After witnessing the crucifixion of Christ and the phenomena accompanying it the witnesses are said to have smote their breasts and went away.

KJV Luke 23 : 48

And all the people that came together to that sight, beholding the things which were done, smote their breasts, and returned.

It's not clear what their action signified here whether it was triumph/victory or shame

In one other incident where a similar incident took place is in the parable of the Pharisee and publican in Luke 18.In this particular incident it signified shame.

KJV Luke 18 : 13

And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.

Usually to smote one's breast either signified triumph/victory or shame

What did it signify here?

2 Answers 2


The habit of "beating one's breast" is a Jewish or oriental custom to display a range of deep, heartfelt emotions, usually deep fear, foreboding, etc. Note the comments of Barnes -

Smote their breasts - In token of alarm, fear, and anguish. They saw the judgments of God; they saw the guilt of the rulers; and they feared the farther displeasure of the Almighty.

Gill is similar:

smote their breasts; as conscious of guilt, and as fearing some dreadful judgment would fall upon them, and their nation, for this sin of crucifying Christ. The Persic version reads, "they went back, and kneeled down, and prostrated themselves to the ground"; as being in the utmost astonishment, confusion, fear, and dread:

Thus, the action of smiting the breast was an outward display of deep inner sense of dread, astonishment, etc. Some modern Jews still do this.


The idea of striking one's breast as a sign of triumph, might come from films, like "King Kong", or from documentaries about gorillas and apes. Those animals might do that as a sign of triumph, or victory, but that has nothing to do with the biblical use of humans doing that.

The text in question has the context of a supernatural darkness lasting three hours until mid-afternoon, then Jesus on the cross entrusting his spirit to his Father, and dying. At that point, the Roman officer who was overseeing the execution glorified God and said, 'Surely this was a righteous man." Then we read of the crowds who witnessed this returning home, smiting their breasts.

The NLT renders this as going "home in deep sorrow" with a footnote adding, "literally, went home beating their breasts. Beating the breast was a sign of sorrow and mourning."

The NIV footnote adds, "beat their breasts". A sign of anguish, grief, or contrition. Compare 18:13" which is the very verse you also mention in your comments.

All this seems to make it very clear that those who witnessed the crucifixion and death of Jesus were in anguish, distress, deeply affected in a negative way, as shown by them beating their breasts.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.