Behold, the man

It’s such a simple, unadorned sentence, completely free of sensationalism: “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged” (John 19:1, NRSV). Hollywood would go for the gut-wrenching visual — think Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, in which the blood flowed freely.

Flogging, after all, was a brutal form of torture. Imagine a whip of many cords, each studded with sharp pieces of bone or metal. Being flayed with an instrument like that would shred a man’s back; some men passed out or died from the loss of blood, long before they made it to the cross.

But John skips the gory details. He’s more interested in the irony and ignorance of how the King of the Jews is treated by representatives of the mighty Roman Empire:

And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” (John 19:2-5)

Pilate, you’ll recall, had already quizzed Jesus about being the so-called King of the Jews, satisfying himself that Jesus posed no threat to the Romans. He wanted to release Jesus, but had to be mindful of the politics; if he didn’t handle the situation properly, he would find himself answering to the emperor.

So Pilate had Jesus flogged. There was nothing particularly unusual about that in itself; it was common to flog prisoners before crucifying them, as a further demonstration of the absolute authority of Rome. But there may have been a strategic element to the decision as well. If he could present Jesus as a powerless and pitiable figure, perhaps the crowd would relent. They would have their pound of flesh, and more — surely that would be enough?

The soldiers assigned to the task apparently know something of the charge against Jesus: This innocuous peasant, a king? They make sport of Jesus, like so many schoolyard bullies, using an officer’s cloak as a makeshift robe and a twisted plait of thorns for a crown. To them, Jesus is just one more sad sack who happened to run afoul of the empire. Too bad for him.

But again, John doesn’t linger, returning us quickly to Pilate. He again declares that Jesus is innocent of any crime against the state and brings him out to stand before the crowd. John ignores the bruises and blood.  What matters is that Jesus is still dressed up ludicrously like a toy king. Pilate, who had no love for the Jews, may be indulging a bit of double mockery here. He mocks the very idea that the Jews could ascribe royalty to this man, but also mocks them for being people who could have as pitiful a king as this. Let’s just lay all this nonsense to rest, shall we?

“Here is the man!” he declares. John may want us to read Pilate’s statement at more than one level. On the surface, it may mean little more than, “I told you I would bring him out, and look, here he is!”

As Marianne Meye Thompson points out, however, the numerous references in John to Jesus as a mere “man” suggest a deeper irony. The word can be used contemptuously; today, we might say, “Just who does that guy think he is?”

But that’s the point.

Pilate has no idea who he’s dealing with. The chess match is between him and the Jewish leaders, and Jesus seems little more than an unlucky pawn.

He’s about to have his horizons broadened, in a way that will frighten him.