Episode 6: The Death of Jesus
With John’s version of the Crucifixion scene, we come to the conclusion of this study on the Passion Narrative. Throughout we have seen that the Gospel of John draws upon a separate line of tradition from the Synoptic, often developing it considerably, in creative ways, and in light of its distinctive theology. At the same time, both John and the Synoptics share core historical traditions which stem from the earliest period of Gospel formation. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Passion Narrative. Consider the final episode—the Crucifixion/Death of Jesus—as it is presented in the Fourth Gospel; I give an outline below:
- The Crucifixion Scene—Vv. 16b-25a
—Introduction, vv. 16b-18
—The Inscription, vv. 19-22
—The Garment of Jesus, vv. 23-25a
- Jesus on the Cross—Vv. 25b-30
—Jesus and his Mother, vv. 25b-27
—The Death of Jesus, vv. 28-30
- The Body of Jesus—Vv. 31-37
—Removal from the Cross, v. 31
—The Bones unbroken, vv. 32-33
—The Blood and water, vv. 34-35
—Fulfillment of Scripture, vv. 36-37
- The Crucifixion Scene—Vv. 16b-25a
The first two scenes are relatively close in outline to the Synoptic version, with two main differences: (a) the dialogue between Pilate and the Jewish leaders regarding the inscription on the cross (vv. 19-22), and (b) the exchange involving Jesus’ Mother (Mary) and the Beloved Disciple (vv. 25b-27). Other significant differences are worth noting. For example, in John’s account, Jesus carries his own cross to the place of execution (v. 17), whereas in the Synoptics this done by the passerby Simon the Cyrenian (Mk 15:21 par). If the Gospel writer was aware of the Simon tradition, he has omitted it, perhaps to convey the sense that Jesus is fulfilling his destiny, the work given him by the Father to accomplish, from beginning to end (see the introduction to the Passion narrative in 13:1). It may also be meant to illustrate the words of Jesus, for example in 10:15, 18—that he lays down his life willingly, by himself.
Below I examine briefly the most distinctive features and elements in John’s version.
1. Pilate and the Inscription (vv. 19-22)
The dialogue exchange between Pilate and the Jewish leaders over the inscription is unique to John’s account, and is certainly meant to echo the earlier trial/interrogation scene in 18:28-19:16a, introducing the theme of kingship and Jesus’ identity (see the earlier study [Episode 5] on this passage). Jesus effectively denied being “King of the Jews” in the ordinary ethnic/political sense; now, the Jewish leaders are saying the same thing, but from a very different point of view. For the last time in the Gospel, we see the motif of misunderstanding and double-meaning which characterizes the great Discourses.
2. The Garment of Jesus (vv. 23-25a)
Apart from making the association with Psalm 22:18 explicit, John’s version of the soldiers dividing Jesus’ garments differs from the Synoptic account in one significant detail: the reference to Jesus’ tunic (shirt/undergarment). It is described as made of a single piece (“without seam”), woven throughout from the top (to the bottom). This may seem like a small, incidental detail, but here in the Gospel it has special symbolic and theological meaning. It is hard to avoid a comparison with the Synoptic tradition of the Temple curtain, which was split from top to bottom at the death of Jesus (Mk 15:38 par). By contrast, Jesus’ tunic—the garment closest to his body—is not split this way, as the soldiers declare: “let us not split it…” (v. 24). The parallel would seem to be appropriate, for two reasons. First, both traditions involve the specific words ánœthen (“from above”, i.e. from the top) and the verb schízœ (“split, divide”). Second, in Jn 2:19ff, Jesus’ own body is identified, in a symbolic/spiritual sense, with the Temple, specifically in the context of his death (and resurrection).
3. The scene with Mary and the Beloved Disciple (vv. 25b-27)
This evocative scene is totally unique to John’s account, almost certainly deriving from (historical) traditions related to the “Beloved Disciple”. Critical commentators are naturally skeptical; if Mary were present at the cross in the original historical tradition, how/why would this have been left out by the other Gospels? Historical questions aside, we must consider what the significance of this scene was for the Gospel writer, and why it was included at this point. In my view, it represents the end, the completion of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. The only other appearance of Mary in the Fourth Gospel was in the Cana miracle episode of 2:1-11—that is, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Now she appears again, at the very end of it. This parallelism is confirmed by the way Jesus addresses his mother (“Woman…”) in both scenes. A secondary interpretation involves the role of the “Beloved Disciple”. Clearly, a kind of substitution is involved—the Beloved Disciple takes Jesus’ place as Mary’s son; in a similar way, Jesus’ own disciples (i.e. believers), represented and symbolized by “the disciple Jesus loved”, take his place on earth, continuing his work and witness. Jesus remains present with them, through the Holy Spirit, but the mission is carried on by them. For more on this, read carefully the Last Discourses (chaps. 14-17) and note the final commission in 20:21-22.
4. Jesus’ dying words (v. 30)
Here we are able to trace something of the development of the Gospel tradition in situ. Consider all four versions in sequence:
- In Mark, Jesus’ death is described this way: “And Yeshua, releasing a great voice [i.e. cry], breathed out [i.e. gave out his last breath]” (Mk 15:37)
- There is sign of development in Matthew, in the wording of the narrative: “And Yeshua, again crying (out) with a great voice, released the spirit [i.e. his breath]” (Matt 27:49b)
- In Luke, what is described in Matthew, is given form in Jesus’ own (dying) words (quoting Psalm 31:5): “And giving voice [i.e. crying] with a great voice, Yeshua said, ‘Father, into your hands I set [i.e. give] along my spirit‘. And saying this, he breathed out [i.e. breathed his last].” (Lk 23:46)
- John’s version reads as follows: “Yeshua said, ‘It has been accomplished’, and, bending his head, he gave along the spirit.” (Jn 19:30)
Notice the common motif of releasing/giving out the breath/spirit (words in italics above). In the ordinary sense of the narrative, in John the words “he gave along the spirit” simply mean that Jesus gave out his last breath, i.e. his “spirit” (pneúma) which literally is the life-breath. However, in the context of Johannine theology, there is almost certainly a double meaning here. Jesus’ sacrificial death, followed by his resurrection and return to the Father, also results in his giving the (Holy) Spirit (Pneúma) along to his disciples (believers).
The details and traditions in verses 31-37 are unique to John’s account, and it must be said that, interesting as they are as historical data regarding Jesus’ death, they carry deeper symbolic and theological significance in the Gospel. The action taken in vv. 31-32 is seen as a fulfillment of the Scripture cited in v. 36, which is best identified with Psalm 34:20. However, there can be little doubt that the reference is also to the instruction regarding the Passover lamb in Exod 12:10, 46 and Num 9:12. The chronology of the Passion narrative, and the Crucifixion specifically, in John is meant to identify Jesus with the Passover lamb—which is to be slaughtered at the time, on the very day, Jesus is on the cross (cf. Jn 18:28; 19:14, 31). His death thus coincides with the Passover sacrifice. This association had been established already at the beginning of the Gospel (1:29, 36).
The second Scripture (Zech 12:10) in verse 37 is more difficult to interpret. Its placement at the end of the episode would indicate that it is meant to summarize the crucifixion scene, both in terms of the imagery (i.e. the piercing of Jesus), and the public observation of his death. The Johannine book of Revelation (1:7, cf. my note on this verse) also cites Zech 12:10, in an eschatological context, emphasizing the coming Judgment which will take place at Jesus’ return. This does not appear to be the meaning given to the Scripture in the Gospel. Rather, the context suggests that the people (i.e. the soldiers, etc) look upon Jesus (the one they pierced) without realizing his true identity. In a way, of course, this relates to the Judgment that comes on humankind (3:18-21, etc), both now and at the end-time.
6. The Blood and Water (vv. 34-35)
Commentators continue to debate the significance and meaning of this particular detail. My own explanation is two-fold:
First, as was previously noted, the Gospel of John does not record the institution of the Lord’s Supper as part of the Last Supper narrative, though there is a parallel of sorts in the Eucharistic language used by Jesus in 6:51-58 (on this, cf. the earlier discussion). Paradoxically, John is also the only one of the Gospels which actually depicts Jesus blood being ‘poured out’ at his death. The essence of what Jesus communicates in the words of institution is described visually.
Second, and more importantly, the blood and water which comes out symbolizes the giving forth of the Spirit, along with the spiritual effect of Jesus’ sacrificial death. This is not readily apparent here in the narrative itself, but is confirmed, and can be supported, I believe, from several other passages in the Gospel, along with 1 John 5:6-8. I will be discussing this in detail in a series of notes this upcoming week.
For more on John 19:34-35 and 37, see the earlier daily note for Holy Saturday in Easter Week.