Luke 23:46; John 19:30
This is the first in a series of notes exploring the relationship between the Spirit and the death of Jesus. As I discussed (cf. the Introduction to this series), there is no trace of any connection between the Spirit and Jesus’ death in the Gospel tradition. However, there are certain allusions to it, in the tradition of the moment of Jesus’ death—his cry/shout, the final words uttered before his death, and the statement narrating his last breath. This basic tradition underwent a certain development, so that, by the time one reaches the treatment of it in the Gospel of John, it has taken on a deeper theological meaning and significance.
The Synoptic traditions surrounding the moment of Jesus’ death are best preserved in the Gospel of Mark; there are three distinct components to the narrative in 15:34-37:
- V. 34: The outcry (vb boa/w) of Jesus, quoting Psalm 22:1
- Vv. 35-36: The reaction of the people, with: (a) misunderstanding his words (Elijah reference), (b) giving him sour wine to drink, and (c) mocking taunts directed at him (repeating the Elijah reference)
- V. 37: Jesus utters a loud cry as he breathes his last
Vv. 34 and 37 are distinct elements of the tradition, but there is a certain parallelism between them:
There are two related elements to the tradition here: (1) the idea that God left Jesus behind, utilizing the verb e)gkatalei/pw; and (2) the moment of death when Jesus gives out his last breath (vb e)kpne/w). The verb e)gkatalei/pw, meaning “leave down behind in (a particular place)”, comes from the Greek translation (LXX) of Psalm 22:2 . As we saw in the introduction to this series of notes, it also is used in the LXX of Psalm 16:10:
“you will not leave my soul down behind in (the) Unseen (realm) [i.e., of the dead], nor will you give your holy (one) to see complete decay”
Acts 2:27 cites the LXX of Psalm 16:10 exactly. In the introduction, I discussed the possibility that the use of Ps 16:10 in Acts, in light of the kerygmatic statement in Acts 10:38, means that God’s presence (through the Spirit) did not “leave behind” Jesus, even when he was dead and buried, but remained with him. However, the cry of Jesus on the cross in Mark 15:34 suggests the opposite—that God’s presence did leave Jesus behind, leaving him to die on the cross.
It is interesting in this regard that Luke has a very different handling of the Synoptic tradition, at this point in the narrative. Matthew (27:46-50) follows Mark 15:34-37 quite closely; however Luke’s version is quite different. First, he narrates the splitting of the Temple curtain before Jesus dies (23:45; cp Mark 15:38), and, second, he omits the ‘cry of dereliction’ by Jesus (quoting Ps 22:1), as well as what follows in Mk 15:35-36 par. This gives an entirely different tone and sense to the moment of Jesus’ death. More to the point, it also eliminates any sense that God has abandoned Jesus; and thus there is nothing here to contradict the idea suggested by the use of Psalm 16:10 in Acts—viz. that God (and His Spirit) never left Jesus behind (vb e)gkatalei/pw).
As if to emphasize this very point, in place of the ‘cry of dereliction’, in Luke’s version, Jesus quotes a different Psalm (31:5):
“And, (hav)ing given voice [i.e. shouted] with a great voice, Yeshua said: ‘Father, into your hands I place along my spirit’; and, (hav)ing said this, he breathed out (his last breath).” (23:46)
Instead of God leaving Jesus behind, Jesus himself places his life-breath (his “spirit”) in God’s care. This apparent modification of the tradition is not as abrupt as it might appear at first glance; rather, it seems to reflect a natural development of the tradition—one which can be traced through all four Gospels. Notice:
- Mark 15:37: “And Yeshua, releasing [a)fei\$] a great voice [i.e. cry], breathed out [e)ce/pneusen, i.e. expired]”
- Matt 27:50: “And Yeshua, crying (out) again with a great voice, released the spirit/breath [a)fh=ken to\ pneu=ma].”
- Luke 23:46: “And, giving voice [i.e. crying out] with a great voice, Yeshua said, ‘Father, into your hands I place along [parati/qemai] my spirit [to\ pneu=ma/ mou]’. And, saying this, he breathed out [e)ce/pneusen, i.e. expired].”
The development is from the simple idea of Jesus “breathing out” his last breath (i.e., dying), and of him “giving along” his spirit. The version in the Gospel of John (19:30) continues this line of development:
“Then, when he (had) taken the sharp [i.e. sour] (wine), Yeshua said ‘It has been completed’, and, bending the head, he gave along the spirit [pare/dwken to\ pneu=ma].”
It is clear both John and the Synoptics derive their versions from a common tradition; the versions in Mark and Matthew certainly are simple variants of a shared tradition. Luke’s version, however, has interesting points of similarity with John’s account:
- Both record actual words of Jesus in his final cry, marking the conclusion of his earthly life and ministry (compared with the wordless “great cry” in the Synoptic tradition)
- They use a similar expression:
Luke (Jesus speaking): “I place along [parati/qemai] my spirit”
John (Gospel writer): “He gave along [pare/dwken] the spirit“
- Most surprising of all is the close similarity between the Gospel writer’s words at the end of Lk 23:46 and that in John 20:22:
Luke: “And, saying this, he breathed out” (tou=to de\ ei)pw\n e)ce/pneusen)
John: “And, saying this, he blew/breathed in” (kai\ tou=to ei)pw\n e)nefu/shsen)
This last similarity increases the likelihood that more than a simple description of Jesus’ death is intended in John 19:30. While, on the basic level of the historical narrative, the expression “he gave along the spirit” could merely mean “he died”, much like the archaic English expression “he gave up the ghost”, or, more commonly in modern idiom, “he expired (i.e. breathed out)” ,”he breathed his last”. Yet, the frequent wordplay in the Gospel of John, along with the important emphasis on the Spirit, makes it likely indeed that there is a double meaning here. Almost certainly there is an allusion to Jesus’ giving the Spirit (cf. 3:34; 15:26; 16:7, etc) to believers. Thus, while it is not the primary meaning, we could also translate (in a secondary sense) as:
“…and, bending the head, he gave along the Spirit [pare/dwken to\ pneu=ma].”
Before proceeding to explore further the Johannine theological interpretation of this moment, I feel it worth discussing the textual variant in Mark 15:34 and the problem that the Synoptic tradition (of Jesus’ “cry of dereliction”) posed for early Christians. This will be done in the next daily note.