Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion

David W. Chapman Baker Academic, Grand Rapids July 1, 2010
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This volume is a reprint of the author’s “substantial revision” of his PhD dissertation from Cambridge University, originally published in 2008 by Mohr Siebeck. Baker is to be commended for making this volume available at a much more affordable price.

The book has two goals. First, Chapman desires to understand ancient Jewish perceptions of crucifixion. This accounts for most of the volume (chaps. 2–6). Second, Chapman seeks to use his findings to help understand how Jews and Christians understood Jesus’ crucifixion (chap. 7).

Chapman’s emphasis on perception is important. Although not ignoring the facts about crucifixion itself, the more important issue of what crucifixion meant to Jews and Christians is what helps believers understand the New Testament better.

In chapter 1 Chapman discusses the history of research; crucifixion terminology in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac; suspension as a death penalty from the perspective of Jewish law and practice (including a broader discussion of the death penalty); and methodology. In this thorough discussion Chapman reveals that unlike the word “crucifixion,” which brings to mind a very specific type of death penalty (based essentially on the understanding of Christ’s death), the ancient world used various words to label a number of different types of suspension.

The bulk of this volume is devoted to an inductive study of the ancient sources regarding crucifixion with an eye to understanding the way in which Jews perceived crucifixion. Here Chapman discusses ancient texts from various types of literature that can be described as Jewish (e.g., the Apocrypha, Josephus, Philo, rabbinics, etc.). Chapman’s survey reveals a variety of perceptions from martyrdoms to scandalous punishments for brigands and rebels. He looks at whether Jews believed crucifixion was a legitimate punishment for them to use. Again differences are present. For example Philo saw crucifixion as commanded by God in Deuteronomy 21:22–23 (pp. 132–35, 210), while both Josephus and the rabbinic tradition saw crucifixion as a legitimate punishment for use by the Romans but not for use by the Jews (pp. 57, 141–47, 211–12). Chapman demonstrates a mastery of both the primary sources and secondary literature. Concerning the primary sources, it seems that Chapman has not missed any significant extant material. His mastery of secondary sources is also impressive. He utilizes his sources expertly and also critically interacts with them. He describes and discusses differences and supporting arguments. Then he resolves the issues concisely and convincingly (e.g., 62–66 is representative).

Chapter 7 suggests ways that the perceptions revealed in previous chapters affected how both Jews and Christians understood Christ’s death. On the one hand, using associations mentioned in chapters 2–6, Chapman discusses ways that Jews viewed Christ (e.g., a brigand, magician, blasphemer, under the penalty [curse] commanded in Deut. 21:22–23, and following the negative example of Haman; pp. 224–51). Christians, on the other hand, refuted these perceptions and saw Jesus as an innocent sufferer, a martyr, and a sacrifice for sins. Also when Deuteronomy 21:22–23 is considered, this is sometimes viewed as Christ taking on Himself the curse for Christians (pp. 248–50, 260). Chapman is rightly cautious in this chapter, acknowledging that much information about Jewish arguments comes from Christian sources and that much more needs to be studied in this area. Nevertheless he provides a very interesting and thought-provoking discussion.

The volume concludes with an appendix on two fragmentary Qumran texts (4Q385a 15 i 3–4 and 4Q541 24 ii) that may mention crucifixion, but their fragmentary state minimizes their importance for his study. Also included in the book are a bibliography and three indexes (citations, authors, subjects).

This book is carefully written and argued. It successfully accomplishes its goal of revealing ancient Jewish perceptions about crucifixion. Although it is not about what Christ’s crucifixion actually looked like (i.e., the shape of the cross, etc.), this topic is of interest to many readers. In chapter 1 Chapman concludes that there were a variety of forms of crucifixion, quoting sufficient ancient literature to demonstrate this point. Although acknowledging the existence of various methods and devices, he is not claiming that Jesus died on a pole (or other device); rather, he says crucifixion could take place in a number of ways. A few comments should be made about this. First, Chapman is working from his sources. They demonstrate a variety of types of death by suspension (or crucifixion) and cross shapes. Second, he is only stating that there was a range of possible ways to crucify someone. He is not endorsing any specific view. Third, it seems logical that throughout the Roman Empire there was no single way to crucify people. The goals of crucifixion included torture, shame, and death. How the cross looked or what shape it was in was not the main concern. Fourth, he states that the view of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, that the Greek word “cross” (staurov") can refer only to an upright pole, is an “etymological fallacy” (p. 11 n 47). Fifth, Chapman states that “a cross-shaped crucifixion position in the Roman era may actually have been the norm” (p. 47). Chapman does not draw any conclusions about the shape of Jesus’ cross. Sixth, the New Testament does not explicitly say what the cross looked like. Differences of opinion on this point do not relate to inspiration or inerrancy. Firm conclusions about the shape of Jesus’ cross cannot be made. The more important issue of perception, the actual topic of this book, is revealed in this fascinating study.

This volume is a model of the careful use of background sources to illuminate a specific issue in the New Testament. It is highly academic, which may limit its use among those without seminary training. Nevertheless those who read it will gain important insight into the most important event in history.

—Joseph D. Fantin

January 1, 2012
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2012 vol. 169 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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