Here’s a strange question I never thought I’d have to wrestle with: when was Jesus flogged? And how many times?
As I mentioned in my sermon, the Romans had three different levels of physical punishment when it came to flogging the victim:
1) Fustigatio – a beating.
2) Flagellatio – a flogging.
3) Verberatio – a scourging.
When we compare the Gospel accounts, we see that there is considerable difficulty figuring out when each of the events happened. Not all of the Gospel writers were super concerned with chronological precision as much as they were concerned with a theological message, which can account for some of these differences. But when we put the accounts side by side, starting with when Jesus was brought into Pilate’s presence, here’s what we see:
|Matthew 27:11-31 //
|Luke 23:1-25||John 18:28-19:16a|
|1. Pilate questions Jesus||1. Pilate questions Jesus; then Herod questions Jesus||1. Pilate questions Jesus|
|2. Pilate offers Jesus’ release; the crowd chooses Barabbas||2. Pilate says he will punish and release Jesus; the crowd demands Barabbas’ release||2. Pilate offers Jesus’ release; the crowd chooses Barabbas|
|3. The crowd demands crucifixion||3. The crowd demands crucifixion; Pilate says he will punish and release Jesus||5. Pilate presents Jesus; the crowd demands crucifixion|
|4. Pilate has Jesus scourged||3. Pilate has Jesus flogged|
|5. The soldiers mock Jesus as king||4. The soldiers mock Jesus as king|
|6. The soldiers lead Jesus to be crucified||6. Pilate sends Jesus to be crucified||6. Pilate sends Jesus to be crucified|
John’s narrative is the lengthiest with the most detail. Matthew and Mark’s narrative agree at nearly every point. Luke’s narrative has a great deal of agreement with the other Synoptics, but has some strong divergences in significant places. In particular, Luke adds the meeting with Jesus and Herod, omits the actual scourging, with Pilate only threatening it twice (23:16, 22), and also omits the mockery from the Roman soldiers.
Since in Luke’s Gospel, Pilate only threatens to have Jesus punished and released, but is never said to go through with the act, Luke’s narrative does not do much to help us figure out the sequence of events in relation to the flogging. The main problem comes when comparing John with Matthew/Mark.
John has Jesus flogged before the soldiers mock Him. The crowds demand crucifixion only after these two events happen. Matthew/Mark has Jesus scourged (a different word is used in Greek) after the crowd demands crucifixion and before the soldiers mock Jesus.
A clue to reconciling these accounts might be found in the verbal tense that is used in Matthew/Mark. In Matthew 27:26//Mark 15:15, the text reads that Pilate, “after having Jesus scourged” (NASB), delivered Him to be crucified. The verb there is an aorist participle, which might mean that it is to be understood as something that has already happened prior to the action in the text. In other words, the text there could mean that the scourging, though mentioned after the soldiers mock Jesus, actually happened prior to that mocking. This could align the Synoptics with John quite nicely.
There are at least two other ways to reconcile the accounts. It could be that Jesus was flogged twice: once before the soldiers mocked Him and once after. The flogging before would’ve been the least severe; the one after and just before crucifixion would’ve been the dreaded Verberatio scouring.
Another possibility is that one or the other tradition is not necessarily meant to be understood in chronological order. The ancients weren’t as picky about that sort of thing as most of us are today.
At the end of the day, what’s important is that we listen to each Gospel’s unique voice telling the story from a unique perspective. Obviously there was an historical order to the actual events, but uncovering that specific order wasn’t necessarily one of the main goals of the Gospel writers. There are ways to reconcile the four accounts, but appreciating their different viewpoints may help us better hear the unique story each are attempting to tell.