Posted in theology

Do we understand how MUCH of an offense the cross was?

By Elizabeth Prata

But as for me, brothers and sisters, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been eliminated. (Galatians 5:11)

For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)

Some translations of the Galatians 5 verse say the cross is an ‘offense’.

We understand that point, that the cross is an offense. Likely because we have heard sermons (especially on Easter) that the cross was a horrible offense, it was disgraceful, punitive in the extreme, etc. Most likely we’d have heard sermons or read essays about how the flesh of Jesus was tortured, scourged, and how He bled.

But I don’t think we realize HOW MUCH of an offense the cross was to first century Romans, Jews, and others.

For the Romans,

The cross was called the “infamous stake,” the “criminal wood,” and the “most evil cross” (Crucifixion, 7–8). Cicero described crucifixion as “the cruelest and most terrible punishment” (Verr. 2.5.165). Josephus called it “the most pitiable of deaths” (Jewish War 7.203). Ancients also considered crucifixion to be the ultimate shame. For example, Celsus, the second century AD detractor of Christianity, wrote that Jesus had been executed in a “dishonorable and shameful way” (Origen, Against Celsus 6.10). The author of Hebrews wrote that Jesus “endured the cross, disregarding the shame” (Heb 12:2). In crucifixion, everything was done to humiliate and dishonor the victim in addition to torturing him or her to death. SOURCE: The Lexham Bible Dictionary.

‘Infamous’, ‘evil’, ‘pitiable’, ‘cruel’, dishonorable’. It was beyond anyone’s comprehension that the Savior, the Messiah, would come, die, and die in such a way that even mentioning the word ‘cross’ in polite company was considered a massive breach of etiquette.

Here’s a bit more from the Lexham Bible Dictionary-

Jews treated the idea of a crucified man of God with great suspicion, since Deut 21:23 pronounced a curse on anyone who was “hanged on a tree.” ... Paul may have referred to an argument some Jews had used that Jesus could not have been the Messiah because He was cursed (Gal 3:13–14). Nearly a century after Paul wrote, Justin Martyr maintained that some Jewish persons of his day appealed to Deut 21:23 to oppose the messianic claims the church was making about Jesus (Dialogue with Trypho 89.2).

To the Jews, the cross was a huge stumbling block. How could their Messiah, sinless and perfect and One who will deliver, be cursed? The Jews would say, ‘May it never be’ or ‘What a ghastly thought!’

Crucifixion was reserved for slaves, lowest criminals, political upstarts, and foreigners. It’s been said that a Roman citizen was never crucified, but very occasionally, they were. The outcry, though, if a Roman was crucified, was massive. The Roman Orator Cicero used the cruel and suspicious crucifixion of an outspoken political opponent of a corrupt Governor of Sicily in his orations during the trial against the governor as one of the reasons the governor should be removed:

...murdered by the most miserable and most painful punishment appropriate to slaves alone. It is a crime to bind a Roman citizen; to scourge him is a wickedness; to put him to death is almost parricide. What shall I say of crucifying him? So guilty an action cannot by any possibility be adequately expressed by any name bad enough for it. Cicero: Against Verres, Book 5

Cicero said in one of his orations that such things should be far removed from the “thoughts, eyes, and ears” of a Roman citizen. He called death by this method, “the terror”.

[16] Wretched is the loss of one's good name in the public courts, wretched, too, a monetary fine exacted from one's property, and wretched is exile, but, still, in each calamity there is retained some trace of liberty. Even if death is set before us, we may die in freedom. But the executioner, the veiling of heads, and the very word “cross,” let them all be far removed from not only the bodies of Roman citizens but even from their thoughts, their eyes, and their ears. The results and suffering from these doings as well as the situation, even anticipation, of their enablement, and, in the end, the mere mention of them are unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man. M. Tullius Cicero, Speech before Roman Citizens on Behalf of Gaius Rabirius, Defendant Against the Charge of Treason

Now enter Paul into this atmosphere of the cross’s terror, the disgust it raises for a Roman, and the curse it evokes in a Jew. Paul goes into Rome…into the synagogue… and speaks of the cross! He not only speaks of it, but he BOASTS in it!

But far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14).

How. Can. This. Be?!!!

No wonder the the cross represented such a stumbling block to the Jews. For 700 years they have been taught in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 that anyone hung on a tree was cursed. How is it that the Messiah Himself could be cursed? The verse is actually a foreshadowing of the Man-God who would incarnate and become curse for us. But it was still a stumbling block to many, and many rejected the Messiah on this basis alone.

For the Roman, as mentioned, talking about the cross or a crucifixion in company was considered impolite and disgusting. For Paul to speak of such things in a positive light was foolishness to them, and they refused to hear. Many rejected the concept of a Messiah who had died on a cross for that reason alone. Picture Paul in the synagogues boasting in the cross or among the Gentiles boasting in the cross, and now you have some idea of how repulsive the notion of Christianity was to many of his hearers.

So when you read the verses relating to boasting in the cross and being a stumbling block, now perhaps you have a better idea of the tough go that the first century Apostles had in preaching the Gospel.

Further Reading:

The author goes through several spiritual reasons why the cross is such an offense->

The Offense of the Cross


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

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