Why did Pilate have Jesus flogged, and could he really have survived such suffering?

Q. When Pilate ordered Jesus to be flogged, was there no agreement between him and the High Priest that Jesus would be freed after the flogging? Why was Jesus flogged? According to Luke, when Pilate said he would flog Jesus and then set him free, the crowd shouted all the more, “Crucify him,” so “Pilate decided to grant their demand.” Here, the crowd did not demand Jesus to be flogged, they demanded that Pilate crucify Him. So what is the connection between flogging and crucifying Jesus? Pilate did not have to flog Jesus when he gave in to their demand.

Also, one Bible scholar has suggested that the degree of suffering Jesus underwent is actually much more than what is portrayed in the movie, The Passion of the Christ. Would a human body in that condition even be able to walk, never mind carrying a cross, due to loss of blood?

First, you’re right that there was no need for Pilate to have Jesus flogged after he had given in to the crowd’s demand that Jesus be crucified rather than flogged. Crucifixion itself was such supremely agonizing physical torture that there was no reason to add flogging to it, as if that would make it worse. In fact, a prisoner who had been flogged first would likely die sooner on a cross and thus suffer less of the agony of crucifixion.

So why did Pilate do that? Historians tell us that he was a puzzling combination of stubbornness and pliability. He could be influenced by others (as by the crowd in this case), but at the same time he could insist on having his own way in various particulars. For example, when the chief priests wanted Pilate to change the sign above Jesus’ cross to read “This man said, ‘I am the king of the Jews,'” Pilate responded stubbornly, “What I have written, I have written,” that is, “I’m not going to change the current sign that reads, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.'”

So it may be the case that Pilate, having offered flogging instead of crucifixion, but then having given in to the crowd’s demand for crucifixion, nevertheless stubbornly insisted on “doing it his way” by flogging Jesus first. (While Luke himself does not say specifically that Pilate had Jesus flogged, the other three gospel writers note this detail. For example, Mark writes, “So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.”)

This indeed appears to be the action of a weak, petulant ruler who couldn’t control the big picture and so insisted on his own prerogatives in small matters. But in the providence of God, it fulfilled Jesus’ prediction about the Son of Man, “After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” And in the mercy of God, it may also have shortened Jesus’ time of suffering by weakening his body so that it could not endure the crucifixion any longer. Not that the work of Jesus on the cross was in any way incomplete—”It is finished!” he cried, and we know that he fulfilled his task as the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world.

As for your second question, when the movie The Passion of the Christ came out in 2004, I saw doctors quoted to the effect that no human being could have lived through the amount of torture that Jesus was depicted suffering in the film. So even if the amount wasn’t much greater, as you heard suggested, no one would have been walking around or carrying a cross afterwards.

But it’s important to realize what the genre of that movie was. It was made in a time-honored tradition of meditations on the sufferings of Christ. Another example of this genre, in painting rather than film, is the so-called “Man of Sorrows” portrayal of Jesus, in which the viewer sees Jesus after the crucifixion standing or sitting with all of his wounds visible. This is a non-historical moment that never actually occurred, but it’s designed as a vehicle for devotion. Hymns such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Man of Sorrows, What a Name” are written in this same tradition. Keeping an antique nail in a prominent location, or growing a crown of thorns plant, are other approaches to being mindful of Jesus’ sufferings for us.

It’s consistent with this devotional practice for a film to portray Jesus’ sufferings individually and extensively so that we can recognize all that he did for us, even if this style of portrayal becomes non-historical by exhibiting the sufferings in such an extended way that they represent more than anyone could have survived. Our response can only be, as in the hymn “Man of Sorrows, What a Name”: Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Hans Memling, “Man of Sorrows,” c. 1490

 

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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