This week my Tuesday night Bible class, The Jewish Context of the Bible, was on the Romans. You can find the audio online at the website of Prestoncrest Church of Christ and also on my Audio Lessons page (along with the handout).
In the lesson we talked about Roman history and how the evolution of the Roman Triumphal Procession became a powerful symbol for the believers in Rome who Mark was writing1. I’d like to go a bit deeper into one particular aspect of the Markan crucifixion narrative now with a short study on a brutal game that Roman soldiers played, likely with Jesus as their target.
In the Roman Army the soldiers would be stationed all over the known world, many times very far away from home. It was often a boring job as the day to day routine played itself out. While Judea was a volotile province it was still probably a pretty boring job being a legionnaire from day to day and so the soldiers played games to pass the time. On the floor of the Antonia fortress in Jerusalem (today a convent – The Sisters of Zion – is built over the site) which is where Jesus was tried by Pilate, archeologists have found the markings of the game known as The Game of the King.
It was played with sheep’s knuckles as dice and they would roll those dice on a playing board. The soldiers would pick one of their own and make him the “king”. They would give him robe, a crown, a scepter, and they would pay homage to him. During the course of the day the soldiers would gamble for all of his possessions – clothes, wife, home back in Rome, etc, culminating in gambling for who got to kill him. These Roman soldiers would pick some poor hapless new recruit and they’d make a game out of killing him. A terrible initiation ritual, but it shows you the brutality of the Roman legions. Most of them weren’t nice people.
Somewhere along the way, perhaps Caesar Augustus in his sweeping reforms, outlawed the playing of the game because it was hurting morale and he was losing good troops, so the soldiers then moved to using condemned prisoners. Now enter the condemned prisoner, the rabbi Jesus. He was made to look like a king by being given a robe, a crown, and a scepter. He was then mocked, beaten, spit upon, while they pretended to pay homage to him. Eventually all of his belongings were gambled on as they “cast lots” which was done with sheep’s knuckle dice and they killed him.
It strikes me as amazing that the reason the soldiers were all called together was to play this game with the condemned Jesus, but it served God’s eternal plan in ways they couldn’t have comprehended. First, it fulfilled prophecy. He was beaten and hurt for our sins (Isaiah 53) and they gambled for his clothes (Psalm 22:18). Second, it brought them together and caused them to do all the things in the right order as to start the triumphal procession like we talked about in class. It blows my mind that God would have things set up so perfectly that this game the soldiers played allowed for Mark to write to those Christians in Rome and fully compare – line by line, detail by detail – Jesus’ walk to the cross like the Caesar’s in Rome.
I think in a certain way, we still play The Game of the King today. Many times we give God all the right attention but our words of praise are a hollow mockery based on the way we live our lives.
“Why are you so polite with me, always saying ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘That’s right, sir,’ but never doing a thing I tell you? These words I speak to you are not mere additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundation words, words to build a life on.” (Luke 6:46-47, The Message)
Today there are many people who call out to God through declaring Jesus the Messiah and ruler of their life, but knowingly and willingly fail to obey. Of course, as believers in Jesus we are covered by the Grace of God and we cannot do anything to earn salvation – but that’s only part of the picture. God desires people who will do his will and merely acknowledging Jesus with your lips is no real belief, as Jesus said himself:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21, NIV)
Jesus declares that his true followers are the ones who put his words into practice. Don’t let your crying out to God be a mockery like The Game of the King, but instead I speak these words of Paul:
“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (Ephesians 4:1)
Peace to you,
1. For those who didn’t get the info, the comparison of the Mark crucifixion narrative to a Roman triumphal procession that we talked about in class was from an article by T.E. Schmidt in the January 1995 edition of New Testament Studies, Vol. 41 Iss. 1. I found a copy of it at the library of Dallas Theological Seminary and it cost me $1.80 to copy it at their copy machines. You can find it online at Cambridge Journals Online for $15, though I enjoyed actually going to the library because I found a couple other useful articles by a favorite author of mine, Dr. Brad H. Young (who is also in the Jan 1995 issue of NTS).