Jesus is tormented, then executed
After the people chose Jesus for execution over Barabbas, Pilate’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered an entire company of soldiers around him. They stripped off his clothes and put a scarlet robe on him and then twisted together a crown of thorns and placed it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him, mocking, “Hail, the king of the Jews!”
They spat on him and struck him on the head with the staff over and over. Then they took off the robe and put his own clothes back on him, and led him away to be crucified.
As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. They arrived at a place called Golgotha (which means “place of the skull”). There they offered Jesus wine mixed with gall to drink. After Jesus tasted it, he refused to drink it.
When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. Then they sat down and watched over him.
Above his head, they placed the written charge against him: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Two rebels were crucified next to Jesus, one on his left and one on his right. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads, saying,
“You who are going to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross if you are the Son of God!”
In the same way, the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders mocked him too.
“He saved others, but he cannot save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
In the same way, the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
What the story means to us today
Hail, King of the Jews
Anyone who believes they can take an anti-Semite stance and blame the Jews for Jesus’ treatment need only look at the actions of the Roman Gentiles who relentlessly taunted Jesus before and during his crucifixion. The soldiers placed a red robe on him (probably the short red cloaks worn by Roman soldiers) to represent the dress of a king. Then they made a crown of thorns from palm spines or acanthus plants, forming a circlet crown. They placed the crown on his head and forced a staff in his hand, then began mocking him, “Hail, king of the Jews!”
They had no idea of the truth behind their words and actions.
Deeper thoughts and additional considerations
The march to crucifixion – why was Simon forced to carry the cross for Jesus?
The normal Roman custom was to strip the victim and scourge them as they walked to the place of execution, dragging the cross they were to be hung from. In Jesus’ instance, he does not seem to have been flogged during the march but rather was flogged by the Roman soldiers before the trek. When the time arrived to carry the cross, he may have already been close to death. Thus, Simon, likely a fellow Jew (Simon was a Jewish name) from Cyrene, a settlement on the Mediterranean Sea coast of North Africa, was forced to carry the cross the remainder of the way.
Note that it is unusual that Matthew recorded Simon’s name. It is quite possible that he later became a part of the Christian movement, for surely some of Jesus’ followers approached him afterward and thanked him for easing Jesus’ burden.
Why was Jesus offered gall to drink?
Crucifixion was an especially dreadful way to die. The victim would be tied or nailed to a cross made of wooden beams. The weight of the victim’s hanging body would make breathing difficult. The victim would use their feet to push themselves up to catch a breath. If the feet were nailed to the cross, as they likely were in Jesus’ crucifixion, this movement would have been extremely painful. The struggle to breathe, combined with the wounds from floggings and beatings, would push the victim to the point of exhaustion and ultimately death by suffocation, cardiac arrest, or loss of blood. If the victim took too long to die, typically a day or two, their legs would be broken so they could not raise themselves from the cross to catch a breath.
Wine mixed with myrrh (Matthew calls it “gall”) may have been given to the victim to numb pain (even though myrrh has no painkilling effect). Myrrh had a bitter taste. If the drink were mixed heavy with myrrh, it would have tasted bad (and thus the reason Matthew uses the word “gall” to describe the taste of the drink rather than “myrrh” to describe the drink’s contents). The soldiers may have given the bitter drink to Jesus to taunt him further.
Jesus refused the drink, possibly because it tasted bad or maybe to show he was willing to accept the pain and suffering of his own free will.
Casting lots over Jesus’ clothes
A crucified victim’s clothes became the property of the executioners. This would include an inner garment, an outer garment, a belt, and a pair of sandals, along with any scarves, hats, or jewelry. In Jesus’ instance, the executioners threw dice (cast “lots”) to decide how to divide up Jesus’ belongings.
Jesus, King of the Jews
The sign above the victim would list the victim’s crime. Jesus’ plague read, “Jesus, king of the Jews,” the crime that Pilate convicted him of, not blasphemy, the charge the chief priests leveled against him. This would be seen as a snide, subtle affront to the Jews – not surprising coming from a known anti-Semite like Pilate.
John expands on the incident and tells us the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. It indeed offended the chief priests who asked that it be changed to “claimed to be the king of the Jews.” Pilate refused their request.
Jesus is mocked some more
Imagine the cross standing near a busy road leading into Jerusalem during a popular festival. The Sabbath did not begin until sundown so people would have been walking down the road into town. They had probably seen this time and time again – criminals hung by the road, visible as an example to others. Passerbys would hurl insults, further demeaning and, in effect, torturing the victim. That is what Jesus went through.
Given Jesus’ notoriety at the time, the public targeted him with specific taunts like, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself!” inadvertently acknowledging Jesus’ true purpose on earth – to “save others” from sin, not to save himself from death. The chief priests taunt him with challenges like “Come down from the cross, and we will believe in you.” All of these taunts were last-minute calls from Satan for Jesus, at his weakest moment, to abandon his purpose. Jesus, of course, ignored the calls to rebuke God’s plan.
A rebel joins in the torment of Jesus
Some gospel writers mention the rebels crucified alongside Jesus (and Barabbas) as “robbers,” but a theft conviction would not justify death by crucifixion. However, the historian Josephus used the same phrase to indicate a Jewish “freedom fighter”, which is why some translations call them “rebels.” Leaders of an insurrection against Roman authorities would certainly be subject to execution.
Matthew does not provide details about the rebels’ comments to Jesus during the crucifixion, but Luke tells us that one of the criminals pleads with Jesus, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” – likely not a genuine acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah but rather a last-ditch plea for an escape.
Luke also tells us that the other criminal defended Jesus, saying, “Don’t you fear God? We are punished justly, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Jesus answers the man with a promise of salvation: “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in heaven.”
The science behind the story
What is the “Praetorium”?
Matthew tells us that the Roman soldiers took Jesus into the “Praetorium.” The identity (and location) of the “Praetorium” is unknown. Praetorium is a Latin word for a governor’s home. It was probably Herod’s residential palace that Roman governors stayed in when visiting Jerusalem.
Where was Golgotha?
Jesus was taken to a place the Bible names “Golgotha” – the “place of the skull.” Some believe the name derives from a cemetery in the area, a hill shaped like a skull, or a place the Romans commonly used for executions.
Tradition holds it was located near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, an area outside the northern wall of Jerusalem. Others suggest the location as Gordon’s Calvary, a hill along the road leading into Jerusalem that, indeed, looks like the face of a human skull.
What we know for certain is that it was a hill not far from the city wall and just outside the wall in ancient Jerusalem.
How Romans crucified people
Crucifixion was a brutal, shameful means of execution. It had been used by various civilizations, including Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and the Phoenicians, who introduced it to the Romans. The Romans used crucifixion to execute people for about 500 years before it was abolished by Constantine I around 300 AD. It was used in only the most severe cases and rarely to execute Roman citizens.
The time to death from crucifixion could be short if the victim were beaten or flogged beforehand. Otherwise, it could take up to 4 days if a healthy individual was bound to the cross.
Ultimately, a crucified victim died of shock, cardiac arrest, asphyxia, or blood loss. Jesus (and Simon) would likely have drug only the crossbeam. The crossbeam was laid on the ground, and the victim nailed or tied to the beam. Then the crossbeam would be attached to the post, and the entire assembly would be lifted and fitted into a hole in the ground.
The Roman guards could only leave the site once it was confirmed the victim was dead. Thus, sometimes they would hasten death by body blows, breaking large bones, stabbing with a knife or spear, and occasionally by building a fire at the foot of the cross to suffocate the victim.
27 Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. 30 They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. 31 After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
32 As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. 33 They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 34 There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. 35 When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. 36 And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. 37 Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.
38 Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” 44 In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the governor’s residence and gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe around him, and after braiding a crown of thorns, they put it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand, and kneeling down before him, they mocked him: “Hail, king of the Jews!”They spat on him and took the staff and struck him repeatedly on the head. When they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes back on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. As they were going out, they found a man from Cyrene named Simon, whom they forced to carry his cross.They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “Place of the Skull”)and offered Jesus wine mixed with gall to drink. But after tasting it, he would not drink it. When they had crucified him, they divided his clothes by throwing dice.Then they sat down and kept guard over him there. Above his head they put the charge against him, which read: “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.” Then two outlaws were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by defamed him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who can destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are God’s Son, come down from the cross!” In the same way even the chief priests—together with the experts in the law and elders—were mocking him:“He saved others, but he cannot save himself! He is the king of Israel! If he comes down now from the cross, we will believe in him! He trusts in God—let God, if he wants to, deliver him now because he said, ‘I am God’s Son’!” The robbers who were crucified with him also spoke abusively to him.
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole garrison around Him. And they stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. When they had twisted a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand. And they bowed the knee before Him and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Then they spat on Him, and took the reed and struck Him on the head. And when they had mocked Him, they took the robe off Him, put His own clothes on Him, and led Him away to be crucified. Now as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. Him they compelled to bear His cross. And when they had come to a place called Golgotha, that is to say, Place of a Skull, they gave Him sour wine mingled with gall to drink. But when He had tasted it, He would not drink. Then they crucified Him, and divided His garments, casting lots, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet: “They divided My garments among them, And for My clothing they cast lots.” Sitting down, they kept watch over Him there. And they put up over His head the accusation written against Him: THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS Then two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and another on the left. And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, “He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” Even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him with the same thing.
The soldiers assigned to the governor took Jesus into the governor’s palace and got the entire brigade together for some fun. They stripped him and dressed him in a red toga. They plaited a crown from branches of a thornbush and set it on his head. They put a stick in his right hand for a scepter. Then they knelt before him in mocking reverence: “Bravo, King of the Jews!” they said. “Bravo!” Then they spit on him and hit him on the head with the stick. When they had had their fun, they took off the toga and put his own clothes back on him. Then they proceeded out to the crucifixion. Along the way they came on a man from Cyrene named Simon and made him carry Jesus’ cross. Arriving at Golgotha, the place they call “Skull Hill,” they offered him a mild painkiller (a mixture of wine and myrrh), but when he tasted it he wouldn’t drink it. After they had finished nailing him to the cross and were waiting for him to die, they whiled away the time by throwing dice for his clothes. Above his head they had posted the criminal charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Along with him, they also crucified two criminals, one to his right, the other to his left. People passing along the road jeered, shaking their heads in mock lament: “You bragged that you could tear down the Temple and then rebuild it in three days—so show us your stuff! Save yourself! If you’re really God’s Son, come down from that cross!” The high priests, along with the religion scholars and leaders, were right there mixing it up with the rest of them, having a great time poking fun at him: “He saved others—he can’t save himself! King of Israel, is he? Then let him get down from that cross. We’ll all become believers then! He was so sure of God—well, let him rescue his ‘Son’ now—if he wants him! He did claim to be God’s Son, didn’t he?” Even the two criminals crucified next to him joined in the mockery.
27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers. 28 And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe. 29 And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews! 30 And they spit upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head. 31 And after that they had mocked him, they took the robe off from him, and put his own raiment on him, and led him away to crucify him. 32 And as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name: him they compelled to bear his cross.
33 And when they were come unto a place called Golgotha, that is to say, a place of a skull, 34 They gave him vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink. 35 And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots. 36 And sitting down they watched him there; 37 And set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS. 38 Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left.
39 And they that passed by reviled him, iwagging their heads, 40 And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross. 41 Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, 42 He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. 43 He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God. 44 The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth.
• Christ crucified on cross via Web Gallery of Art by Diego Velazquez with usage type - Public Domain, circa 1632
• Raising of the Cross - Jesus raised on the cross by Roman soldiers via Wikimedia Commons by Sabastiano Mazzoni with usage type - Public Domain, Circa 1650
• Jesus Christ on the cross between two rebels via Wikimedia Commons by Ralph Hammann with usage type - Creative Commons License, May 18, 2015
• Cross-section diagram of the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem via Wikimedia Commons with usage type - Creative Commons License, June 1, 2008