Syriac Rabbula Gospels illuminated manuscript from ad 586. This is believed to be the earliest known Christian depiction of a crucifixion showing the Eastern form of the image at the time.
Guest Post by Michael Caba
The apostle said it: the message at the very heart of his faith was folly, not worth the paper it was written on, at least to some; but to others it was the very essence of genius, the high bar of wisdom and the core of a new spirituality. Indeed, to demonstrate the profound contrasts in the way the crucifixion of Christ was perceived the apostle explained plainly, “Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Cor 1:23-24, NIV).
But why these polar opposite reactions; why was the message of the crucifixion of Jesus viewed by some as nonsense but by others as profound wisdom? More specifically, why did the Gentiles view it as “foolishness”? Modern Christians are quite accustomed to hearing about the crucifixion of Jesus; so much so that we may lose some, or all, of the sense of how odd it was to assert in the 1st century that this event was somehow part of a divine plan. Hence, a second look is in order.
To begin with, those subject to crucifixion, being affixed by a variety of means to upright wood, were often physically tortured beforehand, and, in many cases, psychologically humiliated as well, with final death occurring via a variety of possible bodily failures. Further—and this is one of the keys to understanding the charge of “foolishness”—the overall practice was reserved primarily for the most reviled of society, including criminals, traitors, enemy combatants, and the like. In effect, it was a horrible punishment reserved for the despised, for those with little or no social status, and it was used to warn an observant public of the consequences meted out for certain behaviours.
But why Jesus, wasn’t he supposedly the exalted Son of God; certainly, he had social status didn’t he? And, perhaps better yet, why did the Christians readily proclaim that the death of their deity by such a means was a central tenant of their faith, especially against all the accusations of madness and folly? Didn’t the Christians have a public relations machine that could gauge the opinions of others in order that they might tailor their message to their culture; or had they truly discovered something original that they just needed to report despite its obvious oddness?
To bring the issue into even sharper focus, one of the early church leaders, Justin Martyr, put his finger on the heart of the allegations of folly that were being made against the Christians:
For they proclaim our madness to consist in this, that we give to a crucified man a place second to the unchangeable and eternal God, the creator of all; for they do not discern the mystery that is herein, to which, as we make it plain to you, we pray you to give heed.
Notice the mystery: a “crucified man” was being given an honoured seat right next to the eternal Creator—the lowest was seated beside the highest—and in antiquity this positioning was perceived as madness. Gods and saviours in the ancient world were exalted and dignified, not humble, much less crucified of all things; and Christians were now confusing the natural hierarchy: their divine Jesus had come to earth, but in a humble manner. Such madness!
On the other hand, perhaps something new had occurred, something that could serve as an example to others. Admittedly, Christ’s death was perceived primarily as a sacrifice for sin, and much more could be said about this offering—briefly, he was punished in our place. But note also these words from the Bible that portray him as an example of humility and service based precisely on his willingness to step down from an exalted position to sit in one of the lowest spots of all, that is, the spot of a crucified person:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:5–8, NIV)
According to this passage, something fresh had broken through, for the exalted was said to have willingly come down to illustrate a life of service and concern for others. In essence, the divine was not only seated high-up but had also come down and was truly concerned for us; and this was, among other things, both an example to follow and decidedly new. In effect, triumphalistic and crusading religion was out, humility and service were in. Madness or genius? You decide.