13 April 2022

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 the Roman army was a path to Roman 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 Judeans. On the contrary: Over time they likely grew more and more tired of Judeans. Especially those Judeans who were bigoted against gentiles, or were outraged over the Roman occupation. The Romans gave ’em legitimate reasons for not liking them: Soldiers tended to abuse their power so they could steal and extort. Lk 3.14 And bullies look for any excuse to justify themselves, so they were happy to return the hostility.

Given the opportunity to abuse a Judean and have some evil fun at his expense, the soldiers took advantage of it. That’s why they beat the crap out of Jesus. Crucifying him wasn’t enough for them: First they had to play a little game they called “the king’s game.”

Mark 15.16-20 KWL
16 The soldiers lead Jesus inside the courtyard,
which is the Prætorium.
They summon the whole unit.
17 They dress Jesus in “purple,”
and place a braided garland on him—of thorny acacia.
18 They begin to salute Jesus: “Hail, king of Judeans!”
19 They strike Jesus’s head with a staff,
and spit on him,
and bending the knee, they’re “worshiping” him.
20 While they mock Jesus, they strip the “purple” off him,
dress him in his own robe,
and send him away to crucify him.
Matthew 27.27-31 KWL
27 The leader’s soldiers then, taking Jesus into the Prætorium,
called the whole unit to him.
28 Undressing Jesus,
they drape him in a crimson coat.
29 Weaving a garland of thorny acacia,
they put it on Jesus’s head,
and a reed in his right hand.
Kneeling before him, they ridicule him,
saying, “Hail, king of Judeans!”
30 Spitting on him, they take the reed
and strike Jesus on the head.
31 While they mock Jesus, they take the coat off him,
dress him in his own clothes,
and lead him away to crucifixion.
Luke 23.11 KWL
Considering Jesus worthless,
Herod with his soldiers mockingly dressing him in campy clothing,
send him back to Pilate.
John 19.2-3 KWL
2 The soldiers, braiding a crown of thorny acacia,
force it on Jesus’s head.
They put a “purple” robe on him.
3 They’re coming to Jesus and saying, “Hail, king of Judeans!”
—as they give 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 and pretend he was a king… then do to him as they’d love to do to any king they’d just overthrown.

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. They’d put this on their victim.

The “king” had to wear a leafy crown. Like one of the olive-leaf garlands they gave winners in the games, but instead of olive branches, the Romans used acacia branches, which were covered in olive-like leaves… and two- to three-inch spikes. Acacia trees grow all over Israel. Artists tend to miss the point of the parody entirely, and depict Jesus wearing a crown of dry, leafless branches. Ever try to weave dry sticks together? You can’t; they break. And why would the Romans strip the leaves off the crown? It wasn’t a crown unless it had leaves.

An acacia branch. Ouch.

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 βασιλεὺς/vasilévs, “king.” The “king” would start there, and the Romans would throw dice to determine what they’d do with him next.

Then they’d do as they’d do to any king they 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. It’s why during the middle ages, one of chivalry’s rules was that noble prisoners could only be handled and treated by fellow nobles: Commoners were far too likely to take advantage of their noble prisoners and exact rough, petty revenge—just ’cause they could. Roman soldiers longed for the chance to torment a fallen king, and since there just weren’t enough kings around… for fun they invented a few.

How the authors of the gospels describe it, is pretty much how the Romans played the game. Dress up the victim, 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 and rape him.

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 Herod Antipas, the ruler of Jesus’s province. Antipas was the brother of Herod Archelaus, the last local king of Judea; Antipas had petitined the Romans to overthrow Archelaus and give him the kingdom, and the Romans instead took Judea for themselves and gave Antipas a quarter of Israel—hence his title τετραάρχης/tetra-árhis, “ruler of a fourth.” If Jesus claimed to be Judea’s king, Pontius figured it might interest Antipas to meet his competition. Jesus had nothing to say to Antipas, which irritated him. But Antipas appreciated Pontius’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 wound up with a robe because Herod’s soldiers decided to throw it on him. The KJV translated λαμπρὰν/lamprán as “gorgeous”—by which the translators meant expensive, although nowadays people figure it means attractive. But properly lamprán means “bright” and “showy”: They were dressing him as a parody of how a rich person or king ought to dress. It’s why I went with “campy.” It made Herod laugh; it probably made Pontius laugh too.

However in John, Pontius 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 comes out,
wearing the thorny acacia garland and the “purple” robe.
Pilate tells them, “Look: The person himself.”
6 So when they see Jesus,
the head priests and assistants shout, saying, “Crucify! Crucify!”
Pilate tells them, “Take and crucify him yourselves,
for I don’t find fault with him.”

Whether Jesus wore his crown to Golgatha or not, or wore it on the cross or not, is debatable. Artists like 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, an eastern-style garland, or the halo we tend to put on his ikons, 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. Or the fact Jesus merits a crown, regardless of what the Roman soldiers ever meant.