Holy Week Images on the Irish High Crosses


The events of Holy Week, the last week of Jesus' life, are central to the Christian message.  The makers of the Irish High Crosses included some of these Holy Week events on some of the scripture crosses, while completely ignoring others.  Featured here are images from eight events that took place between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, exclusive of scenes of the Crucifixion.  In examining these images I will address the following questions.  What was the meaning of these events for those who planned their inclusion on some of the High Crosses?  What was the theological message as interpreted by some of the Early Church Fathers?  To what extent does this message correspond to that of current progressive biblical interpretation?

In selecting Holy Week images to depict on the crosses, the designers made choices among the events described in scripture.  We do not find a narrative of all the events of Holy Week on the Irish High Crosses.  This is illustrated by the scenes that are not depicted on the crosses.  They include:

  • Jesus “Cleansing” the Temple on Palm Sunday
  • Jesus cursing a fig tree on Holy Monday
  • Jesus being anointed at Bethany on Holy Wednesday 
  • Judas agreeing to betray Jesus on Holy Wednesday.  (While none of the scenes on the crosses depicts Judas receiving payment from the chief priests, the betrayal is depicted in scenes of the betrayal of Jesus in the garden, as described below.)
  • There is an apparent lack of images of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday.  This might seem strange because of the significance the eucharist had for the theology and liturgy of the church from the beginning.  However, the Eucharist or Last Supper is symbolically represented by the image of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fish.  This image, which does appear on the Irish High Crosses, was a late ancient and early medieval representation of the Eucharist.  (Smith, p. 130)  Images of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish are not included here (they appear on four of the 12 crosses with Holy Week images).
  • Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane following the Last Supper

This paper examines the Holy Week texts that do appear on the crosses.  There are eight of these events.  One or more of them appear on a total of twelve crosses.  This includes both the images that scholars are fairly confident about the identification of and those that are questionable.  These images appear on a maximum of thirty-five (35) panels on these twelve crosses.  The Tall Cross at Monasterboice (County Louth) contains six of the eight images, more than any of the other eleven crosses.  The images are:  

  • The Entry into Jerusalem (5 crosses); 
  • The Kiss of Judas (5 crosses); 
  • Peter Cuts off the Ear of a Servant (2 crosses); 
  • The First Mocking or Flagellation of Jesus (6 crosses); 
  • The Denial of Peter (4 crosses); 
  • Pilate Washes His Hands (3 crosses); 
  • The Second Mocking of Jesus (7 crosses); 
  • The Soldiers Cast Lots for Jesus’ Garments (3 crosses).

These images were chosen for their theological messages.  The nature of those messages will be explored below.

The twelve crosses under consideration and the breakdown of the images that appear on each of these crosses is as follows:

  • Arboe [Entry into Jerusalem, 2nd mocking],
  • Ardane large cross-head [Kiss of Judas, 1st and 2nd mocking], 
  • Castledermot South [Kiss of Judas, 2nd mocking], 
  • Clonmacnoise Cross of the Scriptures [Entry into Jerusalem, Kiss of Judas, 1st mocking, Casting of Lots], 
  • Donaghmore (Tyrone) [Entry into Jerusalem, 2nd mocking], 
  • Drumcliff [1st and 2nd mocking], 
  • Durrow [1st mocking, Denial of Peter, Pilate Washes His Hands, Casting of Lots], 
  • Kells Broken [Entry into Jerusalem], 
  • Kells Market [Kiss of Judas, Cutting of Servant’s Ear, Denial of Peter, 2nd mocking], 
  • Monasterboice Muiredach [1st mocking, Denial of Peter, Pilate Washes His Hands, 2nd mocking], 
  • Monasterboice Tall Cross [Kiss of Judas, Cutting of Servant’s Ear, 1st mocking, Denial of Peter, Pilate Washes His Hands, Casting of Lots],  
  • Old Kilcullen [Entry into Jerusalem], 

In the discussion of these images you will find, in each case, a biblical text from one of the four gospels; a High Cross image with a description of the image; a list of other High Crosses that include, or may include this image; two interpretations of the event from early church fathers and an interpretation of the event based on current progressive scholarship.  Before addressing these events it seems prudent to briefly address the approaches to biblical exegesis in the Early Church and in current progressive biblical exegesis.

Biblical Exegesis in the Early Church

The Early Church Fathers agreed on the importance of finding unity between the Hebrew bible and the Christian scriptures.  In this regard they saw the events of the life of Jesus the Christ foreshadowed in the Hebrew scriptures and fulfilled in the Christian scriptures.  However, they developed two different approaches to the interpretation of scripture.   One group of Fathers, the Alexandrian School, favored an allegorical approach while another group, the Antiochian School, favored a more literal historical interpretation.  In the Ancient Interpretation sections below Saint Chrysostom represents the Antiochian approach while Saint. Origen and Saint Jerome will represent the Alexandrian approach to biblical interpretation.

The Alexandrian School favored the allegorical approach for several reasons.   “First, many passages of the Scriptures could only be understood in a spiritual sense.  Second, the New Testament authors seemed to have applied allegorical principles in their interpretation of quotations from the Hebrew Bible.  Third, God differentiated between ordinary Christians and more intellectually inclined biblical scholars in elucidating spiritual truth differently to these two groups of believers.”  (Erdmann, online essay)  While at times the allegorical approach does lift up the spiritual meaning of a text.  Saint Origen, as a representative of the Alexandrian school, was born in 184/185 and died in 253/254.  He was a Greek scholar who spent the first half of his career in Alexandria.  He was known for his textual criticism, biblical exegesis and philosophical theology.  Saint Jerome, as another representative of the Alexandrian school of interpretation, was a contemporary of Saint Chrysostom.  He was born in 347 and died in 420.  His biblical commentaries make use of allegory and mystical images.  Jerome is well known as the translator of what came to be known as the Vulgate Bible.

The Antiochian approach, “underscored the historicity of the Bible, namely that the latter consists of texts written by individuals to others at a given time of human history in the specific language as well as mindset of that time.  Consequently, a given text can have only one meaning intended by its author.”  (Tarazi, online essay)  The challenge in exegesis is to understand the original intent of the author.  This is impossible to fully achieve.

Saint John Chrysostom, a representative of the Antiochian school of interpretation was born in Antioch about 349 and died in 407.  His Homilies on various books of the Bible offer insights into the straightforward interpretation of the scriptures in contrast to the Alexsandrian school’s more allegorical approach.

Contemporary Progressive Biblical Interpretation

The current progressive approach to biblical interpretation relies on numerous disciplines that fall under the general category of the Historical-Critical Method.  Some of these disciplines parallel the Antiochian School.  For example, Composition History asks about the author and the audience.  Socio-Historical Criticism explores the background of the story in its original setting.  Traditional Literary Criticism explores the words and symbols used and their meanings.  In addition, Textual Criticism explores variant readings in the various ancient manuscripts of each text.  Form Criticism identifies the genre of the work, its typical form and purpose.  Examples of the Historical-Critical Method will appear in the Current Interpretation sections below.  

Representatives of current biblical interpretation here include Marcus Borg, John Dominique Crossan and authors of commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the New Interpreters Bible series by Abingdon Press.  As examples of the backgrounds of these scholars, Marcus Borg was a New Testament scholar who was influential in progressive Christianity and was a fellow of the Jesus Seminar and John Dominic Crossan is an authority on the historical Jesus and First Century Christianity.  

In contemporary progressive biblical interpretation it is generally understood that the first three gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) have significant literary dependency on one another.  These three gospels are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels because of this inter-dependence.  The Gospel of John is regarded as both later than the other three gospels and as less dependent on them for the narrative of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  However, in the case of the eight events of Passion Week under consideration here, each event is narrated in some way in each of the four gospels.

The Holy Week Events

Palm Sunday:  Jesus' Entry to Jerusalem

The Text:  Mark 11:1-11 

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.”’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,  Hosanna!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!’Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  

There are parallels for this text in Matthew 21:1-9 and Luke 19:28-38.  A similar story is told in John  12:12-15.

The Image  

This image has been identified on at least three crosses:  The Broken Cross at Kells (County Meath); The Arboe Cross (County Tyrone) and the Cross of the Scriptures at  Clonmacnois (County Offaly).  It may also appear on two other crosses:  Old Kilcullen (County Kildare) and Donaghmore  (County Tyrone).

The image to the right is part of the Broken Cross at Kells (County Meath).  The panel itself is broken.  What remains suggests strongly that it represents Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem.  We see a figure, presumably Jesus, riding on an ass.  Before him a man kneels to lay a garment on the road.  Behind him one man kneels.  There were probably other figures in the upper portion of the panel.  The image is not particular to any of the four gospels.  It does not reflect the contention of the writer of Matthew that there were two animals.

Ancient Interpretation

1)  Saint John Chrysostom,  Homily 66 (John 12:9-24)

Chrysostom’s interpretation takes the text literally.  He explains away any apparent conflicts in the descriptions of the event offered by the four Gospel writers   He claims that the text both fulfills a prophesy found in Zechariah and at the same time offers a prophesy that Jesus will reign in the future.  He suggests that because of this event the people and the apostles came to understand Jesus as more than a prophet.

Where the synoptic gospels each refer to Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to find and untie the ass (or in the case of Matthew the ass and her colt), the Gospel of John simply states that Jesus found the donkey.  Chrysostom states “It is likely that both things happened, and that after the ass had been set loose, while the disciples were leading it to Him He found it and sat upon it.”  (Chrysostom p. 218)  Thus, Chrysostom explains away or harmonizes the accounts of the four gospel writers.

He notes that the Gospel of Matthew quotes a passage from the prophet Zechariah.  This, he states, was “applied to Him as He fulfilled this prophecy; while in the fact that He was seated upon an ass He was prefiguring the circumstance that in the future He would hold the unclean race of the Gentiles under His sway.”  (Chrysostom, p. 217-218)  The Gospel of John also explicitly refers to this prophesy.  This passage is quoted in order to emphasize the church’s proclamation that Jesus came as king and looks forward to the future global reign of Jesus as the Christ.

Continuing with the passage from Zechariah Chrysostom asks “But what is the meaning of:  “Rejoice greatly daughter of Sion?”  He answers the question with an interpretation of Hebrew history.  “Because all their kings were, for the most part, unjust and covetous and had betrayed them to their enemies, and had perverted the people and made them subject to their enemies, the Prophet said:  Take courage; this Man is not of that kind, but meek and humble, and He proved this by the ass.”  (Chrysostom p. 218)  In this passage Chrysostom takes a dim view of the example of the various kings of Israel and Judea.  The historical books of the Hebrew scriptures note that some kings led the people astray while others led reform movements.  Chrysostom offers a negative historical critique of former kings in order to emphasize that Jesus will be a very different kind of king from those who were unjust, etc.

Finally, he offers an interpretation of the placing of branches and cloaks on the road before Jesus.  This, he states, shows “that they now had a more exalted opinion of Him than that He was merely a prophet.”  (Chrysostom p. 218)  This continues an emphasis on the testimony of the early church, that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah or Christ.

Chrysostom’s theological message is that Jesus is the king who fulfills the prophesy of the Hebrew scriptures and will reign as king for eternity.  He will not be like the kings of Israel’s past but will rule with humility and justice.  This was recognized by those who greeted him on Palm Sunday as he entered Jerusalem.

2)  Saint Origen,  Homily 37 (Luke 19:29-40)

Origen offers a more allegorical interpretation.  He lifts up three aspects of this passage, focusing on the interpretation of place names, the spiritual meaning of untying the ass and the meaning of the act of the apostles placing their garments before Jesus.

First he notes that where the ass was found is significant.  “Where?  Across from Bethphage and Bethany.  Bethany means ‘house of obedience’ and Bethphage ‘house of jaws’ that is a priestly place. . . So the Savior sends his disciples to the place where ‘obedience’ is, where the ‘place given over to priests’ is”  (Origen p. 153)  He points in this way to Jesus’ obedience to God and to the kind of priestly role of Jesus as suggested, for example, in the book of Hebrews.  (See Hebrews chapters 5-7)  As we will see below in the Current Interpretation section, modern scholars interpret the meaning of the names of the two towns very differently than Origen.

Next, Origen discusses the importance of untying the ass.  In this instance he tells his readers “You are the colt of the ass.  Why does the Son of God ‘have need of ‘ you?  What does He seek from you?  He needs your salvation.  He wants you to be untied from the bonds of sin.”  (Origen p. 154)  Thus the believer is the colt or ass.   The believer is “tied” or bound by sin and in need of salvation.  Jesus wants the believer to be untied, to receive salvation.

Finally, he discussed the garments of the apostle’s that are laid out before Jesus and on the donkey.  They are interpreted as the good works of the apostles and Origen says on the one hand “The garments of the apostles are upon us”.  This suggests that we are supported by the example of the apostles.  Then he suggests that we are called to “tread upon their garments.”  “Indeed, when the ass imitates the disciples’ teaching and their life, it is untied by the disciples, bears Jesus, and treads on the apostles’ garments.”  (Origen p. 154)  While the imagery here is convoluted, the point is clear:  the followers of Jesus are to follow the life and teachings of the disciples.  To have the apostles garments upon us and to tread on them is to walk in the way of Jesus.

Origen’s theological message is that Jesus, the obedient one, the priestly one, acts to unbind us from the power of sin and offer us salvation.  The followers are called to be obedient and seek to follow the example of both Jesus and his apostles.

Current Interpretation

Current progressive interpretation takes an historical critical approach to the text that in some ways resembles the approach of Chrysostom.  For example, Borg and Crossan offer an interpretation of the Entry into Jerusalem that highlights the contrast between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world (specifically the kingdom ruled by Caesar).  It suggests that Jesus was aware of the political and spiritual significance of his actions.  It places the event in a larger historical and sociological perspective.  It suggests that Jesus intentionally sought to follow the text from Zechariah.  This in turn suggests something about Jesus’ self identification as an heir to the prophetic tradition.  Like Chrysostom, this interpretation seeks to take the story literally.

As the writers of the Gospels tell the story, Jesus enters Jerusalem on the Sunday before the Passover.  On that same day, the day following the Jewish Sabbath, it is possible that Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Idumea, Judea, and Samaria also entered the city.  It was typical for Roman governors to be in Jerusalem for the Passover, to personally handle any problems that might arise.  

Borg and Crossan envision two distinctively different processions coming into Jerusalem through different gates on the same day.  One was the imperial procession displaying the power and theology of Rome, namely that the emperor was not just a temporal ruler but was in fact the Son of God.  He was referred to as “lord” and “savior:”  It was believed that after his death he would ascend into heaven to sit among the other gods.  And so, Pilate’s entry into Jerusalem was accompanied by cavalry and foot soldiers all bearing weapons and banners and displaying the golden eagle that symbolized the empire.  (Borg and Crossan, p. 3)

As the Gospels tells the story, Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is an intentional and pre-planed counter to the imperial procession.  (Borg and Crossan pp. 3-4)  The procession follows the pattern of Zechariah 9.  As noted above, this passage is directly referred to by the writers of Matthew and John.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.  (Zechariah 9:9-10)

A few other points are worth making as they reflect some of the concerns of Chrysostom and Origen.  Eugene Boring, author of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Interpreters Bible, points out that Matthew apparently misses the poetic parallelism of the passage in Zachariah.  This was a familiar literary device employed in the Hebrew scriptures.  In the Gospel of Matthew, two animals are identified, “they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them.”  Poetic parallelism tells us that there was but one animal, mentioned in Zachariah, mentioned twice in slightly different language.  Boring also points out that the writer of Matthew’s Gospel took liberties with the passage from Zachariah.  He omitted the words “triumphant and victorious” in order to emphasize the humility of Jesus.  (Boring, p. 403)  Pheme Perkins, author of the Gospel of Mark in the New Interpreters Bible, notes that the line in Zachariah that parallels Psalm 118:26 (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”) was a clear sign, in the Hebrew text, that the “kingdom of David” was coming.  This interpretation was taken up by the early Christians as evidence of the coming of the Kingdom of God.  (Perkins, p. 659)  

R. Alan Culpepper, author of the Gospel of Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible,  contradicts Origen by stating that Bethphage means “house of unripe figs” while Bethany may mean “house of the poor” or “house of dates.”  Thus the traditions of the early church about the meaning of these words is not confirmed by current scholarship.  (Culpepper, p. 367)  

Commenting on the fact that in current church tradition the Sunday before Easter is called “Palm Sunday”, Gail O’Day, author of the Gospel of John in The New Interpreter’s Bible, notes that only the Gospel of John mentions the day of the week (Sunday) or identifies the branches spread before Jesus as “palm branches.”  Thus, the tradition is based exclusively on  the fourth gospel.


The significance of this image in the narrative of Holy Week, in both ancient and current interpretation, is that it proclaims Jesus’ identity as Messiah (Christ).  Theologically, Origen states that the untying of the ass reminds us that Jesus is the one who unbinds us from the power of sin and offers salvation.  He also offers a call to discipleship by interpreting the placement of cloaks on the ass and on the road ahead of Jesus, as encouragement for Christians to follow the example of the apostles and walk in the way of Jesus.  Where Chrysostom contrasts Jesus as humble and gentle Messiah with the ineffective kings of the ancient Jews; contemporary interpreters, such as Borg and Crossan, see the contrast between Jesus the humble king and the imperial power of the Roman empire, and by extension all the kingdoms of the earth.

Maundy Thursday:  Judas Betrays Jesus

The Text:  Mark 14:43-46

Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.’ So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him.

There are parallels to this text in Matthew 26:47-56 and Luke 22:47-53.  In Luke’s Gospel the kiss of Judas is interrupted by Jesus, who says, “Judas, would you betray the Son of man with a kiss?”  There is also a passage in John 18:1-9 where Judas simply leads the soldiers and police to the place where Jesus was, without any mention of a kiss.

The Image 

This image clearly appears on only two High Crosses, the Tall Cross at Monasterboice (County Louth), and the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois (County Offaly).  Other crosses that may contain this image include:  the large cross-head at Ardane (County Tipperary), the South Cross at Castledermot (County Kildare), and the Market Cross at Kells (County Meath).  (Harbison 1992, p. 263)

The image to the left is from the west face, the south arm of the Tall Cross at Monasterboice (County Louth).  In this image it is unclear which of the two right-hand figures is Jesus.  In other images Jesus is to the left of Judas.  In any event, the two seem to embrace and kiss.  To the left a soldier with a sword and shield approaches, ready to arrest Jesus.  This scene reflects the texts in Mark and Matthew where Judas actually does kiss Jesus.

Ancient Interpretation

1)  Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 83:  (John 18:1-36)  Betrayal by Judas

The emphasis of Chrysostom is not on Judas, but on Jesus willingly giving himself up to be arrested.  He simply notes that Judas knew the place where Jesus would be.  “In order that on hearing the word ’garden’ you might not conclude that He was in hiding, the Evangelist added:  ‘Judas knew the place’ and ‘He had often met there with His disciples.’”  Chrysostom notes that the cohort could have arrested Jesus on other occasions.  “From this it is clear that at this time He gave Himself up of His own accord.”  (Chrysostom pp. 399-400)  The willingness of Jesus to “drink this cup” as expressed by his prayer in the Garden is central to the church’s belief that Jesus was not just innocent of any crime but that he willingly gave up his life for the salvation of the world.

2)  Saint Origen, Commentary on the Gospel According to John. (John 18:1-5)

Origen addresses two issues.  First he emphasizes that Jesus gave himself up freely.  He also stresses that throughout the passion story Jesus was the one in control, not the Chief Priests or the Roman Governor.  “Now in this passage of the Gospel it is made clear that if he had wished not to be captured, he would not have been restrained.  He was restrained, however, because he humbled himself and became obedient to those restraining him, even to the cross.”  (Origen, Book 28, p.; 334)

Origen also addresses the reason for Judas’ betrayal, something only Luke also addresses.  Both Luke and John clearly state their belief that satan or the devil was the cause of Judas’ betrayal.  “In the case of Judas, therefore, it has been written, ‘The devil having already put it into his heart that Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, should betray him.’  Consistently with this you might say of each of those wounded in the heart by the devil . . . that the devil puts into that heart that is not armed with the shield of faith, by which shield of faith one can quench not one, or two, but all the fiery darts of the wicked one.”  (Origen, Book 32, p. 347)  The message here is that Judas’ faith was not strong enough to withstand the devil.

Current Interpretation

The gospels differ in their explanations of the motivation of Judas for betraying Jesus.  The writers of Matthew and Mark do not offer any explanation for Judas' betrayal.  For Mark the important point is that one of the Twelve Disciples betrays him.  This story reflects circumstances the audience of Mark’s gospel could easily relate to.  In oppressive regimes trust is undermined.  Fear of informants becomes a part of everyday life.  Friends and family members may be guilty of betrayal.  (Perkins, p. 700)  Members of the church at the time of the writing of Mark's Gospel were experiencing persecution and experiencing the betrayal of family and friends.  The writers of Luke and John, on the other hand, clearly state that the devil entered Judas and caused his betrayal of Jesus.  

O’Day, like Chrysostom, focuses on Jesus rather than Judas.  She suggests that verse 4 “leaves no doubt as to who is in control of Jesus’ arrest . . . the initiative still rests with Jesus.  Jesus’ actions in v. 4 fulfill his words of 10:18, ‘No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”  She goes on to note that in verses 5-6 Jesus identifies himself with the words ego emir (I Am), which reflects the “I AM” series of statements Jesus is said to have made throughout the Gospel of John.  These “I AM” statements reflect the story of Moses at the burning bush.  The name God offers in response to Moses’ question is “I AM that I AM.:  O’Day writes, “Jesus identifies himself, not simply as the one for whom the soldiers seek, but with the divine name ‘I AM’”  She goes on to write that the soldiers falling to the ground in the text is a typical response to a theophany.  (O’Day, p. 802)  Thus, the betrayal by Judas and Jesus’ arrest become an occasion for a clear proclamation of Jesus’ messianic identity.


The betrayal of Jesus by a kiss from Judas is ingrained in the tradition of the church even though the kiss only takes place in the gospels of Matthew and Mark.  The focus of the kiss is to emphasize that Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples.  The larger theological point both in the Early Church Fathers and in current interpretation is that Jesus was in control of the arrest, that he allowed himself to be arrested.

Maundy Thursday:  The ear of a slave cut off

The Text:  John 18:10-11

John 18:10 Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave's name was Malchus. 11 Jesus said to Peter, "Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?" 

There are parallels to this text in Matthew 26:51-55, Mark 14:47 and Luke 22:49-51.  In the Synoptic Gospels the person who takes this action is not named.  In John, Simon Peter is identified as the perpetrator.  It is this identification that has become part of the tradition.

The Image 

This scene appears on the Tall Cross at Monasterboice (County Louth), and may also appear on the Market Cross at Kells (County Meath).  

The image to the right, from the Tall Cross at Monasterboice, appears on the upper panel of the head, on the west face.  It is an image that has been interpreted as a follower of Jesus using a sword to cut off the ear of a slave.  Peter Harbison, author of The High Crosses of Ireland:  An Iconographical and Photographic Survey, interprets the central figure as the apostle Peter,  He holds a sword over his shoulder in his right hand, while his left hand grasps his sheath.  There is a figure on each side holding a lantern, thus indicating this took place at night, the night of Jesus’ arrest.  Ironically, the servant Malchus does not appear in this scene.  This suggests that we are seeing the scene after Jesus says to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath.”

Ancient Interpretation

1)  John Chrysostom, Homily 83, Peter Cuts off Ear of a Servant

Two aspects of this event are addressed.  First, Chrysostom seeks to explain why Peter was armed.  His message is that Peter was prepared to defend his master.  He also lifts up the strangeness of this occurrence in that this is the same Peter who had been instructed not to carry money, not to own two tunics and not to carry a sword.  This refers to the story of Jesus sending out the seventy on a mission.  (See Matthew 10:5-15)  However, in none of the gospel reports of the mission of the seventy is a sword listed as one of the items the disciples are not to take with them.

Secondly, Chrysostom addresses the story of Jesus’ healing the ear.  “Now, Jesus here worked a miracle, both to teach us that we must do good to those who injure us and also to reveal His power to us.”  (Chrysostom, p. 403)  It should be noted that the only mention of Jesus healing the ear of the servant is found in the gospel of Luke.  The moral lesson here and the proclamation of Jesus’ power offer yet another example of how the ancient commentators conflated stories from the four gospels and wove them into one narrative. 

2)  Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 26:51f.

While Jerome’s commentary is centered on Matthew, in this case he is responding to the story as told in the Gospel of John.  “In another Gospel it is written that Peter did this, with the same ardor of mind by which he did other things.  It is also stated that the servant of the high priest was named Malchus and that the ear that he cut off was the right one.  In passing one should say that Malchus, that is, ‘king,’ represents the former people of the Jews.  It became a servant of impiety and of the voracity of the priests, and it lost its right ear.  Thus it hears all the contemptibleness of the letter with its left ear.  But among those who were willing to believe from the Jews, the Lord gave back the right ear and made the servant a royal and priestly race.”  (Jerome p, 303, 304).  In his interpretation, Jerome finds an allegorical meaning for Malchus’ name, the loss of his ear and Jesus’ act of healing the ear.  His interpretation also suggests that Jews who come to believe will receive healing, which can also be understood as salvation.

Current Interpretation

The story of a bystander (presumably a disciple) cutting off the ear of the High Priest's slave raises more questions than it answers.  Why was a disciple armed?  Was this common practice?  Could it have been a long knife such as the peasantry carried under their tunics rather than a sword?  (Grant, 886)  This echoes the questions of Chrysostom.  Culpepper offers a potential answer when he notes that in Luke 22:38 Jesus seems to approve of at least two of the disciples being armed.  The verse reads “Lord, look, here are two swords.”  To which Jesus replies “It is enough.:”  Then, when a sword is used, Jesus says again, in another context, “It is enough.”  Of this statement, Culpepper writes, “The kingdom is not advanced by violence, so the sword has no place in the church’s arsenal.”  The follow-up to this incident, in Luke only, is for Jesus to heal the ear.  Of this, Culpepper notes that Jesus is seen carrying on his redemptive, healing ministry.  (Culpepper, p. 436)  Borg and Crossan ask if this is another example in Mark of the failed discipleship of the Apostles?  (Borg and Crossan, p. 124)  


This brief incident has been used to emphasize both the non-violent approach of Jesus and his continuation throughout his life of his ministry of healing.  Jerome allegorically makes this event a proclamation of Jesus’ offer of salvation for the Jews who believe in Jesus as messiah.

Maundy Thursday:  The First Mocking or Flagellation

The Text:  John 18:19-23

John 18:19 Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. 20 Jesus answered, "I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said." 22 When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, "Is that how you answer the high priest?" 23 Jesus answered, "If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?”

There are parallels to this text in Matthew 26:67-68, Mark 14:61b-65 and Luke 22:63-65.

The Image  

This image occurs on the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnoise (County Offaly), the Durrow Cross (County Offaly) and Muiredach's Cross and the Tall Cross at Monasterboice (County Louth),  It may also appear on the large cross head at Ardane (County Tipperary) and a fragment of a cross from Drumcliff (County Sligo) now held in the  National Museum in Dublin.  (Harbison 1992, p. 265

The image to the left is found on the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois.  In this image we see a central figure, presumably Jesus, facing mostly toward the front but turned slightly to his right.  Jesus’ hands seem to be bound.  On each side, in short tunics, are figures that are presumably soldiers.  The figure on the right of Jesus seems to hold him by the waist while the figure on the left appears to be striking Jesus with a rod in his right hand.  This has been interpreted as an illustration of the First Mocking of Jesus by the temple police (Gospel of John) or possibly by the chief priests and scribes (Gospels of Matthew and Mark)  Peter Harbison notes that “Although all three figures appear to be haloed, it seems likely that the ‘haloes’ of the flanking soldiers are best explained as the crests of helmets.”  (Harbison, 1992, 51)  As explained below (Current Interpretation) this depiction could reflect the story of the First Mocking or Flagellation in any of the four gospels.

Ancient Interpretation

1)  Chrysostom, Homily 83:  First Flagellation

In responding to this text, Chrysostom focuses on Jesus’ statements that provoked the violence.  The first statement takes the Jewish leaders to task.  He says that he has taught openly so “Why do you ask me? [about what I am teaching]”  After being struck, Jesus says, ”If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?”  Chrysostom suggests that here Jesus is pointing to the spiteful treachery that motivated the actions of the chief priests and scribes.  Because what Jesus has taught is true, there is no excuse for the treatment he receives.  Chrysostom is responding to the version of this event in the Gospel of John where Jesus is struck only once.

2)  Saint Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 26:67-68

For Jerome this event represents the fulfillment of a prophesy.  In Lamentations 3:30 we read, “I gave my cheeks to slaps, and I did not turn away my face from the shame of spitting.”  This continues a theme, especially strong in the Gospel of Matthew, that finds Hebrew scripture passages that either shaped the narrative of the gospel writers or paralleled the reported events of the passion week.  Jerome’s interpretation reflects the event as narrated by the writers of both Matthew and Mark.  

Current Interpretation

The gospels differ regarding the details of this story.  The Gospels of Mark and Matthew suggest that Jesus was taken to Caiaphas and the scribes, elders and chief priests of the people.  They state that this was a meeting of the Jewish council or Sanhedrin.  This trial takes place the night of Jesus’ arrest.  It is at this time that the first mocking or flagellation takes place.  The Gospel of Luke states that Jesus was taken to the home of the high priest, presumably Caiaphas.  It does not record any interrogation that night but does report that Jesus was mocked and beaten.  It is the next morning, according to Luke’s gospel that Jesus is taken to the council for trial.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus is taken to Annas, the former high priest and father-in-law to Caiaphas.  It is Annas who questions Jesus and it is in the context of this interrogation that Jesus is struck by one of the police officers.  Jesus is then sent to Caiaphas but there is no record in John’s gospel of any interrogation before Caiaphas and the council.

Borg and Crossan, reflecting the narrative in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, point out that this group, however it is identified, consisted of Jewish leaders who regularly collaborated with the Roman authorities to maintain the peace and their own positions of authority.  They identify three stages to this "trial."  In the first stage witnesses testify.  They do not agree and their testimony is characterized as "false."  In the second stage the high priest seeks to elicit a confession.  "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?"  (Mark 14:61)  According to Mark, Jesus responds by saying ego eimi.  This can be translated in two ways.  "I am" or "Am I?"  This response is taken by the high priest as a confession and leads to Jesus' condemnation.  The third stage of the "trial" begins the physical suffering of Jesus, his mocking or flagellation.  (Borg and Crossan, 128-134) 

Boring points out that Jesus’ response to the mocking aligns him with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 50:6.  He writes, “As Jesus had been an example of his own teaching on prayer and oaths, so he lives out his teaching of non-retaliation.”  (Boring, p. 480)  He continues to echo the fulfillment of scripture that Jerome emphasized and goes further than Jerome.  “In Matthew’s view not only are the prophecies of the Scriptures being fulfilled, but also the Jesus they mockingly challenge to prophecy is being doubly proved to be a prophet, since his previous passion predictions are now being fulfilled and in the courtyard his prophecy about Simon Peter is in the course of fulfillment.”  (Boring, p. 481)

As a segue into the next section, it is worth noting that the interrogation by the chief priests and elders is sandwiched between the two parts of the story of Peter’s Denial of Jesus.


Chrysostom, commenting on the text in John, interprets this event as reflecting the treachery of the Jewish authorities.  Jerome focuses on this event as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew as another example of the fulfillment of prophesy.  Contemporary interpreters acknowledge the differences in the narrative of the four gospels and the difficulty of identifying what may have happened historically.  They also focus, following Chrysostom, on the self-interest that motivated the Jewish leaders.  It is also noted that Jesus’ suffering connects him with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.  While referring to Isaiah rather than Lamentations, as Jerome did, this is another example of prophecy fulfilled.

Maundy Thursday:  Peter's Denial of Jesus 

The Text:  Mark 14:66-72  

While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by.  When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, ‘You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘I do not know or understand what you are talking about.’ And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, ‘This man is one of them.’ But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, ‘Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.’ But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about.’ At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ And he broke down and wept.

The Image  

Images of Peter's Denial can be found on:  the Tall Cross at Monasterboice (County Louth), the Market Cross at Kells (County Meath), also in the constriction of the arms; on the Durrow Cross (County Offaly); and perhaps on Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice (County Louth).  (Harbison 1992, p. 267).

The image below appears on the Tall Cross at Monasterboice (County Louth).  The image of the denial of Peter has two parts, each carved in the constriction of the arms,  and so to the extreme right and left of the photo above.  On the right hand the image has been interpreted as Peter warming himself before the fire in the courtyard brazier.  Above his hands there is a cock crowing.  On the left hand a bent over servant girl extends a hand toward Peter as if to question him.  There is another cock with her that connects the two scenes. 

Helen Roe, High Cross scholar and author of The High Crosses of Kells, offered a very different interpretation.  “Separated from the main subject on either side by a vertical bar are two small carvings:  one a man milking a sheep, the other a man shearing a sheep or perhaps throwing it for slaughter.  Both illustrate prophetic references to the Atonement (Isaiah 57.7)”  (Roe, 52)

Either interpretation makes sense in the context of the other scenes on the head of the cross.  On the right arm we have the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.  On the left arm we have the mocking of Jesus.  In the center is the crucifixion.  If Harbison’s interpretation is accepted we have yet another scene related to the arrest and crucifixion.  If Roe’s interpretation is accepted, we have a metaphorical statement about the meaning of the crucifixion.

Ancient Interpretation

1)  Chrysostom, Homily 83, Peter’s Denial

The first thing Chrysostom addresses is the reason Peter’s denial is reported by all the gospel writers.  He wrote:  It was not to condemn the disciple for this, but in the desire to teach us how great an evil it is not to place one’s confidence completely in God, but to trust to oneself.  (Chrysostom p. 408-9)  Initially this comes across as a condemnation of Peter.  It is softened, however, by the second point Chrysostom addresses.  When we look at Jesus, under arrest, bound and beaten we are reminded that “He was deeply concerned for His disciple, and by a glance raised him up from his fall, and moved him to tears.”  (Chrysostom pp. 408-9)  This points to Jesus' grace and the healing that comes from His love and compassion.

2)  Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 26:58f, Peter’s Denial

Unlike Chrysostom, Jerome clearly holds Peter responsible for his betrayal.  He makes this point as he responds to an interpretation unidentified others have made.  “I know that some out of pious feelings for the apostle Peter have interpreted this passage to the effect that Peter did not deny God but ‘the man.’  They say that the meaning is:  I do not know the man, because I know that he is God.  A prudent reader knows how frivolous this interpretation is.  By defending the apostle in this way, these people make the Lord guilty of lying. . . “  (Jerome, p. 307)  The reference to “lying” is in response to the fact that Jesus had predicted Peter’s denial or betrayal.  Thus, Jerome states that if Jesus’ prophetic prediction is to be fulfilled, Peter has to deny Jesus.  Jerome does not comment on what passed between Jesus and Peter at the moment the cock crowed.

Current Interpretation

This particular section of Mark emphasizes Peter's denial of Jesus.  He says that he does not know him.  This denial follows two other scenes.  First, Peter follows Jesus to the house of the High Priest.  Next we have Jesus' own confession (as understood by the High Priest) that he is the Son of God.  This leads to his condemnation and first mocking and flagellation (see above).  Jesus' courageous response to the High Priest is followed immediately by Peter denying Jesus before bystanders.

Borg and Crossan point out that Mark was written to a Christian community that had suffered "lethal persecution in the Jewish homeland during the great rebellion of 66-74 CE."  They suggest there were three messages intended for the church in the telling of these events.  "First, those who imitated Jesus rather than Peter are applauded for their courage.  Second, even those who imitated Peter rather than Jesus are consoled with the hope of repentance and forgiveness. . . Third, neither denials nor even betrayals are the worst sin against Jesus or God.  The worst sin is despair -- loss of faith that repentance will always, always obtain forgiveness."  (Borg and Crossan p. 135)

Boring suggests that theologically Peter’s failure points to hope because the failed disciple is entrusted with the Christian message.  (Boring, p. 481)  

O’Day, commenting on the test in the Gospel of John, points out that the narrator connects Peter’s detail with his act of violence at the arrest of Jesus.  In the Gospel of John the final accusation against Peter is made by a relative of Malchus, the servant whose ear was cut by Peter.  (O’Day, pp. 805, 808-809)


Ancient interpreters differed in the severity of their judgment of Peter.  Chrysostom tended to focus on Jesus’ grace while Jerome focused on Peter’s guilt.  Contemporary interpreters tend to agree with Chrysostom in seeing the hope of forgiveness where there is repentance.  As Boring points out, Peter is the apostle entrusted with the Christian message.  This was good news to Christian communities challenged by persecution.

Good Friday:  Pilate Washes His Hands

The Text:  Matthew 27:24

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some  water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’  (Matthew 27:24)

There are parallels to the sentencing of Jesus by Pilate in Mark 15:15; Luke 23:24-25 and John 18:38-19:1.  However, only the writer of Matthew reports Pilate washing his hands.

The Image  

The image of Pilate washing his hands (of responsibility for the death of Jesus) appears on only two High Crosses:  Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice (County Louth) and the Durrow Cross (County Offaly).  There is a possible third occurrence on the Tall Cross, also at Monasterboice.

The image here is found on Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice.  In this scene, Pilate is seated on the left with his hands outstretched.  On the right a servant holds a ladle and appears to pour water on Pilate’s hands.  In the background and above are three solders with shields and swords. 

Ancient Interpretation

1)  Chrysostom, Homily 84:  (John 18:37-19:15)  Pilate Washes His Hands

The interpretation here is of the condemnation of Jesus in the Gospel of John.  Because of this there is no mention of Pilate washing his hands.  The focus is first on the motivation of Pilate’s actions and second on the consequence to those who cried for Jesus’ crucifixion, namely that they brought condemnation on themselves.

“But, Oh, what shamelessness and ill-timed caution!  Pilate, thinking that he would be risking his future, if he should take no notice of these words, went forth as if to try the case, but without making any investigation of the charge at all, he handed Christ over to them, in the hope that this would disconcert them.  In proof that this was his motive in doing so, listen to what he said:  ‘Behold your king!’  And when they cried:  ‘Crucify him,’ he again added:  ‘Shall I crucify your king?’  But they shouted:  ‘We have no king but Caesar.’”  (Chrysostom, p. 422)  The implication is that Pilate was acting out of fear for his political future and openly attempting to pass all blame to the Jewish authorities.

“They were deliberately laying themselves open to punishment.  Therefore, God also gave them up, because they themselves first cast themselves off from His providence and protection.”   (Chrysostom, p. 422)  Chrysostom’s interpretation of this event underlines that the early church placed the full blame for the crucifixion of Jesus on the Jewish authorities, expanded to include all the Jews except those who came to believe in Jesus as the Christ.

2)  Jerome, Matthew 27:24, Pilate Washes His Hands

Jerome, like Chrysostom sees Pilate as shifting the entire blame for the crucifixion onto the Jewish authorities.  He sees Pilate’s action as exposing the treachery of the Jewish authorities.  He also links this event, found only in Matthew, with a passage from Psalm 26:6 that he takes to be a prophetic statement.  Thus Pilate and the gentile world are absolved of any guilt.“Pilate took water in accordance with the following prophecy:  ‘I will wash my hands among the innocent.”  (Ps 26:6)  Thus, in the washing of his hands, the works of the Gentiles are cleansed, and in some manner he estranges us from the impiety of the Jews who shouted:  ‘Crucify him.’  For he contested this and said:  I certainly wanted to set the innocent man free, but because a sedition is arising and the crime of treason against Caesar is being attached to me: ‘ I am innocent of the blood of this man.’  The judge who is compelled to bring a verdict against the Lord does not condemn the one offered, but exposes those who offered him; he pronounces that he who is to be crucified is just.  ‘See to it yourselves,’ he says; I am a minister of the laws; it is your voice that is shedding his blood.”  p. 313

Current Interpretation

It is unlikely that this event actually took place.  It almost certainly has its origin with the writer of Matthew.  He was looking back to the Jewish War of 66-74 mentioned above (Peter's Denial of Jesus).  Tension between Jews and Christians was high.  Jewish Christians in Judea and elsewhere were being excluded from the Synagogue.  This meant their worship was not sanctioned by Rome and was thus illegal.  But the end result of the Jewish War was the defeat of the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the year 70.  Christians of the time saw this as punishment for the Jewish condemnation of Jesus.

It is important to note that this passage has been taken across the centuries as a sign of the guilt of all Jewish people of all time.  It is said they condemn themselves by denying and condemning Jesus.  But instead, we must read this text in the context of the times outlined above.  The Christian movement was in the process of breaking with Judaism and was seeking a legal status within the empire that would end persecution from that corner.

Eugene Boring writes about the spiritual dynamics of the situation as follows:  ".. . one should see this scene as the confrontation of two kingdoms . . . the options of royal power exerted through violence and the authority and power of God present in meekness . . . "  (Boring p. 487)  Matthew tells us that the people, or their leaders, choose violence over the God's kingdom.

Sherman Johnson, author of the Gospel of Matthew in The Interpreter's Bible, addresses the general human condition when he writes, ". . . Jesus' condemnation is in fact a dramatic manifestation of the general sin of mankind.  Human beings continually acquiesce in slaying the innocent in order to protect their own privileges, or to maintain what they think is the right social order, or because the forthrightness of prophets offends their self-righteousness."  (Johnson, p. 599) 

Pilate washing his hands of the affair is inconceivable.  To have shirked his responsibility as representative of the Empire would have been a sign of weakness.  Even if he felt cornered by the Jewish authorities, he would not want them to believe they had bested him.  (Johnson, p. 598)


This event and the second mocking offer an occasion for ancient commentators to focus on Pilate’s shifting of all blame to the Jewish authorities.  Once again this event is seen as a fulfillment of prophesy.  Some contemporary interpreters point to the situation in the church in the 70’s, the church to which the Gospel of Matthew was written.  This was a church experiencing tension with the Jews and seeking an identity of its own.

Good Friday:  The Second Mocking of Jesus

The Text:  Matthew 27:27-31

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

There are parallels to this text in Mark 15:16-20 and John 19:1-3.  In Luke 23:26 it is simply stated that Jesus was led away.

This image appears on the cross at Arboe (County Tyrone), the South Cross at Castledermot (County Kildare), the Donaghmore Cross (County Tyrone), the Drumcliff Cross (County Sligo), and Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice (County Louth).  It may also appear on the Market Cross at Kells (County Meath) and Larger Cross-head at Ardane (County Tipperary).

The Image  

The image described here is from the Cross of Muiredach at Monasterboice (County Louth)   At first glance the images of the Second Mocking appear to be essentially the same as those of the First Mocking and the Arrest of Jesus.  Peter Harbison's description of the scene as it appears on Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice (right) points to the differences.

"Christ stands in the centre wearing a long garment with pelleted hem at the ankles, over which he wears a cloak with folds at the shoulder and with spiral ornament in relief on the sides.  It is fastened by a brooch.  From beneath the cloak Christ's right hand emerges, holding up a vertical staff or reed.  His raised left forearm is held by a soldier on the right who is clad, seemingly in short 'gadrooned' breeches rather than a tunic, and bearing a panel bands on the chest, often considered to be attached by a brooch with lozenge -- or kite-shaped head.  In his left hand this mustached soldier holds a sword, with the point at Christ's navel.  A similarly-clad soldier on the left holds a grooved sword over his right shoulder as his left hand pulls at the side of Christ's cloak.  Often taken to be THE ARREST OF CHRIST -- which never shows Christ holding a reed -- this panel is better interpreted as Christ, carrying the reed which he had been given, and being mocked by the soldiers who are about to divest him of the purple or scarlet robe which they had placed upon him, as they hail him as 'King of the Jews'."  (Harbison 1992, pp. 143-144)

Ancient Interpretation

1)  Chrysostom, Homily 84:  Second Flagellation

Chrysostom suggests that Pilate was attempting to appease the Jewish authorities and had Jesus flogged and mocked in an effort to satisfy them, short of condemning Jesus to death.  ’Pilate had Him scourged,’ perhaps in the desire to exhaust and appease the Jew’s wrath.  For, since he had been unable to set Him free by his previous efforts, he was striving to halt the dreadful deed at least at this point.  Thus, he now had Him scourged and permitted the rest to be done.’  (Chrysostom, pp. 418-419)  “Because Pilate had called Him ‘the king of the Jews’ they then even put on Him a caricature [of kingship] to ridicule Him.  Next, bringing Him out, he said:  ‘I find no guilt in him.’  (Chrysostom, p. 419)

2)  Jerome, Matthew 27:27-31  The Second Flagellation

Jerome focuses on the mocking and allegorizes the various elements of the costume that was placed on Jesus.  Addressing the garb with which Jesus was clothed by the soldiers, “We should understand all these things mystically.”  . . . “In the scarlet cloak Jesus carries the blood-stained works of the Gentiles; in the crown of thorns he dissolves the ancient curse;(Gen 3:18) with the reed he kills poisonous beasts; or he held the reed in his hand in order to write down the sacrilege of the Jews.”  (Jerome, p. 314)  He also writes that these clothes “he had taken on account of our sins.”  (Jerome, p. 314)

Current Interpretation

The society of which Jesus was a part can be described sociologically as an "Honor-Shame Society."  The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the acclamation of the people testifies to the high honor status Jesus had achieved.  His status far exceeded what would have been expected for a village carpenter.

In order to deal with Jesus' popularity, the authorities had to destroy his honor status.  This process can be described as a "Status Degradation Ritual."  In the scenes above, beginning with Jesus betrayal and arrest, he is subjected to one degradation after another.  Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh describe this sociological perspective on the events of Thursday and Friday of Holy week in their book Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.  Here is how they describe the process:  "The status degradation ritual is a process of publicly recasting, relabeling, humiliating, and thus re-categorizing a person as a social deviant.  Such rituals express the moral indignation of the denouncers and often mock or denounce a person's former identity in such a way as to destroy it totally.  Usually it is accompanied by a revisionist account of the person's past which indicates that he has been a deviant all along.  A variety of social settings -- trials, hearings, political rallies -- can be the occasion for this destruction of a person's public identity and credibility."  (Malina and Rohrbaugh, p. 159) 

In the case of Jesus, this process begins with his arrest.  It continues with his hearing before the Jewish authorities.  His first mocking and flagellation complete the first phase of his degradation.  This is followed by his trial before Pilate and the charges made against him.  In an ironic twist of affairs, the crowd comes to demand the release, not of Jesus, but of a criminal named Barabbas.  The irony is that the name Barabbas means "Son of the Father."  According to the Gospels Jesus is in fact the Son of God (the Father).  

The degradation of Jesus then continues with his second mocking and crucifixion.  All of his supporters have fallen away and the crowd has turned against him.  The final degradation is crucifixion itself.  It was so shameful that in most cases even the family never mentioned the person again.  The victim had lost all status and become a nobody.

Boring suggests that this scene can be placed in contrast with the homage paid to Jesus by the Magi (Mt. 2:1-12).  “In contrast to the universal practice of kingship in this world, the true king receives violence rather than inflicting it.”  (Boring p. 488)

Perkins points out that this event fulfills Jesus’ prediction in Mark 10:33-34 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him, and in three days he will rise again.:”  He points out that this also reflects Isa. 50:6, “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” (Perkins p. 719)


While Chrysostom focused his attention here on Pilate’s intention to appease the Jews and place the blame on them, Jerome takes an allegorical approach to the garments placed on Jesus by the mocking soldiers.  Some contemporary interpreters see the entire process described by the eight events reported on the High Crosses as part of a status degradation ritual, an attempt to make Jesus an object of scorn.  Others point to this event as a fulfillment of Jesus’ own prediction of his suffering at the hands of the gentiles and of Isaiah 50:6.  Theologically the true king is abused rather than honored.

Good Friday:  Soldiers Cast Lots for Jesus Clothes

The Text:  John 19:23-25a

23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 24 So they said to one another, "Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it." This was to fulfill what the scripture says, "They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots." 25 And that is what the soldiers did.

There are parallels to this text in Matthew 27:35-36; Mark 15:21-24 and Luke 23:34b.

The Image  

According to Harbison, this image appears only on the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois (County Offaly), the Durrow Cross (County Offaly) and possibly on the Tall Cross at Monasterboice (County Louth).

The image to the right is found on the Scripture Cross at Clonmacnois (County Offaly).  There are three figures, the central figure faces forward and the two flanking figures are in simi-profile.  The two side figures hold spears on their shoulders, marking them and probably all three as soldiers.   The soldier in the centre is dressed in a long robe to allow the shape of Jesus’ garment to appear before him.  He holds a knife, apparently ready to cut the garment into pieces.  The figure in the center holds one arm of the garment and the soldier to the left holds the other.  The scene illustrates the version of this event as reported in the Gospel of John.  This is the only gospel that includes the seamless garment.  The halos above the heads of the soldiers can be taken to be the crests of their helmets.

Ancient Interpretation

1)  Chrysostom:  Homily 85 (John 19:16-20:9)  Soldiers Cast Lots for Jesus Clothes

This homily is based on the telling of this story by the writer of the Gospel of John.  John alone of the Gospels mentions a seamless garment.  In the homily, this seamless garment becomes an allegory for the human and divine natures that are both present in Jesus, seamlessly joined.  Chrysostom also notes that this passage reflects a fulfillment of a prophecy in Psalm 22:18,  “they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” 

Chrysostom wrote:  “Now, the soldiers divided His garments among themselves, but not His tunic.  Notice how they frequently caused prophecies to be fulfilled by their wicked deeds.  I say this for this detail had been foretold of old.  Furthermore, even though there were three crucified, the prophecy was fulfilled only with reference to Christ. . . . Kindly notice, too, the exactness of the prophecy.  The Prophet declared not only that they divided the garments among themselves, but also that they did not divide them.  Thus, the soldiers divided some of Christ’s garments into parts, but they did not divide the tunic; on the contrary, they settled its possession by lot.”  (Chrysostom, pp. 430-31)

Chrysostom then slips into allegory.  He wrote:  “Moreover, the words ‘woven from the top’ do not occur undesignedly, but we say that an allegory is being pointed out by this means:  namely, “that the crucified One was not man merely, but also possessed His Godhead from above.”  (Chrysostom, p. 431)  

Chrysostom then provides what he considered to be cultural background.  “Some, however, say that the Evangelist was thus telling the kind of tunic this was.  Since in Palestine they join two strips and then weave their garments in one piece, John said: ‘woven from the top’ to indicate that it was this kind of short tunic.  Besides, it seems to me that he said it to imply the ordinary quality of Christ’s garments, and that, as in all other respects, so also in the matter of clothing, He sought the plain and simple type.”  (Chrysostom, p. 431)  Thus, in addition to describing the way tunics were made in Palestine, Chrysostom once again emphasizes the humility of Jesus, he wears the clothing of the common man.

2)  Jerome:  Commentary on Matthew (27:35), Dividing His Garments

Jerome notes in passing that this event fulfilled the prophecy found in Ps. 22:18.  This was consistent with the way in which the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, and indeed the writers of Mark and Luke, handled this episode.  As noted above, none of the Synoptic Gospels make mention of a seamless garment.

Current Interpretation

The casting of lots for Jesus' clothing, or the division of his garments among the soldiers, is probably a historical fact.  The clothing was the spolia, and belonged to the executioners of the prisoner.  It is possible that this was actually done before the journey to the cross.  The prisoner was typically led naked to the site of crucifixion.  (Grant, p. 903)  The inclusion of this brief statement in the gospel serves a deeper purpose than the recitation of history.  It is one of several references in the story of the crucifixion to Psalm 22.  "As part of the Jewish Bible, Psalm 22 is a prayer for deliverance.  The prayer describes a person experiencing immense suffering with intense hostility. . . Though he has trusted in God from birth, now in his extremity he is scorned, despised, and mocked.  He feels abandoned by everybody, friends and God.  (Borg and Crossan, p. 158)

O’Day points out that, as with the donkey reference in Matthew, the writer of the Gospel of John has misunderstood the “synonymous parallelism” in the Psalm.  The Psalmist describes the same action twice.  The writer of the Gospel of John understands it as two different actions, one with reference to most of Jesus’ clothing, the other with reference to the seamless tunic.  (O’Day p. 831)


Both the Early Church Fathers and current progressive commentators agree that this scene in the gospels was intended by the gospel writers to underline one more time their belief that the events of the Passion demonstrate that Jesus is the one who fulfills the prophesy of the Hebrew scriptures regarding the coming messiah.  The variations in the narrative from one gospel to another do not alter this fundamental point of agreement.  


What was the meaning of these events for those who planned their inclusion on some of the High Crosses?  What was the theological message as interpreted by some of the Early Church Fathers?  To what extent does this message correspond to that of current progressive biblical interpretation?

The eight events of Holy Week recorded on the High Crosses lift up the transition during Holy Week from Jesus the popular teacher and miracle worker to Jesus the arrested and condemned criminal.  The sequence of events illustrates the Status Degradation Ritual process described above.  However, from another point of view these same events became, for the writers of the gospels a proclamation that from the beginning to the end of Holy Week, Jesus was in control of events.  With the Entry into Jerusalem and the Casting of Lots for Jesus’ Garments as bookends, there are three phases of the degradation, each of which has two sub-themes.

Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem has been interpreted as a proclamation of Jesus as messiah.  In addition, both ancient and current interpreters point out that from the perspective of the gospel writers this fulfilled a prophesy from the book of Zechariah and defined the messiah as the humble king.  As noted above, this event stands alone and marks the beginning of Holy Week.  From an allegorical point of view it was also interpreted as an admonition to followers of Jesus to walk in the way of Jesus and his apostles and a reminder of the church’s proclamation that Jesus unbinds the believer from sin and offers salvation.  Thus, the Entry into Jerusalem was symbolic of the essence of the Christian message.

The events related to the arrest of Jesus, including the Kiss of Judas and the Cutting of the Servant’s Ear form a dyad related to the arrest.  While one theme is the betrayal of Jesus by one of his disciples, the larger focus of interpretation is on Jesus willingly giving himself up to be arrested.  A third point, related to the cutting of the servant’s ear underlines the non-violent, non-retaliatory and indeed healing focus of Jesus’ ministry.  Allegorically, the incident of the healing of the ear has been interpreted as Jesus’ offer of salvation to the Jews who came to believe in him as messiah.

The second phase of degradation takes place in relationship to Jesus’ hearing before the Jewish authorities.  This hearing and the first mocking is typically sandwiched between two phases of the Denial of Peter.  While the treachery of the Jewish authorities is central to the hearing, another theme is, once again, the fulfillment of prophesy.  As noted above, the mocking is seen as a fulfillment of prophesies in both Lamentations and Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant.  The Denial of Peter is also seen as the fulfillment of prophesy, this time a prophesy made by Jesus himself.  This underlines his role as a prophet while also offering some hope to the members of the churches to which the gospels were written.  These churches were subject to persecution and the temptation to claim, “I do not know him” in response to potential persecution.  The good news of forgiveness and redemption is that Peter, who denied Jesus three times, was still entrusted with leadership in carrying the message of Jesus.

The third phase of degradation takes place in Jesus’ hearing before Pilate.  The interrogation focuses on the early church’s placement of the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion on the Jews rather than the Romans.  However, as noted above related to phase two, this event is seen as a fulfillment of prophesy and a reflection of the tension between the early Christians, who were still part of the synagogue, and the Jews who rejected Jesus as messiah and persecuted the followers of Jesus.  The mocking was seen in part as Pilate’s attempt to appease the Jewish leaders and release Jesus, who he repeatedly proclaimed innocent.  Ironically the proclamations of Pilate and the mocking of the soldiers come full circle to the Entry into Jerusalem by proclaiming the condemned one “King of the Jews.”

The casting of Lots for Jesus’ clothing belongs with the scene of the crucifixion and reflects both a reality of the crucifixion process and a proclamation of Jesus human/divine status.  The clothing of the condemned was the spoila of the executors.  In the Gospel of John, with its mention of the seamless garment, there is an allegorical statement that Jesus the messiah seamlessly brought together the human and the divine.

Taken as a whole, these events lift up both the suffering of Jesus and his exalted status.  However, it must be remembered that none of the High Crosses included all of these events.  The scenes most frequently depicted are the Second Mocking, found on seven crosses; and the First Mocking, found on six.  In both cases, the interpretative focus of the first mocking is on the treachery of the Jews and that of the second mocking is on Pilate’s desire to shift all blame to the Jews.  Theologically, the first mocking centers on the fulfillment of prophesy while the second mocking becomes, as noted above, an ironic proclamation of Jesus’ status as king or messiah.

The Tall Cross at Monasterboice depicts six of the eight events of Holy Week.  It does not depict the Entry into Jerusalem, focusing instead on the events of Holy Friday  (According to Jewish reckoning the new day began at sundown.  Thus the arrest of Jesus took place on Friday rather than Thursday).  The only other scene not depicted is the Second Mocking.

Why were these images chosen for inclusion on some of the High Crosses?  It should be noted that on all but two of the crosses that bear at least one of the images described above there is a crucifixion scene on the head of the cross on one face.  The three exceptions are the Broken cross at Kells, the cross-shaft at Old Kilcullen and the Ardane cross-head.  In the case of the Kells Broken cross and the cross-shaft at Old Kilcullen it is reasonable to hypothesize that there was a crucifixion scene on each of them.  That means only the large cross-head at Ardane does not have a crucifixion image.  Thus, theologically, the Holy Week images are typically in service of the meaning of the crucifixion.  They affirm the identity of Jesus as Messiah, his willingness to suffer death and the expectation of his resurrection and eternal reign.  That message has a significant continuity from Origen in the third century, Jerome in the fourth and fifth centuries, and Chrysostom in the fourth and fifth centuries to contemporary progressive biblical exegesis.

References cited:

Borg, Marcus J. and Crossan, John Dominic, The Last Week:  What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem, HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.

Boring, Eugene M., The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. VIII, Matthew,  Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1995.

Chrysostom, Saint John, Commentary on Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, Homilies 48-88, Trans. Sister Thomas Aquinas Goggin, S.C.H., Fathers of the Church, Inc., New York, 1960

Culpepper, R. Alan, The New Interpreter’s Bible,  vol. IX, Luke, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1995.

Erdmann, Martin,  “Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church”

Grant, Frederick C., The Interpreter's Bible, vol. VII, Mark, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1951.

Harbison, Peter; "The High Crosses of Ireland:  An Iconographical and Photographic Survey", Dr. Rudolf Habelt GMBH, Bonn, 1992.  Volume 1:  Text, Volume 2:  Photographic Survey; Volume 3:  Illustrations of Comparative Iconography.

Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1989.

Jerome, Saint: Commentary on Matthew, Scheck, Thomas, P. translator, The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 2008

Johnson, Sherman E., The Interpreter's Bible, vol. VII, Matthew, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1951.

Malina, Bruce J. and Rohrbaugh, Richard L., Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1992.

O’Day, Gail R., The New Interpreter’s Bible,  vol. IX, John, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1995.

Origen, Saint: Homilies on Luke; Fragments on Luke, Leinhard, Joseph T. Translator, Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1996.

Perkins, Pheme, The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. VIII, Mark,  Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1995. 

Roe, Helen M, The High Crosses of Kells, Meath Archaeological and Historical Society, 1988.

Smith, Earl Baldwin:  Early Christian Iconography and a School of Ivory Carvers in Provence, Princeton University Press, London, 1918, p. 130

Tarazi, Paul Nadim, “The Antiochian School of Biblical Exegesis”, The Word 30 (1986) 7-9,

 Barney McLaughlin 2012