“Many Christians believe the Gospel is about Jesus dying on the cross for the atonement of sins. I disagree. To my mind that’s like saying Star Wars is about Anakin Skywalker’s final act of redemption in which he threw the Emperor down the ventilation shaft, sacrificing himself to save his son. Is that the culmination of the story arc? Absolutely. Is that what the whole thing is about? No way.”
~Carson T. Clark, “The Gospel Is Not Jesus’ Death on the Cross”
One of the most reliable facts concerning Jesus is that he was crucified during the reign and by the action of the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, who served by appointment of the Caesar from 26-36 CE. The Roman senator and historian Tacitus referred to Jesus’ execution by Pilate in his Annals, which was written circa 116 CE. Beyond that, however, there is not much historical evidence.
The four gospels contend that Jesus’ crucifixion took place during the Jewish observance of the Passover. Recent scholarship has, however, begun to loosen the connection with Passover or at least, raise questions about this tradition.
Jesus was condemned to death with the Sabbath only a few hours away. He was ordered to die by crucifixion, one of the slowest ways to kill a person. It usually took days for a crucified person to die, but Jesus had only been hanging on the cross for a few hours by sunset. To hasten death, the soldiers ordinarily broke the legs of their crucifixion victims, but, for some reason, they only broke the legs of the two criminals executed with Jesus. According to John, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a lance, but Matthew, Mark, and Luke never mention this. Jesus was a man in the prime of his life, approximately thirty years old. He walked great distances in the stifling heat, so he was physically fit. How could a man in the prime of his life die of crucifixion, without his legs being broken, within three hours? Even Pilate, according to Mark, questioned his swift death.
Some scholars suggest that there is evidence that the crucifixion of Jesus occurred in the fall, not during the early spring. When the early church interpreted the death of Jesus in terms of the death of the Paschal Lamb, the crucifixion and Passover were drawn together until the two events were interpreted as having occurred at the same time. This would mean that the connection between Jesus’ death and Passover is liturgical, not historical. And it also suggests that we should seek its meaning, rather than reading it as history.
During this time in Israel’s history, burial was an honor. Normally, crucified bodies were left for scavenger birds and animals. Once the bones were picked clean, they were tossed into a common grave. So why wasn’t Jesus’ body thrown into a common grave instead of being buried in a tomb?
Paul’s writings are as close to the events of the crucifixion as we can get, but they were at least twenty-one years after Jesus’ death. That is a long time for the oral tradition to preserve a completely accurate account of anything.
By Paul’s time Jesus’ death had been identified by his followers in terms of the two lambs – the Paschal Lamb of Passover, whose blood protected the Israelites from death in Egypt when the last plague, the death of the first born in every household, was occurred, which freed the Hebrews from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians and the second was the one, normally a physically perfect lamb, sacrificed to take away the sins of the people in the liturgy of the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur.
Paul does not give any narrative details. In Chapter 11 of I Corinthians, he mentions the last supper and that Jesus was “handed over.” He does not suggest that the supper was associated with the Passover or that Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples. Paul never mentions the name Judas. In Paul’s epistles there are no details that the later gospel writers include. He merely says, “He died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” Concerning Jesus’ burial, Paul simply says, “He was buried.”
Perhaps we should read the gospels through the lens of Paul, not the other way around.
Mark, who wrote his gospel sometime in the early eighth decade, is the creator of most of the familiar crucifixion story. It was Mark who first put words into the mouth of the dying Jesus; he suggests that Jesus spoke one line from the cross, what is now called “the cry of dereliction”: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He also was the first to mention that darkness covered the land from noon to three p.m. and the first to introduce Joseph of Arimathea into the crucifixion story.
Mark does not claim to be an eye witness. As a matter of fact, most of his details are drawn from Hebrew scriptures. Mark’s crucifixion story is not historical; it is interpretive material drawn from the Old Testament to prove his point that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
Mark’s major sources for his crucifixion story were Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.
• From Psalm 22:1, he drew the only words that he had Jesus speak from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
• Psalm 22:7-8: “All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads [and say]; ‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver – let him rescue the one in whom he delights.’” Compare those words with Mark 15:29: “Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down form the cross!.’”
• Psalm 22:14a: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint…” These images are in Mark’s story of the cross and they grow through the other synoptic accounts. When John writes his version of the crucifixion almost thirty-five years after Mark, he has Jesus cry, “I thirst” and he claims that none of Jesus’ bones were broken.
• Psalm 22:18: “They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” Compare to Mark 15:24: “And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.”
Anyone who grew up in the church and Sunday School was taught that Jesus was predestined to fulfill the “predictions” of Hebrew scriptures, but it is easy to imagine that the gospel writers constructed Jesus to fit the messianic expectations of the Hebrew scriptures.
Another indication that Mark’s narrative of the cross is not historical is that his passion story is divided into eight three-hour segments – a twenty-four hour format. The hours are marked and are meant to be noted. In Mark 14:17, he wrote, “when evening came they were gathered in one place” for the Passover meal. “When evening came” means that it was approximately 6 p.m. on the day known as Maundy Thursday. The Jewish Passover meal normally included the extended family and lasted about three hours. This celebration ended with a hymn after which the family members returned to their own homes, so it would have been 9 p.m., at which, we are told, Jesus and his disciples went to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus took three of his disciples to watch with him while he prayed, but they fell asleep. The second segment of the twenty-four hours ends at midnight when Jesus encountered Judas and the crowd he had brought with him. The betrayal, the darkest deed in human history, took place at the bewitching hour. Next Jesus was taken to the Sanhedrin for interrogation, which takes us from midnight to 3 a.m. The period between 3 and 6 a.m. was called “Cockcrow.” Into this three hour segment, Mark told the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus three times before the cock crowed, presumably one denial for each hour. Then precisely on cue, Mark wrote, “When morning came,” which meant it was now 6 a.m. In the 6 to 9 a.m. segment, Mark wrote about the trial before Pilate; introduced Barabbas; told about Jesus’ torture, the mocking purple robe and crown of thorns. “At the third hour” or 9 a.m., Jesus was crucified. At the sixth hour (noon), Mark wrote, “darkness covered the whole earth” and lasted for three hours. At 3 p.m., Mark had Jesus say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and died. From 3 to 6 p.m. Joseph of Arimathea negotiated with the officials to bury Jesus in his tomb, which was accomplished before sundown, the beginning of the sabbath.
Two things become obvious: first, the familiar details of the crucifixion story were not eye witness accounts of what actually happened. Instead, they were interpretive accounts based upon Hebrew scriptures in which Jesus was viewed as the anticipated messiah; second, they were not written to describe historical events, but to lead worshippers through a twenty-four hour liturgical vigil. In other words, Mark’s story of Jesus’ passion is much more liturgical than historical. It was written so the early church could relive the last events in the life of the one they believed was the messiah and through whom they were convinced that they saw God mirrored in the way he lived his life.
When Mark’s gospel introduced Barabbas, we learned two things about this person: that it was a Roman custom to release a prisoner during the feast of the Passover (there is no reference to a custom of releasing a prisoner in either Roman records or Jewish records, therefore, we have to assume that this detail was Mark’s creation) and Barabbas was a prisoner of the Roman authorities. Mark refers to him as a political assassin, so Barabbas most likely aimed his terrorist activities against Roman soldiers and Jews who collaborated with the Romans. According to Mark’s narrative, the crowd asked to have Barabbas released instead of Jesus. When Pilate asked what he should do with Jesus, the crowd yelled, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Also, when we examine the name Barabbas, we discover that the first part of his name “bar” means “son,” while the last half of his name is a name for God – “Abba” –the equivalent of “Daddy” – the name Jesus often used for God, so his name literally means “son of God.” Therefore, according to Mark’s crucifixion story, there were two sons of God: Jesus and Barabbas. One son of God, Jesus, was killed, while the other son of God, Barabbas, was set free.
Jesus was called “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” In Jewish worship tradition, two holy days required the sacrifice of a lamb. During Passover the blood of the paschal lamb was placed on the doorposts of Jewish homes to repel the power of death. The other Jewish holy day in which a lamb was sacrificed for the sins of the people was the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. During the observance of Yom Kippur, two animals are brought to the High Priest. They could be lambs or goats, but tended to be one of each. The lamb had to be physically perfect, with no scratches, scars or broken bones, and since it was not human, it could not choose to do evil, so it was assumed to be morally perfect. The first of these animals, the lamb of God, was slaughtered as a sacrifice by the High Priest. Then the High Priest would enter the part of the temple known as the “Holy of Holies” – where God was believed to dwell – with the blood of the perfect lamb. The High Priest would smear the blood of this lamb onto the throne of God, which was called the “Mercy Seat.” Liturgically, atonement had been achieved and the people could now come into God’s presence.
Next the other animal, normally a goat, was brought to the High Priest. Bowing over the goat with his hands on the goat’s horns, the High Priest would begin to confess the sins of the people. Symbolically the sins of the people landed on the goat, which was thought to be so evil and unworthy of continued life that the worshipers pronounced curses on it and called for its death. However, the goat was not killed, but was driven into the wilderness taking the sins of the people with it. The animal was called the “scapegoat” because it bore the people’s sins.
Isn’t it possible that Mark deliberately used the symbols of Yom Kippur to write his story of the crucifixion and to interpret Jesus’ death? Jesus and the fictional Barabbas match the two animals of the Day of Atonement in which one was sacrificed and the other set free. The blood of the first means the people’s sins were purged by passing through the blood of the lamb of God. The other animal, the sin bearer or the scapegoat, was set free to carry the sins of the people away. In this liturgy the sin bearer was cursed by the people and they shouted for its death. Doesn’t this reflect Mark’s story when the people shout: “Crucify him, crucify him!”?
If the above analysis sounds plausible, it is a strong indication that Mark expected his words to be read liturgically – never literally or historically. He interpreted the death of Jesus using symbols that Jews would immediately recognize. They would have understood what he was doing and would have heard his words as Mark intended. Therefore, Barabbas was not a real person, but a fictional character that was the symbol of the scapegoat.
The earliest Christians were either Jews or former Jews so they were familiar with Jewish liturgy.
However, by the middle of the second century, the Christian movement had become predominantly Gentile. They did not know, understand or even care to learn about Jewish liturgy. When they heard or read the gospels they assumed Mark was writing literal history. Over the centuries, this literalized understanding of the story was expressed in hymns, creeds, doctrines, and art.
With the advent of critical biblical scholarship in the early years of the nineteenth century, questions began to be asked about the literal and historical accuracy of the crucifixion story. We had been taught that Jesus died for our sins, but biblical scholars and some lay people began to wonder how the death of Jesus freed us from our sins. If God allowed Jesus to be killed in order to forgive our sins, God was a punishing ogre and the ultimate child abuser.
Armed with this new insight we should reexamine the crucifixion story. Was there really darkness at noon on the day of the crucifixion? Did the veil in the temple really split from top to bottom between the holy place and the Holy of Holies when Jesus died? Did Jesus really quote from Psalm 22 from the cross? For me, literalizing the story distorts its meaning.
Matthew used Mark’s story as one of his sources, but added a few details. He is the only gospel writer to suggest that an earthquake accompanied the crucifixion or that a temple guard was placed at the tomb of Jesus by the high priest.
Luke expanded the story with more new material. Only in Luke does Jesus pray for his tormentors: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And only in Luke does the thief ask Jesus to remember him. Luke is the only gospel writer who had Jesus tell Peter that he will pray for him since Satan has desired him. Luke is also the only one in which Jesus was tried separately before Herod. Luke’s Pilate becomes a more sympathetic figure, while Judas becomes more sinister. Finally, instead of the “call of dereliction,” Luke had Jesus say, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” at the moment of his death.
John added even more new details. Only in John does Jesus’ mother appear at the foot of the cross. He claimed that Jesus said three things from the cross: “I thirst,” “Woman behold your son, son behold your mother” and, as his final words, “It is finished.” John was the only gospel writer who mentioned the breaking of the legs of the thieves to hasten their deaths; he claimed Jesus’ legs were not broken because he was already dead. John added the story of the spear piercing Jesus’ side, which he drew from II Zechariah. John also suggested that water and blood flowed from that wound. Finally, John introduced Nicodemus, a character that does not appear in any other gospel, and had him join Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body for burial by using seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes.
Did the Old Testament book of Isaiah contribute to the crucifixion story? Interestingly, several verses from Isaiah were used to illuminate the story of the crucifixion. They are what is called “the servant passages” from Isaiah 40-55, the chapters that scholars call Second Isaiah. Much of this text is familiar to music lovers because George Jennens, the librettist for George Frederick Handel’s magnificent oratorio, Messiah, used several verses from this part of Isaiah in his libretto. Some of the best known verses are found in chapter 53: “He was wounded for our transgressions… by his stripes we are healed” and “He was despised, rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” These words were written about the “servant king.”
Second Isaiah says the servant was “numbered with the transgressors.” Surely this reference was used to suggest that Jesus was crucified between two thieves. In Mark the two thieves do not say anything, but in Matthew, they revile Jesus. By the time of Luke’s gospel, one thief reviles him while the other is penitent: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Later in Isaiah 53, the servant “made his grave with a rich man.” This reference was the inspiration for the Joseph of Arimathea character, who was reportedly wealthy. Jesus’ burial in Joseph’s tomb served several purposes: it “fulfilled the scriptures,” it covered up the disciples fleeing, which was an embarrassment and it also gave Jesus a proper burial.
The seven last words that Jesus uttered from the cross came from blending the four gospels, as if it was possible to create a single historical and accurate narrative by merging them. We do the same thing with Christmas pageants; we blend Matthew’s and Luke’s story of Jesus’ nativity, even though they are incompatible in many details. However, many, maybe even most, people assume that these two stories are capable of being merged into a single whole.
Let us examine the seven last words. In Mark and Matthew the only words Jesus spoke from the cross was what has become known as the “cry of dereliction” – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These words actually came from the first verse of Psalm 22. This intensely human cry became a problem when Jesus’ humanity was increasingly replaced by claims of his divinity.
Luke created three new “words” from the cross. The “Suffering Servant” from Second Isaiah was influential in shaping Luke’s story of the crucifixion. Since the “Servant” made intercession for his oppressors, Luke had Jesus do the same: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Also only in Luke did one of the two thieves crucified with Jesus become penitent and begged Jesus to “remember him” when he came into his kingdom. Luke claims that Jesus promised him that he would be with him in paradise that very day. And instead of a fearful cry of forsakenness as his final word at his moment of death, Luke claims his last words were, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
None of Mark’s, Matthew’s or Luke’s “last words” appear in John. He creates three entirely new sayings. The first was: “I thirst,” which has its roots in Psalm 22. The second was, “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother,” which was directed at the character that John called “the beloved disciple.” It is also worth noting that only in John is there any mention that Jesus’ mother observed the crucifixion. Lastly, John suggests Jesus’ final words from the cross were, “It is finished.”
Since the “seven words” never appear together in any book in the Bible, it is extremely likely that Jesus never said them from the cross.
Mark claimed that, “all of his disciples forsook him and fled.” He also wrote that women were watching from a distance and he specifically mentioned Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses (in my opinion, this was Jesus’ mother), and Salome (perhaps one of Jesus’ sisters or maybe the mother of James and John that Matthew mentions).
Matthew mentions “those who passed by derided him” and he wrote that many women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him were watching from a distance. Then he specifically names Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph (I think this was Jesus’ mother), and the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee.
According to Luke, “all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee (he does not give any names) stood at a distance and watched the crucifixion.
John’s account differs considerably from the others. John claims that Jesus’ mother, “his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” were standing near the cross. John also wrote, “When Jesus saw this mother and the disciple whom he loved,” he called his mother “Woman” and told her “here is your son.” Next, he told the disciple, “Here is your mother.” Then the disciple took Mary to his home. So, according to John, at least one of the disciples did not flee.
Although they are not normally identified as witnesses, there were some Roman soldiers present who were assigned to the crucifixion and it is also possible that some family and friends of the two thieves might have been there.
Jesus’ followers were clearly shocked and their hopes were shattered by his arrest and crucifixion. They reportedly fled the scene and returned home. The events that followed the arrest would have been behind closed doors and could not have been witnessed by outsiders. The orders for the arrest and crucifixion of a peasant rebelrouser might have been given and carried out most likely without Jesus ever appearing before the highest authorities. It was against Jewish law to hold a trial a night, so it seems highly unlikely the high priest and Sanhedrin would have convened on the evening or night of Passover.
Crucifixion was commonly used for political rebels or chronically defiant slaves, so Jesus was most likely crucified as a political threat. Also the bodies of crucified people were most often either left on the crosses to be consumed by scavengers or buried in anonymous graves.
Jesus challenged the Roman political system in the name of God. The authorities would not have been happy with his criticism and his stirring up unrest. He died as a martyr for his cause – he was against this world’s kingdoms and preached an alternative social vision grounded in the earthly kingdom of God.
The authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail claim that Jesus may not have died on the cross. These authors contend that Jesus and his innermost circle of confidants expected him to survive the crucifixion. Along with several other authors, they postulate that Jesus lapsed into a shock-induced coma while on the cross, that the spear thrust missed his heart, and that he received medical attention while in the tomb. Normally, death by crucifixion took up to three days, but Jesus was on the cross a maximum of nine hours, and it may have been as few as six. Pontius Pilate was clearly surprised that Jesus was already dead and wanted reassurance from the centurion that he was really deceased. Therefore, Jesus may have lived several weeks, which would explain his appearances in the days and weeks after the crucifixion. The writers also speculate he died from complications from the wound inflicted by the spear, but there has also been speculation in some recent literature that he survived and fled to France or the Far East.
Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince in “The Templars Revelation” suggest that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus from Bethany were helping Jesus fulfill the role of the expected Messiah, including arranging the particulars for his entry into Jerusalem and the Last Supper. They contend that Jesus had a preplanned agenda in which the Bethany family were prime players. They, not the disciples, were his most inner circle of confidants who arranged for Joseph of Aramethia to request Jesus’ body and deposit it in Joseph’s burial place where Jesus received medical attention and was able to leave the tomb.
I am willing to consider that Jesus and his closest confidants were at least hopeful that Jesus would survive the crucifixion and that the wound from the spear was the unexpected event that eventually took his life. But I rather doubt that he survived to flee to another country.
I believe that Jesus was a real person, even though secular records contain no reference to his life, his teachings, or his death.
Jesus died a real death; his body was a corpse. One of the early heresies of the church was that God took Jesus to heaven before he died on the cross. That would have made him less than human.
I am perfectly willing to affirm that he was crucified, died, and was buried.