I, Crucifix

Icrucifix

I’ve loved Leonard E. Read’s I, Pencil since the first time I read it. I’ve been struck recently that the crucifixion of Jesus was much more complicated to orchestrate than a simple pencil. These words from Peter, in Acts, have been bouncing around in my head (along with John calling Jesus the “lamb slain before the creation of the world” in Revelation.

“This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” — Acts 2:23

Some of the below either borrows, or quotes, I, Pencil. Which you should read for this to make as much sense as possible (though it should work without that). 


I am the crucifix. Those two wooden planks, fixed together in the shape of the letter t, a symbol familiar to boys and girls and adults throughout the world. A symbol of hope. Affixed to hospitals, churches, and flags. Carried into battle, marking the resting place of the fallen. I am the world most recognised, most powerful, most confused, brand.

I am simultaneously wondrous, and cursed, celebrated and condemned, wisdom and foolishness, power and weakness, honour and humiliation, love and loathing, an instrument of justice and of mercy. I am both physical, and symbolic. I was made to bring darkness and death, but now represent light and life. I do these things, and more. I am taken up in service of many causes, and cause many acts of service.

I am where the triune God, who created the world wrote his signature on the earth, in blood. I am the canvas for a divine masterpiece where His image was held up, writ large, for all to see.

I am the scene of the culmination of his carefully orchestrated plans for his world.

I am so significant that the books written about me could fill a library, and the pieces of me held in churches around the world as relics could fill a ship. Yet nobody knows what tree became me.

You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to begin with, my story has transformed the history of the world. And yet, I am a mystery, more than a pencil, a sunset, a flash of lightning, or even the cosmos itself. Sadly, I am taken for granted, as if I were a mere incident, and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril. For the wise G.K Chesterton observed, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”

I, Crucifix, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone — if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile, or an airplane, or a mechanical dishwasher, or even a pencil, because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Especially when we see that Rome once crucified 6,000 slaves at once, hung on crosses just like me, planted on the Via Appia.

Ponder me. A stauros. A cross. Consider my stipes and patibulum. The post and bar. Two planks of simple timber. Fixed together. What do you see? Not much that meets the eye. A few metres of hardwood. Splintered and bloody. Stipes implanted in the ground. Reused for victim upon victim. Some ropes. Some pegs and nails. I am physical, and yet symbolic. I have been emblematic for various causes through history, from warriors to medics, from haters to lovers. As an instrument of death in the hands of the Roman Empire I evoked horror, and humiliation, the very people who employ me most are terrified of my power — the orator Cicero insisted Roman citizens should not be confronted with the barbarity of even my name.

Just as you cannot trace your family tree back very far, so is it impossible for me to name and explain all my antecedents. But I would like to suggest enough of them to impress upon you the richness and complexity of my background.

My family tree may seem, simply and literally, to begin with a tree; a cedar, an olive, or a fig tree, a tree of unknown species, grown somewhere around Jerusalem. Perhaps even the mystical dogwood — though unlikely. I grew from seed, sprouted, shot upwards, branched out, before being felled by an axe and stipped of branch and bark, turned to timber. My construction might seem simple. Two logs held together, and my victim affixed, by spike and rope. You may wish to contemplate the axes, rope, horses and carts, and countless other tools used in harvesting and carting logs to Golgotha and the barracks. Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of iron and its smithing into axe heads and blades, the growing of nile grass and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong papyrus rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess tents, the slaves and soldiers overseeing the work, the cookery and the raising of all the foods to feed these mouths. Why, untold numbers of persons had a hand in every cup of wine the soldiers drink, and every piece of armour they wear! Timber was scarce in Jerusalem so my upright pole, my stipes, remained rooted, planted, at the place of the skull, while my victims bore the patibulum from their trial to their deathly destiny.

Don’t overlook the ancestors present and distant who have a hand in creating me, not simply my physical reality, but my meaning.

My origins may seem arboreal, and, indeed, corporeal, and yet, it is the ethereal, symbolic sense of my significance that is where my family tree truly begins. Erected, as I was, in Jerusalem, I carry the stench of a curse for the Hebrew, and the aroma of abasement for the Roman. These odours were cultivated by years of tradition and practice. My ancestors were creations of Darius I of Persia, and employed by Alexander the Great. The Romans perfected my use and made me the most despised symbol in all the world — 6,000 slaves, the army of Spartacus, were once nailed to my predecessors and dotted liberally, one every 33 metres, along the Appian Way, a bloody road map to Roman supremacy. Dionysius of Halicarnassus in book VII of his Roman Antiquities from 7 BC, described the path an individual would take on his journey to death on the wooden arms of my forefathers…

“A Roman citizen of no obscure station, having ordered one of his slaves to be put to death, delivered him to his fellow-slaves to be led away, and in order that his punishment might be witnessed by all, directed them to drag him through the Forum and every other conspicuous part of the city as they whipped him, and that he should go ahead of the procession which the Romans were at that time conducting in honour of the god. The men ordered to lead the slave to his punishment, having stretched out both his arms and fastened them to a piece of wood which extended across his breast and shoulders as far as his wrists, followed him, tearing his naked body with whips. The culprit, overcome by such cruelty, not only uttered ill-omened cries, forced from him by the pain, but also made indecent movements under the blows.”

Observe my function, and my meaning. I am a well-honed instrument of humiliation and torture, the end of a torturous road for the accursed. Those designated as less than nothing in the eyes of the world. I am an instrument of death, and a symbol of power.

“Whenever we crucify the condemned, the most crowded roads are chosen, where the most people can see and be moved by this terror. For penalties relate not so much to retribution as to their exemplary effect.”—Quintilian, Declamation 274, The Tyrant Struck By Lightning.

For the Jews, I am anathema. Moses proclaimed that one hung, executed, upon a tree, a tree like me, was accursed by the living God. By the time Rome occupied Israel, death on a tree was a special punishment for traitors — those who sold Israel out to foreign powers, the Temple Scroll discovered amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, says:

“If a man slanders his people and delivers his people to a foreign nation and does evil to his people, you shall hang him on a tree and he shall die. On the testimony of two witnesses and on the testimony of three witnesses he shall be put to death and they shall hang him on the tree. If a man is guilty of a capital crime and flees to other nations, and curses his people, the children of Israel, you shall hang him also on the tree, and he shall die. But his body shall not stay overnight on the tree. Indeed you shall bury him on the same day.” —11QT Temple Scroll LXIV

My history, my family tree, as it were, the origin story behind my significance began even earlier than the practice of crucifixion.

It was no accident that my symbolic was turned upside down, that the Cross became a symbol of glory, and hope, of life, rather than death. It was part of a plan.

A plan that began with two other trees — a tree that brought life, and a tree that brought death. God’s plan to destroy evil, and his promise to crush the Serpent. Satan. A promise centred on the “lamb slain before the creation of the world”— the Lamb, the Son, whose hands flung stars into space and hold heavens and earth together.A plan that would see those hands skewered with odious spikes, on a cursed tree. His feet pierced, his side lanced.

The events that took place, painted in blood on my splintered canvas, were planned from the very beginning, even from before the creation of the world. It was no accident that the divine son of God, the Son of Man, found his arms affixed to mine, it was no accident that those looking on at these events hurled insults — they could do no less. It was no accident that the child of promise arrived at a time in history when I stood tall as a symbol of human power. The symbol that best represented the might of the god-kings of Rome, and their superiority over any who claimed to oppose their right to rule. It was no accident that Jesus was tried as a traitor by both Jews and Romans, and sentenced to an exemplary, cursed death. For many before him, I was a final resting place, corpses were left to rot on my cruel axis. But not for this one. And from this moment on, the fabric of the world was torn asunder, this rending of the heavens, itself, symbolised in the tearing of the Temple curtain, with this shattering of what was, and re-creation of what is, my significance was inverted. The curse reversed.

Does anyone wish to challenge the assertion that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me?

Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others. Indeed, every human hand that has been and will be — hands raised in rebellion against God — play a part in holding the divine Son’s hands to my boards, to holding me together at the centre of history. Every life gives significance to my promise of judgment or mercy. Judgment for the death of the Son, or mercy bought by the blood spilled into the grains of my beams, and on to the earth beneath.

Here is an astounding fact: Neither the Romans who appointed me to my task, nor the Jewish crowd who looked on, not the governor, the timber workers, the soldiers, the quartermaster, the slave, the high priest, the Pharisees or teachers of the law, nor even those hung on my contemporaries on Golgotha, know how I came to be, nor wanted me, or wanted to understand my significance. Certainly I do not occupy the same place in their life, or those lives that came after me, that I do in space and time, or in God’s plans. The motivation of these people is other than me.

Perhaps it is something like this; when people are at last confronted with my significance and place in the plans of the God who orchestrated space and time such that his own shoulders rested on my wood, they are left wanting my significance to be their significance, their motivation, perhaps, at this point shifts, so I am the symbol they take up in order to live and know life.

The master-mind at the heart of my story, my creation, is astounding. The strings of history pulled, twisted, laid out and brought together in my being, and doing, are the product of an invisible hand at work. Not the work of an apprentice, but a virtuoso.

It has been said that “only God can make a tree.” Why do we agree with this? Isn’t it because we realize that we ourselves could not make one? Indeed, can we even describe a tree? We cannot, except in superficial terms. We can say, for instance, that a certain molecular configuration manifests itself as a tree. But what mind is there among men that could even record, let alone direct, the constant changes in molecules that transpire in the life span of a tree? Such a feat is utterly unthinkable! If this is true of any tree — how much more of this tree. The tree at the centre of the universe?

I, Crucifix, am a complex combination of miracles: wood, rope, metal and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies and co-ordination of human history, superstition, culture, and power structures — millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human desire and in the absence of any human master-minding! Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.

The above is what I meant when writing, “If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolise, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.” For, if one is aware that I sit at the heart of divine creativity, that I am the backdrop for the divine drama writ large in history, authored and orchestrated from the beginning of life in this world, then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: faith in God. Freedom is impossible without this faith.

If I, Crucifix, were the only item that could offer testimony to what God accomplishes by divine creative expression, then those with little faith would have a fair case. However, there is testimony galore; it’s all about us and on every hand. Sunrise, sunset, the cosmos itself and its beauty is a testimony. The best of our humanity — love, the creation of relationships, life, art, and complex systems that enhance these things. Our co-creativity, our ability to write and appreciate stories, to bring threads together, woven into rich tapestries. The production line for apparently simple devices, like the pencil. The creation of supply chains. Human ingenuity and problem solving as a reflection of the divine nature.

Why, in this area where men have been left free to try, they deliver the human voice around the world in less than one second; they deliver an event visually and in motion to any person’s home when it is happening; they deliver 150 passengers from Seattle to Baltimore in less than four hours; they deliver gas from Texas to one’s range or furnace in New York at unbelievably low rates and without subsidy; they deliver each four pounds of oil from the Persian Gulf to our Eastern Seaboard—halfway around the world—for less money than the government charges for delivering a one-ounce letter across the street!

The lesson I have to teach is this: Let the event at the centre of the world shape life in it. Take up your cross and follow the one whose hands were nailed to my arms. Merely organise society— starting with your own life— to act in harmony with this lesson. Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Crucifix, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.

New Testament 101: Background – Intertestamental Period

The Old Testament period, depending on who you listen to, either ended with Malachi (around 445BC), or Daniel (some scholars put Daniel in the second century BC).

In any case, the canonical account of the end of the Old Testament wraps up after the construction of Jerusalem’s “second temple” – hence the name “second temple Judaism” is applied to the religious practices that developed in this period. Israel exists under the reign of the Persians at the close of the Old Testament, and by the time of the New Testament find themselves under Roman rule. A lot of political water has gone under Jerusalem’s bridge in this time…

We have a fair bit of literature from second temple Judaism covering this period – important bits for reference sake include:

The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha

These books are non-canonical histories of the Jewish people that were widely circulated amongst second temple Judaism, and included in the Septuagint (also known as the LXX) a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament from around the third century BC. The writings included in the Septuagint (and wikipedia links) include: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Jesus Sirach, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremy (in the Vulgate this is chapter 6 of Baruch), additions to Daniel (The Prayer of Azarias, Sosanna and Bel and the Dragon), additions to Esther, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, 3 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, and Psalm 151.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered at Qumran, include copies of scrolls from the Hebrew bible, copies of these apocryphal documents, and a bunch of secular writings from the period describing life in Second Temple Judaism.

Jewish Histories

Josephus wrote significant (though pretty biased) accounds of Jewish history covering the intertestamental period and different events in the first century AD.

Philo of Alexandria gives a unique insight into the Hellenization of Judaism. He was a Jew, living in a Greek city in Egypt, he was well connected, and wealthy. And he fused Greek philosophy with the teachings of Judaism. Philo was a Jewish envoy to the crazy Roman emperor Gaius Caligula when trouble kicked off between the Jews and residents of Alexandria over the Jew’s refusal to worship the emperor as part of the Imperial Cult. His fusion of Greek and Jewish theology led some 19th century critical scholars to dub him the father of Christianity – because they believed the beliefs of Christianity to have evolved from this fusing. But it was more an apologetic exercise where he sought to promote Judaism as the best philosophy on offer.

The Persian Period (539-332 BC)

The Persian period placed Israel in a geographically precarious position between waring nations. Israel was the frontier for conflict between Egypt and Persia. Some suggest Nehemiah’s quest to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls should be understood in this light. Aramaic became the Jewish Linga Franca in this period.

The Hellenistic Period (332-143 BC)

Alexander the Great smashed Syria up bad and belted any Persian political pretenders into submission. Persia’s territories fell under Hellenistic rule. Then Alexander died and all his potential heirs started clamouring for power. Judea became a pawn in a two hundred year wrestling match between two dynasties – the Ptolemaic rulers from Egypt, and the Seleucid rulers from Syria.

The Hasmonean (Maccabean) Period (143-63 BC)

The Seleucid dynasty took control of the near east in about 202BC, and initially provided Israel with religious freedom. This symbiotic relationship lasted until 169 BC when Antiochus IV decided to loot the temple. There was a mini-rebellion after this, and Antiochus eventually issued an edict banning any expressions of Judaism and installed a statue of Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem. This was like flame to a fuse, sparking a Jewish military rebellion. The Hasmoneans, a family linked to the priesthood – and particularly the Maccabean clan – aligned themselves with the Roman Empire and eventually claimed the high priesthood (Antiochus’ successor repealed his edict), and finally independence. The family eventually claimed royal honours and began expanding Jewish boundaries, in a quasi-messianic campaign.

During this period of self-government a number of Jewish religious groups emerged – the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots. See below for their distinctives… and these groups

The Roman Period (63 BC to New Testament times)

The Hasmoneans rebuffed Greek rule for a significant amount of time, and during this period a power vacuum emerged in the near east – and there was nothing the Roman Empire liked more than a power vacuum in neighbouring territories. So Rome invaded. Pompey, a Roman General, arrived in Judea and found a house divided, two Hasmonean upstarts were fighting for supremacy. Both turned to Pompey for support, he picked a side (Hyrcanus), the other guy didn’t like it. And Pompey invaded.  Hyrancus was installed as high priest and “ethnarch” (but not king), and Rome redistributed the territories the Maccabees has claimed. A guy named Antipater, and his son Herod the Great, took power from the Hasmoneans. Herod was a Roman puppet. He ruled for 26 years and conducted a huge infrastructure program (largely to honour Roman rule and cement his power). He also wiped out the last of the Hasmoneans (including his wife, and his two sons by her). Herod died in 4 BC, leaving dueling heirs, and a dynasty vastly unpopular with the power brokers of Jewish society. Augustus wasn’t happy with either heir and placed Judea under provincial rule, through Roman officials reporting to the governor of Syria. In 66AD the Jews rebelled against Rome and Jerusalem, and the temple, were eventually destroyed.

Hellenistic Judaism

Hellenism was a cultural phenomenon. As the cultured Greeks conquered the primitive barbarian like nations around them they brought their culture with them. Cultural appropriations included religion, language, social structures, government, art, philosophy, and an aesthetic approach to just about everything… As this influence crept in, or possibly burst in, to the Jewish scene, the citizens of Judea were forced to reassess the core and non-core elements of their religious practice. This Hellenisation caused significant tension within the Jewish population – but it’s fair to say that it wasn’t all encompassing. Jews maintained their religious identities and kept ceremonial and cultic distinctions from the rest of the Greek empire. In many ways Philo was the model Hellenised Jew.

Hellenisation was essential for social mobility. Any political wannabees had to sell out their Judaism for progress.

While some “scholars” like Bart Erhman push the idea that nobody in Palestine spoke Greek as a piece of evidence for a lack of authenticity of the gospels – this is a minority position that pretty much contradicts all the extent evidence, including coins, inscriptions and papyrii from the period. Hengel is one scholar who has conducted significant work in demonstrating that Palestinian culture was a multilingual, multicultural melting pot. About ten percent of Palestinian Jews, in Hengel’s estimate, spoke Greek as their primary language.

There was no real “normative” model of Judaism in this period – everybody pretty much chose how Greek they wanted to be, or how Jewish.

Jewish Theology

The Qumran documents, and other apocryphal writings, show that there was significant theological diversity operating in the Second Temple period. There were four dominant theological movements, or sects, operating in Judea in this time:

The Pharisees

The Pharisees emerged largely in opposition to the Hasmonean rulers, and their fusion of prisetly and kingly power, they were a popular group and socially powerful. They sought to apply the Torah to everyday life, and are presented (particularly in Matthew) as the foils to Jesus teaching, they are often grouped with “the teachers of the law,” they were particularly concerned with creating a fence aroung the Torah, they created a series of extra laws and customs to ensure they would never encroach on the Torah (these were later written up as the Mishnah). They sought to bring about the Kingdom of God, and the arrival of the Messiah, by teaching God’s law. They believed in the soul, in resurrection, in heaven and hell, and in the existence of the supernatural. While they are often presented negatively in the light of Jesus’ teachings, it was a broad church of beliefs and practices (Nicodemus in John 3 was a Pharisee, Joseph of Arimathea may have been one too).

The Sadducees

The Sadducees were compromisers – they supported the Hasmonean dynasty, and the Hellenisation of Israel. They were wealthy. They were corrupt. They focused their theology on the Pentateuch alone, while acknowledging the rest of Scripture. Only doctrine that could be demonstrated through the Pentateuch was binding, they rejected Oral Law. The Sadducees, in contrast to the Pharisees, dismissed any notion of immortality, resurrection or supernatural beings like Angels and Demons. They did not oppose Roman rule. They were the administrators of proceedings in the temple under Rome, and died out with Jerusalem in 70AD.

The Essenes

The Essenes were essentially a Jewish Doomsday cult. They tried to withdraw from society, maintaining purity and piety, while awaiting the apocalypse. They repudiated the Maccabean dynasty, and believed that withdrawing from society would hasten the coming of the kingdom of God. They were intensely devoted to the law and saw themselves as God’s elect subgroup within Israel. Qumran was a particularly rigid Essene monastic community. They expected two messiahs – a priestly leader, and a kingly leader, and their documentation found at Qumran reveals that though the community was contemporaneous with Christianity they did not acknowledge Jesus or Christianity in any way (despite the views of some “scholarly” conspiracy theorists.

The Zealots

The Zealots were cool. They carried swords around and stealthily killed Roman collaborators. They were first century Jewish ninjas. They hoped to overturn Rome’s empire in a military fashion and led a variety of revolts during the first century that can best be described as failed messianic uprisings. Their expectations are consistent with some of the disciples’ expectations of Jesus as a military messiah.