Jesus given a robe and crowned with thorns.

Mark 15.16-20 • Matthew 27.27-31 • Luke 23.11 • John 19.2-3, 5-6

People became Roman soldiers for all sorts of reasons. Some because they wanted to become Romans, and serving in their army was a path to citizenship. Some as punishment: It was either military service, or slavery and prison. Some for the adventure, or to get rich, or because they couldn’t imagine any other job options. Some because how else are you gonna get to crucify barbarians?

So it’s safe to figure the soldiers under Pontius Pilatus weren’t there to make friends with the Judeans. On the contrary: They likely grew more and more tired of the Judeans all the time. Especially any self-righteous Judeans who figured Romans were inferior because they were gentile, or illiterate, or stole. (Soldiers tended to abuse their power so they could steal and extort. Lk 3.14) Plus since the Caesars had exploited Herod 1’s death so they could seize Judea for themselves, the Judeans really didn’t like the Romans… so the Romans returned the favor, and the hostility.

So given the opportunity to abuse one of the Judeans, and have some evil fun at his expense, they took advantage of it. That’s why they beat the crap out of Jesus. Wasn’t enough that they were gonna crucify him: First they had to play a little game they called “the king’s game.”

Mark 15.16-20 KWL
16 The soldiers took Jesus inside the courtyard, called the Prætorium,
and called together the whole company.
17 They dressed Jesus in “purple,” and placed a woven crown on him—of thorny acacia.
18 They began to salute Jesus: “Hail, king of Judeans!”
19 They struck Jesus’s head with a staff, and spit on him,
and bending their knees, “worshiped” him.
20 Once they ridiculed Jesus enough, they took the “purple” off him,
dressed him in his own robe, and sent him away to crucify him.
Matthew 27.27-31 KWL
27 Then the governor’s soldiers, taking Jesus into the Prætorium, called the whole company to him.
28 Undressing Jesus they draped him in a scarlet jacket.
29 Weaving a crown of thorny acacia, they put it on Jesus’s head,
and a staff in his right hand.
Kneeling before him, they ridiculed him,
saying, “Hail, king of Judeans!”
30 Spitting on him, they took the staff and struck Jesus on the head.
31 Once they ridiculed Jesus enough, they took the jacket off him,
dressed him in his own clothes, and led him away to crucifixion.
Luke 23.11 KWL
Considering Jesus worthless, mocking him, dressing him in bright clothing,
Herod with his soldiers sent him back to Pilatus.
John 19.2-3 KWL
2 The soldiers, weaving a crown of thorny acacia, put it on Jesus’s head.
They put a “purple” robe on him.
3 They were coming to Jesus and saying, “Hail, king of Judeans!”
as they gave him punches.

The king’s game.

The king’s game wasn’t a unique experience which only Jesus had. The Romans played it all the time: They’d take a prisoner, pretend he was a king, then do as they’d do to any king the Romans overthrew. In societies with any sort of fixed social classes, many lower-class people love the idea of giving the upper classes what they figure they have coming to them. That’s why during the middle ages, one of the rules of chivalry was that noble prisoners would only be handled and treated by fellow nobles: Commoners were too much in the habit of really abusing the helpless nobles in petty revenge, just ’cause they could. Roman soldiers loved the idea of tormenting a fallen king. But since there just weren’t enough kings around, for fun they invented a few.

The floor of the Prætorium courtyard still exists. On some of the paving stones are etched various marks, indicating where they’d put the prisoners when they decided to play the king’s game with him. One stone was marked with the Greek letter vita (which looks like our letter B) for vasileús/“king.” The “king” would start there, and the Romans would throw dice to determine what they’d do with him next.

First he had to dress the part. Kings and royalty customarily wore purple. Mainly ’cause purple shellfish dye was crazy expensive, so only royalty could afford it. The soldiers couldn’t afford it either, so they took one of their red uniforms and dipped it in indigo, making it purple enough for their purposes.

Then he had to wear a leafy crown. Like one of the olive-leaf crowns they gave winners in the games, but instead of olive branches, the Romans used acacia branches, which were covered in two- to three-inch spikes. Acacia trees grow all over Israel. Artists tend to forget about the leaves, and depict Jesus only wearing the bare thorn-branches. But why would the Romans have stripped off the leaves? To them, crowns were supposed to have leaves.

An acacia branch. Ouch.

How the authors of the gospels describe it, is pretty much how the Romans played the game. Dress the victim as a king, hail him and bow to him and otherwise pretend he’s important… and then take a swing at him. Salute him, then backslap him with your saluting hand. Smack him with his own scepter. Spit in his face instead of kissing him hello. Or if you’re too crude for ironic fun, just beat him up.

Because Jesus was accused of being Messiah, i.e. Judea’s rightful king, he was the perfect candidate for the king’s game, so of course the Roman soldiers played that with him. Some folks speculate they played that with everyone, but it’s more likely they mixed it up, and played various sick games with various condemned prisoners.

As Luke and John tell it.

You notice Luke doesn’t tell the same story. Judea’s prefect Pontius Pilatus decided to pass the buck to Antipas Herod, the ruler of Jesus’s province. Antipas was one of Herod 1’s sons and successors, who petitioned the Caesars to give him his father’s kingdom, and wound up with only a quarter of Israel (and the title tetra-árhis/“tetrarch,” meaning “ruler of a fourth,” not even officially “king”) for his efforts. If Jesus claimed to be Judea’s king, Pilatus figured it might interest Herod to meet his competition. Jesus had nothing to say to Herod, which irritated him, but he appreciated Pilatus’s gesture, and it ended some hostility between the two of them. Lk 23.6-12

So in Luke, Jesus didn’t go through the game; he just wound up with a robe because Herod’s soldiers decided to throw it on him. Many bibles translate lamprán/“bright” as “gorgeous,” which used to mean expensive when the KJV used it, but now means attractive, and for all we know it could’ve been tacky and inappropriate—the better to mock Jesus with. So that may have been what Jesus was wearing when he was sentenced.

However in John, Pilatus let his soldiers abuse Jesus before his sentence, and when he came out to be sentenced, he was still wearing the “purple” robe and the crown:

John 19.5-6 KWL
5 Then Jesus came out, wearing the thorny acacia crown and the “purple” robe.
Pilatus told them, “Look: The person.”
6 So when they saw Jesus, the head priests and assistants shouted, saying, “Crucify! Crucify!”
Pilatus told them, “Take and crucify him yourselves, for I don’t find fault with him.”

So whether Jesus still wore his crown enroute to Golgatha or not, or wore it on the cross or not, is debatable. Artists still tend to put it on him. Of course they’re going for what looks most dramatic, not for historical accuracy. But maybe he was still wearing it; we don’t know.

Once Jesus returns, he’ll have a crown without thorns. Whether it looks like a western-style hat, or an eastern-style garland, I dunno. Doesn’t matter. It will represent his victory over death—much as his thorny crown unwittingly represented it as he was dying. The Romans gave it to him as a sign of disrespect and dehumanization, and Christians still tend to look at it as a symbol of his torture. But that’s because we focus on the thorns, not the leaves. On the fact Jesus merits a crown, regardless of what the Roman soldiers ever meant.