The Folly of the Cross -- By: Donald E. Green

Journal: Masters Seminary Journal
Volume: TMSJ 15:1 (Spring 2004)
Article: The Folly of the Cross
Author: Donald E. Green


The Folly of the Cross

Donald E. Green

Faculty Associate in New Testament

First Cor 1:23 indicates that both Jews and Gentiles refused to believe Paul’s preaching of Christ crucified. They rejected the message in part because of the cultural connotations of crucifixion in the first century. Crucifixion was a vulgar, common execution that the Romans imposed on notorious criminals, prisoners of war, and rebellious slaves. Its harsh brutality symbolized the supremacy of the Roman government over the victim. Gentiles thus viewed crucifixion as a sure sign of the victim’s defeat. Jews, on the other hand, held crucified men in even greater contempt because to them crucifixion was a sign of God’s curse on the victim. Paul’s preaching of Christ crucified thus cut deeply against the grain of his culture. Jews rejected the idea that the Messiah could be crucified (and thus cursed) and looked for signs instead. Gentiles rejected as foolishness the notion that a crucified man could be the only Savior of mankind and sought eloquent rhetoric in its place. Paul’s example challenges today’s Christian leader to confront the culture with the same message of Christ crucified and not to cater to the latest fads in marketing the gospel to the passing whims of unbelievers.

The Folly of the Cross in New Testament Preaching

When Jesus Christ commissioned His disciples to preach the gospel, He sent them with a message that collided with the cultural sensibilities of the day. His death and resurrection were the basis for the forgiveness of sin, yet both Jews and Gentiles found the manner of His death--crucifixion--to be a severe impediment to receiving the gospel because they viewed crucified men with complete disdain.

The apostle Paul mentioned these obstacles in 1 Cor 1:23. “Christ crucified” was “to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness.” The reason for those obstacles can only be understood with an awareness of the historical background of crucifixion in the first-century Roman Empire. This essay will explain that background to enable the reader to understand why Paul’s audience found the message of a crucified Savior so repulsive.

First will come a survey of the history of crucifixion in the ancient world, followed by a more specific examination of crucifixion in the Roman Empire. The discussion will identify the usual victims of crucifixion, together with the specific manner by which they were crucified. Then, it will describe the attitudes of Jews and Gentiles toward crucifixion. Once this historical background has been developed, it will explore its bearing on the interpretation of You must have a subscription and be logged in to read the entire article.
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