This is a very scholarly book. How do I know? Two things. First, in the Preface Dr. Chapman lists those he believes will be interested in the book: “scholars of Judaism in antiquity,” “students of early Jewish and Christian interactions,” and “scholars of the New Testament and early Christianity.” A few of my friends fall into one of those categories but not many. The second reason I know this is a scholarly book is that throughout the book Chapman quotes from Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, and Aramaic sources, without always including an English translation.
So, you may ask, why am calling attention to Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion? It is true that I am honored to call David Chapman a friend, but I feel no obligation from our friendship to post something about his book. Nor is this blog turning in a new direction to become a resource of interest only or primarily to scholars in academia. My reason is that I am convinced this book will be of interest to one other group—admittedly not too large—not mentioned by Chapman in his Preface.
Each generation finds an offense in the Christian gospel. Tim Keller recently commented that Muslims don’t like Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek while they approve of his teaching on marriage, while the average person in Manhattan loves the notion of nonviolent response but finds Jesus’ thinking about marriage and sexual morality grating and out-of-touch. If the gospel is truly a word from God to a human race that is deeply broken because it refuses the grace of its Creator, Redeemer, and Judge we should expect that something in that gospel will be offensive to them, will cut sharply across the grain of their hubris and insistence on autonomy.
In our postmodern western world at the beginning of the 21st century one place of offense in the gospel is the necessity of Christ’s death—and in such a gruesome fashion—in order for redemption to be possible. Why didn’t God just forgive us? Isn’t the Son dying on the cross at the insistence of the Father a form of divine child abuse? Isn’t the notion of blood sacrifice a rather primitive, even barbaric conception that suggests Christianity needs some updating?
Those of us outside the world of academic scholarship who want to learn from the scholars who do the heavy research will profit from Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion. The book helps us understand how Christ’s crucifixion was perceived by those who heard of it and how the biblical accounts can be better set within their historical and social contexts as we seek to explain their meaning. Certainly there is far more detail in this careful work than is needed for the average conversation on the necessity and significance of Jesus’ crucifixion, but that it can be a helpful resource I have no doubt.
One thing Chapman’s study did for me is explain how the topic of crucifixion (in the broadest sense) is not limited to the New Testament and the Old Testament prophesies, but has echoes far back into the narratives of Old Testament history. Suspension (sometimes after death by stoning) of the body, hanging, and impalement all were often equated in the ancient mind with crucifixion (in the narrower sense we think of it in Roman times) and appear as far back in the biblical record as the story of Joshua when the Israelites are first entering the land promised to them by God. Just as the death penalty evokes strong reaction today, these even more public and gruesome displays of execution did not go unnoticed and unremarked.
The fact that the cross is an embarrassment to the postmodern secular mind must not be allowed to cause us to quietly ignore it as we engage our world. A gospel without the cross is not the gospel of Christ, nor does such a gospel have power to save. Faithfully witnessing to the kingdom does not mean allowing the world to shape our message, it means out thinking the world so that its opposition to the gospel is met with truth spoken with quiet confidence and compelling reasoning. Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion can help in that process. We are indebted to David Chapman for the many hours he spent squirreled away in libraries in the research for this book, a task to which he is called and gifted.
Book recommended: Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion? By David W. Chapman (Grand Rapids, MI; Baker, 2008) 262 pages + appendix + bibliography + indices.
Photo: the author with Drs David and Tasha Chapman.