Take Up Your Cross Re-Imagined

by Heather L Hart | Originally published 4.6.23 via Scot McKnight’s substack

*Trigger warning: this essay contains discussion of crucifixion, abuse, and slavery.

One of the foundational images in Christianity is the cross. Through my faith journey I’ve often wondered about the cross, itself. Why did Jesus die in this awful manner? How does a Roman crucifixion change how I live? Understanding the implications of a Roman crucifixion and my faith was not intuitive for me.


My questions led me into the horrific world of Roman crucifixion in the first century. There have been many days I’ve needed to set my research aside simply because I could not bear to read any more about tortuous executions so readers should proceed with caution.

To understand Roman crucifixion, we need to start with Roman values. Only Roman adult men qualified as citizens and this link carried direct implications for masculinity. Maleness was the ideal for the empire. The most important attribute of Roman masculinity was control and autonomy over self, family, and the larger household, including the enslaved.[1] Maleness was power over self and others. Crucifixion was the ultimate expression of being under someone else’s power. Victims of crucifixion were set up as the antithesis of this masculine ideal.

Early in the Roman Republic, crucifixion was generally limited to a Roman citizen’s[2]right to crucify people they enslaved.[3] At this time, crucifixion did not always require death because of the economic value of the enslaved. Whether the victim died or recovered and returned to work, they were thoroughly humiliated and terrorized.[4]There was no doubt that power lay in the hands of owners.

Towards the formation of the Roman empire, crucifixions’ message of power was appropriated by the state and solidified as an execution leading to death. Rome began to sentence those who were not enslaved to die as those who were enslaved.[5] As owners had power over the enslaved, so Rome had power overall. Typically, the underclass and conquered people were the ones needing to be reminded of this imperial power. Citizens were rarely crucified, but it was possible for the charge of high treason. State magistrates had a variety of execution methods available to them (decapitation, burning alive, arena, drowning, enforced suicide, to name a few)[6] but crucifixion stands out as a ritualistic killing that reinforces imperial dominance and supremacy. This “slaves’ punishment” was translated into a method of execution for those who rebelled against Roman authority.[7] The crucifixion of a non-enslaved person by an imperial magistrate represented a conscious attempt to treat the person as enslaved. This declares that the victim has lost complete legal status and now at the same level as the enslaved.[8] As a ritual, the physical enactment of crucifixion expressed ideas about identity of those involved.[9] A Roman crucifixion identified who were and who were not conforming to the imperial ideal. It identified who upheld order and who upset it. It sought to internalize belief in Roman power, imperial divinity, and the global scope of Roman authority.[10]

The practice of Roman crucifixion was an execution by “suspension.”[11] There were various positions for affixing the condemned to a cross, but in general, all victims were elevated with arms outstretched. All victims experienced significant torture beforehand: enough torture to compromise their ability to survive “suspension” on a cross, but not so much that they would die quickly. Crucifixion was not just another cruel form of execution. It was a labor intensive, public, prolonged process for killing.[12] It was meant to be an extended death. A placard announced the charges of the condemned, some form of upsetting Roman order. Victims were often stripped completely nude as a show of conquest and to procure shame.[13] Some texts indicate intentional sexual victimization.[14] Both men and women could be crucified.[15]

In general, Romans believed pain and death could be heroically endured; crucifixion was designed to prevent that. The sickening, degrading, and overwhelming nature of crucifixion ensured it was unthinkable to remember the victim as heroic or noble. The person, their status, and their reputation were utterly destroyed.[16]

Crucifixion is a maximum sentence of pain, however the primary purpose of this method of execution was to declare a final and irrevocable rejection from the community and a complete denial of any legal rights from the empire. The person dies with the status of the enslaved.[17] The executions took place outside the walls of the city, illustrating that victims were cast out of the community.[18]

Shame, humiliation, and rejection were part of the design of crucifixion. It was a ritual of denigration, designed to show domination and strip people of any dignity and autonomy as they died. The victim was socially degraded to the utmost and those who passed by understood this. They knew Rome could suppress any and all threats to state sovereignty, here was the evidence.[19] It declared for everyone watching the victim that Rome controlled everything, the victim controls nothing.[20]

As a form of imperial execution, crucifixion was an instrument of terror, meant to discourage resistance to Roman rule. Rome did whatever they wanted to whomever they viewed as a threat. Crucifixion was the normal way of executing rebels.[21] For conquered and enslaved peoples, crucifixion was a clear reminder of their subjugated status. Individual victims were a visual and visceral reminder of an entire people group unable to prevent Roman conquest, unable to prevent Roman brutality, unable to prevent Roman rule.[22]

For Roman citizens looking at a crucifixion, they could be repulsed not by the horrific torture, but by the one receiving it. Romans would be disgusted by those who flouted Rome’s fundamental authority. For them, not only is Rome powerful, but Rome is right in its power.[23]

In Jewish thought, crucifixion would imply shame, abandonment, and God’s judgment (Deut 21:22-23), ideas incongruent with God’s anointed one.[24] Around 100 years prior to Jesus, the Jews’ own Hasmonean king crucified Pharisees.[25] It was a tool appropriated by those with power.

The Passover celebrates Israelite liberation from the Egyptian empire. Jesus chooses this politically-charged holy festival to provoke his enemies in Jerusalem. The charges ultimately brought against Jesus by both Jewish and Roman authorities revolve around claims of power and authority that disturb the existing order. It is not surprising that the method of execution clamored for is crucifixion.[26] Jesus offends both power groups and likely understood what awaited him prior to his arrival in the city.

Jesus is crucified with two others, often translated as “robbers.” However, this word was used to designate Jewish insurgents and is used to describe Barabbas (John 18:40) who was imprisoned with insurrectionists (Mark 15:7).[27] The two executed with Jesus could have been revolutionaries and possibly associates of Barabbas.[28]

Disempowered, humiliated, shamed, violated, Jesus endures the crucifixion. He receives the condemnation of a vanquished rebel and the shameful status of the enslaved. He is far from the Roman ideal of masculine autonomy.[29] And yet, his willing obedience to endure the cross is in itself subversive. By refusing to present himself with all power and authority that he has received from his Father, Jesus subverts the cultural ideas of power and authority that Rome flaunts with the cross. God’s power is nothing like Rome’s power. Nothing. Divine power reaches out in love and care, it rejects the violence and self-interest of the empire.[30]

Jesus did die. The empire did complete its ritual display of power. But the display was completely ineffective because Jesus received glory, not shame. Not only is the authority of the empire revealed as impotent, but death itself is impotent. The intended meaning of the Roman crucifixion is upended because Jesus lives again. Jesus’ death brings glorious new life, not imperial power.[31] Jesus’ suffering ends with resurrection and abundant life, death is not victorious. The power of the Roman cross is defeated.[32] Out of his abundant life, a new community identity is born.

Paul stresses that the resurrection was not just after death, it was after crucifixion. What was intended as humiliation and eternal dishonor was divinely reversed and became a restoration of dignity and an affirmation of worth. The world Rome desires and its method for procuring it is shown a fraud. Raising and restoring a victim of crucifixion upends evil on every level.[33] All things are made new.

I can look at the crucifixion and can understand why it was and is considered a stumbling block and foolishness (1 Cor 2:23-24). Who would choose this? At face value, it doesn’t make sense. But it is divine love that willingly walked through this, not because the suffering and death are good – they will always be evil – but because the meaning of crucifixion is fully upended with the Son. He, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross” (Phil 2:5-8). Jesus, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2).

I can now see how this message would appeal to the underclass and the enslaved in the first century. I can see how it should appeal to those on the fringes of my own society. It is not a message meant to make the empire great again. It is the good news that the empire is destroyed.

Picking up my cross and following Jesus is not a call to denigrate my body or soul. It is an acknowledgement that choosing to follow Jesus is a necessary rejection of the vicious, self-focused power grasping that pervades life. It recognizes that true community may start with the marginalized. Shame and exclusion are inverted. Turning toward Jesus is a definitive turn away from the empire. (For more on that, see Revelation). So, we fix our eyes on the author and perfector of our faith. His yoke is easy and his burden light; the new Kingdom comes.

Works Cited

Aubert, Jean-Jacques, and Adriaan Johan Boudewijn Sirks, eds. Speculum Iuris: Roman Law as a Reflection of Social and Economic Life in Antiquity. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Bermejo-Rubio, Fernando. “Jesus and the Anti-Roman Resistance: A Reassessment of the Arguments.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 12, no. 1–2 (2014): 1–105.

Bond, Helen K. “A Fitting End? Self-Denial and a Slave’s Death in Mark’s Life of Jesus.” New Testament Studies 65, no. 4 (2019): 425–442.

Cook, John Granger. “Crucifixion as Spectacle in Roman Campania.” Novum Testamentum 54, no. 1 (2012): 68–100.

———. Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World. Mohr Siebeck, 2014.

———. “Roman Crucifixions: From the Second Punic War to Constantine” 104, no. 1. Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche (2013): 1–32.

Smit, Peter-Ben. “Crucifixion? The Reimagination of Crucifixion as Failed Imperial Ritual in Philippians 2:5–11.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 46, no. 1 (2016): 12–24.

Smith, Mark D. The Final Days of Jesus, the Thrill of Defeat, the Agony of Victory: A Classical Historian Explores Jesus’s Arrest, Trial, and Execution. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2018.

Tombs, David. The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross. Rape culture, religion and the Bible book 10. New York: Routledge, 2023.

Wright, Arthur M. “The King on the Cross: Johannine Christology in the Roman Imperial Context.” In Johannine Christology, edited by Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts, 127–151. Johannine studies volume 3. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020.

[1] David Tombs, The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross, Rape culture, religion and the Bible book 10 (Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge, 2023), 15.

[2] Mark D. Smith, The Final Days of Jesus, the Thrill of Defeat, the Agony of Victory: A Classical Historian Explores Jesus’s Arrest, Trial, and Execution (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2018), 202.

[3] John Granger Cook, “Crucifixion as Spectacle in Roman Campania,” Novum Testamentum 54, no. 1 (2012): 82.

[4] Tombs, The Crucifixion of Jesus, 45.

[5] Smith, The Final Days of Jesus, the Thrill of Defeat, the Agony of Victory, 198.

[6] Ibid., 182–183.

[7] Tombs, The Crucifixion of Jesus, 45.

[8] Jean-Jacques Aubert and Adriaan Johan Boudewijn Sirks, eds., Speculum Iuris: Roman Law as a Reflection of Social and Economic Life in Antiquity (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002), 114.

[9] Peter-Ben Smit, “Crucifiction? The Reimagination of Crucifixion as Failed Imperial Ritual in Philippians 2:5–11,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 46, no. 1 (February 1, 2016): 13.

[10] Ibid., 18.

[11] John Granger Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World (Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 161.

[12] Smit, “Crucifiction? The Reimagination of Crucifixion as Failed Imperial Ritual in Philippians 2:5–11,” 17.

[13] Tombs, The Crucifixion of Jesus, 11.

[14] Ibid., 34.

[15] Cook, “Crucifixion as Spectacle in Roman Campania,” 91.

[16] Tombs, The Crucifixion of Jesus, 1.

[17] Aubert and Sirks, Speculum Iuris, 116.

[18] John Granger Cook, “Roman Crucifixions: From the Second Punic War to Constantine” 104, no. 1, Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche (2013): 4.

[19] Arthur M. Wright, “The King on the Cross: Johannine Christology in the Roman Imperial Context,” in Johannine Christology, ed. Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts, Johannine studies volume 3 (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2020), 130.

[20] Ibid., 128.

[21] Aubert and Sirks, Speculum Iuris, 122.

[22] Wright, “The King on the Cross: Johannine Christology in the Roman Imperial Context,” 129.

[23] Smit, “Crucifiction? The Reimagination of Crucifixion as Failed Imperial Ritual in Philippians 2:5–11,” 18.

[24] Wright, “The King on the Cross: Johannine Christology in the Roman Imperial Context,” 130–131.

[25] Smith, The Final Days of Jesus, the Thrill of Defeat, the Agony of Victory, 184.

[26] Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World, 184–185.

[27] Fernando Bermejo-Rubio, “Jesus and the Anti-Roman Resistance: A Reassessment of the Arguments,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 12, no. 1–2 (2014): 9.

[28] Smith, The Final Days of Jesus, the Thrill of Defeat, the Agony of Victory, 193.

[29] Helen K. Bond, “A Fitting End? Self-Denial and a Slave’s Death in Mark’s Life of Jesus,” New Testament Studies 65, no. 4 (2019): 434.

[30] Wright, “The King on the Cross: Johannine Christology in the Roman Imperial Context,” 140.

[31] Smit, “Crucifiction? The Reimagination of Crucifixion as Failed Imperial Ritual in Philippians 2:5–11,” 20.

[32] Wright, “The King on the Cross: Johannine Christology in the Roman Imperial Context,” 142.

[33] Tombs, The Crucifixion of Jesus, 75.

Reading While Female

by Heather L Hart | Originally posted on1.30.23 via Scot McKnight’s substack newsletter

The tousled love between fathers and sons is a joy to behold. It filled my childhood and fills my current house. And yet. And yet, I’m a daughter and a mother. Straight lines have often been drawn from the words of the Bible to the reality of my world and those lines can feel like boxes to keep me sidelined. Biblical metaphors are helpful, until they aren’t. Jesus uses “Abba, Father,” Paul uses it too and adds in bits about adoption as sons and sometimes it is helpful and sometimes it is like looking through a window at a party I wasn’t invited to. God loves me, but I’m not really on the team.


That’s how it feels sometimes.

But those are the feelings of me, a woman living in 2023.

That is not necessarily what Jesus and Paul, or any of the biblical writers, had in mind.

            Two thousand years ago in Rome, mothers did not adopt children and daughters were not adopted. Adoption today has connotations of rescuing vulnerable children; it did not mean that 2 millennia ago. Back in the days of the Roman empire, adoption was a means of continuing a family line when a man had no male heirs. Lineage included the continuation of the family’s free status (vs enslaved), their wealth, worship of the family deities, and the family’s honor and reputation. All these aspects of family lineage worked together to support the political vitality of the empire. It mattered to Rome if family lines continued, and Rome viewed continuity in terms of male heirs. So, fathers without male children adopted sons, typically young adult men of good character with some connection to the family already.

            Ancient adoption was about providing a male heir for a family because the empire depended on a steady backing. It was in the empire’s best interest to maintain a strong support network.

            So, when Jesus says to call God “Abba, Father” when he’s preaching the Sermon on the Mount, he’s done an about-face with Roman lineage. Jesus says the poor in spirit are blessed and these are the people who should call God Father. Fatherhood was never meant to build an earthly empire. Fatherhood is God bestowing divine status, wealth, honor, reputation, and power on the family of God, those trampled by the earthly empires.

            Jesus’s choice of “Father” comes with connotations that “Mother” did not carry at that time. His word choice is less about the maleness of fathers and more about the good things fathers give as inheritance and the way family lineage participates in increasing this legacy. Jesus gives a sense of belonging and inheritance to people pushed to the fringe by oppression. They are poor (in spirit and in wealth) because they are not aligned with the tyranny that runs their world. Their lineage comes from God and backs a different kingdom, one not of this world.

            I don’t need to wince when I hear father instead of mother, I need to reflect on the cultural differences that give meaning to these words. If motherhood had carried the same social and cultural weight as fatherhood, Jesus might have prayed to God differently. God the Father, is not about excluding mothers, it is about the generosity of God in making a family to bring goodness into the world. Reading “Father” as a definitive indicator God’s similarity to men and dissimilarity to women misreads the word.

            Paul sharpens this metaphor in Romans 8. Paul calls those led by the Spirit of God “sons” who have received “adoption as sons” in verses 14 and 15. Sometimes it’s translated as “children” and a truncated “adoption” but the words Paul uses here are male gendered. It makes sense because women were not adopted, and daughters did not carry lineage forward in the same way that sons did. In Paul’s time, the machine of the Roman empire valued sons in a way that it did not value daughters and Paul appropriates this meaning. And then, like Jesus, he flips it on its head.

            Paul knew his letter would be heard by an audience of both genders (see Romans 16) and he knew the connotations of adoption in his culture. He makes a point to say that all who believe are adopted as sons. This means that Phoebe who brought the letter is granted “adoption as a son” and given privileges and responsibilities of a “son.” This is not about her gender. This is about God making a family and bestowing status, wealth, honor, and reputation on her. She is a “son” not because of her body but because of what Roman society associates with sons. This is not gender-bending, this is an oppressed people appropriating language of the oppressor and transforming the meaning for their own ends. Paul clarifies his ends in verse 16 when he says we are “children” of God. Here he uses a gender-neutral term. His logic flows like this: All who are led by the Spirit are “sons” > the Spirit “adopts as sons” > God is the “Father,” the source of inheritance > the Spirit bears witness to all “children”.

            In Romans 8, both women and men are “sons.” Do I love this use of metaphor? I’m still a little ambivalent. I’ve seen it misused to emphasize bodily maleness so many times it’s hard for me to see past its mishandling. Does Paul’s metaphor make sense? Absolutely. In a culture where women weren’t usually adopted, yes, I understand why Paul grabbed onto these ideas. I also keep in mind that his letter, Romans, was written to the church located in the capital city of Rome, where the living, breathing head of the empire resided. And that living, breathing emperor, Nero, was adopted into the imperial family giving him status, wealth, honor, reputation, and power he was not born with.

            Once I see the social and cultural implications of father and son, the windowpane of gendered separation begins to melt away. And I see that Jesus has always beckoned women in; we are on the team, we are in the family.

Further Reading:

Bernstein, Neil W. “Adoptees and Exposed Children in Roman Declamation: Commodification, Luxury, and the Threat of Violence.” Classical Philology 104, no. 3 (2009): 331–353.

Heim, Erin M. Adoption in Galatians and Romans: Contemporary Metaphor Theories and the Pauline Huiothesia Metaphors. Biblical interpretation series VOLUME 153. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2017.

Hillner, Julia. “Domus, Family, and Inheritance: The Senatorial Family House in Late Antique Rome.” The Journal of Roman Studies 93 (2003): 129–145.

Kim, Kyu Seop. “Another Look at Adoption in Romans 8:15 in Light of Roman Social Practices and Legal Rules.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 44, no. 3 (August 2014): 133–143.

Lewis, Robert Brian. Paul’s “Spirit of Adoption” in Its Roman Imperial Context. Paperback edition. Library of New Testament Studies 545. London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2018


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Ecclesiastes recognizes the frequent mismatch between the way things are and the way things ought to be: the faithful life does not always assure us of good fortune. Even in the midst of difficulty and injustice, this book encourages us to see the beauty and joy around us. And through it all, we wait in hope for the one who will make all things new.

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among the people, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.’
“And He who sits on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.'”

Revelation 21:3-5 NASB

Advent in Contested Territory: God with Us

My reflection at Christianity Today | Jesus Creed: Advent in Contested Territory: God with Us

Advent looks at Jesus’ arrival and sees the approaching liberation from Sin and Death. Advent aches for Christmas because Easter is breathtaking. Advent represents the longing for God’s intervention 2000 years ago, but it also represents our longing for God’s intervention now.

False Teachers in the Church

Click here to read my essay about False Teachers.

“Churches must acknowledge that there will always be wolves hunting among the faithful sheep, but they are not hopelessly resigned to this fact. They are called to boldly declare their pursuit of faithful teaching and goodness. Holding to the faith and living in goodness function as a purging agent for the church. The pursuit of Jesus shines a light into the darkness of evil, even when that evil is in the church.”

Who is the Antichrist? (Not who you think)

Click here to read my essay on antichrists.

“The antichrists, who deny Jesus’ humanity and deny God’s love, do not love others. The love of God is self-giving and communal, wanting the best for humanity: life through Jesus (1 John 4:9-10). The truth of who Jesus is comes through divine anointing (1 John 2:20, 24-27). The genuine believers who have remained in community have this anointing; they know who Jesus is and are reminded to let this truth live in them.”

What is the Church after Covid?

Click here to read my essay on the Church after Covid.

“We are meant to be a corporate, physical manifestation of God’s presence on earth, for both the benefit of the world and for our own flourishing. Good news requires that we examine Jesus in light of the past year and allow the Holy Spirit to bring discernment to our communities. We will be changed through this process; we should not expect to be the same people we were a year ago. By meeting together, hearing Scripture, and proclaiming Jesus we can begin to see a path forward. We will have church after the pandemic, but it will never be the same.”

Out of Place: Christian community in 1 Peter and James

Click here to read my essay on Christian community in 1 Peter and James

My predominantly white, suburban, American Christian context often seems unaware of how we’ve adopted the cultural values of status and power. James’ call for the church to be an equal community of brothers and sisters requires us to elevate those on the margins. We must have the self-awareness to see where we absorb status and power into our lives and the courage to explicitly reverse this absorption. This requires listening and allowing the marginalized to teach us.

How does Hebrews help a congregation cope with those who are “falling away?”

Click here to read my essay on Hebrews: discipleship when winning feels like losing.

In context, Hebrews is a message of Christian endurance, a willingness to remain separate from the surrounding cultures and persist faithfully in the truth. Hebrews guides Christian communities toward perseverance by reminding them of the superiority of Jesus. Jesus’ life is an example of faithfulness that meets with extreme resistance, to the point of death, and yet he is undeterred.[4] He is their example even though they have not yet experienced the same level of hostility. They follow his path.

Jesus Saves: More than words

Click here to read my essay on words, context, and Scripture.

“The words, the person saying them, and the cultural context all interact to create meaning. The inability or unwillingness of American Christians to see the meaning created by words used in a particular context leaves us vulnerable to manipulation and misappropriation.”