Hengel's thesis deals with Paul's words to the Corinthian church found in 1 Corinthians 1:18 and 1:21-25:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. - 1 Corinthians 1:18 (NIV)
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him,, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. - 1 Corinthians 1:21-25 (NIV)
For Hengel the main question is this: Why is the message of the cross such an offense to the Jew and the Greek? The book is really a historical/cultural study dealing with the background of crucifixion in antiquity. This brings to bear for the reader a deeper appreciation for precisely the means of salvation brought about by God through Christ.
In the summary of the book Hengel provides 10 key results from the historical/cultural background (pp.87-90):
1. Crucifixion as a penalty was remarkably widespread in antiquity.
2. Crucifixion was and remained a political and military punishment
3. The chief reason for its use was its allegedly supreme efficacy as a deterrent; it was, of course, carried out publicly.
4. At the same time, crucifixion satisfied the primitive lust for revenge and the sadistic cruelty of individual rulers and of the masses.
5. By the public display of a naked victim at a prominent place - at a crossroads, in the theatre, on high ground, at the place of his crime - crucifixion also represented his uttermost humiliation, which had a numinous dimension to it.
6. Crucifixion was aggravated further by the fact that quite often its victims were never buried.
7. In Roman times crucifixion was practised above all on dangerous criminals and members of the lowest classes.
8. Relatively few attempts at criticism or even philosophical development of the theme of the boundless suffering of countless victims of crucifixion can be found.
9. In this context, the earliest Christian message of the crucified messiah demonstrated the 'solidarity' of the love of God with the unspeakable suffering of those who were tortured and put to death by human cruelty, as this can be seen from the ancient sources.
10. When Paul talks of the 'folly' of the message of the crucified Jesus, he is therefore not speaking in riddles or using an abstract cipher.
So then, what we have is Jesus, the Son of God, coming in human flesh to ultimately die a cursed death on the cross. It was not only a death that was cursed by the Jew (Deut. 21:22-23), but it was "folly" for the Greco-Roman world because the cross was the widespread means of death for the traitor, common criminal and the slave. This is what Jesus willingly took upon himself for us.
I think this message is timely, being that is the Advent season and all. When we look at the life and ministry of Jesus what we see are bookends of shame. Not only was his "exit" (the cross) shameful in the eyes of the world, but also his entrance was shameful. God took on human flesh and was born of a woman in a filthy stinking stable surrounded by animals and shepherds. Shepherds were of low ranking class during that time. When we compare this to other ancient writings, just as Hengel points out in his book regarding crucifixion, this too is beyond compare. So then, the life of the Creator and Savior of the world (cf. Col. 1:15-20) has bookends of shame, but this is what he did for us.
There is application here for us today. We are called to imitate Christ in life, word and deed. If this is the attitude of our Savior how much more should it be the attitude of those who call upon his name? Life is not about titles, status or any such related things. Our life should be one that is focused upon loving God and loving others. As Paul wrote in Romans, "Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited" (Romans 12:16, NIV). This is what Jesus did for us. He become like us in every way, yet was without sin. However, he took our sin upon himself and became like a slave, ultimately dying a cursed death of the slave on the cross.
Think about that as you look upon the nativity scenes around town this season.