Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah,
v.1, Act 3 - #30. The Roman Mockery and Abuse of Jesus, pp 862-877

(detailed summary)

The Roman Mockery and Abuse of Jesus
(Mk 15: 16-20a; Mt 27: 27-31a; Jn 19: 2-3)


In Mark/Matthew, the scene of mistreatment and mockery occurs after Jesus' condemnation, in connection with the accusation of claiming to be the King of the Jews. In John, it takes place in the middle of the trial, and in Luke when Jesus is on the cross. Mark situates it in the inner courtyard of the royal palace where Pilate resides, and presents it as the initiative of the Roman soldiers who invite a whole cohort, i.e. 600 to 1,000 men, to play the king's game with Jesus: he is clothed in a royal purple garment, which Matthew reduces to a scarlet chlamydian, a red military garment, then as a crown, a sort of thorn bush is put on, and finally Matthew adds a reed in his right hand as a scepter. There follows a mocking scene in which the "Ave Caesar" is caricatured, in which a new king is acclaimed, and genuflection. To the mockery is added physical abuse: reed blows to the head, spitting, and in John, slaps. This burlesque scene ends when Jesus has to be dressed in his personal clothes and sent to the place of crucifixion. Usually the criminals condemned to crucifixion were required to carry the crossbar of the cross bound to their hands on their shoulders while they were completely naked and scourged along the way. But it is possible that Jesus may have been waited until he was at the place of his crucifixion before he was naked, a Roman concession to the Jews who abhorred public nudity.

What is the history of this? First of all, two sets of actions must be clearly distinguished: non-violent actions such as the purple garment, crown of thorns and genuflection, and violent actions such as hitting or spitting. Let us note that, both at the end of the Jewish trial and at the end of the Roman trial, Mark, copied by Matthew, presents these two sets in a parallel manner. Now, it is probable that the violent actions of the Roman trial are an addition by Mark, creating a duplicate of the Jewish trial to be consistent with the third announcement of the passion; and in John the slaps are an echo of the suffering servant in Isaiah 50. On the other hand, even if it is not possible to prove the historical value of the mocking scene, it is at least plausible when one knows the Greco-Roman milieu where there are a number of examples of mocking scenes around the title of king, and games or comedies along the same lines.

  1. Translation
  2. Comment
    1. The Soldiers and the Praetorium (Mark 15: 16; Matthew 27: 27)
    2. The Royal Garmentand Crown of Thorns (Mark 15: 17; Matthew 27: 28-29a; John 19: 2)
    3. The Salutation of the King of the Jews and the Abuse (Mark 15: 18-19; Matthew 27: 29b-30; John 19: 3)
    4. Undressing and Dressing Jesus after the Mockery (Mark 15: 20a; Matthew 27: 31a)
  3. Analysis
    1. Composition of the Scene
    2. The Source of the Imagery for Mocking
      1. Historical Incidents
      2. Games of Mockery
      3. Theatrial Mimes
      4. Carnival Festivals

  1. Translation

    Words of Mark shared by the other evangelists are underlined. Words in green indicate what is common to Luke and Gospel of Peter, in red words of John shared by other evangelists. Square brackets [] indicate parallels found in another sequence in the New Testament.

    Mark 15Matthew 27John 19Luke 23Gospel of Peter 3
    16 But the soldiers led him away inside the court, that is, the praetorium, and called together the whole cohort.27 Then the soldiers of the governor, taking Jesus into the praetorium, gathered together the whole cohort against him2a And the soldiers,
    17a And they put purple on him; 28 And having undressed him, they put a scarlet cloak around him;[11 (during the Roman trial): But having treated him with contempt and made a mockery, Herod with his troops, having clothed him with a splendid garment, sent him back to Pilate.]7 And they (the people) clothed him with purple and sat him on a chair of judgment, saying: ’Judge justly, King of Israel.’
    17b and having woven a thorny crown, they put it on him.29a and having woven a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and a reed into his right hand.2b having woven a crown of thorns, put it on his head; and they clothed him with a purple robe.37b [Codex Bezae, OS add: having put on him also a thorny crown.]8 And a certain one of them, having brought a thorny crown, put it on the head of the Lord.
    18 And they began to salute him, "Hail, King of the Jews".29b And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews."3a And they were coming up to him and saying, "Hail, O King of the Jews."(while Jesus was on the cross): 36 Moreover, also the soldiers mocked, coming forward, bringing forward to him vinegary wine, 37a and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself."
    19 And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him; and bending the knee, they worshiped him.30 And having spit at him, they took the reed and were striking at his head.3b And they gave him slaps.9 And others who were standing there were spitting in his face, and others slapped his cheeks. Others were jabbing him with a reed; and some scourged him, saying, ’With such honor let us honor the Son of God.’
    20a When they had mocked him, they undressed him of the purple and dressed him with his own clothes.31a And when they had mocked him, they undressed him of the cloak and dressed him with his own clothes.

  2. Comment

    When we look at the totality of Jesus' trials before the Jewish authorities and the Roman authorities, we observe this:

    • In Mark/Matthew, each scene of mistreatment and mockery takes place after each conviction, in connection with the main theme of the previous trial.
    • In John, the parallel is less close: Jesus is beaten by a guard (no mockery) in the middle of the interrogation by the high priest, and in the middle of the Roman trial, he is mistreated and mocked.
    • In Luke, Jesus was mistreated and mocked by the guards before the beginning of his Jewish trial, and in the Roman trial there was no mistreatment or mockery, but it was when he appeared before Herod that his guards mocked him, and it was when he was crucified that the Roman soldiers did the same.
    • In the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, the mockery of the Jewish and Roman trials is combined in a scene that takes place after Jesus' trial, where he is made to sit on the judge's bench to invite him with derision to judge justly, a tradition that echoes Matthew 27:19 and John 19:13.

    1. The Soldiers and the Praetorium (Mark 15: 16; Matthew 27: 27)

      • The expression "But" (Mk), "Then" (Mt), makes the connection with the above: Jesus was handed over to be crucified, and here we learn that he is handed over to the soldiers.

      • "the soldiers (stratiōtēs)". This is the first mention of the soldiers in the passion narrative in Mk/Mt, just as in John (6 mentions, all in ch. 19). Luke will only introduce them when Jesus is on the cross (23: 36). These soldiers are to be distinguished from the "captains of the temple" (stratēgoi), in the service of the high priests, mentioned in Luk 22, 4.52, from the "attendants" (hyperētēs) in the service of the high priests and Pharisees mentioned in Jn 18, and playing the role of a police force, and from the "troops" (strateuma) in the service of Herod who appears in Luk 23: 11.

      • "led him away inside the court (aulē), that is, the praetorium". This is the first mention of the praetorium in the Synoptics. In John, the entire Roman trial takes place in a back and forth movement between the inside and the outside of the praetorium; and it is inside the praetorium that the scene of mockery takes place. Luke places the mocking scene in a place in Jerusalem where Herod resides. As for Peter's Gospel, it speaks of a public place where the Jewish people can whip Jesus and mock him. All the evangelists use the word aulē (courtyard / palace) to refer to the residence of the chief priest, but only Mark uses it to refer to the site of the Roman trial, i.e. the inner courtyard of the royal palace where Pilate lives, a courtyard big enough to accommodate a whole cohort.

      • "called together (synkalein) the whole cohort (speira)". A cohort consisted of 600 to 1,000 men. The fact that Mark speaks of "the whole" cohort is a way for him to extend the guilt to all the soldiers. The synkalein verb appears only here in Mark, whereas Luke uses it among other things to describe the action of Pilate who calls together all of Jesus' opponents (23:13).

    2. The Royal Garmentand Crown of Thorns (Mark 15: 17; Matthew 27: 28-29a; John 19: 2)

      • Because of the similarities between John and the Synoptics, one can imagine a tradition that is already quite well established. In Mc/Mt, the mockery followed by the lashes is the initiative of the soldiers. In John, it is a request from Pilate who seeks sympathy for a disfigured man.

      • "And they put purple on him". Mark and the Gospel of Peter simply say: purple, whereas John prefers to say: purple robe. It is important to know that the purple dye of Tyre was obtained from shellfish, and therefore was very expensive, beyond the financial capabilities of a soldier; we are in front of a royal garment. Josephus (Jewhish Antiquities, 11, 6.10: #256) presents us with ministers of the Persian court dressed in purple. Matthew prefers the scarlet chlamydia (chlamys), which can refer to the ordinary red military garment, or the scarlet paludamentum, worn by high-ranking dignitaries or by the emperor. Matthew's reader will have understood that this is a royal mockery, but with a garment provided by a soldier. With Luke it is different, because the splendid garment is probably white, symbol of innocence.

      • "and having woven a thorny (akanthinos) crown, they put it on him ". Mark, John (19: 5) and the Gospel of Peter use the adjective akanthinos (thorny), while Matthew and John (19: 2) use the plural word akantha (thorn plant). In the Christian imagination it has become a symbol of pain and suffering. However, in the Gospels the emphasis is only on royal mockery. The biblical scholars have looked into the type of thorn plant and the type of crown. Here is a sample of the theories.

        1. The famous botanist Linnaeus (19th c.) concluded that it was Ziziphus spina Christi, a plant with long thorns and dark oval green leaves; but this seems impossible in the mountainous region of Jerusalem.

        2. Ha-Reubeni identifies it with the Poterium spinosam L., a common thorny bush of Palestine, the sîrâ of Is 34:13. It has small thorns and its tangled tufts could have been put on Jesus' head to form a hat, as on the fresco in the catacombs of Praetextatus (2nd c.).

        3. Hart refers us to the currency of Rhodes, one face of which seems to show us the radiant face of the sun god, which could be that of Christ: the divinity of the royal figure is suggested by the crown from which sunrays emerge in all directions, a little like the statue of liberty in New York. Such a representation of a radiant head (aktinōtos) is attested for the emperors Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula. Could we not imagine that Mark wanted to use this symbolism when he spoke of a thorny crown (akanthinos), referring not only to a royal but also to a divine figure?

        4. Delbrueck, Goodenough and Wells think that readers of the Gospels would not have thought of the akantha (thorn plant), but of the acanthus plant (akanthos). One of its varieties, acanthus mollis, has glossy leaves, well known on Corinthian style capitals. There is also a thorny variety, acanthus spinosus, whose leaves could have been used by soldiers to weave a garland into a simulated crown.

        In short, all the proposals point to royal mockery, but the best one must be able to answer these questions: how did the Greek reader of the first century understand this story, and if the scene is historical, what was within the reach of a soldier in a quick action?

      • "and a reed into his right hand". This is a Matthew's addition to the mockery's paraphernalia.

    3. The Salutation of the King of the Jews and the Abuse (Mark 15: 18-19; Matthew 27: 29b-30; John 19: 3)

      1. The salutation as a mockery

        • Mark created a burlesque scene around the acclamation "Ave Caesar" addressed to the Emperor, with "Hail" (kaire) and "king" (basileu) in the vocative, i.e. in the form of a direct address.

        • Matthew avoids the "habit" of Mark, who uses the expression "they began" 26 times and replaces the greeting with "kneeling" and "mocking", the latter word also appearing at the end of the scene in v. 31a.

        • The apocryphal Gospel of Peter, a writing hostile to the Jews, prefers the expression: King of Israel. By seating Jesus in the judge's chair, it emphasizes the judicial function of kings in Israel.

        • John uses the imperfect verbs "there were coming up," "saying," giving the impression of an action that has been repeated many times.

      2. The physical abuse

        • Here, it is Mark who uses the imperfect verbs "were striking", "were spitting", "were bending", with the same idea of a repeated action. The gesture of prostrating becomes the culmination of mockery. Note Mark's Latinism with "bending the knee", a literal translation of ponere genua.

        • Matthew reverses Mark's "strike/spit" order to put the most painful action at the end. And because of the sense of order, the genuflection before Jesus takes place at the beginning of the scene, not at the end as in Mark.

        • In John, we note the absence of the actions of spitting or striking; the evangelist prefers to mention the slaps, no doubt an echo of Isaiah 50:6 ("I gave up my back to the scourging and my cheeks to the slaps...").

        • The Gospel of Peter combines the spitting and reed beating of Mark with John's slaps. The scene ends with the lashes of the whip, the most severe physical dishonor. With this mocking scene that ends with "Let us honor the Son of God", we see what the real issue of the trial was.

    4. Undressing and Dressing Jesus after the Mockery (Mark 15: 20a; Matthew 27: 31a)

      • Mark and Matthew are similar in this scene, except that each one sticks to his garment of mockery, the purple in Mark, the chlamydian in Matthew.

      • John, who had this mocking scene in the middle of the trial without mentioning the change of clothing, makes it clear that at the cross Jesus found his clothes again (19:23: "When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and made four portions, one portion for each soldier, and the tunic. Now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top").

      • The apocryphal Gospel of Peter also suggests that Jesus found his clothes for the crucifixion.

      • No evangelist mentions what happened to the crown of thorns. It must be assumed that Jesus was rid of all mocking paraphernalia prior to his crucifixion.

      • Usually, criminals condemned to crucifixion had to carry the crossbar of the cross bound to their hands on their shoulders, while being completely naked and scourged along the way. We learn this from Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities, 7.69.2), Valerius Maximus (Facta, 1.7.4), and Josephus (Jewish Antiquities, 19.4.5: #270). Why does Mark mention the exposure of Jesus only at the crucifixion (15: 24)? It is possible that it reflects a Roman concession to the Jews who abhorred public nudity.

  3. Analysis

    In Mc/Mt there is a parallel between the mocking scene at the Sanhedrin and that at Pilate's palace. Luke placed the first mocking scene in Herod's house, and the second in the cross. The question arises: is one of the scenes a duplicate of the other? And has the original scene been extensively dramatized to echo Old Testament themes?

    1. Composition of the Scene

      • What is the relationship between the Roman mocking scene and the flogging/scourging? In Mc/Mt and John, the mocking follows the flogging/scourging scene. In Luke, the mocking took place without scourging. In the third proclamation of the passion and in the Gospel of Peter, the scourging follows the scene of mocking.

      • First of all, two sets of actions must be distinguished: non-violent actions such as the purple garment, crown of thorns, and genuflection, and violent actions such as striking or spitting. Mark applies the title of mockery to this second set. The parallel that can be drawn between the Roman trial and the Jews concerns only this second set of actions. We can think that this second set was added by Mark in the Roman trial.

      • John 19:2-3a presents a short version of the violent actions which can be summed up as slaps. Most likely he uses a pre-Hohannic tradition for the first set, the non-violent actions, but it is he who adds the violent action of slapping, echoing Isaiah 50 which describes mocking the suffering servant.

      • As the third announcement of the passion specifies that the Son of Man will be scorned and scourged by the Gentiles and spat at, it is possible to think that very early in Christian memory violent gestures towards Jesus were associated with the Romans. This is how we find these gestures in Mark and John during the Roman trial. Historically, in the rush of things, the Roman soldiers probably did not have time to indulge in violent actions to victimize Jesus.

    2. The Source of the Imagery for Mocking

      What has retained the Christian imagination over the centuries is the first set of non-violent actions: the scene of mockery with the garment, crown, sceptre and genuflections. It is impossible to determine whether this is really historical. If it is historical, we have to ask ourselves: what could have inspired the Romans to act in this way? If it's not historical, we have to ask ourselves: what led Christian preachers to imagine this type of action on the part of the Romans? Certainly, the influence did not come from Isaiah 50 or Psalm 69 or Sirach 2, which offer nothing similar. On the other hand, royal paraphernalia was known even in Jewish circles because of the Hellenistic and Roman models. Let us examine the possible background for the description in the Gospels.

      1. Historical Incidents

        1. Karabas' mockery. This is a figure from Alexandria, Egypt, mentioned by Josephus (Flaccus, 6, #36-39), a lunatic who was disguised as a king to be mocked during the unwelcome visit of the Jewish king Herod Agrippa I in about 38 AD.

        2. The death of Herod Agrippa I in the year 44. On the occasion of his death, the people of Caesarea on the Palestine coast and Samaria laughed at this king, who dressed in splendid clothes, wearing garlands and perfumes

        3. The mockery of a prisoner reported by Plutarch (Pompey, 24.7-8). Pirates are said to have dressed this man, who claimed Roman citizenship, in fine clothes, amusing themselves by honouring him, before throwing him overboard.

      2. Games of Mockery

        1. The Greco-Roman milieu knew a game called basilinda, the game of the king. It consisted in choosing a person who was promoted to king and who had to promise to obey everything that was ordered. It was also played with dice.

        2. Graffiti was discovered in the rooms of the Domus Gelotiana, a training place for the imperial pages, on the Palatine Hill in Rome, where a character who worships a crucified donkey can be seen with these words: Alexamenus worships his god. It is a pagan mockery of the crucified.

      3. Theatrical Mimes

        Comedies and imitations in the theatre were part of Greco-Roman life. Very often the Jews were the whipping boys in these plays. Imitations of kings are more difficult to find for political reasons, but one can find plays about drunken kings, for example.

      4. Carnival Festivals

        1. Sakaia's party. This is a festival of Persian origin that lasted five days, during which the masters were governed by slaves, with in particular a slave named the master of the others and wearing a royal habit. Sexual orgies took place during this festival. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know whether this festival was well known to Roman soldiers.

        2. The Saturnalia. This Roman feast took place before the winter solstice and gave rise to joyous celebrations in anticipation of the golden period of the god Saturn, and when a soldier was chosen to be king during the feast, he allowed himself to give orders.

        3. The Feast of Kronos. For the Romans, the Greek god Kronos corresponded to the god Saturn. During the feast in his honour, masters and slaves celebrated together. In the Martyrdom of Dasius of Durostorum, Roman soldiers from the Danube chose one of them to play the role of the king in honor of Kronos, wandering through the audience with a reputation for immorality, before offering himself as a sacrifice with the sword.

      • At the heart of all these celebrations there is a form of derision and orgiastic overflowing. On the other hand, the physical abuses and executions seem late and less certain.

      • It would be simplistic to say that Christians invented the scene of Roman mockery by taking inspiration from all these feasts we have just mentioned. All that can be said is that this mocking by Roman soldiers is not impossible given all these precedents. A reader of the first century might have understood this scene as a recapitulation not only of what was at stake for the Romans, but also of the pagan attitude towards the crucified king.

      • In short, the entire Sanhedrin condemned Jesus to death and began to mock him as a prophet, while Pilate condemned Jesus to crucifixion and the entire cohort was gathered together to mock him as king.

Next chapter: Introduction: Structure of the Crucifixion and Burial Accounts

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