The Number is Probably 39
Many websites do not mention the exact number of lashes that Jesus was inflicted with. Some believe the precise number is unknown. However, as per most sources, Jesus was scourged 39 times. St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:24 speaks of getting “forty lashes less one”. Back in those days, it was a standard practice to whip a person 39 times. It is said that the Roman law was against giving someone more substantial punishment(s) than s/he was sentenced to.
Hence, the person usually received less lash than the sentenced to make up for any possible miscounted number of lashes being received. However, there are other varying theories behind Christ being lashed 39 times. We shall find out here.
What does the Mosaic Law say?
Introduced by Moses, The Mosaic Law itself means 39 lashes, or forty lashes less one. It refers to flogging, and the term was actually meant to be biblical. As per the Old Testament, 40 lashes were considered enough for killing a man. Thus, 39 was the most number of lashes that a man could get without announcing the death penalty. Christ received the same number of lashes from Pilate. Thus, flogging a person more than that was considered un-Christian.
However, in reality, 39 lashes were easily enough to kill a person and more than enough for causing someone to pass out. Quite often, the crew or a captain would be meting out lesser lashes, depending on that particular infraction. The law was generally deemed only for the most severe or heinous crimes which did not hold a death sentence.
The Bible Says Nothing about 40 Lashes!
You will be amused to know that there is no Biblical Law that refers to 40 lashes as the death penalty. Actually, it was an old Roman tradition/law which regarded forty lashes as a death sentence. During the Roman period, it was considered that for appropriately administering a punishment, a flogger should kill a person with forty lashes. In case he failed to kill him after lashing him forty times, the flogger would have to die then. This warped, twisted logic was used for ensuring the flogger not holding back to mete out the punishment.
Romans used the same bizarre reason for determining 39 lashes should not be enough for killing someone. So, the highest form of a penalty without the death sentence would be 39 lashes. Some also state that maybe the flogger was scared of the death penalty if Christ survived his fortieth lash. As per the historians studying flogging in-depth, it was firmly believed that 39 lashes were started for bringing an average person closest to death but not kill him. See
The Roman Law
Romans used a flagellum whip for their lashing punishment. The punishment was known as verberatio, and the whip was similar to the cat-o’-nine-tails of Britain. It had shards and ball-bearing, which used to hit the skin with the ball at first. It would make the skin swell up instantly with the shard/barb following it and shredded the skin. There were numerous occasions where the whipping made the skin hang and arteries exposed. The design of this punishment was insanely degrading and cruel. See What is the difference between grace and mercy in Christianity?)
The Romans and their Inhuman Punishments
In Roman times, the punishment of flogging/scourging was carried out using a “cat of nine tails”. Each of its tail had a piece of bone or metal embedded towards the end of it. At times, the beating would disembowel the prisoners. The intention was to push someone to the edge of death without actually killing him. However, the excruciating pain would obviously prove fatal in many cases as there were no definitive numbers of lashes. The notion of 40-1 was implemented as someone couldn’t survive over 40 lashes. Sometimes, they used it as an outright practice of killing someone.
The Romans did not even come into existence at the time when the Mosaic Law came into being. Crucifixion was yet another way of torturing and brutally punishing the so-called offenders in the Roman world. These punishments were so cruel that it was not legal to sentence any Roman citizen to either of these punishment modes. It was a society with gladiators, people who fought to the death for sport in the Coliseum. Later, the same society turned into hungry monsters loose on Christians within the Coliseum. The cold-hearted and cruel soldiers turned flogging into a sport. The main aim was of damaging someone to an extreme level without killing him.
Punishing Jesus Christ
Christ was handed over to the Roman discipline by the Jews. Hence, Mosaic Law was not administered in his case. Sadly, he was subjected to a combination of two different punishments. To the best of our knowledge, no man was sentenced to verberatio as well as crucifixion. Pilate did the flogging just for appeasing the Jews who planned on killing Christ. He did not think Christ was guilty of any crime. So, he got him flogged to attempt at appeasing the Jews and then release Christ. He just got enough to be badly wounded but not die.
Killing him was clearly not the purpose of Pilate. We must keep in mind that he never thought that Christ deserved any punishment. After striking Jesus Christ with the lash, the soldier dragged it in a whipping move over Christ’s body. As the lash whipped across his body, Christ’s skin was shredded by the piece of bone or metal attached to it. As 40 was considered enough to kill someone, 39 lashes were the legal limit. Since a “cat of nine tails” was used, Christ was actually whipped 351 times, as it was 39 times nine! However, after scourging Christ, Pilate realized the Jews were infuriated. So, for avoiding a riot, he reluctantly agreed on also crucifying Christ. He went on to say that this unwarranted blood of Christ would be on the Jews’ own heads.