Matthew Chapter 27:27-38

This is the story of the actual crucifixion. Crossan makes the point that this particular method of execution required a certain level of knowledge and technical expertise, which pretty much guarantees that the Romans performed it. Jews executed by stoning, or throwing people off a cliff. Josephus (supposedly, at least) gives this as a the method of execution of James, brother of Jesus. In either case, you can see that these methods of death more closely resemble mob action than they do juridical execution carried out by the official apparatus of the state. As such, the idea that Pilate handed Jesus over to anyone else as Matthew (perhaps) tried to imply is pretty much preposterous.

There is no really clean break point until the burial, but that is most of the rest of the chapter. My apologies if the one I’ve chosen is a tad awkward.

27 Τότε οἱ στρατιῶται τοῦ ἡγεμόνος παραλαβόντες τὸν Ἰησοῦν εἰς τὸ πραιτώριον συνήγαγον ἐπ’ αὐτὸν ὅλην τὴν σπεῖραν.

Then the soldiers of the governor taking Jesus led him to the praetorium, to the whole cohort.

Two things: perhaps I oversold the meaning “handed over”. It can have the sense of “remanded into custody”, so maybe Matthew wasn’t trying to fob this off onto the Jews. Second, the “praetorium” is a Latin word for the tent of the praetor, who was an official who acted as a military leader. The word has a military connotation: Lewis and Short (the other L&S) define it as the general’s tent, or the official residence of the governor. This is the obvious meaning here. The word is simply transliterated into Greek, since there was no corresponding word in Greek because there was no corresponding concept in Greek military thinking.

The other second thing is the cohort. This is a technical military term for a division of a legion. It refers to a tenth of a legion, or six centuries of a hundred men each, so it would be 600 men at its theoretical full strength. Six hundred Roman soldiers in a civilian town was a lot of firepower, especially given the variety of tactical measures in which they were trained. The Greek word here is a “band”, as in a group. Here again there was no corresponding word in Greek because they used the phalanx, which was as big as the number of soldiers at any given time. This was a weapon formidable enough to conquer the eastern world, but it lacked the tactical flexibility of a Roman legion, in no small part because the legions had these subdivisions which allowed some pretty sophisticated manoeuvres in the course of a battle. The Vulgate uses “cohort”, the proper Latin term.

27 Tunc milites praesidis suscipientes Iesum in praetorio congregaverunt ad eum universam cohortem.

28 καὶ ἐκδύσαντες αὐτὸν χλαμύδα κοκκίνην περιέθηκαν αὐτῷ,

29 καὶ πλέξαντες στέφανον ἐξ ἀκανθῶν ἐπέθηκαν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτοῦ καὶ κάλαμον ἐν τῇ δεξιᾷ αὐτοῦ, καὶ γονυπετήσαντες ἔμπροσθεν αὐτοῦ ἐνέπαιξαν αὐτῷ λέγοντες, Χαῖρε, βασιλεῦτῶν Ἰουδαίων,

30 καὶ ἐμπτύσαντες εἰς αὐτὸν ἔλαβον τὸν κάλαμον καὶ ἔτυπτον εἰς τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ.

31 καὶ ὅτε ἐνέπαιξαν αὐτῷ, ἐξέδυσαν αὐτὸν τὴν χλαμύδα καὶ ἐνέδυσαν αὐτὸν τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἀπήγαγον αὐτὸν εἰς τὸ σταυρῶσαι.

And dressing him in a scarlet cloak they surrounded him, (29) and weaving a crown from thorns they placed it on his head and (put) a reed in his right (hand), and genuflecting towards him they mocked him, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews”. (30) And spitting upon him they took the reed and struck him on the head. (31) And then they mocked him, removing the cloak and dressing him in his own garment, and they led him out to be crucified.

Crossan makes a big deal about whether it was the Romans or the Jews who abused Jesus in this way. He examines this carefully to see what the text can tell us about the attitude towards the Romans and/or Jews, and then attempts to use this as the basis for dating the various works, especially the Gospel of Peter. Here, it is clearly the Romans acting the part of the bad guys. Historically this is far and away the most likely occurrence; the Romans were not known for their forbearance to subject peoples, and since they have him in custody, it follows that they would be doing the abusing. Crossan is convinced that the exculpation of the Romans in the Gospel of Peter demonstrates pretty convincingly that it was written in the early 40s, in a period when the Romans were perceived as benevolent and the Jewish authorities were seen as persecutors. The argument is, shall we say, less than convincing. It is completely historically implausible; anyone at the time would have laughed at the way GPeter has the Jews and Herod running the crucifixion. Yes, there were theological reasons for this, but the level of historical implausibility would have gotten this laughed at. Even if it had been written in the 40s, the historical distortions are so enormous that trying to find anything of historical value in the narrative is a fool’s errand. Reading this sort of thing is why I despair of finding good historical analysis among biblical scholarship.

28 Et exuentes eum, clamydem coccineam circumdederunt ei

29 et plectentes coronam de spinis posuerunt super caput eius et arundinem in dextera eius et, genu flexo ante eum, illudebant ei dicentes: “ Ave, rex Iudaeorum! ”.

30 Et exspuentes in eum acceperunt arundinem et percutiebant caput eius.

31 Et postquam illuserunt ei, exuerunt eum clamyde et induerunt eum vestimentis eius et duxerunt eum, ut crucifigerent.

32 Ἐξερχόμενοι δὲ εὗρον ἄνθρωπον Κυρηναῖον ὀνόματι Σίμωνα: τοῦτον ἠγγάρευσαν ἵνα ἄρῃ τὸν σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ.

33 Καὶ ἐλθόντες εἰς τόπον λεγόμενον Γολγοθᾶ, ὅ ἐστιν Κρανίου Τόπος λεγόμενος,

34 ἔδωκαν αὐτῷ πιεῖν οἶνον μετὰ χολῆς μεμιγμένον: καὶ γευσάμενος οὐκ ἠθέλησεν πιεῖν.

Going out(side) they found a Cyrenean man named Simon. They forced (him) so that he would carry the cross of him (Jesus). (33) And going to the place called Golgotha, which is saying the Place of the Cranium, (34) they gave to him to drink wine mixed with gall. And tasting it he did not wish to drink.  

I wasn’t planning to stop until the end, but want to comment on a couple of things. First, the episode with Simon of Cyrene is a bit odd. He appears here and then is never heard of again. Why is it necessary for him to carry the cross? Of course, “everyone knows” it’s because Jesus was beaten so badly that he could barely stand, but this is one of those unchallenged assumptions that are just sitting there. In the end, there’s no matter; there is no impact to the overall story, but it’s just odd. Is it odd enough to be factual? Why would you make this up? If it is to convey the sorry state of Jesus, why not go into that a bit more. Yes, Pilate scourged him, but did that render him so physically weak that he needed help with the cross?

Briefly, the Greek is “topos kraniou”, from which “cranium” should be recognizable. The Latin is Calvary, which is “bald”. So the idea is pretty clear. The hill looked like a bald pate. Finally, the wine mixed with gall. I have no idea what gall is; it’s supposedly bile, taken from the gall bladder, which is notoriously bitter. It’s used in medicines. I have heard it suggested that it was meant to numb the pain of being crucified. That makes sense. But Jesus refused. Perhaps this is on the order of refusing a blindfold when being led before a firing squad? An act of bravery?


32 Exeuntes autem invenerunt hominem Cyrenaeum nomine Simonem; hunc angariaverunt, ut tolleret crucem eius.

33 Et venerunt in locum, qui dicitur Golgotha, quod est Calvariae locus,

34 et dederunt ei vinum bibere cum felle mixtum; et cum gustasset, noluit bibere.

35 σταυρώσαντες δὲ αὐτὸν διεμερίσαντο τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ βάλλοντες κλῆρον,

36 καὶ καθήμενοι ἐτήρουν αὐτὸν ἐκεῖ.

37 καὶ ἐπέθηκαν ἐπάνω τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτοῦ τὴν αἰτίαν αὐτοῦ γεγραμμένην: Οὗτός ἐστιν Ἰησοῦς ὁ βασιλεῦς τῶν Ἰουδαίων.

38 Τότε σταυροῦνται σὺν αὐτῷ δύο λῃσταί, εἷς ἐκ δεξιῶν καὶ εἷς ἐξεὐωνύμων.

Crucifying him, they divided his garment by casting lots, (36) and they being seated they observed him there. (37) And they put over his head the reason of him being written. “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews”. (38) Then they crucified with him two brigands, one on the right, and one on the left. 

We are used to seeing the INRI inscription. In Latin, Jesus of Nazareth king of the Jews is: (I)esus (N)azoreum (R)ex (I)udaorum. But note that the toponymic, “of Nazareth” is not included here. I think you can pick out the Latin translation below. “Here is Jesus & c”. Again, this whole king of the Jews thing is peculiar. It really only appears in connexion with the Passion story. Yes, Matthew has it connected to his birth story, with the magoi looking for the king of the Jews, but, aside from that and a few allusions to David, this is not a big part of who Jesus is supposed to be. Why is that? That is a question worth investigating. It’s another piece of historical analysis that needs, well, historical analysis.

BTW: the fact that the wording of the inscription varies between gospels doesn’t exactly help the case for biblical inerrancy. 

I have to say a word about the brigands with whom he was crucified. You all may remember that Reza Aslan argued that Jesus was a Zealot; hence the title of the book. A big part of that argument rested on the “fact” that crucifixion was reserved solely for rebels, and that the word used to describe the thieves (as they are usually called) here, in fact, means ‘rebel’. This is complete nonsense. As a Classicist, I was flabbergasted to read these things in a book intended for polite company. I had never, ever heard that about crucifixion, and neither the Greek nor the Latin word means ‘rebel’. Liddell & Scott and Lewis & Short provide instances of usage for the words being defined, and neither of these works suggests the word being defined means anything like ‘rebel’. Aslan’s contention was that a robber holed up in a cave–like the robber band in The Golden Ass–were actually revolutionaries. My apologies, but sometimes a robber is just a robber. That seems to be the case here. Aslan really, really reached with his hypothesis, which would have come and gone with barely a ripple if Christian media hadn’t taken to attacking him based on the idea that a Muslim simply cannot write a book about Jesus. Now, because of the notoriety, that idea has become lodged in the popular consciousness. I’ve come across it on various websites, or in Facebook groups. ‘Tis a pity.

35 Postquam autem crucifixerunt eum, diviserunt vestimenta eius sortem mittentes

36 et sedentes servabant eum ibi.

37 Et imposuerunt super caput eius causam ipsius scriptam: “Hic est Iesus Rex Iudaeorum”.

38 Tunc crucifiguntur cum eo duo latrones: unus a dextris, et unus a sinistris.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on November 26, 2016, in Chapter 27, gospel commentary, gospels, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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