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Crucifixion: The Curse of the Cross

by Brant Pitre November 01, 2019 0 Comments



There’s one last element of the cross for a Jewish context that’s critical, and it’s that the cross wasn’t simply cruel, it wasn’t simply shameful — publicly, socially; it also had a theological significance in Judaism. It was regarded as a sign of being accursed of God: the curse of crucifixion. Now in our context, when we talk about cursing, we usually mean using profanity, right? But in Judaism, remember, to be accursed is to have a visible sign of divine disfavor, to be visibly punished by God as a sign of the fact that you are not in His favor—you’re not in favor with God. You’re an abomination to him, you're a grave a sinner, you have broken the covenant—whatever it is, whatever form of breaking a relationship with God that would be making you considered to be accursed. That’s what we mean here when talking about the curse of crucifixion.

And we see that in ancient Jewish tradition, the idea that the cross was a curse is consistent from the time of the Pentateuch, with regard to hanging in general, and then all the way up to the first century and beyond with regard to crucifixion as the normal method of death by suspension, or what we would call hanging in antiquity. So let’s just look at a few of those texts. Number 1, the Pentateuch. The Book of Deuteronomy has a very interesting text in its section regarding executions. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 says this:

“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance.”

So we see there a couple of points. First of all, you notice that Deuteronomy assumes that death by hanging is a kind of ordinary way of execution. Second, you'll notice that its primary concern in this text is not to regulate the execution itself so much, as to regulate the aftermath of the execution. So what do you do with the body of a man who’s been hung on a tree? And Deuteronomy’s main concern is to say, “You don’t leave him on the tree overnight. You give him a burial.”

Now, why would that be a concern? Well, because one of the things that people would do in death by hanging is leave the corpse to be eaten by birds, to be eaten by animals that would come along. If the body’s hung low enough, you would have dogs and such that would eat the legs off of the corpse, or pull it down and then dismember it; and, of course, you would have birds of prey (carrion, buzzards and such) that are going to pick at the body.

Well this just extends the mockery into the death, right? You're not only executed in front of everybody, but everyone will watch your corpse be eaten by wild birds and beasts, okay? So that was the ordinary way of doing things with regard to hanging. So Deuteronomy actually here is showing some restraint. I know that sounds kind of odd, but remember, as I always tell you, put the text in context. So in the ancient near east, they would do all kinds of things with hanging victims or impaled victims, right? They would impale people on posts that were like 40 feet high and just leave them there so everyone could watch. So Deuteronomy says we don’t do that. You want to take the body off of the tree, bury it, so that you don’t defile the land. Okay? This would be an abomination in the eyes of God. But the reason too here is that a hanged man is accursed by God, that’s what it says. So that the man who suffered this punishment is seen as being accursed.

Now if you fast forward from the Pentateuch all the way to the time of Jesus Christ, the Dead Sea Scrolls, second century BC, first century BC, right up to the time of Christ, it cites the same text and it gives a little more context as to how that was understood in the first century. This is from the document called the Temple Scroll, 11Q Temple Scroll Column 64.

If a man passes on information against his people or betrays his people to a foreign nation, or does evil against his people, you shall hang him on a tree and he will die. On the evidence of two witnesses or on the evidence of three witnesses he shall be put to death and they shall hang him on a tree… If it happens that a man has committed a capital offence and he escapes amongst the nations and curses his people /and/ the children of Israel, he also you shall hang on the tree and he will die. And their corpse shall not spend the night on the tree; instead you hall bury them that day because those handed on a tree are cursed by God and man; thus you shall not defile the land which I give you for an inheritance. (11QTemple Scroll 64:6-13)

Note the additions that the Temple Scroll is making here to the text of Deuteronomy. First, who gets hanged? What kind of person gets hanged? What would be the cause for such a penalty, such a punishment? Yes, betrayal or sedition, right? So it’s a political context, right? Anyone who betrays his people, who’s a traitor to the people, to a foreign nation or anyone who does evil against the people as a whole, right? So it’s not just, I’ve murdered my neighbor because he committed adultery against me or I killed a man in anger when we were fighting because he had stolen my ox. This is a sin against the people as a whole, against the nation as a whole. So in order words, there’s a political context to crucifixion also. It’s the kind of death you give to a political criminal, right—what we would call political, they don’t have these categories exactly because they don’t divide everything up. Religion, politics, it’s all mixed together as it still is in the Middle East, and it is here too, I mean, but we try to distinguish it, right? So notice the political context here. It’s a person who’s done evil against the people as a whole.

That’s important because I want you to think about that too with regard to Jesus. That’s what him being crucified means, right? It also explains to you why—and you might have wondered this— did the people deride him as they’re passing by? Have you ever wondered that? Do you know this guy? Did he do something to you? No? Have you ever wondered about it? Why are the people going to Passover so cruel and derisive toward Christ when he was hanging on the cross? Well, it’s because he’s seen as traitor, as a false prophet, as a deceiver of the people of God. He doesn’t just sin against Pilate or against Caiaphas. He sins against you and against me and against Israel as a whole. That’s important. You'll see the irony of that when we look at Israel as a whole. How is Israel depicted as a corporate group? As the bride of Yahweh, corporately. All the individuals together make up the bride of God. And it’s precisely that corporate body that the crucified man is viewed as having sinned against.

Also note that in order to be crucified, you need two or three witnesses. Does this ring a bell? What were they doing at the trial? Yes, they’re trying to drag…get at least two or three people to testify that Jesus had said, “I will destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise up another,” right? They have to have some crime against the state, against the temple, against the people, in order to justify hanging him on a tree.

And then finally, notice that it also adds that if you're crucified on a tree, you're not just cursed by God, you're cursed by man. Men hate you. You don’t belong to the human race, right? You've been cut off from the human race when you are defiled, you are cursed. You make the land unclean. Again, note the irony there. The blood of Christ, the hung man makes the land unclean? No. It’s precisely by his blood that the land is redeemed, that the land is cleansed. He does anything but defile the land by his death on a tree. So this is all swirling around in the air when you talk about the cross.

Finally, by the time you get to the second century AD, the Mishnah, the Jewish Mishnah, continues this tradition of understanding the cross in these ways, and it says:

How did they hang a man? They put a beam into the ground and a piece of wood jutted from it. The two hands were brought together and it was hanged…

It’s interesting, the use of it here.

And they let it down at once: if it remained there overnight a negative command was thereby transgressed, for it is written, “His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt surely bury him the same day; for that is hanged is a curse of God” (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 6:4, citing Deuteronomy 21:23)

You even see here the dehumanizing of the person. They’re simply referring to him now as an it, as a corpse, right? Take it down. Cross its hands. That’s the image here, that they’re hung on the cross and then the hands would be united over. That was one of the forms of crucifixion. Sometimes the arms are extended, but sometimes they’re nailed together above the head and that’s what the Mishnah appears to be describing here.

And don’t be distracted or confused too by the language of hanging. As Chapman points out in his book, even though in our contemporary context, if I say someone was hung, you would think of death by hanging from a scaffolding with the rope around the neck, right? The terminology here, as he proves it in these early chapters, is suspension in the form of a cross. Now that can take different forms. They can tie you, they can nail you, they can do different ways to suspend the body, but it’s slightly different than our contemporary understanding of death by hanging. So he is talking about crucifixion here and there are technical terms in the Hebrew that make that clear. So the last point here is again—you'll notice—the concern is always that you don’t leave the body overnight so that you don’t transgress the statement, the command of Deuteronomy 21:23 about the curse of death by crucifixion.

Okay, so that’s what we’re looking at here. The physical cruelty of the cross, the spiritual or interior cruelty of the shame of the cross, and then finally, the theological significance of this suffering, this kind of death. Those are all on the table when Jesus begin saying to the disciples things like “take up your stauros and follow me.” You realize that the first audience, like the disciples hearing it, they would have…they knew what a cross was. I want to make sure you’re clear on that. It’s not just like a metaphor, a nice metaphor for skipping that cookie after lunch, right—I;m going to take up my cross and follow…“I’ll give up chocolate for Lent, Lord.” Taking up the cross; it’s brutality, it is shame, it’s cruelty, it’s the visible and apparent cursing of God himself.  And Jesus says, “Yes. If you want to be my disciple, do that. Willingly accept that and then come and I’ll show you where I’ll take you.”

And that’s also the context in which he’s going to say things like “Well, my wedding hour has not yet come.” And then when the guards arrived to get him in Gethsemane, “Now the hour has come.” The hour has come. So he’s bringing together two things which would be absolutely antithetical in an ancient Jewish mind. I mean, you've been a wedding. There’s few things more joyful, uniting, festive, memorable, beautiful than a wedding, and Jesus here is fusing those two things in to one with this curse of the shameful cross, the tree of shame.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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