Jesus’ crucifixion is central for Paul. He is willing to endure persecution due to his belief that—contrary to the culture of his time—the Messiah was not humiliated but glorified in his crucifixion (Gal 5:11; 2 Cor 11:24-28).
First-century Romans commonly employed crucifixion against brigands, rebels, and military deserters. They typically reserved the cross for non-citizens, particularly slaves. In this environment, it would have been exceedingly strange for anyone to preach a crucified savior. In later generations, Christians were mocked for following a “crucified sophist” (according to Lucian) and for worshipping a crucified god (as in the famous Alexamenos graffito). In such a context, Paul knowingly calls the cross “foolishness” to the gentile world (1 Cor 1:18–25).
Even among his fellow Jews, Paul met with scorn. In addition to Roman views of crucifixion, the Jewish people knew examples of biblical figures “hung on trees”—especially Haman, the archnemesis of the Jewish nation in the book of Esther. And Deuteronomy declared the person hung upon a tree to be “cursed” (Deut 21:22–23). How then could the promised Messiah submit to crucifixion? Thus Paul acknowledges the cross to be a “stumbling-block” to Jews (1 Cor 1:23).
Nonetheless, Paul ardently witnesses to salvation offered by God through Jesus’ death. In contrast to the Deuteronomic “curse” of the cross, Paul envisions the Messiah voluntarily bearing for others the curse that properly falls on all who disobey God’s law (Gal 3:10–14). Paul considers Jesus’ death to have taken the place of the temple’s “mercy seat,” on which the sacrificial
blood was sprinkled during the Day of Atonement
. Paul refers to this when he mentions propitiation/expiation
in Rom 3:25. According to Paul, Jesus’ death justifies, saves, delivers, redeems, and reconciles the sinner to God (Rom 5:6–11; Gal 1:4; 3:13). Even more clearly in the later Pauline tradition, Jesus’ cross is a sign both of atonement and of cosmic victory (e.g., Col 1:20; 2:13–15; Eph 2:16).
What did Paul assert were the origins of his ideas about Jesus’ crucifixion? In addition to claiming a personal revelation from Jesus (Gal 1:12), Paul appealed to the Christian tradition he received from Jesus’ earliest disciples; such tradition insisted “Jesus died for our sins,” even while it also celebrated Jesus’s resurrection (1 Cor 15:1–11). Paul wrote that Jesus himself announced at his last supper that the cup of wine should be regarded as instituting a “new covenant” in his blood (1 Cor 11:25).
Paul believes the cross holds the key to salvation, but also to ethics. Just as Christ died and rose again, his followers may “crucify the flesh” and, so, die to a life of sin (Rom 6:6; Gal 2:20; 5:24). Furthermore, the idea that Jesus would endure crucifixion voluntarily for the sake of others came to be regarded as the ultimate symbol of humility and love; in this way, the cross would serve as a profound model for Christians devoted to self-denial and loving service (Phil 2:8; 2 Cor 5:14–15; cf. Eph 5:2).