Crucifixion was an agonizing, torturous death, but Jesus endured a torture that was nearly as, or perhaps equally, excruciating before he ever got to the cross. This was the pain he suffered when he was scourged.
Scourging, called verberatio by the Romans, was possibly the worst kind of flogging administered by ancient courts. While the Jews administered whippings in the synagogues for certain offenses, these were mild in comparison to scourging. Scourging was not normally a form of execution, but it certainly was brutal enough to be fatal in many cases. A person certainly could be beaten to death by the scourge if that was desired. Its purpose was not only to cause great pain, but to humiliate as well. To scourge a man was to beat him worse than one would beat a stupid animal. It was belittling, debasing, and demeaning. It was considered such a degrading form of punishment that, according to the Porcian (248 B.C.) and Sempronian (123 B.C.) laws, Roman citizens were exempt from it. It was, therefore, the punishment appropriate only for slaves and non-Romans, those who were viewed as the lesser elements in Roman society. To make it as humiliating as possible, scourging was carried out in public.
The instrument used to deliver this form of punishment was called in Latin a flagellum or a flagrum. This was much different from the bull whip that is more common in our culture. It was instead more like the old British cat o’ nine tails, except that the flagellum was not designed merely to bruise or leave welts on the victim. The flagellum was a whip with several (at least three) thongs or strands, each perhaps as much as three feet long, and the strands were weighted with lead balls or pieces of bone. This instrument was designed to lacerate. The weighed thongs struck the skin so violently that it broke open. The church historian Eusebius of Caesarea recounts with vivid, horrible detail a scene of scourging. He says, “For they say that the bystanders were struck with amazement when they saw them lacerated with scourges even to the innermost veins and arteries, so that the hidden inward parts of the body, both their bowels and their members, were exposed to view” (Ecclesiastical History, Book 4, chap. 15).
The victim of a scourging was bound to a post or frame, stripped of his clothing, and beaten with the flagellum from the shoulders to the loins. The beating left the victim bloody and weak, in unimaginable pain, and near the point of death. It is no doubt that weakness from his scourging was largely the reason Jesus was unable to carry his cross all the way to Golgotha (Matt. 27:32 and parallels).
As noted above, the beating administered by synagogues was not nearly as drastic as a Roman scourging. First, the instrument used in the synagogues was a lighter whip and was not weighted with metal or bone. Second, according to the tradition recorded in the Mishnah (tractate Makkot), the judges would determine if the victim could survive the full measure of the beating required by the law (forty lashes). If he could not, the number of lashes was reduced. Third, the Law of Moses limited whippings to forty lashes (Deut. 25:3), which was a provision to prevent excessive humiliation. The Jews usually stopped at thirty-nine (lest they counted wrong and violated the law by giving more than forty; cf. Paul’s reference to “thirty-nine stripes” in 2 Cor. 11:24). Scourging, however, was much more traumatic, even to the point of being fatal. The flagellum was a much more torturous instrument, the lashes were delivered without any compassion or consideration for the victim’s health, and Roman law imposed no limit to the number of lashes inflicted at scourging. Roman law mandated scourging as part of capital sentences, but this probably had the effect of shortening the victim’s agony once on the cross. The victim would have been so weak from blood loss and pain that he would die more quickly than if he had not been scourged. This seems to have been the case with Jesus (although the scourging was probably not the only thing that caused him to die relatively quickly).
Why did Pilate have Jesus scourged? While Roman law required capital sentences to be accompanied by scourging, the decision to scourge Jesus was made before it was determined that he would be crucified. After Jesus was scourged, Pilate attempted to release him (John 19:1ff). Only when the crowd threatened riot at this suggestion did Pilate allow Jesus to be crucified, and then still reluctantly. It seems that Pilate had two things in mind. First, it may be that Pilate, while he was unable to find out exactly what Jesus had done to cause the Jews to be so angry with him, suspected that Jesus was at least a troublemaker and had probably done something to deserve a flogging. It was Pilate’s job to keep and enforce peace in his region of the empire, so he probably felt no guilt at having Jesus scourged for having caused such an uproar. Second, Pilate hoped that if he humiliated Jesus enough the mob would be satisfied and he would not have to execute a man he believed to be innocent (cf. Luke 23:16). He stood the scourged Jesus before them wearing a crown of thorns and a mock robe. Pilate told them, “Behold, the man!” (John 19:5). By this he meant, “Look at him now. He will not go around calling himself a king any more, and he will not cause you any more trouble.” However, the mob was not satisfied with only a humiliated Jesus. They demanded his death.
Like everything else about his death, Jesus knew that he would be scourged. He mentioned it when He predicted his sufferings for the third time (Matt. 20:19 and parallels). He knew that before he died of the torture of the cross he would have to endure a savage, brutal beating at the hands of the Romans who were more than ready to vent their hatred against Jews. He accepted those blows, and his body was ripped open at the post, for us. He was taking the punishment of the sins of the world so that we might not have to suffer the consequences of our transgressions. By his stripes we are healed.