In writing to a divided Corinthian church (I Corinthians 1:10-17), Paul reminded the congregation of its bedrock - what, how, and why he preached (I Corinthians 1:18-31). At the center of this self-contained unit, the apostle uses the collective “we” in discussing preaching to remind the Corinthians that they should be unified behind a central message, devoting their time to external rather than internal battles (I Corinthians 1:23). In doing so, Paul also recalls the obstacle they should be tackling when he laments,
but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, (I Corinthians 1:23 NASB)Speaking of this passage, Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) concludes, “The purpose of the letter is summed up in one verse [I Corinthians 1:23] (Fitzmyer, First Corinthians (The Anchor Yale Bible), 53).”
The cross is central not only to I Corinthians but to Christianity as a whole. Richard B. Hays (b. 1948) comments:
The cross is the key to understanding reality in God’s new eschatological age. Consequently, to enter the symbolic world of the gospel is to undergo a conversion of the imagination, to see all values transformed by the foolish and weak death of Jesus on the cross. (Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 31)This paradigm shift proved difficult for many of the beloved Jewish members of Paul’s audience. Even so, the apostle refused to water down his message despite the fact that its central theme proved to be a “stumbling block”, skandalon. It is from this Greek word that English derives the word “scandal”. Though most translations retain “stumbling block” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV), the term has garnered much consideration.
Anthony C. Thiselton (b. 1937) relays:
The word...has been variously rendered as scandal (C.K. Barrett [1917-2011], Gordon D. Fee [b. 1934]), stumbling block (AV/KJV, NRSV, NIV, Raymond F. Collins [b. 1935], James Moffatt [1870-1944]), or an obstacle they cannot get over (NJB). All of these can be defended. The Greek word occurs only rarely outside of the Septuagint and New Testament, but occurs six times in Matthew and Luke, six times in the Pauline epistles (once each in I Peter, I John and Revelation), i.e. 15 times in the New Testament. Edwin Hatch [1835-1899]-Henry A. Redpath [1848-1908] list 21 occurrences in the Septuagint, where it translates four Hebrew words... (Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 171)Roy E. Ciampa (b. 1958) and Brian S. Rosner (b. 1959) interpret:
Although the word appears only here in I Corinthians, Paul uses it in a similar context in Romans 9:33 and Romans 11:11-12. In both cases an Old Testament citation identifies Christ as a stumbling block for Israel (Isaiah 8:14 and Psalm 69:23-24 respectively). Isaiah 8:14 in particular gives the flavor of the term with various synonyms: “He will become a stone of offense and a stumbling block to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Together these texts suggest that a stumbling block is more serious than simply an insulting affront; it also leads to disastrous consequences. (Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 100)Paul uses a very strong word to describe how offended many Jews were to his message.
How central is the cross to the Christian message? What aspect of the gospel is most troubling to you? What tenet of Christianity do you feel is most bothersome to non-Christians? Why was the message of the cross met with such turpitude?
The scandal of the cross has been largely lost due to familiarity. Marion L. Soards (b. 1952) reminds that modern readers “have seen the cross so often as a religious symbol that we forget the brutal reality of this practice and often fail to comprehend how scandalous was the early Christian message of God’s saving humanity through the crucifixion of Jesus (Soards, 1 Corinthians (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series)).”
To some, the apostles must have appeared to be abusing the Scriptures. Bart D. Ehrman (b. 1955) claims emphatically:
the idea that Jesus was the suffering Messiah was an invention of the early Christians. It is no wonder that the apostle Paul, writing decades after Christians had come up with this idea, indicates that it is the greatest “stumbling block” for Jews (I Corinthians 1:23). Even though this is the very foundation for all Christian belief, to many Jews it was a ridiculous claim. (Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), 236)For the first century Jew, a crucified messiah was an oxymoron. The concept was utter nonsense. Gordon D. Fee (b. 1934) explains, “One may have a Messiah, or one may have a crucifixion; but one may not have both—at least not from the perspective of merely human understanding. Messiah meant power, splendor, triumph; crucifixion meant weakness, humiliation, defeat (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 75).”
A crucified person was by definition a condemned individual found guilty of a crime so heinous as to merit the death penalty. For some, crucifixion corresponded to a passage from the Law which states “he who is hanged is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23 NASB). As such, some viewed the cross as the ultimate validation that Jesus was not from God but rather cursed by God. There simply was no room in their theology for a crucified messiah.
Paul understood this sentiment as he himself had stumbled over the same block (Galatians 1:13-14, 3:13)
Do we miss part of the Christian message if we fail to see the scandal of the cross? What preconceived notions do you hold about God? What could someone tell you about God that you would immediately reject on principal?
“It is the eye of ignorance that assigns a fixed and unchangeable color to every object; beware of this stumbling block.” - Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)