Cross by Matthias GrunewaldMark is very brief and concise as he describes the crucifixion. The whole of Mark’s gospel has led up to the first phrase of verse 24, a simple line, “they crucified him.” He did not need to go into great detail, everyone in the Roman world knew what it was to be crucified, and as we saw a moment ago, it was considered impolite to talk about the execution in Roman society. Mark simply mentions it as a fact.

Crucifixion was not invented by the Romans, but the perfected this method of execution into the most horrible of deaths. They called it the “extreme penalty,” and “the humiliation.” It was reserved for the lower classes of their society, the conquered peoples who were not citizens. The Romans considered it too degrading for a Roman, reserved only for those citizens who had committed treason or fled in battle. There are several examples of this in Jewish history.

  • Jews who resisted Antiochus IV Epiphanies (167-164 B.C.) were crucified (Antiq. 12.5.4). Alexander Janneus, the Hasmonean high priest, executed 800 political opponents (many were likely Pharisees, Antiq. 13.14.2).
  • In 4 B.C. the Roman general Varus lined the road from Sepphoris to Galilee with 2000 crucified Jewish rebels (War 2.5.2, Antiq. 17.10.10). The procurator Tiberius Alexander ( A.D. 46-48) crucified the sons of Judas the Galilean (Antiq. 20.5.2).
  • In the Jewish War in A.D. 66 the Roman procurator Gessius Florus executed Jewish soldiers who refused to fight against Jews (War 2.14.9) and Titus crucified captives opposite the walls of Jerusalem (War 5.6.5, 5.11.1).

That Jesus was crucified would have been offensive to Jew and Gentile. The Romans considered talk of a cross or the executioner who preformed the crucifixion to be disgraceful, unworthy of a Roman citizen. The death of crucifixion was sadistic and cruel and was intended to keep the lower classes in their place and to keep subjected peoples from rebelling.

To the Jew, anyone killed by crucifixion was under the curse. The Old Testament said that anything that was hung on a tree was cursed (Deut 21:22-23). It was the ultimate insult to the Jew of the first century to be told that not only did the Messiah come and they did not recognize him, but that he had been crucified as a common criminal.

To the Greek, the death of Jesus on the cross was foolishness. The Greeks were civilized, believing in beauty and truth. To glorify the mangled body of Jesus on the cross was intellectually insulting to the worldview of  the Greek thinker.

What is the point of the Cross?  Jesus is executed as a rebel against Rome.  He would not have been thought to be a righteous martyr, but a failed prophet, a deceiver who was leading people in a rebellion against Rome.  Clearly he was not God, nor was he approved of by God.  This death is a humiliation such that no one in the first century would be drawn to Jesus as a religious leader let alone a savior. If death on the cross was such a confirmation for people living in the first century that Jesus was not at all who he claimed to be, what did God intend by choosing this sort of death for Jesus?

The answer is to be found in the resurrection.  The Roman, Greek and Jewish perceptions of what Jesus’ death meant are totally reversed in what happened three days later.  The humiliation of the cross makes the vindication of the resurrection even more spectacular.