Hebrew law, according to Deuteronomy 25:1-3, allowed for flogging as a punishment for a crime. However, the number of lashes allowed in a flogging were to be no more than forty. “If more than that is given, your fellow Israelite would be completely disgraced in your eyes” (Deuteronomy 25:3, Common English Bible). Because forty was the limit, in practice Jewish authorities always stopped at thirty-nine, just in case there was a miscount somewhere along the way. Better to err on the side of mercy than accidentally break God’s law, I suppose.
The gospels proclaim that Jesus, immediately before his crucifixion, was flogged not by the Jewish authorities, but by the Romans. Somewhere along the way, a tradition arose that Jesus thus received thirty-nine lashes. But this actually is probably wrong — I find it rather unlikely that the Romans gave two hoots (or thirty-nine, for that matter) what Jewish law said. If Jesus really was flogged by Roman soldiers, it was likely in keeping with their laws, not those of the Jews. Nonetheless, the tradition is there, and it informed Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. There is a song in that opera entitled “Trial Before Pilate (Including the 39 Lashes).” During that song, there are several minutes in which the only vocals are Pilate counting from one to thirty-nine, as a whip is cracked. Historically accurate or not, it’s a gruesome, powerful track to listen to. (At least, it felt gruesome before Mel Gibson got his hands on the Passion story. Sheesh. What a bloodbath.)
When I was a child, I found the entirety of Jesus Christ Superstar to be incredibly powerful, from start to finish. When I was born, my parents were active young-adult churchgoers in the 1970s, which meant they owned the record of Superstar, as well as its kinder, gentler sister Godspell. I listened to both of those records before I could read. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I taught myself to read so I could follow along on the liner notes as I listened. I was so absorbed by both of them. As I sponged up the details of my parents’ faith (quickly becoming my own), these two rock musicals became the soundtrack of my early childhood.
My interest in them faded as I grew a little older. But around tenth grade, I experienced a deepening of my faith, and I rediscovered them. In fact, I did something really odd that year when Holy Week came around. I wanted to experience the week in a special way. So here’s what I did. The week before Holy Week, I looked through the track listings of both Superstar and Godspell, and divided them into songs for each day of Holy Week. (This was easier for Superstar, since the whole thing takes place during the final week before Christ’s death.) I listened to music constantly in those days, but for that week, I would only allow myself to listen to particular songs from the two musicals, no other music at all. When Thursday came, at church we did the traditional “Stripping of the Altar” at the end of Maundy Thursday worship. (This is a tradition in which all paraments, linens, books, decorations, candles, etc. etc. etc., are removed from the altar and chancel area, and the worship space becomes bare and empty. It stays this way for Good Friday, and then everything comes back in glorious gold/white on Easter morning.) Anyway, the altar was stripped at church, and then I came home and “stripped” my bedroom. The way I did this — I covered up just about all my furniture with sheets. And then on Good Friday at noon (we didn’t have school on Good Friday in those days), I opened all the windows in my room. Easter was in March that year, so it was not exactly warm. I let the 50-degree air in, and kept the room cold like this for the whole weekend. It was like a tomb in there. Just white sheets and cold air and Andrew Lloyd Webber. At some point on Good Friday, I listened to the 39 Lashes.
Weird? Yes, absolutely. But I’ll tell you, there was something so meaningful, so powerful, so visceral on Sunday morning. I woke up, and turned on the final track from Godspell. (Superstar ends with the burial of Jesus, but Godspell, while not exactly showing the resurrection, does end with a song of joy and hope.) I danced around my bedroom while pulling all the sheets off of everything. It felt like Easter in a way I’ve never experienced since.