The Crown of Thorns


Some semi-directed musings for Good Friday.

Jesus had a crown of thorns. It's a memorable image. All kings need crowns, of course, but he managed to get one unlike anyone else's.

That's more of an accomplishment than you might first think. There have been a lot of kings in history, especially in ancient times. King Ahab once fought the combined army of 33 kings, for instance (1 Kings 20), and won. Given that King Ahab appears to have controlled a single city at the time, I figure those kings couldn't have ruled too much each, so there would have been room for a lot of them. Also, kings like to do things to identify themselves with successful rulers who went before them. This is how we got the Holy Roman Empire, for example. Admittedly, it wasn't noticeably holy, Roman, or emprie-y, but a relaxed attitude to accuracy just increases the range for copying. Yet no one copied Jesus's crown.

No other ruler had a crown like Jesus. I suspect the Roman soldiers kept a few lying around (or at least could make them as needed). Jesus wasn't the only threat to their power. He wasn't even the only one at the time: When given a choice, the crowds decided that would rather have another guy named Barabbas instead (probably because Jesus hadn't killed enough - or any - Romans). Crowns of thorns could have been standard equipment for tormenting fallen leaders. It certainly matches the Roman style (ruthless, direct, and consistent). If any one else had one, his surviving followers would want to forget; it was a symbol of defeat.

But Jesus is remembered with a crown of thorns. He wasn't defeated. The Romans did everything they could, and He let them, and then He won anyway. "Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:31-32). The third clause presumably refers to the establishment of Christianity. The second is about His victory over the demonic power in the world, and thus implicitly over death. Traditional Christian theology (now somewhat out of favor) holds that there is infernal string-pulling controlling most (all?) political authorities. "Controlling" seems a bit strong to me, but you can do a lot with well-placed nudges. As for the first, I suspect that René Girard has the right interpretation. In Jesus's death we see an explicit and undeniable example of the innocent being punished in place of the guilty. Everyone who hears of this instinctively recognizes it as unjust, and once they have the idea, they start recognizing it all over the place. Moreover, they then tell others, and the idea spreads like wildfire, even faster than Christianity did. Thus the world is judged, and found wanting.

Interestingly, the image of the thorn king who protects and unleashes fire also shows up in the Old Testament. When Jotham condemns his evil brother Abimelek, he tells a parable about the trees choosing a king. Eventually, the thornbush gets the job (because no one else wants it) and tells its new subjects it will protect them. Except if they are wicked, in which case it will start a fire that will destroy "the ceders of Lebanon". The cedars of Lebanon were the best wood, and Solomon used them for both his Temple and palace (which is even referred to as "Lebanon" in Jeremiah 22:23). We have the motif of the union of political and religious authority here, matching Zechariah 6:12-13 (which is probably a Messianic prophecy). I am not sure what to make of this. Probably just a spurious correlation.

In any case, today is the day Christianity has set apart to remember Jesus's death. I assume that also includes thinking about that sort of thing. So maybe my thoughts will be helpful to someone in that regard.

God bless.

Note: I understand Islam teaches that Jesus never really died (people just thought He did) because Jesus was on God's team and God never loses. I don't think that reasoning holds up. In both cases, Jesus gets into progressively worse circumstances until supernatural power gets Him out again and generally fixes things. The Christian version just happens a bit later, so I don't really see what the fuss is about. Muslims are required to believe in Judgement Day, so it can't be that death is somehow beyond God's control. I admit to being rather mystified on this one.

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