MATTHEW 27:27-31
Pp Mark 15:16-20

This passage concludes the time Jesus spends within the control and confines of Antonia Fortress and follows immediately on from the final pronouncement from Pilate of Jesus’ fate. In my chronology of the first thirty-one verses of this chapter compared with the other three records, I noted that the similar incident of John 19:2-3 should be taken as totally unique and separate, an event which occurred after the scourging within the praetorium and prior to Pilate’s final attempt at having the crowds choose Jesus to be released to them.

As such, there’s only one parallel passage in Mark 15:16-20 which needs to be considered alongside this one in Matthew, Luke and John jumping straight into the journeying of the soldiers with the three condemned towards Golgotha. As previously noted, John does include a previous event of mocking by the Roman soldiers and the reason for Luke’s omission at this point may also be because he’s recorded a similar incident in the context of Jesus’ hearing before Herod (Luke 23:11).

There would seem to have been a natural delay before they went out to the place of crucifixion, however, because the other two men condemned would have need to have been brought from the prison while the soldiers made themselves ready. This shouldn’t be seen to have been too long a delay for there must have already been the decision by the Roman authorities that an execution was to take place that morning as a demonstration before all the resident and temporary crowds that the rule of Rome shouldn’t be disobeyed.

Such executions would have been seen to have underscored the supremacy of the Empire and that they were performed when the maximum amount of subjects were present seems expected from a rule which needed to spark some feeling of fear in those below them.

The site of the mocking still cannot be fixed with any great certainty but, if Antonia Fortress is opted for, the pavement under the Church of the Sisters of Mercy is a prime contender - indeed, as I’ve previously noted, the situation of this pavement within the Roman stronghold disqualified it from being positively identified with Gabbatha (John 19:13) but such a consideration makes it likely - if not fairly likely - that the mocking took place here.

The RSV (Mtw 27:27, Mark 15:16) describes the soldiers present as being

‘the whole battalion’

where the last word represents one (Strongs Greek number 4686) which we saw on a previous web page as meaning a ‘cohort’, a body of soldiers of between 600-1000, though the lower of these two figures was the ‘classic’ number. The word could have been used of a smaller unit of men somewhere in the region of two hundred, but that Jesus is now within the praetorium would suggest that the higher of these two figures is necessary.

Just what type of soldiers these men were appears to be a matter of some controversy or, at the very least, something about which commentators have no one major opinion for Markcole defines them as being

‘...either local Palestinian levies or some of his own hard-bitten Gaulish mercenaries, little more than hired assassins...’

while Matmor thinks of them as being a central part of a Roman army by defining them as

‘...members of the Roman legion’

Matfran, similar to Markcole but still a little different, states that

‘The soldiers of the Governor were auxiliaries, not Roman legionaries, and would be recruited from non-Jewish inhabitants of the surrounding areas (for example, Phoenicians, Syrians, perhaps Samaritans) who would have no love for the Jews’

All that can be said with certainty, therefore, is that the soldiers who now take part in the mocking practised an allegiance to Rome and that any love for the Jewish people would have been so small as to have been negligible. Other commentators point towards the Roman practice of dressing up the condemned shortly before they were led away to be crucified by citing to two ancient writers (Philo - Flaccus 6.36-39 and Dio Cassius - History 15.20-21) and, if this is true, the opportunity which the situation gave them was nothing unusual or special except that the charges which had been levelled at their prisoner were fairly unique. Having now been able to check out the first of these two sources, I note that it has nothing whatsoever to do with Roman soldiers choosing to dress up a condemned prisoner and relates, rather, to an event where a ‘madman’ was treated in like manner by the ordinary people. It does, however, give an indication that a record of such an event is historically accurate.

The clothes which they put on Jesus are in mockery of His Sovereignty and, perhaps, deity as well.

There’s a need to come to an understanding of why Mtw 27:28 records the robe as being scarlet while Mark 15:17 notes it as purple, a point of disharmony which would point away from the assertion of commentators that Matthew was simply developed from the text of Mark once it had been in circulation for a number of years. It seems unusual for a scribe to be confronted with a text which says plainly ‘purple’ and which obviously symbolically represents sovereignty and then to decide to change it to ‘scarlet’ and disregard the symbolism! Zondervan notes that the royal colour was

‘A special purple dye...extracted from the murex shellfish found in the eastern Mediterranean’

and that the skill of extraction was already known to the ancient Canaanites but that the colour was

‘...a deep crimson colour with shades ranging from blue to red’

for purple could range in colour and shade and wasn’t fixed to a particular hue as colours of the present day are - and need to be if one is to be able to colour match the other half of the dining room wall when the first tin of paint has run out!

What could have been used, therefore, was a cloak which was reddish purple, and both authors used the colour which suited their own records. Although this sounds fairly reasonable, it may not be the best solution. Mattask notes that scarlet was the colour of a soldier’s cloak and it may be that Matthew decided to describe the literal colour of the garment used while Mark described the intention which lay behind it by calling it purple and, therefore, taken by readers to be a symbol of royalty as it was intended to be. Matfran combines both aspects when he notes that the cloak was

‘...literally a soldier’s red cape which served to parody the emperor’s purple robe’

The source of both dyes would be much different as well - scarlet coming from an insect which attacks a specific species of oak and purple from the shellfish previously noted.

Due to the high price of the dye, purple came to be regarded as a colour which symbolised royalty and riches for it was only the wealthy who could afford it and it was used in the construction of the Tabernacle simply because it was the royal palace of YHWH, the King of Israel. Purple, therefore, served as one part of the soldiers’ mocking of Jesus because of the symbolic meaning conveyed in its use.

The crown of thorns also represents sovereignty but possibly more than this. Johnmor notes in his footnote to John 19:2 that

‘Hart argues that it was a caricature of the radiate crown, a crown in which spikes radiate outwards. He suggests that such a crown might well be made from the palm tree. It was a form of crown which pointed to the ruler as divine. If it was this form of crown that was used, then Jesus “was presented as at once God and King...”’

This symbolic crown is more likely because coins of that era show the wearing of the radiate crown by the Emperors symbolising both their royalty and assumed divinity. Most attempts at depicting this scene through the media of film, suggest that the crown was meant to be an item of torture but that may well have been secondary to their purpose of ridiculing Him as being God Incarnate - their striking of Jesus about the head with the reed was obviously meant to inflict pain but the placing of the crown upon the head was initially orchestrated for something else.

The reed typifies the ruler’s sceptre and is therefore a symbol of a law giver’s authority and rule and might have been something which resembled a cane more than conjuring up in the mind a brittle reed taken from the slower moving parts of a river - after all, there would have been more likelihood that a cane would have been ready to hand than a reed within the praetorium (unless the soldiers were in to flower arranging).

Whatever the precise object, it was to symbolise the sceptre of a monarch - the sceptre being used this way on its own in the OT to refer to the throne (Gen 49:10, Ezek 19:14, Amos 1:5, 1:8, Zech 10:11). Finally, kneeling is clearly a mock acknowledgement of Jesus’ sovereignty while Marklane notes with certainty that

‘The salutation “Hail, King of the Jews” corresponds formally to the Roman exclamation “Ave, Caesar!”, the vocative admitting the royal prerogative...’

In all, the Roman soldiers were ridiculing their prisoner in accordance with the charges that had been brought against Him. This interlude in the proceedings, as I’ve noted above, seems to have occurred while both the soldiers and the other two condemned prisoners were being made ready to be led away to Golgotha. Matfran notes at this point that

‘Criminals were normally led out naked for crucifixion. Perhaps the return of Jesus’ own clothes [Mtw 27:31] was a regular concession to Jewish sensibility which found nakedness offensive’

while Marklane cites Dionysius of Halicarnassus (7.69) as recording about a victim of crucifixion that

‘They accompanied him, beating his naked body with scourges...’

which seems to indicate it. However, being unable to check out the reference, the quote should be taken with caution simply because of Marklane’s citation of Antiquities 19.4.5 in support of the victim of crucifixion being taken away naked. It has immediate relevance when read for it records that

‘...Lupus laid his garment aside, and complained of the cold...’

until one reads the conclusion of the verse which notes that he was executed by beheading, the normal method of execution for a Roman citizen (crucifixion was forbidden) and there’s no indication that the procession to the place of execution is what’s being referred to - this may simply be a reference to the removing of the garment shortly before the beheading and, even then, it may indicate no more than an outer garment was removed.

If the condemned were normally led out to be executed totally naked, it certainly wasn’t done at this time in Jerusalem though Matfran’s appeal to ‘Jewish sensibility’ is somewhat strange when one remembers that Jesus was forced to discard His garments before being nailed to the cross (Mtw 27:35, John 19:23). Matfran is correct in his observation, however, that

‘...the traditional inclusion of the crown of thorns in pictures of the crucifixion is incorrect’

because it would have been long since removed from Him. His explanation that it wouldn’t have been allowed to have been worn through the streets because

‘...the soldiers would not be allowed to mock the Jews (in the person of their king) publicly...’

is unprovable and, perhaps, unlikely. The Romans took great delight in ridiculing those under them as subjects and that they should privately mock a Jew and then demonstrate kindness as they brought Him through the streets to the place of crucifixion seems double-minded. It may, however, be more the case that, being outside the protection of the Fortress, they were wise not to put themselves in excessive danger. Bravado is fine when you’re in the protection of others but it quickly turns to cowardice when confronted by a force much greater than one knows can be repelled.

Jesus, dragging the crosspiece to which He was to be nailed, thus exited the praetorium and headed for Golgotha, the place of the skull. One final observation by Matmor needs to be made here in which he quotes Patte as writing that

‘The soldiers, apparently under the political authority of the Roman Governor, are actually under the authority of the Jewish people whose orders they will carry out by crucifying Jesus’

This shouldn’t be pressed with too much conviction for it’s still the Romans who are exercising their right of execution and, by their actions, admitting the charge. Even though the Jewish crowds had confessed to their responsibility in the matter (Mtw 27:25), it doesn’t absolve Rome of its responsibility.