Crucifixion in the Ancient World – David Watts

Crucifixion in the Ancient World – David Watts

In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul says that in the eyes of ‘those who are

perishing’ the ‘word of the cross’ is ‘folly’. This denotes, not merely

a lack of wisdom. The early Christian writer, Justin, explains

that the upset, caused by the Christian message in the ancient

world, is really madness.


“They say that our madness consists in the fact that we put a

crucified man in second place after the unchangeable and

eternal God, the Creator of the world”. (Apology I, 13.4).


It was particularly offensive to the imperial magistrate, Pliny the

younger, that the one who was honoured in Christian worship ‘as

a god’ had been nailed to a cross by the Roman authorities as a

state criminal. His friend Tacitus speaks no less harshly of a

‘pernicious superstition’ and knows of the shameful fate of

Jesus, who ‘suffered the extreme penalty’. The Jewish historian,

Josephus, describes crucifixion as ‘the most wretched’ of

deaths. From the 3rd century BC onwards, there is evidence of

the word crux as a vulgar taunt among the lower classes,

including slaves and prostitutes. It was an obscene word; we

might well print: c****f*****.


Crucifixion was a barbaric form of execution of the utmost

cruelty. It was a punishment in which the brutality of the

executioners was freely allowed. Because of its harshness

crucifixion was almost always inflicted only on the lower

classes. The upper classes could reckon with more ‘humane’

punishment. The Roman world was all agreed that crucifixion

was a horrific, disgusting business. Crucifixion was

widespread and frequent, but the cultured literary world

wanted to have nothing to do with it and as a rule kept quiet

about it. Nevertheless, in most Roman writers,

crucifixion appears as the typical punishment for



When Paul spoke about the ‘crucified Christ’ (1

Corinthians 1.23, 2:2; Galatians 3:1) every hearer in

the Greek-speaking East knew that this ‘Christ’

had suffered a particularly cruel and shameful

death, which as a rule was reserved for hardened

criminals, rebellious slaves and rebels against the

Roman state. That this crucified man, Jesus Christ,

could truly be a divine being sent to earth, God’s

Son, the Lord of all and the coming judge of the

world, must inevitably have been thought by any

educated man to be utter ‘madness’. Prior to his

conversion on the road to Damascus, this was

precisely the view of ‘Saul of Tarsus’ as he was

known then (later Paul the apostle). As he says in 2

Corinthians 5:16: “From now on we regard no one

from a human point of view. Though we once

regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer”.

Paul had a complete turnaround in his thinking

and attitudes – what today might be called a total

paradigm shift.


In Philippians 2: 5-11, Paul composed – or quoted –

an early Christian hymn, which says the Son of



“… made himself nothing, taking the very nature

of a slave, being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man, he

humbled himself

And became obedient to death – even death on

a cross.”


As the final section (vv 9-11) of that hymn says, the

shameful cross of humiliation was followed by the

glorious exaltation of Jesus; the basis of our Easter

hope, so that one day:


“At the name of Jesus, every knee should bow…

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is

Lord, to the glory of God the Father”.