N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (3)

Ch.3: The Cross In Its First Century Setting

          The original ancient setting for considering the cross is the Greco-Roman world of late antiquity. The ethos of that world as defined by its great poets and story-tellers was wrath (Homer, The Illiad) and arms (Virgil, the Aeneid). Gods or humans, everyone and everything was implicated in these two realities.

          This is why that world executed certain people in the brutal and degrading way of crucifixion. IT was designed not simply to kill the criminal but to do so in a degrading fashion. As an example to break the spirit of any onlookers who might be contemplating actions of a treasonous or seditious nature. This assertion of sheer power carried the message of the futility of such actions. That crucifixion often left the condemned person hanging alive in torturous suffering begging for release brought the trifecta of degradation, show of power, and terror to its rousing climax. Though the Romans did not invent crucifixion they honed its practice to perfection.  

          Further, the power of a cross to mock anyone perceived to have social or political pretentions was extraordinary. “You think you’re high and mighty? Well, let us lift you up for the whole world to see!” And finally, the ultimate irony was the well-known ideology of the Roman Empire, the Pax Romana, the “peace” the empire brought to its inhabitants, was based foursquare on the violence so exquisitely displayed by the cross.

          The question for us is how such a grotesque symbol as this came so quickly to be the chief symbol of the news called “good” of the Christian gospel.

                              Roman Cross                             Christian Cross    

Social: We are superior to you                 Everyone is equal here                    Political: We’re in charge here          God is in charge                        Religious: Caesar is Lord                             Jesus is Lord

          Within the ancient world there was a certain approbation of one person dying in the place of another. The Hebrew Bible contains little trace of this kind of thinking. Perhaps this played some role in the New Testament’s announcement that Christ died “for us.” Of course, the pagans saw such a death as noble. No one would have said that about a crucifixion.

          In the early Jewish world we find three things that play large roles in understanding the cross as the great Christian symbol of salvation.

-In the Jewish calendar the greatest festival was Passover, the freedom festival commemorating God’s deliverance of his people from oppression and slavery in Egypt. Jesus chose Passover for the climactic moment of his life and mission. Thus Passover became a key way of interpreting Jesus’ great act of deliverance in the New Testament.

-As evident in scriptures such as Dan.9 the exile continued on long past the return of the people from Babylon. Inasmuch as doscopic idolatry and sin had brought about the exile, any return would be premised on the forgiveness of sins. The Day of Atonement was the moment when the nation celebrated God’s forgiveness. Since Jews of Jesus time were longing for both a new Passover and the forgiveness of sins, a combining of these two otherwise unrelated matters seemed possible (see Jer.31-31-34).

Text Box: “There was no template of expectations out of which, granted the crucifixion of Jesus, one might have anticipated the sophisticated range of interpretation that the early Christian movement in fact produced, understanding the death of Jesus as a messianic victory and connecting it with the long awaited divine return. For that we must look elsewhere.” (65)  -Messianic hope, at Jesus’ time had no thought of a suffering messiah. Some expected a time of terrible suffering but not connected with any putative Messiah. Others picked up on thoughts like God returning in a new way to judge and redeem the world and his people but this was not connected to thought about a Messiah or a period of intense suffering.


        The New Testament itself provides a kaleidoscopic array of images and insights around our topic. It is not easy to give a coherent account of all of it. We find in it complex ways of reading the Old Testament scriptures, many events and incidents whose full meaning escapes us, the reality of “sacrifice that we still do not understand very well.

        Here’s sketch of NTW’s view that he will develop in the rest of the book.

-if we replace the default view of Christian hope (“going to heaven”) with the biblical view of new creation we will see the New Testament’s diagnosis of our problem and God’s solution quite differently.

-in the default version sin is what blocks us from going to heaven. In the biblical view it is primarily idolatry that hinders us and what is required is for the power of that idolatry over us to be broken. Sin is the consequence of idolatry so when the sin is dealt with through forgiveness the power of hold idolatry has on us is broken. We can thus begin to worship and live now as the creatures God meant us to be. Going to heaven has nothing to do with it.

-all this is focused in the Bible on Israel and particularly Jesus, Israel’s representative Messiah. As Israel’s stand-in he walks Israel’s path and gets it right, thus fulfilling God’s plan and purpose for his people.

        This concludes the first part of The Day the Revolution Began. Part 2 takes a closer look at the biblical material.


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