King and Mock-King

All four gospels relate that Jesus was beaten and mocked by Roman soldiers while in the custody of Pilate. Although John gives the most detailed account of the proceeding before Pilate, his account of the mockery of the soldiers is rather brief; he mentions it almost in passing, as an episode in the proceeding before Pilate that took place inside the praetorium.

In their present position these verses, which we have quoted earlier, disrupt the flow of the narrative, and destroy the impression, carefully nurtured by John, of a respectful philosophical debate inside the praetorium. They serve only the function of explaining of how the purple robe and royal crown were put on Jesus.

The account of Mark is more elaborate, and differs from that of John in its placement of the action in space and in time: the mockery takes place not inside the praetorium, but in the open courtyard, not during the trial but after Jesus is condemned to death.

Then he [Pilate] had Jesus whipped and handed him over to be nailed to the cross. The soldiers took Jesus into the courtyard (that is, of the praetorium) and called together the rest of the company. They put a purple robe on Jesus, made a crown of thorny branches, and put it on his head. Then they began to salute him: Long live the King of the Jews! And they beat him over the head with a stick, spat on him, fell on their knees and bowed down to him...

Markís report is rich in dramatic detail. Since the gospels con≠sistently use the expression courtyard to indicate the area of the stage in front of the scaena, this permits the conclusion that the action took place in front of the audience, on the open stage.[1] John had other reasons for minimizing the maltreatment that Jesus received at the hands of Pilate and his troops: by the time he was writing his gospel, it had become a matter of vital interest for the Christian community to present the role of the Roman authorities in the crucifixion of Jesus in the most favorable light possible. Luke was so embarrassed by the maltreatment that he passed it over in a few words, and ascribed it to the soldiers of Herod.

What took place inside the praetorium of Pilate was a philosophical debate in which Pilate prevailed, and hence was able to convince Jesus to let himself be endowed with the symbols of royaltyjust as Atreus was able to convince his brother in Senecaís Thyestes. But the chorus of Jewish leaders demands that he be released to them as a karabas, a mock-king, and then be crucified. When Pilate accedes to these demands, he takes Jesus outside and allows him to be mocked by the soldiers in full view of the audience. The taking off of the symbols of royalty and scourging (evidently without any clothes), followed. It becomes evident that the account of Mark and Matthew is correct in placing the mockery of the soldiers after the condemnation to death, and not, as John has it, in the course of that proceeding. Johnís transposition of the scene of the mockery by the soldiers explains why he makes no mention of the taking off of the royal robe.

The following would be a fair summary of Jesusí fate at the hands of the Romans:

They take one of the prisoners condemned to death and make him sit on a royal throne; they dress him in royal robes... but in the end they undress him, scourge him and hang him.[2]

††The words just quoted are from a description by the Greek historian Dio Chrysostom of the Persian festival Sacaea. One cannot help being struck by its point-by-point correspondence with what happened to Jesus according to the gospels.

††The Persian Sacaea had its counterpart in the Roman Saturnalia; both were celebrated in December with similar rites. The Saturnalia festival became particularly popular under the early Caesarsan edict of Augustus prescribed three rest days for the Saturnalia. The Saturnalia was fundamentally a celebration and re-enactment of the happy age when Saturnus reigned on the earth as its first king.[3] For the duration of the festival social mores were reversed. Masters waited on their slaves, and the statue of Saturnus that stood in the Roman Forum was released from its bonds. The unfettering of Saturnus, according to Jane Harrison,

appears to be a reflection of the custom at Saturnalian festivals of releasing prisoners and slavesthe mock subjects of the mock king of the feast, himself a prisoner or a slave.[4]

In letting Pilate broach the idea of a Passover privilege in his speech to the chorus, Seneca must have had in mind the Roman Saturnalia, when clemency toward prisoners and slaves was expected.[5] Senecaís allusions to the Saturnalia did not necessarily contradict the Christian tradition that linked the passion of Jesus with Passover. Because Seneca was writing for a Roman audience unfamiliar with Passover, he used his poetic license to ascribe to Passover some of the customs belonging to the Saturnalia.[6] Such departures from reality were perfectly acceptable in a dramatic performance whose purpose was not to relate historical events, but to show how the ideal Stoic, by gaining complete mastery of himself, at length attains immortality. The Roman audience was given to understand that on the eve of a major festival that had some features in common with the Saturnalia, Pilate was exercising his privilege of clemency; but that the crowd demanded and received Jesus as their mock-king, in honor of the same festival.[7]

Jesusí fate at the hands of the Roman authorities also has striking similarities with the way the Saturnalia was celebrated in the Roman army. A record of one such celebration has survived: In 303 A.D. a young conscript named Dasius had the misfortune of being picked as king of the Saturnalia by soldiers of the Roman legion stationed in a distant province. As such he was to be provided with all the trappings of royalty and indulged for thirty days; finally, at the conclusion of the festival, he was to be sacrificed to Saturnus. But Dasius happened to be a Christian and therefore refused the honor, with some dire consequences.[8]

For a Roman audience it would be natural to expect that a prisoner in a distant province, who was made into a mock-king by Roman soldiers, would in the end be killed. The king of the Saturnalia was chosen by drawing lots.[9] The gospels relate an incident of drawing lots in connection with the division of Jesusí clothes that would have taken place after the crucifixion; but they also state that he was scourged on the orders of Pilate after being handed over to the soldiers. Jesusí clothes had to be taken off him prior to the scourging; hence the incident of the drawing of lots belongs to the scene of the mockery of the soldiers. The gospels had reasons to change the order of events, because they interpreted the details of the division of the clothes as reference to Psalm 22, a psalm that was understood as specifically related to the crucifixion because of its verse 16, They pierced my hands and feet.[10] This psalm speaks of division of clothes and of casting of lots about them. It is probable that very early, before the time of Seneca, Christians had adopted this psalm as a hymn in their liturgy.

It is immaterial to our problem that a close analysis of the vocabulary of the Hebrew verse reveals that it has nothing to do with crucifixion, but instead is using the imagery of a lion attacked by a pack of dogs. The crucial verse 16 was followed by verses 17 and 18 which read:

I can count all my bonesthey stare and gloat over me;

They divide my garments among them,

and for my rainment they cast lots

Hence, Christians understood that the clothes of Jesus were taken off after he had been nailed to the cross, which in truth is not a very likely occurrence. In order to prove that what occurred was a fulfillment of Psalm 22 (19:23-24), John writes:

After the soldiers had nailed Jesus to the cross, they took for themselves his clothes (himatia) and made four parts, one part to each soldier, and the tunic (chiton). The tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. Therefore they said to each other: Let us not break it, but let us decide by lot who shall have it. This was done in order to fulfill the Scripture:

† They divided my garments among themselves

† and for my rainment they cast lots.

John ends with a quotation from Psalm 22:18. There is something awkward in the substance of Johnís account and his form of expression. John relates that the executioners divided the clothes of Jesus, employing the words himatia, which refers to clothes in general. After this, in order to conform to Psalm 22, he introduces a reference to the chiton, tunic.[11] John tries to account for the casting of lots by assuming that the lots were cast for the tunic because it could not be divided into pieces. Explanatory distinctions of this kind are common in rabbinical commentaries.

John connected the distinction between clothes and tunic with the two different words that occur in Psalm 22:18.[12] Seneca may have mentioned that the clothes were divided among the executioners, since this was the rule according to Roman law. In any case, Christians had reasons to be familiar with Roman executions in which according to law the clothes of the executed were divided among the executioners; hence they linked the words of Psalm 22:19 with this Roman practice.

In order to trace the origin of the contradictions among the gospels, we must turn to what must have been Senecaís version. In Hercules on Oeta Alcmene, Herculesí mother, comes to her son in his last hours (as does Mary in the gospels). She asks,

Where is that robe (palla)? I see but naked limbs.

Hercules replies (1357-1358):

It was consumed with me.

Seneca had to introduce this detail because it was technically impossible to pre≠sent on the stage Hercules wearing flaming clothing. According to the play the clothing had been dipped in such a powerful poison that when Deianira exposed to the light the piece of wool with which she had spread the liquid on Herculesí clothing, the wool was dissolved, frying and flaming; today we would compare the effect of the poison to that of sulfuric acid.† The theme of a fateful robe was a favorite one for Seneca; he turned to it again in his Agamemnon and his Medea.

In the quoted lines of Hercules on Oeta, Herculesí dire clothing is called palla.[13] But in other lines Seneca refers simply to clothes, using vestes, or vestis, meaning garments in general.[14] In line 526 there occur both palla and vestis; the palla is said to be dipped and the vestis to be coated. Here Seneca employs two similar terms in order to emphasize that the clothes were soaking with poison. It may be presumed that Seneca employed a similar range of synonyms in dealing with Jesusí royal purple.

The Christian audience, unfamiliar with Latin poetic diction, may have been confused by the variety of terms. Whereas Seneca for the sake of poetry had used different terms without intending any distinction this must have confused the Christian audience, with the resulting uncertainty in the gospels whether what was taken off were ordinary clothes or the royal robe. The evangelists, for whom the matter was of great concern, tried to understand Senecaís terms in a literal sense and introduced distinctions.

The possibility of confusion was increased by the circumstance that Jesus was no longer seen by the audience after being marched off the stage by Pilateís soldiers. His succeeding fate was commu≠nicated to the audience through the songs of the chorus and through the accounts of witnesses, messenger-type characters who appeared on the stage.

[1] Matthew states that the soldiers took Jesus into the praetorium, but this seems to be a misunderstanding of Markís report that they took him into the courtyard (that is, of the praetorium). Matthew also provides the interesting detail that the soldiers put a stick in Jesusís right handthis provides one more parallel with the mockery of Karabas, reported by Philo.

[2] Dio Chrysostom, Oration IV. 66. A crucifixion was generally described as a hanging. Cf. Peterís speech cited in The Acts of the Apostles.

[3] Michael Glycas, Annal. 2, 129C, p. 243, ed. Bonn der Scriptorum Byzantinum.

[4] Jane E. Harrison, Themis, second revised edition (Cambridge, 1921), p. 224.

[5] To punish a criminal during the days of the festival called for an act of atonement. Macrobius, Saturnalia I. 10.1.

[6] John 18:18 says that it was cold in the middle of the night in front of the House of the High Priest. This would be more in accord with December than the time of Passover--but even if this statement could be traced to Senecaís play, it is not decisive in determining the season, since even in March/April the nights can be cool in the Mediterranean climate.

[7] Cf. Paul Wendland, Jesus als SaturnalienkŲnig, Hermes 33 (1898), 175-9

[8] Since Dasius was a Christian, he refused the honor, was promptly martyred, and became a saint in the Eastern Church. The text describing the martyrdom of St. Dasius was published by .Franz Cumont, Analecta Bollandiana, vol. XVI (1897).

[9] In the time of Nero it had become an established custom for each community to cast lots for a king of the Saturnalia who was to represent Saturnus during his festival. Tacitus recounts that Senecaís erstwhile pupil Nero had in his youth been chosen by lot to serve as such a king.Annals XIII.5.

[10] † The concern of the early Christians with Jesusí attire is indicated by the iconography of Jesus on the cross: In the earliest Western representations, which date from the fifth century A.D., Jesus is portrayed as naked, whereas in the East he is portrayed as wearing the attire of a Roman emperor. But in the portrayals in some Syriac manuscripts, he is shown as wearing a simple straight garment which could be called a tunic.

[11] † The chiton is an undergarment worn next to the skin. In the Graeco-Roman world, the poor and those who dressed simply, usually wore the chiton and nothing else. The rest of the population covered the chiton with one sort or another of draped garments.

[12] † In his Greek text of this quotation John uses himatia in the first line and himatismos in the second line. According to common Greek usage the two terms could be synonymous. In the Hebrew original of the psalm there occur two different words, beged and labus. Although it is the general understanding of interpreters that they are synonymous it is possible that John understood the psalm as referring to different kinds of garment.

[13] † In Latin poetry palla refers to some sort of conspicuous attire worn by gods, heroes, and tragic actors; but in ordinary speech it denoted an undergarment. The term palla occurs also in lines 516 and 1356.

[14] † The fatal attire of Hercules is called amictus in lines 571 and 828; in a narrow sense amictus is a garment which is thrown on top of others.