In the year 1913, a song was penned by a gentleman named George Bennard. The name of that song is “The Old Rugged Cross.” It’s lyrics are as follows: “On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame; and I love that old cross where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain. Oh, that old rugged cross, so despised by the world, has a wondrous attraction for me; for the dear Lamb of God left His glory above to bear it to dark Calvary. In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine, a wondrous beauty I see, for it was on that old cross Jesus suffered and died, to pardon and sanctify me. To the old rugged cross I will ever be true; its shame and reproach gladly bear; then He’ll call me some day to my home far away, where His glory forever I’ll share.” The song’s refrain is “So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it someday for a crown.”
As has been stated, we stand in a world that essentially has no real experience of the cross. Therefore, when our thoughts turn to the cross, though we can acknowledge the suffering, our thoughts are rightly influenced by the majesty of the Resurrection. This should not prevent us from viewing the cross through first-century eyes, nor hearing about the cross with first-century ears. The cross has become a beautiful symbol, as conveyed by the song, of pardon, sanctification, and glory. Though that would certainly have been the case for the believing community as well, who came to understand that the cross had been trumped by the Resurrection, which subsequently transformed their view of the cross, the account of the crucifixion, as presented by the synoptic Gospels, still demands to be heard on its own. An isolated hearing of the story of the cross, though lacking in gruesome details such as that which is offered by the first century Roman historian Seneca, wherein he writes “Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once and for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing out the breath of life amid long drawn out agony?”, presents interesting details that should not be missed. One of those details is what has sparked this study, and we shall examine it shortly.
The song quote above presents the dichotomy of the cross quite well. In Jesus’ world, nobody would have thought anything like “I love that old cross.” There was no “wondrous attraction” to the cross, and it was certainly not heralded as a “wondrous beauty.” No one in their right minds would have thought to proclaim that they “will ever be true” to the cross,” nor happily and “gladly bear” that which it symbolically conferred on its victim. The disciples of Jesus were in hiding following Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion primarily they knew that His fate was shortly to be their fate, as the powers that be rounded up and eliminated the closest associates of the crucified rebel leader. The last thing anybody wanted to do was “cherish” the cross, nor “cling” to it, so horrible was the experience and so terrible was its effect. Again, this is the mark of the transformation effected by the Resurrection. However, the song’s author does capture ideas that we do not take as seriously as they should be taken. He speaks of the “suffering and shame” of the cross, its being “despised by the world,” and its “shame and reproach.” These are important considerations, especially in the context of a world that is defined by the concepts and constricts of honor and shame.
We cannot allow ourselves to consider the stories of the crucifixion of Jesus without also considering the honor and shame culture. Honor was sought after as the greatest of public goods. Shame was to be avoided at all costs. One’s social status was determined, not by possessions or wealth (though these things could certainly accrue to those that were considered honorable), but by the perception of one’s accumulation of either honor or shame, as determined by the court of public opinion. Consequently, public interactions consistently took the shape of honor and shame challenges. In almost every interaction, whether it be the debate of ideas or the purchase of goods, both sides, while naturally attempting to win the argument or to gain the best deal for themselves, would also be attempting to increase their honor and to avoid shame, while simultaneously attempting to shame the opposing party (though this does not necessarily have to imply hostility). It is helpful to look at the various verbal challenges answered by Jesus, or even posed by Jesus, through the lens of the contest of honor and shame. Though the wide angle view of Jesus’ ministry, as presented by the Gospels, is one in which He subjects Himself to criticism and embraces shame, especially the shame of the cross, He does participate in debates in such a way that He in fact gains honor at the expense of His opponents, whom He shames.
When considering honor and shame, it is important to bear in mind that honor was thought to be a limited good, so the accumulation of honor by one person necessarily meant the diminishing of the public perception of the honor of another. Shame, on the other hand, would have been unlimited. There are also existential considerations to be made here. Theoretically, if one accumulated enough honor, one could achieve a type of immortality. On the other end of the spectrum, because honor necessarily implies life, shame was equated with death. If one could have enough shame heaped upon them, or accrued enough shame based on one’s own actions, that person could very well be considered dead while still alive.