Mark 15: 16 – 20 The soldiers mock Jesus
The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spat on him. Falling on their knees they paid homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
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Blow after blow landed on Jesus’ head. His scalp was painfully lacerated by a crudely fashioned crown of thorns. He was mocked, as those who were to crucify him pretended to kneel before him and pay him homage. Jesus would have experienced the terror of being in the hands of a group of men who could do whatever they wished to him, short of killing him. Taking their cue from the notice of the charge against him, they dressed him as a king, and parodied worship.
Mark, who says of the crucifixion merely, ‘And they crucified him,’ takes the trouble to describe details of how the soldiers abused him. Why does he do this?
Possibly he wishes to convey that just as the Jews had rejected the kingship of Jesus, so, too, had the Gentiles.
How reliable is Mark’s account of this episode?
Firstly, how did he know what had happened in the Praetorium? Any Jew who went into the Praetorium would have been ritually unclean, and therefore unfit to take part in the celebration of Passover. It is likely that the only people present were the soldiers and Jesus. The chance that Mark knew these details from a Jewish source is low.
It’s slightly more likely that Mark’s source was one of the soldiers present, perhaps the centurion mentioned in Mark 15: 39, ‘And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” ’ Of course, it would also be possible that Jesus had told his disciples after his resurrection.
The second question is what would Roman soldiers have known or cared about the Jewish Messiah? The crown of thorns, the staff representing the mace of kingly authority, the mock worship, all seem to be directed at Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah.
But are they really? What would the soldiers have needed to know about Jesus to taunt him like this? There was a written notice of the charge for which he was being crucified. ‘The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS.’ (Mark 15: 26)
Experience in our own days – the tortures at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, carried out by American soldiers (some of the most disciplined fighters in the world) – makes it clear that it is all too possible for soldiers to behave like this.
Finally, what about the statement, ‘They put a purple robe on him’?
It’s easy to believe the Roman soldiers would have mocked and abused Jesus, but a purple robe? In the Roman Empire, purple was the imperial colour, reserved for the emperor. A purple robe was very expensive. Who would have had such a robe in Jerusalem? Not Pilate. Possibly Herod. And that’s about it.
Could it have been Herod? In Luke 23: 11 we read, ‘Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate.’ Perhaps the elegant robe from Herod was purple?
So, although the primary meaning of this passage is to tell us that the Gentiles, like the Jews, rejected the kingship of Jesus, and although there are certainly questions that can be raised, there is nothing in the passage that shows conclusively that it is invented. It is possible that this story is true exactly as it is written.
And if that’s so, what a dreadful scene it describes. Jesus is physically hurt by many blows, some, sickeningly, to the head. He is taunted for his weakness, and for the contrast between his title “king of the Jews” and his helplessness to defend himself. And that is just the start…
Thank you for submitting to the soldiers, and for bearing the pain and the ridicule. I’m sorry for the many times that I, too, have denied your kingship. Please forgive me; I just want to love and serve you.
For your name’s sake, Amen