The Death of Jesus
The sixth and final episode of the Passion Narrative is the death (crucifixion) of Jesus. There is a core historical tradition which all four Gospels have inherited, including the following details:
- The reference to the Aramaic name of the location of the crucifixion—gûlgalt¹° (Greek Golgoqa, Golgotha), “(Place of the) Skull”
- Two others were crucified along with Jesus, one on either side
- The inscription placed upon the cross, reading variously:
“The King of the Jews” (Mk 15:26)
“This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38)
“This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (Matt 27:37)
“Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews” (Jn 19:19)
- The soldiers casting lots and dividing Jesus’ clothes
- Jesus given sour wine to drink while on the cross
Mark 15:21-41; Matthew 27:32-56
The Synoptic version of this episode, as represented by Mark’s account, is divided simply into two halves:
- Narrative introduction—the man (Simon) standing nearby (v. 21)
—He follows Jesus, carrying the cross (cf. Mk 8:34 par)
- The Crucifixion and Mocking of Jesus (vv. 22-32)
- The Suffering and Death of Jesus (vv. 33-39)
- Conclusion—the women (Mary and the others) standing nearby (vv. 40-41)
—They are followers of Jesus (cp. Lk 8:2-3)
The symmetry of this account is quite apparent, the two scenes being framed by narrative descriptions involving the theme of discipleship (following and suffering with Jesus). The historical notice regarding the passerby Simon (v. 21) has all the marks of authenticity, and yet would appear to be contradicted by Jn 19:17 where Jesus carries his own cross to the place of execution. Let us examine each of the principal scenes, considering the differences in Matthew’s version, which otherwise follows Mark closely (as it does throughout the Passion Narrative).
1. The Crucifixion and Mocking of Jesus (Mk 15:22-32 par)
Time: 3rd to 6th hour
If we look at the events and traditional details as they are presented, it is possible again to divide them into two parts:
The main detail in vv. 22-25 is the description of people (i.e. soldiers) dividing Jesus’ garments and casting lots for them (v. 24). While not specified by Mark, this is doubtless included as an indication of the fulfillment of prophecy (Psalm 22:18), a point made specific in Jn 19:24. The central element of the scene is the reference to the inscription on the cross (v. 26); Mark states it as follows:
“And the writing of the cause (for death) written upon (the sign above) was
‘The King of the Jews'”
As noted above, each of the Gospels records this same tradition, but the exact wording of the inscription differs in each case. Matthew specifically mentions that the inscription was over Jesus’ head on the cross, which may be parallel with his emphatic version of the inscription—”This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (27:37). The official charge against Jesus, and the cause for his execution, involves the title (“King of the Jews”) featured in the earlier interrogation scene with Pilate (v. 2). It is a title more meaningful, in political terms, than the corresponding “Anointed One” (Messiah) used by the High Priest in the Sanhedrin scene (14:61), though in Jewish thought they both refer to the same fundamental Messianic idea (cf. Parts 6–8 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). This is confirmed in the mocking of Jesus which follows, paralleling the Sanhedrin interrogation scene:
2. The Suffering and Death of Jesus (Mk 15:33-39 par)
Time: 6th to 9th hour
Before proceeding to the main points in the second scene, it is worth considering the symmetry of this episode:
- Darkness over the whole land (v. 33)
- Jesus cries out with a great voice (v. 34)
- Mocking: “See, he calls (for) Elijah” (v. 35)
- Mocking: “Let us see if Elijah comes…” (v. 36)
- Jesus releases a great voice [i.e. cry] (v. 37)
- Jesus cries out with a great voice (v. 34)
- The curtain of the Temple is torn, from top to bottom (v. 38)
- Darkness over the whole land (v. 33)
With this structure in mind, I will briefly examine each element of the scene.
a. The Darkness (v. 33)—”darkness came to be upon the whole land” (Matthew: “all the land”). This is an essential image of God’s judgment against the earth—against this particular land and its people. Cf. Exodus 10:21-23 and the motif common in the Prophets—Jer 33:19-21; Amos 8:9-10; Zeph 1:15; Joel 2:2, 10, 31, etc. Often the reference is to the eschatological “Day of YHWH”, a day of judgment/darkness, which can be expressed in terms of the day becoming like night (cf. Deut 28:29, etc). In the extra-canonical Gospel of Peter 15, this motif is more explicit in the description of the crucifixion scene—i.e. darkness held Judea at mid-day.
b. Jesus’ loud cry (vv. 34, 37)—The first loud cry (lit. “great voice”) by Jesus is accompanied by a quotation from Psalm 22:1 . Here the historical tradition in the Gospel has preserved the Aramaic (or Aramaic-Hebrew mix) of Jesus’ quotation. It is given a reasonably literal translation in Greek: “My God, my God, unto what [i.e. for what purpose, why] have you left me down (behind) [i.e. forsaken me]?” Many attempts have been made to interpret Jesus’ words, often reading in theological and Christological aspects which are essentially foreign to the Gospel tradition here. The natural explanation is that Jesus, in his suffering, pain and distress, is identifying with the sentiment and feeling expressed by the Psalmist. Indeed, the entire Crucifixion scene alludes to Psalm 22—not only the cry echoing verse 1, but also the mocking taunts of the onlookers (vv. 7-8), the dividing of the garments (v. 18), and the overall crucifixion setting (v. 16).
The words of the cry, with the sentiment expressed, is similar to Jesus’ prayer in the earlier Gethsemane scene (Mk 14:34-36ff par). The second loud cry at the moment of his death echoes this first cry, as he breathes out his last breath. It is a simple and powerful evocation of a human being experiencing the moment of death in the midst of extreme pain and suffering. It is hard to imagine a more direct testimony to Jesus’ own identification with the human condition (cf. Hebrews 5:5-8ff).
c. The association with Elijah (vv. 35-36)—In the context of the narrative, the historical tradition involves wordplay between the underlying Aramaic °E~l¹hî (“My God”) and °E~lîy¹hû (“Elijah”). Critical scholars have found certain historical and linguistic difficulties with this, but there can be no doubt that the Gospel tradition draws upon it for the important Messianic association with Elijah that is reflected throughout the early tradition. It is related to the identity both of John the Baptist and Jesus. The principal Scriptural reference underlying the Messianic tradition is Malachi 4:5 [3:23], a passage which establishes the connection between Elijah and the coming Judgment. The mocking by the crowd, parallel to that in the prior scene (cf. above), could indicate that Jesus was recognized by some as a Messianic Prophet in the manner of Elijah. The figure of Elijah was especially associated with the working of miracles, including the raising of the dead, and the crowd’s taunt calls on Jesus to work a miracles and to “come down” from the cross. For more on Elijah, cf. Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.
d. The Temple curtain (v. 37)—The rending of the Temple curtain (katape/tasma), like the darkness, symbolizes the Judgment by God—only from a religious standpoint, as it involves the sacred Place (the Temple) in Jerusalem. Probably this refers to the curtain at the entrance to the innermost shrine (“Holy of Holies”), cf. Hebrews 6:19; 9:3; 10:20. The motif of Judgment would seem to be confirmed by the structural parallel with the darkness (cf. the outline above)—darkness over the whole land, the curtain torn from top to bottom. The passive form of the verb (e)sxi/sqe, “was split”) should be understood as a divine passive, with God as the implied actor. For Old Testament and Jewish parallels, cf. the departure of YHWH’s glory from the Temple in Ezekiel 10, also the imagery e.g., in 2 Baruch 6:7; 8:2, and Testament of Levi 10:3. Possibly there is here an allusion to the act of tearing one’s clothes in mourning (2 Kings 2:12); such an act is associated with the destruction of the Temple in the Talmud (b. Mo’ed Qatan 25b).
The letter to the Hebrews allows for a different sort of interpretation to the motif. Through his sacrificial death, Jesus (as High Priest) gives believers access, in a symbolic/spiritual sense, into the innermost shrine of God, effectively ‘splitting’ or removing the curtain (Heb 6:19-20; 9:3ff; 10:19-20). This makes for a beautiful application of the tearing of the curtain in the Passion narrative, but there is no real indication that such was in the mind of the Gospel writers. A more likely allusion, in the context of the Gospel narrative, is to the splitting of the heavens (using the same verb sxi/zw) at the Baptism of Jesus (Mk 1:10 par), when the Spirit (of God) comes unto/into/upon Jesus at the Baptism. In a similar manner, the Temple curtain is split at the time of Jesus’ death, when his own spirit (i.e. life breath) goes out of him (15:37b).
e. The Centurion’s words (v. 39)—The declaration by the centurion (“Truly this man was [the] Son of God”) is the climactic moment of the entire Passion Narrative. It is parallel to the question by the High Priest (14:61 par), and must be understood here in the context of the Judgment on the land (cf. above). A certain kind of irony is contained in this verse—a Gentile Roman confesses what the Jewish religious leaders are unwilling (or unable) to accept. Indeed, the centurion’s confession stands in stark contrast to the mocking taunts of the Jewish people and leaders at the scene (vv. 29-32). Occasionally commentators have tried to determine, at the historical level, what such a confession might have meant for such a Gentile Roman—that is, in what sense he might have understood the expression “Son of God”. While this is interesting speculation, it is generally irrelevant to the purpose of his confession in the context of the Gospel narrative. For the writer and his readers, as well as for all Christians today, the declaration is understood as a confession of belief in Christ’s true identity as Messiah and Son of God.
For several of the references given above, and for a detailed critical analysis of this episode in the Passion Narrative, cf. R. E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1994), pp. 1031-1198.