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Cook, John Granger


Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World.


Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2014. XXIV, 522 S. = Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 327. Lw. EUR 69,00. ISBN 978-3-16-153124-8.


Gunnar Samuelsson

John Granger Cook, Professor of Religion at LaGrange College, has written extensively about various aspects of crucifixion and the interaction between the biblical world and its Greco-Roman context. All this knowledge has now been brought together in an impressive and welcome volume.
The book addresses an ongoing discussion about crucifixion with D. W. Chapman (Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion [Mohr Siebeck, 2008]) and me (Crucifixion in Antiquity [Mohr Siebeck, 2013]). While Chapman essentially approaches the topic from an Old Testament and Jewish point of view, and I from the language of the New Testament and the Greek speaking world, C. places his point of departure in Rome and the Latin language. The book was aimed to revise Martin Hengel’s Crucifixion (Fortress Press, 1977), but ended up as an independent monograph.
C.’s basic argument is that it is necessary to contextualize ancient descriptions and depictions of crucifixion in the Roman world, and in the Latin language. He argues that there was a certain execution form commonly used by the Romans which had clear parallels with what is today called crucifixion. C. defines it broadly as an »execution by suspension« (impalement and hangings ex-cluded). Besides that, C. mentions four markers that could be useful in the effort to identify crucifixions: 1) It is a suspension that 2) is a complete or intended execution, in which a crossbeam could be used, and 4) ends up in an extended death struggle. C. adds a char­acteristic comment here:
»[W]hen the context of an account of suspension does not indicate any other mode of execution (including impalement) besides crucifixion, then it is fair to assume that crucifixion is the mode of death, given the linguistic usage in texts of the Roman era.« (2)
This sentence reveals an optimistic view on the task to find crucifixions in ancient text. Albeit C. begins his introductory overview with Greek terminology, e. g., words based on σταυρ- and σκολοπ-stem, it is the Latin terminology that sets the stage, since it is more precise than the Greek according to C. Central for the argumenta-tion is the meaning of patibulum, which the number of dedicated pages (18 of 45) indicates. C. outlines the meaning of patibulum as »crossbeam,« and suggests that crux signifies a complete cross (†) or occasionally the vertical pole onto which a patibulum is attached. C. argues that σταυρός outside the New Testament clearly signifies a cruciform shape, thus »cross« (†), while σταυρός within the Gospels means »crossbeam« (patibulum). C. follows in essence major lexica regarding the usage of the studied terminology.
The book lacks at large a methodological positioning. However, a few basic assumptions constitute the argumentative base of the book and define how C. uses the source material. A) The setting in which crucifixion first was widely used and became famous was the ancient Roman world. Latin became both the definer of, and the vehicle for, the notoriety of crucifixion. B) It is possible to deter-mine the meaning of certain words and tie them directly to crucifixion. The occurrence of one such defined word is sufficient to label the text as a crucifixion account. C) Impaling did not occur or at least was very rare, which leads to the conclusion that texts contain­ing assumed crucifixion terminology depict crucifixions. D) Im­pal­ing was a swift killer. If a victim is alive while suspended, e. g., is talking or expressing agony, it is a crucifixion at hand.
However, these assumptions create some problems. For in-stance, assumptions C and D are to some extent contradictions. A weightier example is found in the introduction where a characteris­tic sentence illuminates two potential weaknesses with C.’s book:
»In historical research one often has to settle for evidence that is less than impeccable, and since crucifixion belonged to Roman daily life authors of that period did not need to spell out the details for their audience – details that could be taken for granted.« (49)
First, evidence which is not impeccable is not evidence. It is rather an indicium or circumstantial evidence. The book would increase in credibility if most of what is called evidence or proofs, were labeled indicium or indications. In the same sense the book would benefit from a reduction of persuasive expressions, such as it is evident, the text shows, it is clear that, and similar. The more frequently they are used, the harder they will be devalued.
Second, (assumption A and B above) the last part of the quote is based on an if, albeit cloaked under a since: If crucifixion belonged to Roman daily life – then it is possible to postulate that this is the reason why the texts are not more informative. But the to be or not to be, combined with the how, of crucifixion in the Roman society appears to be one of the basic questions of the book, that is, something that should be resolved in the conclusion. Is it not then a bit odd to use that aim – to show that crucifixion belonged to Roman daily life – as an argument for a conclusion in the very beginning of the book? The danger of circular argumentation is imminent, if one selects a word on basis of its assumed meaning, then decides what it means, next searches for texts that contain the word, and finally studies what the word means.
Another if might illuminate the weakness further: if impaling excludes living victims being suspended – then all suspension accounts of living victims are crucifixions. This if contains two problems: 1) What happens (assumption D above) if it turns out that some forms of impaling might be survivable – as it is described in Liddell & Scott’s entry on ῥάχις, and by Hesychius who connects ἀνασκολοπίζειν with a survivable impaling? Is not the illustra-tion of a rectal impaling in Lipsius’ De cruce portraying an impaled victim alive and kicking? C.’s categorical argument that a suspend­ed living victim only could signify a crucifixion might be problem­atic. 2) Why (assumption C above) are there only two suspension options? How about suspension on a board, on a wall, on a statue, on a tree, on a trunk? There are several different punishment forms that could be described with »crucifixion terminology.« Is it pos-sible to conclude that only two suspension forms occurred through­out antiquity? This, in my opinion, is a misleading simplification. The step from if to since is vast. It is enough that one of these examples of foundational ifs is shown inaccurate to considerably weaken the basic argumentation of the book.
When it comes to the formal layout of the book I am sorry to say that the general argumentation restarts several times to such extent that it affects the reading negatively. For example, the prehistory of chapter two as a freestanding article is still too obvious, and chapter five protrudes by its repetitions and its appearance as thematic excursus. These features are unnecessary and could quite easily have been avoided.
Finally, this information loaded opus is a token of countless hours of meticulous work. C. shows a notable sensibility in select­ing which texts to be quoted, referred to in the bread text, or to be placed in the footnotes. Not every scholar is given that skill. In spite of my question marks in the margin, the book is an important contribution to crucifixion studies, not least since C. brings new texts, text criticism, comments from late antiquity on older texts, and pictorial material anew into this academic field.