Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What in Jesus' Name is the Crown of Thorns?

The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

Mark 15:16-20 (NIV)

I carved this woodcut after researching the crown of thorns mentioned in the New Testament when Jesus is mocked and beaten by Roman soldiers. Often this crown is said to be a mockery of gold crowns worn by royalty and noblemen, but that seems like a lazy explanation. As I explain below, I think the crown of thorns has a less obvious and much deeper symbolic meaning. My woodcut tries to show how I think it's been watered down over the centuries, similar to Jesus' name itself.

The Gospel of Mark was originally written in Koine Greek which along with more compelling aspects of its composition[1] indicates it was intended for a Roman audience. With this in mind I wondered how a Roman might react to his pagan countrymen beating the piss out of the protagonist and how it didn't seem to frustrate conversion rates at all, since Christianity eventually became the official religion of the Empire. I studied these passages more closely and became fixated on the explicit statements in Mark and Matthew, the two earliest gospels, where the “whole company of soldiers” was called together before Jesus is crowned.[2][3] (The later gospels are less detailed; John only implies the gathering[4] and Luke's brief account[5] doesn't mention the crown of thorns at all.) Why did the soldiers who weren't already there need to be called over? As rabbit holes go, I started researching Roman military practices.

In The Military Decorations of the Roman Army by Valerie A. Maxfield six crowns are listed in detail; four were made of gold, but the other two were of much higher honor. One of these, the civic crown, was made of oak leaves and commonly depicted on coins and sculpture of the time, but only the grass siege crown proves itself to be a solid analogy for the crown of thorns. This exceedingly rare crown wasn't always made of grass, but “whatever plants had been found on the site of the peril, however lowly and mean, these gave the honor its nobility”[6], said Pliny the Elder, an author and military commander who was alive during the supposed time of Jesus' ministry. He also said the crown was given to no one except for “the leader of a forlorn hope, being voted only by the whole army and only to him who rescued it. The other crowns have been conferred by commanders, this alone on a commander by his soldiers.”[7] Maxfield summarizes a compelling example of this from Titus Livius' pre-Christian tome The History of Rome where it's told how P. Decius Mus (4th century BCE) overcame fantastic odds to earn two grass crowns.[8] Pliny's Natural History further explains the crown's historical roots, "For in old times it was the most solemn token of defeat for the conquered to present grass to their conquerors, for to do so meant that they withdrew from their land, from the very soil that nurtured them and even from means of burial."[9]

That convinced me of the crown of thorns' deeper meaning and I saw how a Roman audience might be awestruck by Jesus' beating being tangled up with such strong symbolism. It would certainly command attention. As I skimmed Mark and Matthew again I noticed a very pro-Rome vibe surfacing throughout, including the Roman governor Pilate's reluctance to sentence Jesus to death and his vain attempts to spare him[10][11] as well as him washing his hands of all responsibility[12]. Also, immediately after Jesus' death the very Roman soldiers who beat him are the first to proclaim him the "Son of God".[13][14] And before any of that there's the whole “render unto Caesar” thing where Jesus advises paying government taxes.[15][16]

All things considered it seems Romans were well suited for this new religion. In fact, if you'd forgive the wild speculation I'd say a working author has to eat and that shit smells like sponsorship from a Roman interest! What the hell do I know? While suspending disbelief gets evermore challenging within the pages of the New Testament, I'm just a sucker for the power of its myth to illuminate and inspire.

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