Roman crucifixion was gruesome. There was no rulebook, so full rein was given, as Martin Hengel has written, to “the caprice and sadism of the executioners.” Some Romans denounced its cruelty. “That plague” was Cicero’s description. Most were horrified, averted their eyes, and kept their tongues. We know Caesar crucified slaves, but he never refers to crosses or crucifixions in any of his writings, and Hengel tells us that “no ancient writer wanted to dwell too long on this cruel procedure.” The gospels provide the most detailed account we have of a Roman crucifixion.
The New Testament writers are fully aware of the shock value of preaching the crucified Jesus. “Cursed is the one who hangs on a tree,” Paul wrote, quoting Deuteronomy. Jesus went to the cross “despising the shame.” Paul knew that putting crucifixion at the center of the gospel scandalized Jews and sounded foolish to Greco-Romans.
Yet the apostles couldn’t stop talking about it. Paul boasted in the cross, and said that the blood of Jesus’ cross reconciled all things, removed enmity, forgave sins. John went further. The Word that created the world pitched a tent among men.