounces. Appears to be a Times New Roman text type or equivalent.

1 comment:

  1. Good review. I read this book many years ago but do not have it in my library. Your review, ironically enough, helped me with a presentation on the Eucharist that I'm preparing.

    Hengel taught me at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and is unequaled as a master of the ancient sources.

    Fr. Richard C. Hermes, S.J.
    Tampa, FL