Along with the Resurrection, the crucifixion of Christ is one of the most important events in Christian history. It was this event that formed the basis of the sacrificial theology that marks Christianity.
The four Gospels are in substantial agreement as to the events surrounding the Crucifixion. Some writers include details that the others omit, but these can, for the most part, be worked into the flow of the narrative without disturbing the other Gospels.
The following table summarizes the Crucifixion narratives. A blank indicates that the Gospel writer does not record the event, or places it in a different sequence.
|Jesus handed over to be crucified. (Matthew 27:31)||Jesus handed over to be crucified. (Mark 15:20)||Jesus handed over to be crucified. (Luke 23:25)||Jesus handed over to be crucified. (John 19:16)|
|Simon of Cyrene carries Jesus' cross. (Matthew 27:32)||Simon of Cyrene carries Jesus' cross. (Mark 15:21)||Simon of Cyrene carries Jesus' cross. (Luke 23:26)||Jesus carries his own cross. (John 19:17)|
|Jesus speak to the women following him on the way to Golgotha. (Luke 23:27-31)|
|Jesus arrives at Golgotha. (Matthew 27:33)||Jesus arrives at Golgotha. (Mark 15:22)||Jesus arrives at Golgotha. (Luke 23:33)||Jesus arrives at Golgotha. (John 19:17)|
|Jesus given vinegar and gall to drink. He tastes it, and does not drink. (Matthew 27:34)||Jesus given vinegar and myrrh to drink. He tastes it, and does not drink. (Mark 15:23)|
|Jesus crucified. Time not specified. (Matthew 27:35)||Jesus crucified at the third hour (9 am). (Mark 15:25)||Jesus crucified. Time not specified. (Luke 23:33)||Jesus crucified. Time not specified. (John 19:18)|
|First saying - "Father, forgive them..." (Luke 23:34)|
|Soldiers part his garments and cast lots for his clothes. (Matthew 27:35)||Soldiers part his garments and cast lots for his clothes. (Mark 15:24)||Soldiers part his garments and cast lots for his clothes. (Luke 23:34)||Soldiers part his garments and cast lots for his clothes. (John 19:23-24)|
|Accusation on cross - "This Is Jesus The King Of The Jews". (Matthew 27:37)||Accusation on cross - "The King Of The Jews". (Mark 15:26)||Accusation on cross - "This is the King Of The Jews", written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. (Luke 23:38)||Accusation on cross - "Jesus Of Nazareth The King Of The Jews", written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. (John 19:19)|
|Two thieves crucified with Jesus, on either side. (Matthew 27:38)||Two thieves crucified with Jesus, on either side. (Matthew 15:27)||Two malefactors crucified with Jesus. (Luke 23:33)||Two others crucified with Jesus. (John 19:18)|
|Jesus mocked by passers-by. (Matthew 27:39-43).||Jesus mocked by passers-by. (Mark 15:29-32).||Jesus mocked by passers-by. (Luke 23:35-37).|
|Soldiers offer Jesus vinegar. (Luke 23:36)|
|Jesus mocked by both thieves. (Matthew 27:44)||Jesus mocked by both thieves. (Mark 15:32)||One malefactor mocks Jesus, the other asks to be remembered in his kingdom. (Luke 23:39-42)|
|Second saying, "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise". (Luke 23:43)||First saying "Behold thy mother..." (John 19:26-27)|
|Darkness from the sixth to the ninth hour (12 pm to 3 pm). (Matthew 27:45).||Darkness from the sixth to the ninth hour (12 pm to 3 pm). (Mark 15:33).||Darkness from the sixth to the ninth hour (12 pm to 3 pm). (Luke 23:44).|
|First cry - "My God, My God..." at ninth hour (3 pm). (Matthew 27:46).||First cry - "My God, My God..." at ninth hour (3 pm). (Mark 15:34).|
|Jesus given vinegar in a sponge on a reed to drink. (Matthew 27:48)||Jesus given vinegar in a sponge on a reed to drink. (Mark 15:36)||Jesus says "I thirst". He is given vinegar in a sponge on hyssop. (John 19:29)|
|Temple veil torn (Luke 23:45)|
|Jesus cries a second time, words not recorded, and dies. (Matthew 27:50)||Jesus cries a second time, words not recorded, and dies. (Mark 15:37)||Third saying "Father, into thy hands...". Jesus dies. (Luke 23:46)||Jesus says "It is finished", and dies. (John 19:30)|
|Temple veil torn, earthquake, graves opened, saints resurrected. (Matthew 27:51-53)||Temple veil torn. (Mark 15:38)|
|Centurion says "Truly this man was the son of God". (Matthew 27:54)||Centurion says "Truly this man was the son of God". (Mark 15:39)||Centurion says "Certainly this was a righteous man". (Luke 23:47)|
|The legs of the others are broken; Jesus is spared. A soldier pierces Jesus' side with a spear. (John 19:31-37)|
|Joseph of Arimathaea asks Pilate for Jesus' body. Joseph wraps the body in a linen cloth, and buries Jesus in his own tomb. A stone is rolled over the door of the tomb. (Matthew 27:57-60)||Joseph of Arimathaea asks Pilate for Jesus' body. Joseph wraps the body in a linen cloth, and buries Jesus in his own tomb. A stone is rolled over the door of the tomb. (Mark 15:42-46)||Joseph of Arimathaea asks Pilate for Jesus' body. Joseph wraps the body in a linen cloth, and buries Jesus in his own tomb. (Luke 23:50-53)||Joseph of Arimathaea asks Pilate for Jesus' body. Joseph and Nicodemus wrap the body in a linen cloth with spices, and bury Jesus in a tomb. (John 19:37-42)|
|The Jews ask Pilate for a guard. He gives them a guard, and seals the tomb. (Matthew 27:62-66)|
Points of Disagreement
There are a few minor points that cannot be reconciled between the various narratives. Generally, it is the fourth Gospel that contradicts the others, a peculiarity that extends to the Resurrection narratives as well.
The first inconsistency involves the time of the Crucifixion. Mark states that Christ was crucified at the third hour. In Jewish reckoning, this would be at about 9 in the morning (Mark 15:25). (Jewish time counts hours after sunrise, at about 6 am). In John's Gospel, however, Jesus is still on trial before Pilate at the sixth hour, i.e. about 12 pm (John 19:14). It has been suggested that John is using Roman time, which counts hours after midnight. This is difficult to sustain historically, however. Contemporary evidence suggests that the Romans, like the Jews, counted hours after sunrise during the day. This basically means that whether John was using Roman or Jewish time is irrelevant, since they are unlikely to differ much.
All three synoptic gospels mention that one Simon, a Cyrenian, was compelled to carry Jesus' cross. John omits this detail, however, and specifically states that Jesus was carrying his own cross when he arrived at Golgotha (John 19:17).
Matthew and Mark state that Christ was given vinegar mixed with gall (Mark says myrrh) just before he was crucified (Matthew 27:34, Mark 15:23). Luke fails to mention this event, and instead has the soldiers offering Jesus vinegar sometime after he was crucified (Luke 23:36). In fact, Matthew and Mark agree that Jesus was given vinegar again, but only after he said "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46-48, Mark 15:34-36, quoting Psalm 22:1). John has Jesus receiving vinegar sometime after he was crucified, but after he had uttered the words "I thirst" (John 19:29), shortly before he died.
The three synoptic gospels record three hours of darkness from 12 pm to 3 pm (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44), a rather remarkable detail not mentioned by John. In fact, there is no historical evidence that such an event took place, aside from a secondhand reference to the writings of Thallus, which cannot be verified.
The gospels also seem to differ as to Jesus' last words. Matthew and Mark simply state that Jesus gave a cry, but do not record the words (Matthew 27:50, Mark 15:37). Luke has Jesus saying "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46), while John makes Jesus last words to be "It is finished" (John 19:30). It is impossible to reconcile these two statements, since both writers record that Jesus died immediately after uttering these words.
The three synoptic gospels all record that the Temple veil was torn (Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45). Luke appears to place this event shortly before Jesus' death, while the others place it shortly afterward. It may simply be that each writer intended to convey the idea that the veil was ripped at the same time as Jesus died, an idea in keeping with later theology. Matthew goes a little further, and records that an earthquake opened many graves, out of which a number of resurrected saints appeared (Matthew 27:52-53). It hardly needs to be said that this event is completely lacking in historical corroboration.
Following Jesus death, only John records that the legs of the other victims were broken, while Jesus was spared. John, too, is alone in recording that a soldier thrust a spear into Jesus' side (John 19:31-37).
All four Gospels record that Joseph of Arimathaea received Jesus' body from Pilate, and buried him in his own tomb. Only Matthew and Mark record that a stone was rolled in front of the tomb (Matthew 27:60, Mark 15:46), although all four Gospels subsequently mention the stone during the Resurrection narratives.
Only Matthew states that Pilate, at the request of the Jews, ordered a guard for the tomb (Matthew 27:62-66). Significantly, only Matthew has to account for the guards during the subsequent Resurrection stories (Matthew 28:4). None of the other Gospel writers needed to explain the whereabouts of the guard, as they failed to mention them in the first place.
The fact that the four Gospels are in very close agreement about the events surrounding the death of Jesus Christ indicates that they may have been recording an historical event. However, there are a few minor points of disagreement, which are understandable if we remember that the Gospels themselves were only written a number of decades after the death of Christ.
When we compare the essential unity of the trial and crucifixion narratives with the significant lack of harmony between the birth and resurrection narratives, we may safely conclude that the former are historical, while the latter are simply echoes of myth.
Contents Copyright 1997 Curt van den Heuvel
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