Posted by: mattcolvin | January 31, 2012

Refined Roman Cruelty and Mockery

Wednesday of the Fourth Week after Epiphany: Matthew 27:27-44.

Matthew says that “the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the praetorium and gathered together against him the whole cohort (ὅλην τὴν σπεῖραν).” A bit much, isn’t it? Perhaps also a high irony, as though the Romans on some level still feared the one they were about to humiliate.

What follows is a mockery of the royal pretensions of a conquered subject race: Jesus is dressed in royal attire, with a crown of thorns and a reed in his hand, then subjected to the spitting, blows, and mocking prostration of the soldiers. They are mocking Him in His office, not merely His person. For it is not enough for them that Jesus be injured and despised; He must be decked out in the insignia and attributes of a Jewish king, so that by mocking Him they may also pour their scorn on the entire idea of the Messiah.

Philo’s Flaccus, 980, contains a famous parallel to this scene, showing that Gentiles in Alexandria too knew how to mock the very idea of a Jewish king in the most sadistic manner. When Herod Agrippa II was made king of Judaea, his visit to Alexandria was the occasion for a backlash from the Greeks there. I quote Charles Duke Yonge’s online translation:

There was a certain madman named Carabbas, afflicted not with a wild, savage, and dangerous madness (for that comes on in fits without being expected either by the patient or by bystanders), but with an intermittent and more gentle kind; this man spent all this days and nights naked in the roads, minding neither cold nor heat, the sport of idle children and wanton youths; (37) and they, driving the poor wretch as far as the public gymnasium, and setting him up there on high that he might be seen by everybody, flattened out a leaf of papyrus and put it on his head instead of a diadem, and clothed the rest of his body with a common door mat instead of a cloak and instead of a sceptre they put in his hand a small stick of the native papyrus which they found lying by the way side and gave to him; (38) and when, like actors in theatrical spectacles, he had received all the insignia of royal authority, and had been dressed and adorned like a king, the young men bearing sticks on their shoulders stood on each side of him instead of spear-bearers, in imitation of the bodyguards of the king, and then others came up, some as if to salute him, and others making as though they wished to plead their causes before him, and others pretending to wish to consult with him about the affairs of the state. (39) Then from the multitude of those who were standing around there arose a wonderful shout of men calling out Maris; and this is the name by which it is said that they call the kings among the Syrians; for they knew that Agrippa was by birth a Syrian, and also that he was possessed of a great district of Syria of which he was the sovereign…


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