One cannot doubt historically that Jesus was crucified by the Romans; Christians would hardly have invented the execution, and certainly not Roman execution, and never Roman execution on the charge of high treason (the claim to be king of the Jews)! Worshiping one crucified for treason would have painted all Christians as seditious and hence directly invited repression from the Roman authorities.
Pilate often went to great lengths to quell even public complaints; his violent suppression of a crowd once led to many deaths (Jos. War 2.176-77; Ant. 18.60-62). Although slaves (as in Suet. Domitian 10) and dangerous criminals (Suet. Julius 4) were regularly crucified, crucifixions of free persons in Palestine usually involved the charge of rebellion against Rome (Harvey 1982:12; for example, Jos. War 2.75, 241, 253, 306; 3.321; 5.449; Ant. 20.102).
Genuinely following Jesus to the cross means we follow a road that may quite well cost us our lives physically (16:24); it also means sacrificing our own honor for Christ's along the way. Ridicule was often the social backdrop of public executions, especially naked crucifixion, which constituted the ultimate form of shame. Those of us who value our dignity too much to live with unjust criticisms and the world's hatred must seek a different messiah to follow.
Soldiers often taunted captives, and here they mock Jesus' kingship (27:27-31), not for a moment considering the possibility that he really is a king. That Jesus submits to such abuse teaches us that power does not function in the kingdom the way it does in the world. In the next paragraph Jesus bears public humiliation in front of and from the crowds he had come to save (vv. 32-40). The soldiers draft a bystander to suffer with Jesus (v. 32); this man performs the role disciples should have been performing (16:24). As Jesus participated with us in our suffering under injustice in the world, he summons us to endure the unjust treatment visited on us for his name's sake. Also, here Jesus refuses a beverage that could have dulled his agony; he came to embrace our pain and would accept nothing less than the full impact of his bloody death (27:34). When we are so convinced of God's will that we forsake the world's power and wealth to perform his mission, we show ourselves disciples of the One who redeemed us at the cost of his own life.
The crowds invite Jesus to prove his divine sonship by escaping the death of the cross (vv. 39-40); thereby they act as Satan's final mouthpieces to turn Jesus from his divine mission (4:3-10; 16:21-23). In the final section of this unit, the religious authorities (at the top of the Jewish social order) and the dying robbers (at the bottom) join the crowds in functioning as Satan's mouthpieces. Neither outward piety nor being oppressed necessarily guarantees a heart obedient to God.
The scarlet robe (v. 28) is undoubtedly a faded red soldier's cloak, the staff or scepter probably a bamboo cane used for military floggings, and the crown of thorns probably woven from the branches of an available shrub like acanthus (Blinzler 1959:227). The long thorns may have turned outward to imitate contemporary crowns rather than inward to draw blood (Blinzler 1959:244-45). After the mockery the soldiers turn to abusing Jesus physically (though the blows are also insulting; see 5:39; Dupont 1992:126-27).
Normally a condemned prisoner carried his own patibulum, or transverse beam of the cross, to the site of the execution, where soldiers would fix it to an upright stake (palus, stipes, staticulum) that they regularly reused for executions (R. Brown 1994:913). It was unlikely that the soldiers would simply show mercy. Jesus was probably too weak to carry the cross (perhaps exhausted in part from Gethsemane--26:38); his executioners preferred to have him alive on the cross than dead on the way. In such circumstances, the soldiers would naturally draft a bystander rather than carry the beam themselves (see comment on 5:41). Whether Simon was from an ethnically African family converted to Judaism or one of the many Jewish families settled in Cyrene is unclear.
It is difficult to communicate adequately the torture Jesus, like others who were crucified, endured. Although some features remained common, executioners could perform crucifixions in a variety of ways, limited only by the extent of their sadistic creativity (Hengel 1977:25). Executioners usually tied victims to the cross, but in some cases hastened their death by also nailing their wrists (see Artem. 2.56; m. Sabbat 6.10). Yet in a symbolic sense a song by musician Michael Card puts it well: had the soldiers not nailed Jesus to the cross, his love for us would have held him there.
Romans crucified their victims naked (Artem. 2.61; R. Brown 1994:870), and public nakedness could cause shame (as in Juv. Sat. 1.71; Plut. Roman Questions 40, Mor. 274A), especially for Palestinian Jews (for example, Jub. 3:21-22, 30-31; 7:8-10, 20; 1QS 7.12). Anyone so executed could not brush flies away from wounds, nor control bodily functions while hanging naked for hours and sometimes days (Klausner 1979:350).
The specific mention of divided clothing (27:35) may well recall Psalm 22:18 but can hardly be a mere accommodation to it without historical substance. Roman law allowed execution squads to seize the few possessions a condemned might have on his person (Justinian Digest 48.20.6; Sherwin-White 1978:46). The charge posted above Jesus' head reveals the irony of the situation: Jesus is executed for being king of Israel (v. 37). Romans crucified many self-proclaimed kings and their followers under the Lex Iulia de maiestate (Jos. Ant. 17.285, 295; R. Brown 1994:968), and both Jesus' royal triumphal entry and his temple "cleansing" marked him as a troublemaker. On other known occasions a member of the execution squad would carry in front of or beside the condemned a small tablet (tabula) declaring the charge (titulus), the cause of execution (causa poenae), which he might later post on the cross (Cullmann 1956b:42-43; R. Brown 1994:963).
Amid the derisive comments one might expect at an execution of a misled pietist, the mockers from the Sanhedrin (Mt 27:41-43) unwittingly cite Psalm 22:8 (Matthew presumably conforms the wording of their mockery to that text)--showing themselves enemies of God's anointed servant, hence of God himself. Their language probably also echoes Wisdom 2:18 in the Septuagint: "For if the righteous man is a son of God, God will help him, and deliver him from the hand of those who resist him." In the Wisdom of Solomon, those words are uttered by the wicked who want to condemn a righteous person to death unjustly because he claims to be a child of God and to have a good future (Wisdom 2:16-20). Meanwhile, they echo the devil's earlier temptation of Jesus (Mt 4:3, 6). In other words, by their own words Jesus' enemies are condemned (12:37; compare Lk 19:22). The King of Judeans refuses to respond (5:39; compare Is 53:7).
Again irony saturates the narrative: they are right that he cannot save himself if he would save others (Mt 27:42). That they offer to believe if he will come down, just as Satan offered him the kingdom if he would bow down, tests Jesus: he can have people's allegiance if he will just forsake the Father's way of getting it (26:39, 42). God's mission for us will not always be pleasant, but the more pleasant alternatives actually forfeit our right to fulfill that mission. (For example, ministers who win great numbers only by sidestepping the demands of the kingdom have won statistics but not transformed hearts, and have failed a very costly test that Jesus here resists.)