Normally the victim would be led naked to the place of crucifixion. The fact that Jesus' clothes were not taken from him until the point of crucifixion may suggest that he was allowed to retain some form of covering while on the cross itself (Brown 1994:2:953), perhaps out of deference to Jewish objections to nudity. Since, however, the normal undergarment was either a tunic or a loincloth, and Jesus' tunic was taken from him (v. 23; Brown 1970:902), it is perhaps more likely he was naked. Early Christian tradition is divided on the subject (cf. Brown 1994:2:953).
It is this undergarment (chiton, the garment worn next to the skin) that is of most interest to John. It is seamless, and therefore to prevent its being torn the soldiers decide to draw lots for it (v. 24). The fact that it is seamless probably does not indicate that it was unusual or an item of luxury (Brown 1970:903). John's focus on this feature has led many to find symbolism in this garment (cf. Brown 1994:2:955-58). The two main proposals for John's detail have been that it is a symbol either of Jesus as high priest, since the high priest's chiton was seamless, according to Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 3.161), or of the unity of the church (for example, Cyprian On the Unity of the Church 7), that is, the community as brought together by the death of Christ (Barrett 1978:550, 552).
Such thoughts are true and edifying, but they are not John's primary focus. The significance of the garment's being seamless is that the soldiers are led to draw of lots for it, which in turn echoes Psalm 22:18 (v. 24). This is the first of four Old Testament passages cited as being fulfilled in Jesus' Passion, all of which refer to particular details of what takes place (vv. 28, 36-37). John marshals these texts around this most central, and most scandalous, event in order to show that the death of God's Son was in fact the will of God the Father. Behind the idea of fulfillment is the notion of God's sovereign control, which weaves repeating patterns: Scripture expresses God's will, and Jesus is submissive to God's will, so his activity fulfills the Scripture because it flows from the same source and is controlled by the same Father.
Psalm 22 is a psalm of King David in his role as a righteous sufferer. The title above Jesus' head is proclaiming him to be king of the Jews, and John sees Jesus as replicating a pattern of the greatest king in Israel's past. Thus, this reference is not a gratuitous proof text, but a link with a type. Fulfillment of Scripture, in this sense, is the replication of a pattern, and Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment, the center of all the patterns. The Synoptics also allude to this connection regarding the garments (Mt 27:35 par. Mk 15:24 par. Lk 23:34) as well as the connection through Jesus' cry from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" (Mt 27:46 par. Mk 15:34), which is Psalm 22:1. The figure of the righteous king who suffers is embodied in Jesus par excellence. If the opponents understood King David better they might have recognized King Jesus.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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