The Crucifixion Contradicted Paul’s Pre-Christian Messianic Expectations

But that Jesus of Nazareth could be the expected Messiah, as his disciples maintained, was out of the question. It is unlikely that the status, career and teaching of Jesus conformed in any way with Paul’s conception of the status, career and teaching of the Messiah—but that was not the conclusive argument in Paul’s mind. The conclusive argument was simply this: Jesus had been crucified. A crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms. Whether his death by crucifixion was deserved or resulted from a miscarriage of justice was beside the point: the point was that he was crucified, and therefore came within the meaning of the pronouncement in Deuteronomy 21:23, “a hanged man is accursed by God”. True, the pronouncement envisaged the hanging until sundown, on a tree or wooden gibbet, of the dead body of an executed criminal, but as formulated it covered the situation in which someone was hanged up alive.6 It stood to reason, therefore, that Jesus could not be the Messiah. The Messiah, practically by definition, was uniquely endowed with the divine blessing—“the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him” (Isaiah 11:2)—whereas the divine curse explicitly rested on one who was crucified. A crucified Messiah was worse than a contradiction in terms; the very idea was an outrageous blasphemy. In later years Paul acknowledged that in preaching a crucified Messiah he was preaching something which was “a stumbling block [a skandalon] to Jews” (1 Corinthians 1:23) and showed, by quoting Deuteronomy 21:23, how necessary it was in his eyes to demonstrate from Scripture why one who (as he had come to realize) was indubitably the Messiah must nevertheless die under “the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13).7 But when he was first confronted by people who publicly affirmed that the crucified Jesus was the Messiah, his course was clear: they were guilty of blasphemy, and should be dealt with accordingly. No heed could be paid to them when they supported their affirmation by the claim that Jesus had come back from the dead and appeared to them. In making this claim they were either deceivers or self-deceived, for none of the arguments which they used for Jesus’ messiahship could stand against the one irrefragable argument on the other side: a crucified man could not conceivably be the elect one of God.

The law and the customs, the ancestral traditions, and everything that was of value in Judaism, were imperilled by the disciples’ activity and teaching. Here was a malignant growth which called for drastic surgery. The defence of all that made life worth living for Paul was a cause which engaged all the zeal and energy of which he was capable. When the chief priests and their associates launched their attack on the disciples, Paul came forward as their eager lieutenant. Their motives may have been partly political, while his were entirely religious, but their action provided him with the occasion to protect the interests of the law. If the principal threat to those interests came from Stephen’s party, then let that party be attacked and suppressed first of all; but the disciples of Jesus as a whole, however outwardly observant of the law they might be, undermined it by proclaiming their crucified master as Messiah.

F. F. Bruce | Paul: Apostle of the Free Spirit (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 1977), 70–72.


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