Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers, Édouard Manet

Yesterday a good friend of mine forwarded along an article about an alleged discrepancy in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion. The apparent contradiction has to do with the color of the robe the soldiers placed on Jesus while they were mocking Him.

Matthew’s account says:

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand (Matthew 27:27-29).

Mark’s gospel says:

And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (15:16-18).

Finally, John’s account puts it like this:

Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robeThey came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands (19:1-3).

The article that my friend forwarded to me explained this difference by proposing that the gospel writers were describing the same thing, but that perhaps in the sunlight the colors looked different to them. Maybe what seemed like more of a scarlet color to Matthew looked more like purple to Mark and John. My friend was not satisfied with this explanation, though, since the gospels give no indication that Matthew, Mark, and John all witnessed this event. So if this explanation doesn’t work, how should we approach this problem?

Let’s take a closer look at the terminology used in the gospels. Matthew says that the soldiers adorned Jesus with a χλαμύδα κοκκίνην, chlamyda kokkinen. The first term, χλαμύς (chlamys), refers to  a loose outer garment worn by men, such as a military cloak. The second term, κόκκινος (kokkinos), means “red, scarlet,” and in this context refers to the red cloak worn by Roman soldiers, “a cheaply dyed garment in contrast to the expensive ‘purple’ garments” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, hereafter BDAG). Mark and John use  different terms. Mark says that the soldiers dressed Jesus in πορφύρα (porphyra), “purple,” and John says they clothed Jesus with ἱμάτιον πορφυροῦν (himation porphyroun), a cloak or robe of purple (BDAG).

Interestingly, BDAG goes on to cite at least one ancient source that used these expressions interchangeably. In Appian’s history of the Roman civil wars (written in the century after Christ), he refers to the cloak of a Roman soldier as ἡ πορφύρα (he porphyra) instead of the usual χλαμύς (chlamys). So it is possible that in the first century these terms were somewhat interchangeable.

But this is all really beside the point.

The Roman soldiers clearly intended to mock Jesus as “King of the Jews.” So they gave Him all of the accessories of a king. Normally, kings wore crowns made from precious jewels and metals. They gave Jesus a crown made from thorns. Normally, kings wielded a scepter made of expensive materials. They gave Jesus a scepter of  reeds.  And normally, kings wore purple. So just as the soldiers supplied a crown made of thorns, and supplied a scepter made of reeds, they gave Jesus “purple” – in the form of a soldier’s scarlet cloak. When Matthew tells us they gave Jesus a “scarlet robe,” he is telling is what they used to mock Jesus. And when Mark and John tell us they placed “purple” on Jesus, they are explaining why they did this – to parody the notion that Jesus is a king.

As Leon Morris commented:

Since this kind of cloak was used by military officers, there would have been no great difficulty in getting one, perhaps an old one, discarded by an officer. The point of it was apparently that the color was somewhere near purple, the color of royalty. By getting a cloak of a color not quite that of royalty the soldiers were mocking Jesus’ claim to be a king (The Gospel According to Matthew, IVP, 1992, p. 711).

When I was a child, I liked to pretend I was a super hero by tying a bath towel around my neck as my “cape.” Was I wearing a towel or a cape? Both. The towel was what was available, but its purpose was to serve as a cape. Similarly, was Jesus dressed in scarlet or purple? Both. The scarlet cloak was what was available, but its purpose was to parody the royal regalia of a purple robe. Except in Jesus’ case, this was not child’s play, but cruel mockery of one who was truly King of Kings.