The Physical Abuse

Despite the sketchiness of their accounts of the proceedings before the Jewish authorities, all four gospels give rather elaborate descriptions of various sorts of physical abuse meted out to Jesus in the course of the night. Even John, whose report of the night procedure is limited to a few verses mentions the abuse:

One of the attendants who was standing by gave a slap to Jesus, saying,

Is this the way you answer to the High Priest?

                 Luke in his account of the events that immediately followed Peter’ last denial also refers only to abuse by the guards. Luke is describing the second episode of abuse, the one that followed the questioning of witnesses before Caiaphas, as Jesus was being led outside onto the stage through the central doorway.

And the men who were holding him were mocking him by hitting him

and were asking questions of him, after putting a cover on him, saying,

Prophetize, who has stricken you?

And they were saying to him many other things,uttering outrageous words.

                 While Luke may have merged two or three episodes into one, as he did on other occasions, the fact remains that the second instance of abuse was more serious than the first. Matthew’s description of the third and final episode of abuse, which took place at the very end of the procedure, implies a further intensification of the violence:

Then they spat in his face and beat him; and those who slapped him said,

Prophecy for us, Messiah! Tell us who hit you!

                 Luke only mentions abuse by those who were holding Jesus, whereas Matthew and Mark ascribe the abuse to the high priests themselves. The increasing viciousness of the abuse, and the participation by the high priests in the final episode, corresponds to the increasingly daring declarations made by Jesus to his captors about his identity and mission. In the end it is the high priests who vent their rage on the prisoner. Such unseemly conduct by the Jewish high priests has appeared inexplicable, except in terms of an extreme bias on the part of the evangelists. It is also puzzling that the gospels should have put so much emphasis on the physical abuse of Jesus, rather than on other aspects of the procedure be­fore the Jewish authorities. The traditional explanation is that the abuse fulfills messianic prophecies: Usually reference is made to a passage of Isaiah (50:6):

I gave my back to the whips, and my cheeks to slaps,

and did not turn away my face from the shame of the spittings.

                 It can be objected that this passage of Isaiah has nothing to do with Messianic prophecy and that it relates only vaguely to the gospels’ account of Jesus’ abuse. The bias of the gospel writers is perfectly understandable if we keep in mind the purpose for which the gospels were writtento prove to the Romans that the Temple authorities, by their outrageous treatment of the Messiah, had forfeited any claim to official recognition of their religion, and that such recognition should instead be extended to the followers of Jesus.

                 Seneca, however, had quite different reasons for having his tragic hero suffer abuse. The emphasis put by the gospels on the abuse of Jesus during the procedure before the Jewish authorities can be explained by what Tacitus tells about the procedures for high treason in the reign of Nero. The historian was aling with the trial of Thrasea Paetus, the leader of the philo­sophical upholders of republicanism, who was brought to trial before the Roman Senate in A.D. 66, one year after the Pisonian conspiracy and the death of Seneca.

                 Tacitus relates that there had been an intense debate among Thrasea and his friends on the question of whether he should appear in the Senate to defend himself or wait for the sentence to be pronounced. In favor of the first alternative there was the argument that it would be an opportu­nity to show how a man can stand by his principles without any fear of death:

The people would see a man defying death, the Senate would hear words

coming from a mouth almost divine and more than human.

But there prevailed the opinion of those who agreed on the advantages

of a show of defiant fortitude, but added that this advantage would be

much less than the disadvantage of exposing Thrasea to the abuse,

mockeries and insults threatened him... there was an abundance of people

who would be likely because of their brutality to dare to use hands and blows.

 Even the decent ones are given to fear. He should rather spare the Senate,

of which he had been the greatest ornament, the infamy of such a disgrace...[1]

                 These remarks, which according to Tacitus were uttered on the eve of the trial of Thrasea, indicate that under Nero it had become the practice of the Senate, in cases of high treason, to subject defendants to physical and verbal abuse. From a Roman point of view this was much worse than a sentence of death. The Romans had come to accept as a necessity of the state system that prominent figures could be asked to forfeit their lives at the request of the Emperor and that the Senate would comply, but they still expected that the dignity of the victim and of the Senate would be preserved.

                 Tacitus, in listing the abuses to which a person appearing as defendant before the Senate could be subjected lists:

ludibria:            mockeries, sports, jests;

contumeliae:            insults, invectives;

convicia:            reviling, abuse, and also blows;

probria:            infamous words or acts;

manus ictusque:            manhandling and blows or blows of the hands.

                 These are the very abuses to which Jesus was subjected according to the gospels. This indicates that Seneca took the opportunity of his presentation of the trial of Jesus to condemn the Roman practice. From the point of view of Seneca it was much more disgraceful that the Jewish Senate had abused Jesus as a defendant than that they had found him guilty of a capital offense.

                 In Seneca’s play, Jesus played a role not unlike that which Tacitus envisioned for Thrasea. Jesus’ attitude was that of the ideal Stoic, a man in full control of his emotions, unafraid of suffering, unmoved by the prospect of death. That this was Seneca’s ideal as well is shown by one of the choral odes in his Thyestes, where true nobility is ascribed to

...a man who has put aside fear...

Who willingly goes to meet his fate

And makes no complaint of death...

Such nobility each man bestows upon himself.

[1]           Annals XVI, 25-26