Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross

By Martin Hengel | Go to book overview

1
The 'Folly' of the Crucified
Son of God

In I Corinthians 1.18 Paul says that in the eyes of 'those who are perishing', the 'word of the cross' is 'folly'. He goes on to emphasize the point further in v. 23 by saying that the crucified Christ is a 'stumbling-block' for the Jews and 'folly' for the Gentiles. The Greek word

which he uses here does not denote either a purely intellectual defect nor a lack of transcendental wisdom. Something more is involved. Justin puts us on the right track when he describes the offence caused by the Christian message to the ancient world as madness , and sees the basis for this objection in Christian belief in the divine status of the crucified Jesus and his significance for salvation:

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).

Justin later concedes that demons have caused stories to be told about miraculous powers of the 'sons of Zeus' and of their ascensions to heaven, 'but in no case … is there any imitation of the crucifixion' (55.1).1 It is the crucifixion that distinguishes the new message from the mythologies of all other peoples.

1 The remarks in 22.3f are only apparently a contradiction of this: 'But
if anyone objects

that he was crucified, this is in com-
mon with the sons of Zeus, as you call then, who suffered as we have now
enumerated [in the previous chapter]. For according to the accounts,
their sufferings and death were not all like, but different. So his unique
passion does not make him out to be inferior - indeed I will, as I have un-
dertaken, show, as the argument proceeds, that he was superior.' These
explicit apologetic remarks also make it clear that the dishonour involved

-1-

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