Gospel of John: Scourge and Scorn


The chiasm outlined by Jo-Ann A. Brant has a classic seven-point structure.

A Exterior: John 18:29-32, Jesus is brought to Pilate with a demand for execution; Pilate refuses

     B Interior: John 18:33-38, Pilate asks about Jesus’s royal claim

          C Exterior: John 18:38-40, Pilate finds Jesus innocent, but the temple elite choose Barabbas

               D Interior: John 19:1-3, Soldiers scourge and scorn Jesus

          C’ Exterior John 19:4-8, Pilate finds Jesus innocent, but temple elite charge capital crime

      B’ Interior John 19:9-11, Pilate asks about Jesus’s origins

A’ Exterior John 19:12-15, Temple elite demand Jesus’s execution; Pilate agrees

So now, finally, we have reached the center of the chiasm. Pilate had been a reluctant participant from the very beginning. He did not want to get involved but did his due diligence by interviewing Jesus. After quickly surmising this was a religious issue and out of his purview, he told the chief priests Jesus was their problem.

However, their insistence seems to have persuaded Pilate to stay in the conversation, and by chance he learned Jesus was from Galilee. Thinking he recognized an exit ramp from this imbroglio, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, tetrarch of Galilee. Alas, to no avail.

Pilate tried a third tactic—punishment by the lash, and then free the hapless preacher. No, the religious rulers, now manipulating the gathered crowd of onlookers, would not hear of it. Pilate’s fourth attempt was to activate the Passover custom of pardoning a Jewish prisoner. The people had initially petitioned for Bar Abbas, the most notorious convict currently in his prison, a seditionist and murderer. Now Pilate suggested trading Jesus the Christ for Bar Abbas the terrorist.

Instead, the crowd, goaded by the Sanhedrin representatives and chief priests, demanded clemency for Bar Abbas and the cross for Christ their King.

Today comes Pilate’s fifth and final attempt to spare Jesus crucifixion.

Four asides:

  1. first, *trigger alert* the gospels themselves allude to the violence depicted below.
  2. Second, a careful reading of the gospels shows the place of flogging took place in the Praetorium, and this only makes sense. Of course this punishment would be on full public display to act as a warning and a proof, Pax Romana was predicated on the authority of the sword. As the Apostle Paul would later explain, “if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain!”
  3. Third, two of three gospels that report this event place Jesus’s flogging immediately after Bar Abbas’s release, and the three gospels that describe the mocking of Christ place this scene after the flogging.
  4. Lastly, I have been using the artwork of James Tissot, who made a commitment towards the end of his life to illustrate the Bible as an act of devotion to God. I have come to love the spirit and heart of this 19th century French painter, and include here his works of devotion to the Passion of his Lord and Savior.

As the procurator had made his exit, the captain of the guard had also left, in the direction of the Praetorium’s prison. Herod’s armed men, assigned to guard the Praetorium, continued to stand at attention. Annas and Caiaphas, and their coterie of elders from the Sanhedrin, positioned themselves between the crowd, the dais, and the columns marking the hall’s space. They had been long away from the mount, though it was yet morning. Caiaphas now sent the elders to return to the temple to attend the sacrifice of the lambs and to send others back to join them, and to refresh their own temple guard who had accompanied them.

The people who had come to petition for Bar Abbas’s acquittal also remained. They expected soon to hail the controversial nationalist hero, “Son of the Father,” as his moniker meant.

After  some thought, Pilate also made his way to the prison, and intercepted his guard who had released Bar Abbas and was returning to court. Flog the people’s king, the one they call Christ.

The governor knew Roman flogging involved thirty-nine strokes with a whip of many leather cords, knotted with bits of sharp metal and broken glass. He counted on the lash to cut deeply, to hook into the flesh, to tear skin and muscle right off the bone. And he counted on the men who would do the flaying, for they were of powerful build and cruel in nature, who enjoyed their work. Many died strung to the post.

Also, a good number of the Roman cohorts assigned to Palestine contained mercenaries recruited from nearby Syria. A centuries’ old tradition of enmity, well-documented from antiquity, between their people and those of Jewish descent made it welcome work to step into the role of armed authority in Judea, Samaria, and the Galilee.

Without hesitation, those assigned to flog the prisoner led Jesus to the Praetorium’s open square as onlookers parted to give them way, then soldiers stripped Jesus before binding his arms to the whipping post. If this man Jesus survives the flogging, Pilate thought to himself, he will be pitiable to all.

La flagellation de dos, The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot / Public Domain

Certainly, he would be covered in his own blood, the deep score marks across his back open and oozing, his own flesh hanging in ragged strips. Perhaps the display of such savagery on one of their own would sober them. Perhaps pity would soften the people, and gore would satisfy even the Sanhedrin’s blood-lust. Pilate curled his lip in disgust.

La flagellation de face, James Tissot | The Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain

It seemed, however, the prison guards had much more in mind than simply flogging Jesus, though it was long and bloody work. The prisoner had been sent from Herod’s court dressed in a gorgeous robe, its royal hue unmistakable. The soldiers escorting him had relayed in the coarsest possible language all the mocking and ridiculing that had gone on, the bawdy and boorish among them building ever grander descriptions of the vulgarities they had indulged in, as the tetrarch Herod Antipas urged them on, laughing.

Now this magnificent wine-colored robe was once again procured and thrown around Jesus. Several had gathered long, thorned shoots from one of the many bushes in Herod’s gardens, and now they twisted these into the grotesque caricature of a king’s laurels, his victor’s crown. Holding it high, just as with the Games, waving it to each segment of the audience, they shouted in glee, to the victor goes the crown, hail, hail.

And finally, chortling loudly, a soldier ran up with a staff and shoved it into Jesus’s hand. All laughed uproariously as several of them dropped to one knee, one hand clapped to their chest, the other thrust forward toward Jesus,

Hail, King of the Judeans! More dropped to their knees, then more, until the entire company was kneeling, hailing Christ as King in an eerie prophecy of what will one day be fulfilled at the end of time. Rousing no response, they increased their abuses, now spitting on him, now hitting and slapping him, and finally, a soldier took the staff wedged into Jesus’s hand, and used it to reign blows on the rabbi’s head. Trickles of blood ran from the crown of thorns, and sharp cracks rang out with each strike, yet the Master’s form remained still. Finally, the soldiers began to tire their mockery.

Annas and Caiaphas, who had waited to see their plans through to the end, watched everything, their faces inscrutable. Pilate, too, had sat back in grim silence upon his richly adorned bench in the Praetorium hall, watching. Now he stood and moved with dignity and authority toward the phalanx of guards still arrayed on either side of the Seat of Judgement. With an imperial gesture, the procurator signaled to his guard to unbind the prisoner and bring him to the foot of the dais.


[Story taken from Matthew 27:26-30, Mark 15:15-19, John 19:1-3]

[The Crown of Thorns | The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain]

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