Just north of ancient Troy there is a narrow strip of water (the Hellespont) which separates Europe from Asia. In 480 B.C. the Persian king Xerxes (the same Xerxes in the book of Esther) marched his huge army across this strait on an ingenious floating bridge. In a famous battle at Thermopylae, near Athens, he soundly defeated the Greek forces. As the battle turned against the Greeks, a group of soldiers deserted to the Persian side. They thus saved their lives, but they were forced to have Xerxes’ mark branded on their bodies. This sign of disgrace, regarded throughout antiquity as a mark of dishonor, was called a stigma (STIG ma).
The stigma marked a man as belonging to the very lowest, most despicable level of society. Robbers of temples, for instance, had their guilt inscribed with a stigma on their forehead and hands. Prisoners of war were likewise humiliated. Slaves who were untrustworthy and likely to run away were branded with the stigma of their master. The slave with a stigma became the butt of ancient jokes and was universally regarded as “good for nothing.”
Caligula, the insane emperor of Rome, went so far as to take private citizens, brand his royal stigma on their foreheads and force them to work on public construction projects. (This was about 40 A.D.)
Scarcely a decade later, we find the apostle Paul telling the Galatians, “I bear on my body the marks (stigmata) of Jesus” (Gal 6:17). How could Paul say such a thing? Why did he regard the scars of beatings and stoning as the stigma of Jesus? Did he want to picture himself as no better than a slave? Did he mean to imply that he was not his own man, but was owned by another? Did he intend us to understand that he had been drafted by the King to serve on some royal project? Could he even have seen himself as “good for nothing”? Could he have borne the humiliation and public disgrace of being branded as a fool for Jesus?