The Coronation

We are used to referring to the crown worn by Jesus as a crown of thorns, the common understanding being that it was put on him as a mockery and that it inflicted suffering. But the procedure before Pilate makes sense only if it is a true royal crown. Some critics have concluded that the crown worn by Jesus was the radiate crown worn by Roman Emperors.[1] The crown consisted of a series of spikes, representing rays.

            In the lines we have quoted from Seneca’s Thyestes, it is the purple robe and the royal tiara that are identified as the main symbols of royalty. These are the very items worn by Jesus in Pilate’s praetorium. According to the dramatic conventions followed by Seneca, the wearing of such royal symbols, even unintentionally, was an invitation to disaster.  The chorus of Seneca’s Thyestes alludes to the fatal risks inherent in kingship:

Whoso will may stand on royalty’s slippery pinnacle in his power

I would be steeped in sweet repose.

            In order to make Thyestes a suitable victim for his intended crime, Atreus must coerce his brother to accept the title of king and its physical symbol, the royal crown. Thyestes is unwilling:

style=' line-height:As for the crown, that mark of royalty

style=' line-height:would scarce become this ruined head.

            And again:

style=' line-height:I am determined to refuse the crown.

            But Atreus persists and at last his brother gives in to the form, though not the substance, of royalty:

I accept it; I shall bear the title of king imposed upon me,

but laws and army and I too shall be at your discretion.

            With these words he allows himself to be crowned. But even the formal acceptance of kingship is an expression of what the Greeks called hubris, or overweening pride, and at that very moment his fortune takes a disastrous turn. As Atreus places the crown on his brother’s head, he hints darkly at what is to follow.

      Come, then, and let your venerable head suffer the yoke that I shall put upon it.

      Then I shall offer the gods above the sacrifice that I have prepared for them.

            Roman audiences did not need to be told that a victim intended  for sacrifice is first crowned. They knew, for instance,  that when Agamemnon  was  preparing to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, he first crowned her, as if for marriage.  Seneca could employ such double meanings because he could rely on his audiences to understand and appreciate them. The Christians who attended a performance of Seneca’s play on Jesus, however, failed to grasp the fact that Pilate, by crowning Jesus as king, was in fact marking him as a sacrificial victim.

            In his theory of tragedy, Aristotle stresses that the turn of fortune, which is the most important moment in the entire drama, while sudden and unexpected, must be in some sense deserved. The hero overreached himself, perhaps unwillingly or through ignorance, and his punishment must be, if  possible, a direct and immediate consequence of this very act.

       Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world; like Thyestes, he rejected kingship in the ordinary senseyet he accepted the crown and robe of a king. Following the ancient concept of tragedy, once Jesus had assumed the trappings of royalty, his fate was sealed.[2] Hence Pilate stepped out­side and addressed them. The apparent ambiguity of this pronoun, which has no antecedent, is explained by the fact that Pilate is addressing the chorus. The composition of the audience is made clear two verses later: high priests and their assistants. Pilate shouted to the crowd:

Look, I am taking him outside to you,

so that you may understand that I do not find any guilt [in him].

            The appearance of Jesus was made more spectacular by having Pilate announce  it beforehand, raising the audience’s expectations. The audience had not seen Jesus since he was led as a bound prisoner into the praetorium. Pilate’s words directed their gaze toward the balcony from which Pilate was speaking.

            John continues:

Accor­dingly Jesus came outside wearing the pointed crown and the purple clothing.

            Jesus appeared in full view only when Pilate brought him out into the open, and at that moment he appeared above the heads of the chorus, dressed in the royal purple and pointed crown, such as was worn by the Roman emperors and which the Romans associated with royalty. The result was a startling impact, as the dramatic situation required.

            According to John Pilate said to them:

Behold the man.

            This is one of the passion scenes that has most influenced the imagery of the Christians through the centuries. Scholars have long debated about what Pilate meant by Behold the man. The most common explanation is that Pilate intended to elicit pity: Behold the poor man. Another explanation is that Pilate intended to express contempt; still another is that Pilate intended to convey that Jesus was a ridiculous figure, in gene­ral or at that moment, that his claim to kingship was a ridiculous one. An opposite, less common, interpretation is that Pilate intended to express admira­tion by saying: Here is a man! The overt disagreement among the interpretations reflects the fact that the Greek sentence used by John does not have a parallel in Greek literature, so that we are left wondering as to its meaning.

            The expression Behold the man is an attempt to translate the Latin sentence Ecce homo, which is exactly the sentence used by the Vulgate version of St. Jerome in retranslating the Greek into Latin. Ecce homo is a perfectly common sentence in Latin; very similar ones are found in the dialogues of Latin comedies. It means He is here in person or There, I give him to you in person. What Pilate wanted to indicate was that in substance he was handing him over to them for a decision. They could hail him as their king, but instead they made their decision by screaming: Crucify! Crucify!, the words that many people remember best from the passion story. The masses who through the centuries have been aroused to anti-semitism by this episode more than by any other text of the New Testament, have grasped better than most commentators the dramatic intent of this scene.

             It is characteristic of Seneca’s dramatic style that as the action of the play approaches its climax the chorus assumes a more active role, and the lines spoken by it acquire a sense of urgency, becoming brief and argumentative. Pilate’s response to the demand that he crucify Jesus is to throw the onus back on the Jews:

            You take him then and crucify him; I find no guilt in him.

            This is the third time that Pilate declares Jesus innocent. Luke, too, reports three such declarations by Pilate, with the last one immediately following after the crowd’s demand for crucifixion. The chorus responds:

We have a law that says he ought to die,

because he claimed to be the Son of God.

            The three-fold declaration of the Roman governor that Jesus was innocent of the charges brought against him caused his accusers to change their tune. The charges originally brought against Jesus by the high priests had been tailored to appeal to Pilate’s concerns: urging the people not to pay taxes and declaring himself king in opposition to Caesar. After Pilate has declared Jesus innocent of these charges for the third time, Jesus was considered to be cleared of them. The Jewish leaders had no alternative but to reveal that Jesus had already been indicted on a charge of blasphemy. Hence Pilatereturned to the praetorium once more and asked Jesus:

Where do you come from?

            Pilate was in effect asking whether it was true what the Jews were alleging, that he claimed to be the son of God. Jesus did not respond, just as he had maintained his silence when asked a similar question by the Jewish Senate. But Pilate pressed him further:

You will not speak to me?

Remember I have the authority to set you free

And also have authority to have you crucified.

            Pilate explains to Jesus the essence of clemency, as conceived by Seneca: the restraint on the part of someone who has the power to punish. But Jesus retorts:

You have the authority over me only because it was given to you from above.

            That a ruler acts at the sufferance of heaven was a concept dear to Seneca. Not only is it the initial and leading thought in his treatise On Clemency, it is brought out again in his Thyestes, where the chorus addresses the rulers of men:

You whom the ruler of sea and land

has vouchsafed high authority over death and life

lay aside your inflated and pompous bearing.

All that a lesser being fears of you

A greater master holds over you;

your sovereignty is subject to a higher sovereignty.[3]

            Having reduced Pilate to a mere instrument, Jesus points to the real villain:

Therefore the one who gave me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.

            John reports that these words made Pilate even more anxious to set him free. Pilate must have uttered words to this effect, because in the very next verse some members of the crowd are heard shouting their response:

If you set him free, that means that you are not Caesar’s friend!

Anyone who claims to be a king is the Caesar’s enemy.

            Suddenly Pilate finds himself on the defensive. He capitulates, but at a price. John reports that Pilate now took Jesus outside for the last time and sat down on his magisterial seat of judgment. This means that the main actors, including Pilate and Jesus, appeared at stage level. As mentioned earlier, the conventions of the ancient theater would not have permitted a major personage like Pilate to use one of the side doorsit was the central doors of the praetorium that now swung open to reveal Pilate leading Jesus, who was still dressed in the royal robe and wearing the crown. Hence Pilate said to the Jews:

Here is your king!

            This is a more positive statement than his earlier declaration: Here is the man! Likewise, the shouts of the Jewish leaders become more fervent:

Kill him! Kill him! Crucify him!

            At last Pilate is in a position to extract his political price by asking them:

Shall I crucify your king?

            They are no longer able to equivocate, as they had done in the previous scene. Having raised the specter of Pilate’s disloyalty to Rome, were he to set Jesus free, they had no option but to declare their own allegiance to the Emperor:

We have no king but Caesar!

            Just as Pilate was given the last word in the debate with Jesus, he won the debate with the Jews by forcing them to acknowledge Caesar as their king. Pilate, as a Skeptic, was not concerned about the genuineness of the Jewish expression of loyalty to Rome. An outward manifestation of loyalty is all that is important to a Skeptic. In terms of the dramatic development of Act Two, Jesus had been a mere pawn in Pilate’s struggle with the Jewish leaders. His purpose accomplished,

Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be nailed to the cross.

[1]           Campbell Bonner, Harvard Theological Review 46 (1953), pp. 47-48. The text of the gospels is ambiguous on this point: it is true that one of the meanings of the word akanthôn is of thorns, but an equally valid translation would be of acanthus leaves.Perhaps the evangelists had some reason to specify acanthus as the plant from which the crown was made, since this plant symbolizes heaven in later Christian iconography. Cf. E. R. Goodenough and C.B. Welles, Harvard Theological Review, 46 (1953), 241-2. In Greek the plural akanthai simply means pointed or jagged.

[2]           In Seneca’s Thyestes, Atreus refers to the crown he is offering his brother as vincla, literally, chains. Perhaps Pilate used some unusual expression for the royal crown he was offering to Jesus, causing confusion for the evangelists. The Latin word  spinosa, or thorny, can mean burdensome, frought with difficulty. Cf also Seneca’s Agamemnon, where Clytemnestra prepares her husband’s murder by persuading him to wear a royal robe that she had prepared for him (lines 881–889).

[3]            Thyestes, lines 607ff., transl. by Moses Hadas (New York, 1957); cf. De Clementia I. 1-2.