While Luke’s account of the Death of Jesus follows the basic Synoptic tradition (cf. the previous note), there are significant differences, as well as signs of development in the tradition, which must be examined. To begin with, there is a substantial difference in the overall tone of the episode, in terms of Jesus’ Passion. In the earlier Gethsemane scene, we previously noted that, if one regards 22:43-44 as secondary to the original text (a view that is probably correct), then Luke has eliminated the sense of Jesus’ distress and anguish which is otherwise found in the Synoptic version of the Prayer scene (compare Lk 22:39-46 [om. 43-44] with Mark 14:32-42 par). In a similar fashion, Luke seems to have removed (or at least downplays) the suffering of Jesus in the crucifixion episode. Consider that there is no reference to Jesus’ being whipped/scourged (to be inferred only from v. 22). Jesus’ great cry to God (Mk 15:34f par, citing Psalm 22:1), with its sense of anguish and despair, is also omitted. Throughout the episode Jesus appears to be calm and in control, offering instruction, exhortation and comfort to others, even as he hangs from the cross (cf. below). Luke retains the loud cry of Jesus at the moment of death, but without the parallel to the first cry of anguish, it comes across as more of a forceful command or declaration, all the more considering the words which Luke records.
In terms of the structure of the narrative, the Gospel writer has expanded the core episode with additional material, and, as a result, it is comprised of three distinct parts:
- The Way to the Cross—vv. 26-31
- Jesus on the Cross—vv. 32-43, which can also be divided into three portions:
a. The scene of the crucifixion (vv. 32-34)
b. The mocking of the Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers (vv. 35-38)
c. The dialogue of the two criminals with Jesus (vv. 39-43)
- The Death of Jesus—vv. 44-49
Each of these scenes has been modified in some way, compared with the Synoptic version in Mark/Matthew.
1. The Way to the Cross (Lk 23:26-31)
In the main Synoptic version, this is limited to the (historical) traditions surrounding Simon the Cyrenian who carries Jesus’ cross-piece to the place of execution (Mk 15:21), and the reference to the name of the location (“Golgotha, (the) Skull”, Mk 15:22). Luke includes both details, with little modification (vv. 26, 33), but adds a separate tradition involving the crowd of onlookers as Jesus proceeds on the way to the Cross (vv. 27-31). Among the crowd are specified certain women who were “cutting/beating [i.e. their breasts] and wailing”—apparently according to the manner of professional mourners. Their actions prompt a response by Jesus:
“Daughters of Yerushalaim, you must not weep upon [i.e. for] me—(all the) more upon yourselves you should weep, and upon your offspring” (v. 28)
Their apparent concern over his fate is directed away, back to their own situation as “daughters of Jerusalem”. This expression, derived from Old Testament tradition (2 Kings 19:21; Isa 4:4; 10:32; 37:22; 52:2; Lam 2:10, 13, 15; Mic 4:8; Zeph 3:14; Zech 9:9, also Song of Songs 1:5; 2:7, etc), is a poetic figure for the city, the land (and its people) as a whole. In other words, the women represent the city of Jerusalem and the land of Judea. This is clear from the prophecy which follows in verses 29-30, echoing the eschatological suffering and distress announced by Jesus in Mark 13 par (esp. verses 14-20). For women and children, such suffering will be particularly acute; indeed, frequently the suffering of women and children (especially women in labor) is used to symbolize the experience of a people’s collective suffering. One of the most difficult aspects of New Testament interpretation is the question of whether the terrible events predicted by Jesus in Mark 13 (par Luke 21) should be understood in terms of the Jewish war (66-70 A.D.), distant future events, or both. Luke specifically sets Jesus’ prediction of suffering (corr. to Mk 13:14-20) in the context of the siege of Jerusalem (21:20ff). A similar siege description is part of Jesus’ prophecy-lament for Jerusalem in 19:41-44. If the Gospel of Luke is to be dated c. 70 A.D., as believed by many commentators, then it is likely that these 1st century events are foremost in the Gospel writer’s mind.
The precise meaning of the illustration in verse 31 is not entirely clear. Most likely the sense would be—if people do these things when conditions are not so bad (as they will be soon in the future), how will they act during the dry/severe time of tribulation that is to come?
2. Jesus on the Cross (Lk 23:32-43)
Several distinct Lukan features and details in this scene should be discussed.
The saying of Jesus in v. 34—Among the details of the crucifixion scene in Luke is a saying by Jesus, presumably just after he has been put upon the cross:
o( de )Ihsou=$ e&legen: pa/ter, a&fe$ au)toi=$, ou) gar oi&dasin ti/ poiou=sin.
“And Jesus said, ‘Father, release [i.e. forgive] them, for they know not what they are doing.'”
This verse is absent in a wide range of manuscripts and versions (Ë75, ac, B, D*, W, Q, 0124, 579, 1241, and some Syriac and Coptic translations), including the early Bodmer papyrus (Ë75). At the same time, it is found in the majority text, including both family 1 & 13 MSS, and the entire later Koine text tradition, along with key early manuscripts (a*, C, Dc, L, G, D, 0117) and many early translations. Thus the manuscript evidence is fairly evenly divided, perhaps with a slight edge to the shorter reading. Even if secondary, the verse may well represent an authentic saying by Jesus that was inserted in this location by early scribes; certainly it is accord with the teaching and example of Jesus expressed elsewhere in the Gospels. I disagree with scholars who claim that it is easier to explain the omission of this saying than its insertion. Orthodox scribes, on the whole, appear to have been reluctant to delete Christologically significant sayings or details, and were more likely to add or preserve them.
The context of the narrative indicates that this prayer by Jesus—whether original or secondary to the Gospel—refers to the Jewish leaders who were primarily responsible for arranging his death. On this motif of ignorance, cf. Acts 3:17; 13:27; 17:30). Note also the similar prayer by Stephen in Acts 7:60b.
The Mocking of Jesus (vv. 36-38)—In Mark 15:29-32, first the people passing by generally (vv. 29-30), and then the Chief Priests and Scribes specifically (vv. 31-32), mock Jesus, taunting him to “come down” from the cross if he is the miracle-working “Anointed One, King of Israel”. As I discussed in the previous note, this parallels the Sanhedrin interrogation scene closely (cf. Mk 14:57-61ff par). Luke would seem to have modified this considerably. First, while people do pass by, it is only the religious leaders (“the chief [ruler]s”) who mock Jesus this way (v. 35). Second, they are joined in the taunts by Roman soldiers (vv. 36-37), a detail unique to Luke’s account. Both modifications would appear to be intentional and with a distinct narrative (and theological) purpose. This is confirmed by the fact that there is a similar modification in the earlier Roman “trial” scene. In Mark/Matthew, a crowd of the (Jewish) people demands Jesus’ death, while in Luke, it is only the group of Jewish leaders presenting the case to Pilate who are involved. The entire Roman trial scene in Luke has been composed in relation to Psalm 2:1-2 (cf. Acts 4:25-28). The Jewish and Roman leaders—i.e. Herod and Pilate, the Chief Priests etc and Roman soldiers—are the ones arranging and carrying out Jesus’ death. While they represent the people, it is not the people (as a whole) who are directly responsible.
Luke thus has a different sort of parallelism in this scene, which comes out especially when we examine the taunts directed at Jesus by the Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers, respectively:
These two titles “Anointed One” (Messiah) and “King of the Jews” were combined together in Mk 15:31 par, as they also are in the charge against Jesus presented to Pilate in Luke 23:2. They reflect the Messianic figure-type of the coming (end-time) ruler from the line of David (cf. Parts 6-8 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). It is the latter title (“King of the Jews”), with its more obvious political implications, which features in the Trial and Crucifixion scenes, as emphasized in the inscription on the cross (v. 38 par).
The title “Chosen One” (e)klekto/$, lit. “[one] gathered out”) is a different sort of Messianic title, being drawn primarily from Isaiah 42:1ff. The substantive adjective, along with the related verb (e)kle/gomai), only rarely occurs in the New Testament as a title or description of Jesus. Most often it is used as a title for believers. However, there is an important occurrence of the title in Luke 9:35, uttered by the heavenly voice at the Transfiguration scene: “This is my Son, the One (I have) gathered out [i.e. my Chosen One]” (cp. Mark 9:7 par). The same substantive adjective form used here in v. 35 is also uttered by John the Baptist (in relation to the Baptism of Jesus) in Jn 1:34 v.l.
The Dialogue with the Two Criminals (vv. 39-43)—In the Synoptic tradition, both of the criminals being crucified on either side of Jesus join in the taunts (Mk 15:32b). In Luke’s version, however, only one of the criminals acts this way, his words being recorded in v. 39. The other criminal rebukes him, and offers a declaration (confession) of Jesus’ innocence: “…this man has performed [i.e. done] nothing out of place” (v. 41). The entire dialogue is unique to Luke’s version, and concludes with the famous and moving exchange between the “good thief” and Jesus:
On the textual issue in verse 42, cf. the critical discussion in a prior article.
This is a good example of the way that a simple historical tradition (Mk 15:27, 32b) is expanded and developed.
3. The Death of Jesus (Lk 23:44-49)
In this portion, Luke follows the Synoptic tradition in Mark/Matthew more closely, but with a number of small (yet significant) differences:
- Jesus’ “cry of dereliction” (citing Psalm 22:1) is omitted
- The darkness over the land is described in terms of an eclipse(?) of the sun (v. 45a)
- The splitting of the Temple curtain takes place prior to Jesus’ death (v. 45b)
- The final cry of Jesus before death is accompanied by the words: “Father, into your hands I set along my spirit” (v. 46)
- The climactic declaration by the centurion is entirely different (v. 47, cf. below)
- The action of the onlookers in v. 48 parallels that of the women following Jesus in v. 27 (cf. above); note also the reference to women followers of Jesus in v. 49 (cp. 8:2-3).
On the omission of the Synoptic cry of distress, cf. the discussion above. Instead of the quotation from Psalm 22:1, there is a different Scriptural quotation by Jesus in the cry prior to his death—from Psalm 31:5. It is possible that v. 45a is a creative reworking, in some fashion, of the tradition in Mk 15:34 par; note the points of similarity:
- Elwi…egkate/lipe/$ me
“Eloi [My God]…(why have) you left me down (behind)?
- tou\ h(li/ou e)klipo/nto$
tou ¢liou eklipontos
“at the sun’s being left out…”
- Elwi…egkate/lipe/$ me
If wordplay of this sort was intended, later scribes, unable to understand it, would have found the expression strange and been inclined to modify it to something like “and the sun was darkened“, which we see in a number of manuscripts. It is possible that, in terms of the natural phenomenon involved, Luke is referring to the occurrence of a solar eclipse.
Luke’s location of the Temple curtain event is curious, setting it prior to Jesus’ death. He may simply wish to connect it directly with the darkness over the land; as I discussed in the previous note, both events are symbols of God’s Judgment upon the land (and its people). The reordering also has the effect of setting Jesus’ cry to the Father in a more climactic position.
Most difficult of all is the confession of the centurion, which has a form in Luke so very different from that of Mark/Matthew:
- “Truly this man was (the) Son of God” (Mk)
- “This man really was just/righteous [di/kaio$]” (Lk)
The different in formula—and also emphasis—is striking indeed, so much so that is necessary to address the issue briefly in a separate note.