Crucifixion as “Exaltation” in the Gospels
Jesus was “lifted up” onto the cross. This phrase refers to the physical act of raising the person so that everyone could see. However, the term also has royal/status connotations. Crucifixion was a moment of exaltation. On this topic, Joel Marcus (professor emeritus, Duke University) has a fascinating article, “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 125:1 (2006), pp. 73-87.
He asks an interesting question: If the Romans were so occupied with status hierarchy, why was their preferred form of punishment raising up people higher than themselves? The idea of humiliating someone by raising them is quite ironic. Marcus argues that this irony was the exact intention.
For ancient Romans, crucifixion was a parody that mimicked a person’s false exaltation. Romans crucified two classes of people—rebellious slaves and political seditionists. These people rejected the status hierarchy. Rebellious slaves insulted their masters, while rebels rejected the authority of Rome. They claimed a higher status for themselves, and thus disdained the honor of those with power.
Therefore, crucifixion was giving people want they wanted: exaltation. By crucifying status-graspers, Roman authorities said, in effect, “You want a higher status? Here, we’ll lift you up for all to see! We’ll give you a royal coronation.” Marcus explains, “Crucifixion was intended to unmask, in a deliberately grotesque manner, the pretension and arrogance of those who exalted themselves beyond their station” (78). The punishment reveals the nature of the crime and puts the person “in his place.” A cross mocked a disrespectful person by raising them to an elevated status, unto death. The entire procedure ridiculed the victim with mock honors. Prisoners bestowed a crown and royal robe upon the victim; Roman authorities placed placards with honorary titles over their heads. These actions were a mock enthronement.
But sometimes the joke becomes true, the parody becomes reality. When a person endures the injustice with courage and nobility, crucifixion becomes a revelation of the person’s true honor. The onlookers stop mocking the victim and wonder, “Perhaps he really was a king.”
That is a synopsis of the article, which Marcus supports with abundant citations of ancient sources. While focused on history, the article has theological implications, especially related to atonement. I’ll explore some of these.
People often ask me, “What is a good verse about Jesus atoning our shame?” The question usually carries the implied tagline, “from the book of Romans, or another Pauline letter,” as though the gospels are not sources for atonement theology. Many assume that the gospels only portray an unfortunate death, but then Paul provides us with the spiritual significance of the cross. This approach stunts our interpretation of the gospels.
Also, our theology of salvation and atonement should further consider how Jesus died. The means of Jesus’ death is just as significant as the fact of his death. Crucifixion is not an incidental detail to Jesus’ sacrificial death. However, I suggest that the crucifixion is an inherent aspect of how Jesus saves. Our atonement theology jumps from historical event (i.e., Jesus’ physical death in the gospels) to theology (the spiritual implications in the epistles). We thus leap over the social meaning of Jesus’ cross—the cross was simultaneously a weapon of great humiliation and exaltation, shame and honor. This social meaning was primary in the eyes of the people who saw the actual crucifixion. And then, a generation later, this social meaning remained primary for the gospel-writers and their audiences. People in the ancient world saw Jesus’ death foremost for its social meaning—this person Jesus reframes notions of human status. Jesus’ crucifixion becomes a profound revelation of shame and honor. Early Christian atonement theology is not a mere description of the mechanical transaction in heaven but, rather, a crucifixion narrative.
So, what is a good verse about Jesus atoning for our shame? Perhaps Mark 9-16, the earliest Christian narrative of Jesus honorably bearing shame and becoming exalted as king. If we need a verse from Paul and Hebrews to note the shame (and honor) of the cross, then we are misreading the four gospels.