The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith

By Gerard S. Sloyan | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
The Popular Passion Piety
of the Catholic West

The first ten centuries of Christianity went largely unmarked by devotion to Jesus’ flagellation and crowning with thorns, his progress toward the hill of Calvary (Latin, “skull place”; Aramaic gûlgaltā’; akin to Hebrew golgōlet, “skull”), and his sufferings on the cross. Paul had written that baptism unites believers to the death of Christ (Rom. 6:3–6), and several places in the New Testament propose his sufferings as an example (1 Peter 1:21; Col. 1:24; 1 Cor. 2:2; 4:16; 11:1). In the late first and early second century, the writings of Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, which were long considered to be Sacred Scripture, asked Christians to keep Christ’s passion before their eyes, to be united with him, and to be nailed to the cross.1 The same Ignatius counseled the necessity of imitating Christ in his passion.2 The various Acts of the Martyrs from the second century through the fourth present these witnesses to the faith as patterning their acceptance of torment on the sufferings of Christ. Beginning in 3 3 3 with the chronicle of the anonymous pilgrim of Bordeaux, accounts of pilgrimage to the so-called holy places testify to a route in Jerusalem the pilgrims followed from one Constantinian edifice to the other.3 This does not have the character of a via crucis or a via dolorosa, however, tracing the steps of Jesus from Pilate’s judgment seat to the knob of earth where he died.

Melito of Sardis (fl. ca. 170) in his Easter homily is the first Christian writer extant to engage in graphic detail, deploring the cruel event in these words:

Listen while you tremble before him on whose account the earth trembles:
He that suspended the earth was himself suspended.
He that fixed the heavens was fixed [with nails].

1. 1 Clem. 2.1; Ign. Phil. 3.3; Smyrn. 1.1; 4.2; 5.3.

2. Eph. 9.1; 10.3; Magn. 5.2; Rom. 4.9; 6.3.

3. P. Geyer, ed., Itinera hierosolymitana, saec. IV-VIH, CSEL 39 (Vienna, 1898), 22–23, 71–77.

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