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.
We might rather detect sympathy rather than disgust in Josephus’s accounts.
Fredriksen also cites S.G.F. Brandon’s remark on the heroic patriotism of the Zealots. I quite Brandon in full but with my own emphasis:
According to Josephus, they were tortured for the sole object of making them acknowledge Caesar as lord (Καίσαρα δεσπότην όμολογήσωσινv). All remained resolute, even the young children among them. Their constancy apparently made a great impression, and even Josephus pays tribute to their courage.
And so this tragic chapter in Israel’s long history closes. The Zealots stood in true succession to the Yahwist prophets of old. They were, like Phinehas, zealous for the God of Israel. Their ideal was the ancient prophetic one of Israel as the Elect People of Yahweh. In their zeal to maintain that ideal they could be cruelly uncompromising and fanatical; but no more so than many of the revered heroes of their sacred tradition. Their tragedy was that, unlike the Maccabees before them in their struggle with the ramshackle empire of the Seleucids, in Rome they had themselves to contend with the greatest power of the ancient world, and, for all their courage and zeal, that power was invincible to them. But, if they could not win, they knew how to suffer for their faith. When Jesus of Nazareth called upon his disciples to take up their cross, he uttered a grim challenge that every Zealot had to face for himself. The cross was the symbol of Zealot sacrifice before it was transformed into the sign of Christian salvation.
Brandon, S.G.F., 1967. Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. p. 145
So Paula Fredriksen concludes:
In short: nothing in first-century Judaism (or thereafter) seems to require that a crucified man ipso facto be seen as “cursed of God,” and we have no evidence of Jews ever actually having done so. The source of this interpretation of “crucifixion” as “curse,” and its originary context, is not late second temple Judaism, but Paul’s letter itself and the rhetorical chiasma of “blessing” and “curse” that he weaves in Galatians 3.10–14. The brief and novel exegetical association that he makes in this passage of his letter — Abraham/blessing, Law/curse, Christ/Law, curse/blessing — should not and cannot be generalized into a standing Jewish view of crucifixion tout court.51 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.
Fredriksen, Paula. Paul: The Pagan’s Apostle (Kindle Locations 1585-1592). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
Not Even a Dead Messiah by Any Other Means . . .
For those who are wondering what that #51 points to in the end-notes, Paula Fredriksen rebuts Larry Hurtado’s assertion that what scandalized the Jews was Christianity’s notion of a “dead messiah”. Fredriksen responds:
- the Jewish acceptance of a dead messiah was already known from Daniel 9:25f
Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times. And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself
- late in the first century a Jewish author would repeat the idea in 4 Ezra 7:28-29
For my son the Messiah shall be revealed with those who are with him, and those who remain shall rejoice four hundred years. And after these years my son the Messiah shall die, and all who draw human breath.
- early Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem had “no problem of cognitive dissonance proclaiming a crucified messiah” and they were not persecuted for doing so, living within Jerusalem peacefully until the outbreak of war in 66 CE.
The Language Betrays the Apologetic Interest
As a postscript of my own, here, I want to comment on PF’s lament,
Alas, the idea that a messiah killed by crucifixion . . . . would be shocking to first-century Jews is still alive and well.
The supporting instances of expressions of this idea warrant more than an “alas”, I think. The language in which Andrew Chester couches the idea is not academic; it is apologetic. It is the language of the evangelist. Notice:
At the very least, however; Paul’s primary emphasis in relation to Christ represents something utterly remarkable. For Paul had found the early Christian proclamation of the crucified messiah completely abhorrent; it was indeed this that had led him to persecute the early Christian movement. Yet his extraordinary ‘Damascus road’ experience had then compelled him to accept that Jesus had actually been vindicated by God, and that therefore the claim that Jesus was the messiah had also been vindicated. Hence it became an underlying conviction for Paul that this person, Jesus, who had appeared to him, was the fulfilment of Jewish messianic hope.
Chester, “The Christ of Paul,” in Bockmuehl, M., Paget, J.C. (Eds.), 2007. Redemption and Resistance. p. 120
When you see this sort of language, language that sounds as if it is breathlessly expressing the marvelous wonders of the Christian faith, then know that the author has stepped outside the sober halls of scholarly academe and is making declarations that are really only appropriate in the seminary.
Notice Maurice Casey’s criticism of Larry Hurtado’s like-language. He rightly notes that such terms are “evangelical rather than analytical categories”:
Hurtado rightly notes the importance of early Christian interpretation of the Old Testament with reference to Jesus. His description of this as ‘sometimes astonishing’ (p. 73), however, is not sufficiently analytical. He continues, ‘the utterly remarkable allusion to Isaiah 45:23 in Philippians 2:10-11 involves finding a reference to Christ as Kyrios as well as God in what is perhaps the most stridently monotheistic passage in the Old Testament!’
This passage is indeed important, but ‘utterly remarkable’ is not a sufficiently analytical comment on why it was written as it is. Hurtado continues to speak of ‘inspired insights’, suggesting that such ‘experiences were likely in the context of group worship, which included prayer for and expectations of divine revelations’ (p. 74). This is simply pushing the evidence a bit too far. Hurtado proceeds to describe this as ‘the incorporation of Christ into a binitarian devotional pattern’, and suggests that to account for it ‘we have to allow for the generative role of revelatory religious experience’. I discuss the term ‘binitarian’ later. Here the problem with allowing for ‘revelatory religious experience’ is that these experiences, which surely were important, are not taken into a fully explanatory theory.
Again, Hurtado discusses the important term maranatha at 1 Cor. 16.22, which Paul did not need to translate and which was derived ultimately from the Aramaic … correctly translated by Hurtado ‘Our Lord, Come!’ (p. 110). In response to Fitzmyer’s mild comment that this does not explicitly present Jesus as divine, Hurtado describes its use as ‘an unprecedented and momentous innovation in traditional Jewish liturgical practice’. . . . . Here . . . ‘unprecedented and momentous’ are not the kind of terms headed for an explanatory theory, even if ‘unprecedented’ is literally true.
There is then the whole section on ‘Binitarian Worship’ (pp. 134-53). This begins with a ‘remarkable’ overlap in functions between God and Jesus, which is ‘all the more phenomenal’ because Paul’s letters show it already rather well developed by the 50s, so that at an ‘astonishingly’ early point Jesus was being treated as divine in various Christian circles (pp. 134-35). Again, these are evangelical rather than analytical categories.
Casey, M., 2004. “Lord Jesus Christ: A Response to Professor Hurtado.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27, 88-89
That sort of language serves to reinforce the same idea that is often expressed by declaring how “scandalous” and “shocking” the idea of a crucified messiah was to Jews. The “historian” is left with no alternative but to trust the accounts that say people like Paul were converted entirely as a result of divine visions, etc, to overcome their revulsion of the notion of a crucified messiah. That, to me, is nothing but evangelical paraphrasing and preaching the gospel itself. It is not genuine scholarly analysis. Fredriksen’s protest is too mild.
Brandon, S.G.F., 1967. Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.
Casey, M., 2004. “Lord Jesus Christ: A Response to Professor Hurtado”. Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27, 83–96.
Chester, A. “The Christ of Paul,” in Redemption and Resistance: The Messianic Hopes of Jews and Christians in Antiquity, ed. Markus Bockmuehl and James Carleton Paget (London: T. & T. Clark, 2009)
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