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The Via Dolorosa

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Matthew 27:27–32; Mark 15:16–21; Luke 23:26–32

The sad portrait of Jesus we see as He is led to the place of crucifixion calls not for our pity but for our amazement, our adoration, and our gratitude for the one who suffered all this willingly for us.


We begin in this Wisdom Journey to follow the footsteps of Jesus down the Via Dolorosa—the way of suffering, the path from Pilate’s palace to Calvary. Calvary is the Latin term for skull. This place is also called Golgotha, the Aramaic word for skull. This was the place of death by crucifixion.

The events here are both horrifying and healing. This is where we are shown that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). 

The Roman governor Pilate failed to release Jesus as he knew he should. He caved in to the Jewish leaders who threatened to report him to Caesar as a traitor and turned Jesus over for crucifixion.

Pilate had hoped to appease the Lord’s accusers by having Him scourged rather than killed. Scourging was standard preparation for crucifixion. During the days of Christ, this horrific beating was commonly referred to as the “half-way death.” Most of its victims slipped into a state of shock, and some died before they ever reached the cross. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, wrote about a man who was scourged until his bones were laid open.[1]

Now I do not intend to be graphic for the sake of sensationalism, but I do not want to sanitize this scene either. I want us to see this practice for what it was.

Before scourging, the victim would be stripped of his clothing. He was then bound to a stone post with his hands tied above him. Professional torturers who administered the beating were known as “lictors”—which is where we get our expression, “take a licking.” Typically, there were two of them alternating their blows. Their weapon was a flagellum, a whiplike instrument with a short, wooden handle and long leather straps. The straps were braided in varying lengths, and stones and pieces of sheep bones, or even metal, were sewn, at intervals, into the braided leather.

Several years ago, a detailed report on the medical aspects of the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It describes the scourging as follows:

As the Roman soldiers repeatedly struck the victim’s back with full force, the iron balls, or stones, would cause deep contusions and the leather thongs and sheep bones would cut into the skin and underlying tissues. Then, as the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh. Pain and blood loss generally set the stage for circulatory shock. The extent of blood loss may well have determined how long the victim would survive on the cross.[2]

The average victim would endure the incredible pain of this flogging and then be crucified, but Jesus endured even more suffering from these Roman soldiers who were, no doubt, demonically inspired to insult and mock this supposed “King of the Jews.”

Matthew describes what they do next:

They . . . put a scarlet robe on him [the color of royalty], and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. (Matthew 27:28-30)

That would have driven these six- to twelve-inch thorns into His head. And, beloved, there is no mention of Jesus pulling that crown of thorns off or letting the royal robe slip from His bleeding shoulders. He stands quietly, as a lamb—the Lamb—silent before His slaughterers, now an unrecognizable mass of swollen, bruised, and bleeding flesh.

Verse 31 says, “And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.” It was the custom of this day for the condemned man to be taken, procession-style, down this path of suffering. The victim was paraded through the streets of the city not only to display him to the crowds and announce his crime, but also to make the statement that you did not mess with the Roman Empire—and in Jesus’ case, it showed that you did not upset the Jewish traditions.

John writes, “So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross” (John 19:16-17). Now let me pull over and correct the mental picture most people probably have here. Jesus was actually carrying His crossbeam. A Roman cross designed for crucifixion weighed around three hundred pounds. The victims did not drag a three-hundred-pound cross half a mile and then up a hill—especially victims suffering incredible blood loss from flogging.

We know from both Jewish and Roman historians that the vertical piece of the cross was already installed in the ground. It was called the stipe; it was permanently anchored at the site of execution. By the way, we know from history that thousands of people were crucified during Jesus’ lifetime—this was Rome’s favorite form of execution. Crucifixion was originally designed by the Persians but was perfected by the Romans for maximum suffering and a slow death.

Jesus is carrying the crossbeam, the horizontal bar called the patibulum. When the victim arrived at the crucifixion site, the patibulum would be placed on the ground, and the condemned man would lie down on the ground on his back. His hands would be nailed to that crossbeam, and the soldiers would then lift him up on his feet and raise his arms and the crossbeam up and onto the upright beam, attaching it by means of what is known as a mortice and tenon joint. That is, the crossbeam had a hole in the center of it so that it slipped down onto the vertical beam.

There is another mental picture that needs correcting here, beloved. This was not a tall, t-shaped cross some ten feet tall. The cross looked more like a capital T, and it stood only about six feet high. This allowed people to curse the victim to his face, spit at him, and mock him. Many victims would be attacked and eaten by wild animals if they hung on their cross through the night.

Typically, the image people have is of Jesus dragging a ten-foot cross down cobbled streets until He falls down. Well, He is carrying the crossbeam, not the whole cross, and there is not one verse that says Jesus stumbled or fell. But from His beating and the extended blood loss, it is evident that Jesus will be unable to continue carrying His crossbeam, which itself would have weighed around a hundred pounds.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record what happens next. Mark writes this:

They compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. (Mark 15:21)

Cyrene is in northern Africa, and there was a large Jewish population there. Simon more than likely had traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The fact that he is identified here as the father of Alexander and Rufus indicates that his two sons were known to the early church. In fact, Rufus is quite possibly the believer Paul mentions in Romans 16:13. It is also very possible that this encounter would lead Simon of Cyrene to faith in Christ, as he walked up this hill, carrying a blood-soaked crossbeam, and then listened as the Lamb of God cried out, “It is finished.”

Luke 23:27 adds that as Jesus makes His way along this path of suffering, women are weeping for Him. Jesus responds in verse 28, saying, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” He then refers to the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jewish nation, which has lasted, beloved, to this very day.

[1] Josephus, Jewish War, VI.5.3.

[2] William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association 255 (April 1986), 11:1457.

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