The idea that Jews would be (actively and aggressively) scandalized by the message of a crucified messiah because of his manner of death should be retired from New Testament scholarship.
Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle
This is a topic I’ve posted about before but this time I am sharing Paula Fredriksen’s version of the argument. (Yes, I know I have several other series I am supposed to be completing but as I follow up footnotes and related references to works on those posts I find myself coming across other little interesting details like this one along the way.)
Paula Fredriksen sums up the widespread scholarly view this way:
Some scholars have conjectured that the core message of the new movement — the proclamation of a crucified messiah — would have deeply offended any and all Jews. In Galatians 3.13, Paul cites Deuteronomy 21.23:
Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree.
Jews in antiquity took “hanging on a tree” to mean crucifixion (so too, e.g., 11 Q Temple 64.6–13). On this scholarly construction, the early kerygma was an affront to pious Jews anywhere and everywhere, since a messiah known to have been crucified like a criminal would be viewed as dying a death “cursed by the Law”: for this reason, Jews would be scandalized by the message of a crucified messiah (cf. 1 Cor 1.23). How could the messiah be “cursed of God”?
This is one of those tropes of New Testament scholarship that refuses to go away, despite all its problems as historical reconstruction.
Fredriksen, Paula. Paul: The Pagan’s Apostle (Kindle Locations 1567-1573). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition. — My formatting and bolding in all quotations
The first point to note (as Paula Fredriksen points out) is that the Deuteronomy passage does not speak of executing a criminal by hanging but to a post-mortem public display of the executed criminal’s body. (I am reminded of the later Talmudic account of a Jeschu (Jesus?) being stoned and his corpse subsequently being strung up on a tree.)
By the first century, however, “hanging on a tree” had become a circumlocution for crucifixion as we learn in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
But a significant point that Fredriksen notes is that there is no evidence in any Jewish literature that death by crucifixion was considered a “cursed” type of death as appears to be indicated in Galatians 3:13. So it is worth looking at the broader context what death by crucifixion or hanging meant to Jews of Paul’s day.
Saul and Jonathan hanged
David retrieved the bones of King Saul and his son Jonathan that the Philistines had hung up on public display in one of their cities. Though hanged,
nowhere is this taken to mean that they had died under a special curse (2 Sam 21:12).
800 Pharisees crucified
In Antiquities of the Jews 13.380 Josephus tells us about king Alexander Janneus crucifying 800 Pharisees.
. . . . . after which the Jews fought against Alexander, and being beaten, were slain in great numbers in the several battles which they had; and when he had shut up the most powerful of them in the city Bethome, he besieged them therein; and when he had taken the city, and gotten the men into his power, he brought them to Jerusalem, and did one of the most barbarous actions in the world to them; for as he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred of them to be crucified; and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes. This was indeed by way of revenge for the injuries they had done him; which punishment yet was of an inhuman nature . . . .
Sons of Judah the Galilean crucified
Again we learn from Josephus in Book 20 of Antiquities of the crucifixion by Rome of two sons of a Jewish rebel:
And besides this, the sons of Judas of Galilee were now slain; I mean of that Judas who caused the people to revolt, when Cyrenius came to take an account of the estates of the Jews, as we have showed in a foregoing book. The names of those sons were James and Simon, whom [Tiberius] Alexander commanded to be crucified.
2000 Jews crucified in wake of Herod’s death
Josephus further tells us in Book 17 of his Antiquities that the Romans crucified 2000 Jews to crush a rebellion that broke out after Herod’s death.
Upon this, Varus sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt; and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty, and some he dismissed: now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand.
Thousands of refugees crucified during the Jewish War
In the fifth book of his Jewish Wars Josephus writes of the crucifixions of thousands of Jewish refugees attempting to flee the besieged city of Jerusalem:
Some of these were indeed fighting men, who were not contented with what they got by rapine; but the greater part of them were poor people, who were deterred from deserting by the concern they were under for their own relations; for they could not hope to escape away, together with their wives and children, without the knowledge of the seditious; nor could they think of leaving these relations to be slain by the robbers on their account; nay, the severity of the famine made them bold in thus going out; so nothing remained but that, when they were concealed from the robbers, they should be taken by the enemy; and when they were going to be taken, they were forced to defend themselves for fear of being punished; as after they had fought, they thought it too late to make any supplications for mercy; so they were first whipped, and then tormented with all sorts of tortures, before they died, and were then crucified before the wall of the city. This miserable procedure made Titus greatly to pity them, while they caught every day five hundred Jews; nay, some days they caught more . . . . . So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies.
No suggestion of divine curse, no offence in death by crucifixion
Paula Fredriksen observes that in all of the above Jewish accounts of crucifixions Josephus
nowhere claims that other Jews regarded these people as therefore having died under a divine curse.