Review: Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion

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In the first chapter, Chapman explores the linguistic problem of the varying ranges of words often simply summarized in English as ‘crucified.’ He delves through the Latin, the Greek, the Hebrew, and the Aramaic in exploring various uses, even looking for fine distinctions and applications of the various words used in the base languages.

The second chapter is a vital document all to its own, in which the author examines various writings from antiquity, primarily Jewish. Digging through the richness, and often times, painful, documents of the 2nd Temple Period, Chapman produces sketches of history which highlights crucifixions of Jews, even by Jews. In one vital examination, the author is able to detail an account in which a cross was built and upon site of this cross, the rebels surrendered. By detailing the perceptions of the early chroniclers, Chapman builds a case that crucifixions were given according to class and offense.

Chapman’s third chapter focuses on biblical texts which fall within the realm of the previous arguments, and brings in various voices to show the development of the notion of crucifixion. His strength is consistency and patience. In examining these texts, he builds upon the linguistics of the previous chapter and shows that with each generation or religious evolution, the momentary style of crucifixion helped to interpret previous thoughts and words.

In chapter four, Chapman examines the use of crucifixion and articles of crucifixion in light of ancient Jewish magical uses, and finding no real evidence of the form, closes with the acknowledgment of only the latter. It is possible that he has missed the use of suspension, if we are to take suspension of the body, whether alive or dead, as within the realm of crucifixion, as a magic within itself of the killing witches, which he examines in chapter two. In that chapter, he notes that the witches had to be lifted off the ground to disconnect them from their source of power, namely the earth. In this, the crucifix could be seen as something magical, perhaps an amulet to project against magic. I take special note of his take on Morton Smith’s treatment of Christ as Magician, and his easy dismissal of him.

In the final chapter, a move towards an argument dealing with the Christian-Jewish interaction with the perception of the cross is made. While not polemic, or even theological, what Chapman does is to bring his entire work to a concise conclusion bringing in the Church Fathers as interpreters. He takes care to deal with the situation, which has often times been used to engender harsh feelings from both religions, in a manner which is neutral and shows that the perception of crucifixion, like it did in during the 2nd Temple period, developed with the times.

Chapman notes that with the over abundance of historical evidence, linguistic and interpretative, the early Church wrote in such a way as to prevent the crucifixion from being attached to anyone but Christ while defending Him against Jewish propaganda of those would be normally crucified. The author also notes that the Jewish reaction to the Christians was in many ways, the same.

His ‘tools’ include a great multitude of footnotes which should help the reader further the discussion and even branch out into other areas of research. Further, he includes two appendices dealing with a fragmentary connection to crucifixion found at Qumran. He also includes a well supported bibliography, subject, author, and citation index.

The first three quarters of the book should provide biblical studies with a fine library of detailed analysis of the building perceptions of crucifixion, which didn’t end with the cross of Jesus. Starting with linguistics, Chapman moves into the wide range of Second Temple Judaism and its lasting perceptions of crucifixion, calling into play a wide variety of ancient sources. Only in the last section of the book, does Chapman address the Christian crucifixion and does so without bias. This work is a fine technical resource for those who are interested in the cross before and after Jesus.

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