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Sacred head, sore wounded

by
15 March 2024

Charles Moseley reflects on Christ’s crown of thorns

Alamy

The crown of thorns depicted on a Kutahya tile made in Turkey (1720). From the Armenian cathedral in Jerusalem

The crown of thorns depicted on a Kutahya tile made in Turkey (1720). From the Armenian cathedral in Jerusalem

THEY went them out to meet him, of whom they had heard so much — this man from Galilee, this worker of wonders. Some spread their garments before him; others, branches cut from the roadside palms. Some at least must have thought they were seeing Zechariah’s prophecy fulfilled: “Thy king cometh unto thee . . . lowly, and riding upon an ass.” They cried, “Hosanna to the Son of David” — a royal title.

A few days later, some of those same people would be standing in the cold of the spring night to hear what the Roman governor and the Temple authorities would make of this man — their hero — who just might restore the Kingdom to Israel. He had been arrested at night, so slickly, when no awkward adulatory crowd protected him. While the examination went on, one can imagine them muttering, wondering what was happening, not in a very good temper.

John (probably the disciple who “was known to the high priest”) may have impotently witnessed the whole sorry business. He tells us Jesus is brought forth to them — according to Mark and Matthew, some of the people had already been stirred up by the priests — with a royal purple robe on his scourged, half-flayed back, and a crown on his head. Mark and Matthew say that the soldiers made the crown as they enjoyed the customary mocking of a condemned man. And, in a flash, the crowd are shouting that their so-recent hero be crucified.

Why? Relations between the authorities, Roman and Jewish, were tense. The Romans never understood this awkward people with their strange religion and its multitude of prohibitions; and Pilate had tactlessly trodden on quite a few toes when he first came to Judaea. The Temple people were wary of anything that might upset the delicate balance with the Romans — like talk of a king, especially one who seemed to claim to be the Son of God (theo huios, in Greek). That was some claim; for what to a Jew was blasphemy, to a Roman to be divi filius claimed kinship with the authority of the Julian dynasty.

Furthermore, those in authority always fear the unpredictability of crowds. Jerusalem was heaving with people, who, a few days earlier, had given this strange, charismatic Galilean a quasi-royal reception; the last thing anyone wanted was a riot which could become a rebellion. Better pick him up quietly, and interrogate him. It might even be expedient, for everyone’s sake, to dispose of him.

 

WE ALL know the story: trumped-up charges by the Temple hierarchy; inconsistent false testimony; the monolithic, challenging, silent dignity of Jesus; Pilate’s frustrated attempts to perform some semblance of the magistrate’s duty to administer justice. But: “If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend” — that was going for the jugular indeed; for Pilate, a mere eques, had depended utterly for his career (pretty successful so far, since Judaea was a key strategic province in the Empire, between the old enemy, Persia, and the breadbasket of Egypt) on staying in Tiberius’s good books.

But Pilate still tried; for “he found no fault in him.” Even when it seemed that executing him was inevitable, even after he had had Jesus scourged — bad enough, in all conscience — he still tried for a way out: that Passover custom of releasing a popular prisoner. And the adoring multitude of the triumphal entry would surely choose this man? But they chose another Jesus, and bayed for their darling’s blood.

It was usual to mock, humiliate, even mutilate, malefactors before their execution — indeed, public executions for centuries remained a spectacle, a theatrical show. People would take their children. So, yes, the soldiers mocked Jesus. They dressed him in a kingly robe, plaiting that mockery of a crown on the spur (so to speak) of the cruel moment, as the tense of the verb implies.

Did the soldiers crown him believing that he really had claimed, absurdly, to be a political, nationalist messiah? Was it caricature rather than merely torture? Was it a palpable sneer at those restive Jews — “This is what your idea of a king adds up to”?

That crown might be a clue to the crowd’s reaction. Whatever they made it from must have been ready to hand. Once, when a child, I tried to plait brambles (one of my unfavourite plants, though I admit their ecological usefulness) into a circle. I soon stopped; far too painful. And, anyway, brambles would not be growing in the courtyard of a large building. A thorn bush? Well, try something as relatively mild as hawthorn, which lacks the ferocious thorns of some Mediterranean bushes. You need thick gloves — and, again, thorn bushes ready to hand in the middle of a city? So, what did they use?

More than 60 years ago, my most learned mentor, Henry Hart, made a brilliant suggestion. Palms still grow in Jerusalem, offering grateful shade in gardens from the day’s heat. Date palms are notoriously thorny: if you strip the leaflets from the rachis, you are left with a line of sharp spikes. Strip one side, trim some off the other, then bend the leaf round and tie it, and in a few moments you have a serviceable, cruelly painful — and recognisable — crown.

 

THE crown familiar to most people then was a corona radiata, which alluded to the sun rays of Helios. It was used by monarchs who claimed divine descent and authority; it had appeared on coins for some centuries. Ptolemy III of Egypt used it; Augustus’s denarius of about 18 BC, and Tiberius’s billion tetradrachm (minted in Alexandria in AD 19/20) carried it. It was beginning to be associated with the Caesars after the death of the divus — deified — Julius.

So, the figure now paraded to the crowd is dressed as basileos and theos, and such costume recalls the hated Seleucid kings, against whom the Maccabees had successfully revolted. Their crowned image appeared on coins still in use. By accident, the soldiers had touched a sore spot in popular memory and myth: oppression by kings who claimed to be divine. It also ignited an old complaint of the Jews (John 19.6-7): the clash of jurisdictions between Rome and Herod.

Pilate is alarmed; so he calls Jesus back for a last attempt to find a way to free him. But, when he comes out again — “Would you crucify your King?” — his cultured irony, his uncertainty about truth, is now turned not against Jesus, but against the Jews. He has washed his hands of them. But his irony rebounds, for they would, and Chris was — and is.

 

Dr Charles Moseley is a Life Fellow of Hughes Hall, Cambridge.

charlesmoseley.com

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