We have all heard it said that Jesus received 39 stripes. I sometimes say it too but there is actually no biblical reference that specifically records this. When we say that Jesus received 39 stripes, we do so only by inference.
In 2 Corinthians 11:24
the Apostle Paul says, "Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one."
Of course, mathematically, that amounts to 39 but why not just say that rather than "forty lashes less one"?
When Paul mentioned forty less one, he was alluding to the Jewish law that limits the maximum lashes imposed as a penalty to forty stripes only. This is commanded in Deuteronomy 25:1-3
- "If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty, then if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense. Forty stripes may be given him, but not more, lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight."
The Jews were very legalistic and since there is a commandment that 40 was the maximum that any man could receive, they were always very careful not to exceed this punishment. The sentencing judge or a witness would count the strikes as they fell; and in case someone made a mistake they stopped at 39 so as to never risk breaking the Lord's commandment. This is why Paul said "forty lashes less one" or thirty-nine and we often infer this number to the lashes that Jesus received.
In Paul's case, we know he was scourged at least five times by his own admission. Historians agree that Paul was most likely lashed by the Jews themselves and not Roman soldiers. For Paul, it would most certainly have been 39 lashes.
For Jesus however, we know he was not scourged by Jews but by Roman soldiers (Matthew 26:27, Mark 15:15). At this time historically, the Roman flagellum or scourge would have been used. According to records, the Roman scourge has three leather ropes attached to a wood handle. Each length of rope would measure about three feet and on each length there would be a number of bone pieces attached at intervals of every three inches. The bone was reputedly cut from lamb pelvis. Shaped as cubes, they had a hole drilled through it for the leather lash to run through. The pieces of bone were secured in position with knots and they would chip and crack as someone was whipped. This gave them sharp edges and they would cut deeply. Skin would definitely be broken and flesh torn out. In place of bone, metal may also be used.
History also records that metal hooks were sometimes added to the ends of each leather lash. These hooks were designed to dig into and gouge-out flesh. This kind of scourge was called the "scorpion". While there is no specific reference regarding the type of scourge used on Jesus, we can reasonably conclude that the Roman scourge was used since the lashings were administered by the Romans. In all likelihood, with the extent of opposition and hatred that Jesus faced, He most likely endured the scorpion.
The Roman scourge was at its time regarded as one of the most painful punishments a man could receive. Heavy bleeding would result and unless the strikes were limited, a man would die from blood loss and physical trauma. Jesus would have been disfigured when He received His stripes. The spot where He was beaten would have been slick with His blood. By the time He carried the cross, His body would have been so badly cut that even bone would have been exposed through His minced flesh.
Some church historians postulate that Jesus received 13 strikes with the Roman scourge. Because the Roman scourge has three ropes, the count of each strike would be a triple-lash, or in other words, one strike equals three stripes. They reason that the maximum number of times that a Jew may be struck with a Roman scourge is only 13 because 13 x 3 = 39 and it could not have been more because an additional lash would mean 42, exceeding the limit of the commandment. Perhaps this would be the case if the Romans honoured Jewish laws and did observe the maximum count. However, historians have not conclude this with certainty. It could well be that Jesus received more than that. The number of stripes Jesus received would only have been limited by the Roman soldier's judgement of the maximum He could endure short of death. Unless the strikes were limited, Jesus would have died from it. However, because scourging always preceded crucifixion, they would limit the beating to keep Him alive - but just barely and only enough so as to suffer the crucifixion itself.
Frankly, I don't know whether Jesus' flogging was limited to 39 stripes but I do know that whatever the number He endured; it was more painful than anything I can ever imagine. I know that what He bore for us was more than enough to cover every one of our past, present and even future sins. He bore it all, everything, and He has redeemed us from every curse of the law (Galatians 3:13). I know that by those stripes, we are healed (1 Peter 2:24). It is complete. It is done. Accomplished... and I can never thank Him enough...