Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah,
v.1, Act 2, scene 2 - #21. The Jewish Abuse and Mockery of Jesus, pp 568-586

(detailed summary)

The Jewish Abuse and Mockery of Jesus
(Mk 14: 65; Mt 26: 67-68; Lk 22: 63-65; Jn 18: 22-23)


This scene of mockery and mistreatment in the Jewish trial around Jesus as prophet is very similar to the scene in the Roman trial around Jesus as king of the Jews. It is possible that there is some kind of amalgamation in the two stories. But within the Jewish trial itself there are divergences in the Gospel accounts that cannot be ignored.

The account of Mark, on which Matthew and Luke depend, emphasizes the irony of the situation, while Jesus is involved in a child's game of the time when he has to guess/prophetize the one who touched him, having earlier prophesied the destruction of the temple and its reconstruction in three days, as well as the coming of the sons of man into heaven ; now, precisely, the scene includes key words from the account of the suffering servant of Isaiah 50 (slaps, face, spitting) whose prophecy Jesus is in the process of fulfilling.

Matthew structures Mark's somewhat too free style and clarifies its content: on the one hand, the allusion to the suffering servant is tightened by writing spit in his face in full, which forces him to skip the mention of the veiled face, which becomes implicit in the child's play that follows; on the other hand, he inserts the challenging of the messiah through the mockery, establishing an explicit link with the announcements of the reconstruction of the temple and his coming into heaven that were made as messiah, and a link also with the challenge as king of the Jews through the Roman trial.

Luke rearranges all the material so that the scene takes place before the trial in front of the Sanhedrin and in the inner courtyard of the palace where people were warming themselves, and the angles are softened: physical abuses (spitting and slapping) are eliminated and the connection with the suffering servant of Isaiah is moved to the Acts of the Apostles and replaced by the model of the martyr who stands firm in adversity. As for this sentence that he shares only with Matthew (Who is it that hit you), it probably comes from an oral tradition that the two evangelists would have added to their source without consulting each other.

Does the scene have any historical value? That the Sanhedrin itself brutalized Jesus is probably not. But there are precedents in the first century where guards have allegedly bruised an accused.

  1. Translation
  2. Comment
    1. Comparisons Provoked by the Gospel Accounts of the Jewish Mockery
    2. The Marcan Account
    3. The Matthean Account
    4. The Lucan Account
  3. Analysis

  1. Translation

    The underlined words are common to Mark and the other evangelists. In blue are the words common to Luke and Matthew.

    Mark 14Matthew 26Luke 22John 18
    65 And some began to spit on him, and to cover his face and strike him and say to him, "Prophesy"; and the attendants got him with slaps.67 Then they spat in his face and struck him. But there were those who slapped him 68 saying, "Prophesy for us, Messiah, who is it that hit you?"63 And the men who were holding him were mocking him, beating him; 64 and having covered him, they were questioning him saying, "Prophesy, who is it that hit you?" 65 And blaspheming, they were saying many other things against him.22 ...one of the attendants who was standing by gave Jesus a slap, saying, "In such a way do you answer the high priest?" 23 Jesus answered him, "If I have spoken badly, give testimony about what is bad. If (I have spoken) well, why do you beat me?"

  2. Comment

    1. Comparisons Provoked by the Gospel Accounts of the Jewish Mockery

      1. Comparisons between the Jewish and Roman Scenes of Abuse/Mockery

        Biblical scholars are divided: some accept both the Jewish scene of molestation/mistreatment and the Roman scene as historical, some reject both completely, others accept only one of them, especially the Roman scene which is said to have been copied from the Jewish scene. In summary, all four Gospels have a scene of mistreatment before or after the Jewish trial/interrogation. All four Gospels have a scene of mockery by Roman soldiers. It is not impossible that the two types of scene could have been amalgamated.

        Table of the analysis of the vocabulary in the different narratives

        VocabularyIsa 50: 533rd passion prediction (Mk 10: 33-34 ; Mt 20: 18-19 ; Lk 18: 31b-33Context of Jewish trial (Mk 14: 64-65 ; Mt 26: 65-68 ; Lk 22: 63-65 ; Jn 18: 22)Herod trial (Luc 23: 11 ; GPet 4: 13-14)Context of Roman trial (Mk 15: 15b-20a ; Mt 27: 26b-31a ; Jn 19: 1-3)On the cross (Mk 15: 29-32 ; Mt 27: 39-44 ; Lk 23: 35b-39 ; GPet 4: 13-14)Comments
        #1 blasphēmein, blasphēmia: blaspheme, blasphemyMk/Mt*, Lk**Mk/Mt**, Lk*** = Jesus accused of blasphemy (also John 10:33-36 - a parallel in III);
        ** = Jesus is blasphemed against
        #2a empaizein: mockMk/Mt: LkLkLkMk/MtMk/Mt: Lk
        #2b ekmyktērizein: sneer atLkPs 22: 7: Forsaken psalmist is sneered at; In NT elsewhere only Luke 16:14: Pharisees sneer at Jesus
        #2c oneidizein: revileGPetMk/MtPs 22:: Psalmist is object of reviling: Mt 5:11: "Blessed...when they revile you"
        #2d: hybrizein: arrogantly mistreatLk
        #2e exouthenein: disdain, treat with contempt or as nothingLkBiform exoudenein in Aquila Greek of Isa 53; Ps 22:7: Psalmist is object of contemmpt; Mark 9:12: "The Son of Man must ...be treated with contempt"
        #3a trechein: push (running)GPet
        #3b syrein: dragGPet
        #4a phragelloun: flogMk/Mt
        #4b mastigoun, mastizein, mastix: scourgeMk/Mt: LkGPetJn√ = Presence of word in Isa 50: 53
        #4c: paideia, paideyein: chastisement, chastise (whip)Lk 23: 16.22: Pilate offers to chastise Jesus
        #5a derein: beatLk, JnServants in vineyard parable (Mk 12: 3.5 et ||); in synagogues (Mk 13: 9)
        #5b paiein: hitMt, LkMk 14: 27: bystanders hit servant of high priest
        #5c typtein: strikeMk/Mt
        #5d kolaphizein: strikeMk/Mt
        #5e nyssein: prick, stab, jabGPetJnGPet with a reed; John with a lance; Ps 22: 17: oryssein for piercing hands and feet
        #5f: rapisma, rapizein: slapMk/Mt, JnGPetJn
        #5g emptyein, emptysma: spitMk, LkMk/MtGPetMk/Mt
        #6a: kephalē: head (of Jesus)GPetMk/MtMk/MtMk/Mt head struck; Mt, Jn, GPet thorn-crown on head; Mt inscription over head
        #6b opsis: faceGPet (spit)
        #6c prosōpon: faceMk (cover) Mt (spit)
        #6d siagōn: cheekGPet (slap)

      2. Comparison of the Differing Gospel Accounts of the Jewish Scene

        The many variants found in the manuscript texts of the Gospels testify to the emotion of the copyists in the face of so many divergences, and to their effort to harmonize the differences. Indeed, Mark writes: "spit on him" and "cover his face", while Matthew writes: "spat in his face". Here is the reaction of some copyists.

        • Codex Bezae (Codex Vercellensis - old Latin version, Syriac translation of the Peshitta, Coptic Bohairic translation) offers for Mark the reading: spit in the face, and omits: cover his face.
        • The Codex Coridethianus offers the following review of Mark: Who is is it that hit you? a harmonization with Matthew and Luke.

        Some biblical scholars have wanted to revise the traditional theory that Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark, in order to accommodate these different versions of the copyists. We will not follow them on this point.

    2. The Marcan Account

      • Who spits and strikes Jesus? According to the context, it is the members of the Sanhedrin. Some biblical scholars have argued that it is impossible that the Sanhedrin had such a harsh attitude. This is forgetting that we are here before the work of Mark, who deliberately presented the chief priests, scribes and elders from the beginning as people hostile to Jesus.

      • The expression "began to" is typical of the Marcan style (26 times). The act of spitting expresses contempt as seen in Job (30:9-10). In the Old Testament, it is a punishment for someone who is guilty (Num 12:14). And it is possible that it was the duty of the Sanhedrin to express contempt for someone condemned to death.

      • The expression "and to cover his face" probably refers to a game well known to readers. Pollux's Onomasticon mentions three games in which the eyes are covered:

        1. There is a game of blind tag where a player closes his eyes and searches for others to touch them, the challenge being to identify them without seeing.
        2. There is the guessing game where a player covers his eyes with his hand and has to guess which hand someone else hit him with.
        3. Finally, there is the "blindman's buff" game where one player is blindfolded and tries to find the others while being hit with husks of papyrus.

        The analogy with these childish games clearly shows that we are in front of a burlesque scene to challenge Jesus' ability to prophesy. The irony is that there were two prophecies made by Jesus during his trial, that of rebuilding the temple in three days after it was destroyed, and that of the Son of Man coming on the clouds and sitting at the right hand of the Power, and now he would be unable to meet the requirements of child's play. Mark expects his audience to perceive this irony, since Jesus had already foretold Judas' betrayal and the abandonment of the disciples, which has come to pass. The irony is at its height when Peter denies him in the middle of the trial, as Jesus had said, and the centurion confesses that he is the Son of God when he expires.

      • The scene ends with the guards slapping him. These are Jewish guards who follow their masters. Why does Mark end this scene with slapping? In fact, Mark is inspired by the suffering servant of Is 50:6-7 (LXX: "I gave ...my cheeks to slaps; I did not turn my face from the shame of spitting. And the Lord God became my helper, and so I was not ashamed"). The underlined words appear in Mark's passage. Thus the reader will have grasped another irony: Jesus fulfilled a prophecy of the great prophet Isaiah. There is something artistic and theological in Mark's text.

    3. The Matthean Account

      • Matthew does not hesitate to use Mark's text in his own way, some elements of which seem to displease him, such as the expression "began to" which he eliminates, his too free way of accumulating the infinitives (spit, cover, blow, say) which he replaces with more balanced sentences by regrouping in a more logical way the various gestures of the Sanhedrin (he distinguishes two groups which each perform two actions) before their speaking which becomes the culminating point.

      • Why does Matthew not take up Mark's expression "cover his face", but opts instead for "spit in the face"? Firstly, we can think that he intends to accentuate the parallel with the suffering servant of Isaiah where there is talk of spitting in the face. Secondly, it is well understood that if the face is veiled, he can no longer receive spit. Thirdly, since his audience understands well the allusion to child's play that follows, it is not necessary to mention that Jesus' face was veiled.

      • Matthew's most striking point is the sentence that Mark does not mention but is present in Luke: "who is it that hit you?" If Matthew and Luke both write using Mark's text, how can they have a common text when they do not know each other? Rather than imagining that a copyist would have erased this sentence from Mark, it is simpler to think that we are dealing with a well-known oral tradition that both Matthew and Luke would have incorporated into their narrative in their own way, especially since the child's game referred to was well known in ancient times. And it is worth highlighting the remarkable pedagogical work of Matthew who, after the echo of Isaiah 50:6 (spitting, face, slapping), ends the scene with the request to prophesy, a scene that will be followed by Peter's denial, confirming Jesus' ability to prophesy; there is something dramatic in this ending.

      • The expression "Messiah!", in the vocative (direct address), is unique in the whole Bible. This accentuates the parallel with the Roman trial where he was challenged under the title "King of the Jews!" (in the vocative). It is all the more unique in that there is no other testimony of someone who would have been called "Messiah" in the first century. For Matthew, Jesus is this messiah of the Davidic lineage, as his account of his childhood shows. And it was as the Messiah that he announced the rebuilding of the temple and the coming of the Son of Man in the clouds, just like Mark. Unlike Mark, he is much more explicit; and instead of placing the mockery around this title at the crucifixion, Matthew prefers to place it here, accentuating the dramatic side of the scene, since it will be followed by Peter's denial, the very one who first recognized him as the Messiah.

    4. The Lukan Account

      • Luke's setting is different: we are no longer at the end of a night trial by the authorities, but the scene takes place at night, after the crowing of the rooster, but before the start of the trial in the morning by the Sanhedrin. Moreover, the place is no longer the hall of the Sanhedrin where Jesus is interrogated, but the inner garden of the palace (aulē) where one is warming oneself by the fire, the very place where Peter denied him and where Jesus looked at him to offer him his forgiveness.

      • It should not be inferred that Luke would have benefited from any other source than Mark's. Rather, we recognize his editorial work, where he introduces a vocabulary that is dear to him, for example synechein (to hold, six times in Luke). And even if he does not use the same words, it is the same reality that he describes: for example, "men" refers to the same people as the "guards" in Mark and John. The same is true of empaizein (to mock) which is part of Jesus' prediction of the passion. In Mark the prediction comes true during the Roman trial (15: 20) before he was crucified. In Luke, who wants to avoid mistreatment by the Gentiles, the prediction is fulfilled here, as well as in the appearance before Herod (23, 11) and on the cross (23: 36). The theme of mockery is so dominant that physical abuse on the person of Jesus is no longer necessary and Luke allows himself to eliminate it. Finally, if Mark put an accusation of blasphemy against Jesus in the mouth of the high priest, Luke refuses to take up this scene again, where the Jewish authority of the people of God would accuse the Son of God of blasphemy against God, an unthinkable situation; with him blasphemy is rather associated with all these gestures of mockery and contempt towards Jesus (And blaspheming, they were saying many other things against him), an arrogant attitude towards him who is the face of God.

      • There are, however, some things that are surprising in Luke. First of all, he eliminates the spitting and slapping from Mark's account, even though it was a way for Mark to associate Jesus with the suffering servant of Isaiah. Why was this? First of all Luke's decision to move part of Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin to Stephen's trial in Acts (7), and an oblique reference is made in Acts to the suffering servant with the story about the Ethiopian eunuch (8:26-39). Above all, however, we must recognize that Luke is interested in another image of Jesus, that of the model of the martyr who remains unshakeable before hostile interrogations and blasphemous mockery, a model found in the books of the Maccabees (2 Macc 6 - 7; 4 Macc 6 and 8 - 14). This model will be taken up again in the Acts of the Apostles with Stephen, Peter and Paul.

      • Another thing that surprises in Luke is the meaning he seems to give to the request to prophesy. For in Mk/Mt. this request follows two prophecies of Jesus during his trial, but in Luke's case the trial has not yet taken place. Why take up this request again when the context has changed? The answer could be twofold. On the one hand, throughout his Gospel Luke has emphasized Jesus' reputation as a prophet (he is greeted as a prophet in 7:16; 9:18,19; Jesus compares himself to the prophets in 4:24,27; 13:33-34), so the request to prophesy would echo all these passages. On the other hand, Luke would perhaps anticipate what is coming in the early morning when the Sanhedrin will ask him, without believing it, if he is the Messiah and Son of God; he would ironically underline the unbelief of the enemies when the truth is about to come out.

  3. Analysis

    Let us now discuss the question of the historicity of this scene, by first recalling the main points of our analysis.

    1. The scene of the Jewish trial around Jesus as prophet is very similar to the scene of the Roman trial around Jesus as king of the Jews. But the details of the content vary and one must avoid the easy conclusion that one scene is simply a copy of the other.

    2. One must reject the conclusion of some that Luke's account is more historical: he simply reorders the material he receives from Mark.

    3. John's account is also marked by a theological interpretation, and while the mention of a guard slapping Jesus seems to echo the synoptic accounts, it should be seen rather as the use of similar older traditions.

    What, then, is the historical value of the gesture of one or more guards slapping Jesus and beating him after his interrogation by the high priest on the night of his arrest? First of all, the scene is likely, since a certain Jesus, son of Ananias, was arrested in the year 60 AD by citizens of Jerusalem for announcing the destruction of the temple, and suffered bruises while he remained silent, before being handed over to the Roman authorities (Josephus, Jewish War, 6.5.3, #302). It is therefore understandable that Christian tradition has remembered this violence against Jesus and has associated it with the will of God as expressed by the suffering servant of Isaiah. To attribute this violence to the Sanhedrin on the part of Mark and Matthew is probably not historical, especially if, as is thought, the meeting of the Sanhedrin took place some time before the arrest of Jesus. What is clear is that Christian tradition wanted to express the judgment that, by their decision, the Sanhedrin was not only responsible for the death of Jesus, but for all the harm done to him.

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