He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
– Isaiah 53:5
After his trials before Jewish and Roman authorities, Jesus is ordered by Pontius Pilate to be flogged (Matt 27:26 || Mark 15:15 || John 19:21). Flogging (or scourging) was the normal preliminary to crucifixion, and it was a horrible torture in itself. Josephus, the 1st-century Jewish historian, wrote of a certain man who was “flayed to the bone with scourges” (War 6.304). Men sometimes died under flogging, or, at the very least, they were severely weakened by the punishment.
Jesus before Pontius Pilate in ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (2004):
The Romans would, according to custom, scourge a condemned criminal with an instrument called a flagrum or flagellum. It was a short whip made of several leather (ox-hide) thongs or ropes connected to a handle. The leather thongs were knotted with a number of small pieces of metal attached at various intervals. Sharpened animal bones could also be woven into the straps.
Scourging would quickly bruise the body, remove the skin, and cause significant bleeding. According to historical records, the punishment of slaves was particularly dreadful. Sometimes the Roman scourge contained a hook at the end and was given the terrifying name “scorpion.”
Flagrum variations and thong detail:
The victim was stripped of his clothing, and his hands were tied above him to a post, pulling the skin taut. The back, legs, and buttocks would then be whipped until the person collapsed. In some cases, the victim was fastened to a post and made to stoop, which would make deeper lashes from the shoulders to the waist. According to Jewish law, the number of stripes was forty less one (Deut 25:3). Nevertheless, scourging among the Romans was a more severe form of punishment, and there was no legal limit to the number of blows. Deep lacerations, torn flesh, exposed muscles, and excessive bleeding would leave the criminal half-dead. The centurion in charge would order the lictors or legionnaires to halt the flogging when the criminal was near death.
The flogging scene from ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (1976):
The flogging scene from ‘The Passion of the Christ’ (2004):
The 3rd-century church historian Eusebius wrote, “The sufferer’s veins were laid bare, and the very muscles and tendons and bowels of the victim were open to exposure.” The physical pain was intense and inhumane. “The heavy whip is brought down with full force again and again across Jesus’ shoulders, back and legs. At first the heavy thongs cut through the skin only. Then, as the blows continue, they cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin, and finally spurting arterial bleeding from vessels in the underlying muscles. Finally the skin of the back is hanging in long ribbons and the entire area is an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissue” (Davis, 1965).
Dr. Richard Bucher notes, “Blood loss from the flogging often determined how long it took the crucified person to die on the cross. The fact that Jesus was not able to carry his cross all the way, and the fact that he died in six hours, indicates that this flogging must have been especially severe.”
Flogging illustration from the ‘Journal of the American Medical Association’:
In 1961 a stone was unearthed from an ancient Roman amphitheater near Caesarea-on-the-Sea (Maritima). It bears a partial inscription of “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.” Additionally, ancient coins have been found showing Pilate’s insignia, and other coins have been found showing the flagrum as the symbol of Sol Invictus, the Roman sun-god.
The Pontius Pilate stone:
Roman coin showing the flagrum as the symbol of Sol, the sun-god:
The ancient practice of flogging was vicious, gory, and inhumane. It is difficult to watch, even in cinematic re-enactments—whether in the milder versions, such as Jesus of Nazareth, or in the more extreme versions, such as The Passion of the Christ. To think that the Son of God endured such brutality at the hands of his own creation is sobering. Indeed, the literary and archaeological references to the flagrum, to the practice of scourging, and to Pontius Pilate himself lend credibility to the biblical account, thus making reflection on it all the more poignant.