How Paul Found Christ Crucified – “on a Tree” – In the Scriptures

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Toruń, church of St. Janów. Painting on the north wall of the presbytery (around 1380-90) – Crucifixion on Jesse’s Tree (Wikimedia)

Who bewitched you? Paul demanded to know of the Galatians. He continued:

Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was written beforehand [προεγράφη, cf Rom. 15:4] as crucified.

Max Wilcox suggested (with some diffidence) at least the possibility of such a translation back in 1977 in an article published in the Journal of Biblical Literature. The remainder of this post draws a few key points from a mass of fascinating details in that article, “Upon the Tree”: Deut 21:22-23 in the New Testament”. It focuses on what Paul and other early “Christian” exegetes found written in the Scriptures through a midrashic type reading.

A few verses after that opening Paul “bizarrely” links Jesus Christ with the pronouncement of a curse on anyone “hanging on a tree” as per the law of Deuteronomy. Galatians 3:13:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”

quoting Deuteronomy 21:23

. . . anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse . . .

Look at that Deuteronomy 21 passage in full and despair at trying to find any way Paul could have associated it with the crucified Jesus:

If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance. (Deut 21:22-23)

Wilcox finds clues to the association in the verses leading up to Galatians 3:13. If we are aware of the Scriptures Paul has been alluding to in those preceding verses we can find the answer to why the Deuteronomic tree-hanging curse applied to Jesus.

Look at Galatians 3:8-9

Now Scripture, having seen beforehand that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, proclaimed the good news of this in advance to Abraham in the promise, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”

So then, those who are ‘of faith’ are blessed with faithful/believing Abraham.

For Wilcox the above passage looks very much like a mixed quotation based on three passages in a Greek translation of Genesis(Notice that Peter is assigned a similar quotation in Acts: the major difference being that in Acts the stress is on “seed” while in Galatians it is on “you”, referring to Abraham.)

Wilcox comments that Paul (and the author of Acts) are using a hybrid quotation to associate the promise to Abraham with the “nations”, the Gentiles.

Not only Genesis but Deuteronomy informs Paul’s thought

In Galatians 3:10 we begin to read a longer section of the cursing and blessing dichotomy. This motif comes from many passages throughout Deuteronomy. Galatians 3:10 even directly quotes Deuteronomy:

Galatians 3:10 Deuteronomy 27:26
. . . for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Cursed be he that confirmeth not the words of this law to do them. . . .

But why does Paul veer towards the “cursed is everyone hanging on a tree” passage when that passage is surely meant to apply to blasphemers and other sinners of the worst kind? Continue reading “How Paul Found Christ Crucified – “on a Tree” – In the Scriptures”


The Myth and History of Masada and Jesus’ Passion

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

מצדה מהאוויר, תמונה שצולמה על ידי אסף.צ. התמונ...
Masada. (Image via Wikipedia)

I was recently reading a historian’s discussion of the events of Masada that attempted to unravel the myth from the historical fact. The similarities and differences with the way biblical historians attempt to unravel the myth and history of the Passion of Jesus were unavoidable.


Josephus created the myth of Masada — 960 Jewish defenders mass-suicided when faced with defeat at the hands of the Romans. The historical facts can be uncovered by

  1. archaeological evidence, and
  2. adding a dash of common sense to literary criticism of the narrative of Josephus.

Not that we “need” archaeological evidence for every detail Josephus ever pens. Many details are not all that critical to our understanding of the basic outline of events associated with the Jewish war. But we do have external controls for enough of the narrative of Josephus to give us confidence that when he writes about the Jewish rebellion against Rome from around the mid 60s to early 70s ce, he is indeed tackling a real event — unlike when he paraphrases some of the early mythical biblical “history” such as the creation of Adam, Noah’s Flood and the Exodus. It may be that when Josephus is discussing externally verifiable events, his narrative is not always pristine accurate. But the historian of such ancient sources can attempt to weave her way through the narrative details with a mix of common sense and literary criticism and arrive at a “probability range” statement about what might or might not have occurred, (and still never be absolutely sure).

Historian Shayne Cohen‘s discussion of the Masada myth and event illustrates this perfectly.

External and primary evidence

Archaeological evidence confirms that there was indeed a historical conflict between Jews and Romans at Masada. We have remains of a Roman military camp, Jewish defensive structures, and evidence of violence. Unfortunately for the Josephan account, however, not all this evidence is so supportive. Josephus says the food reserves were not burned, that there was but one grand bonfire to consume all property chosen for destruction, that all agreed to suicide, and to do so in a palace area. The archaeological evidence tells us that:

  • food reserves were burnt
  • many disparate areas were burnt
  • remains of bodies have been uncovered in different locations, including in a hazardous-to-access-cave outside the defended area
  • the area where the 960 were said to have suicided was too small for such a number

Common sense

Common sense delivers its contribution to reality. Josephus informs us that at the moment the Romans finally breached the defensive wall, they decided to have a break and go and have a nap for the night. That defies common sense. The Romans were quite used to attacking at night. To retire after the breach only meant they would have to maintain a careful watch to ensure the Jewish rebels did not attack the Roman fortifications or camp.

Meanwhile, Romans were able to continue monitoring the situation within Masada from the heights of their siege engines. Despite all the goings-on with the rebel encampment that Josephus relates, when the Romans did enter through the breach the next morning they were supposedly completely unprepared for what they discovered. Somehow the Roman observation posts had failed to detect anything unusual at all during the night, such as the inhabitants all retreating to a single Tardis-like building (too small for all those Josephus says entered it) and suiciding.

Besides, how could Josephus have had any idea of what transpired in Masada on that final night?

Common sense does not support the historicity of Josephus’s narrative.

Literary analysis

Now bring in literary criticism. Meanwhile, the Jewish rebel leader, Eleazar, delivers a long speech in which he lays the total blame for the failure of the Jewish rebellion on his own party, the Sicarii, and  in which he declares that the imminent fate of both himself and all his colleagues at the hands of the Romans was justly deserved. He once again delivers another lengthy discourse on the rationale for suicide and the nature of the soul. When we think of these two speeches alongside what we know of Josephus’s negative view of the Sicarii, and alongside Josephus’s own earlier reasonings for avoiding suicide (when it involved his own life), we begin to see authorial motives for the creation of these eloquent speeches.

Literary analysis further enables us to see how Josephus used the delay of a whole night to enhance the dramatic effect of the Roman entry the following morning. The Romans are depicted as entering cautiously and being mystified by the silence and emptiness of what they did encounter. It is all a most dramatic build-up to the discovery of the “facts” that did eventually confront them. Continue reading “The Myth and History of Masada and Jesus’ Passion”