Friday, May 31, 2013

A Cross to Bear

The Priests held a trial against Jesus, but they had difficulty assigning any witnessed crime against Him until they came to blaspheme. Then they took Jesus to Pilate to have justice rendered.

Pilate conducted his own, apparently superficial, investigation of Jesus, and ultimately decided that He was innocent of any crime deserving death. So Pilate declared Jesus' innocence and tried to get Jesus released, but the crowd asked for a different son-of-the-father to be released instead, and demanded Jesus' crucifixion. Pilate reluctantly relented to the crowd's demand to have the Jesus killed, and inexplicably had Jesus flogged as an unrequested, unrequired bonus-punishment despite finding Him innocent.

A Cross to Bear
Each of us has a little cross to bear; a little challenging act of self-sacrifice for the sake of righteousness. Or so it is said. The metaphor comes from the literal act of Jesus carrying His own cross to the site of His crucifixion. Let us take a look at the steps taken by Jesus from condemnation to crucifixion.

The time from sentencing to the crucifixion is covered by Matthew 27:27-35, Mark 15:16-24, Luke 23:26-34, John 19:17-18 + John 19:23-24. As usual, we will begin by looking at Mark first, given his influence over Matthew and Luke.

Mark began by telling us that, right after Jesus was sentenced and flogged, soldiers took Him inside the palace (the Praetorium), where they put a purple robe and a crown of thorns on Him, beat Him up, and mocked Him as the "King of the Jews", before leading Him out for the crucifixion (Mark 15:16-20).

Anyone familiar with the story of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib facility can understand this kind of behavior out of the soldiers handling Jesus. It seems very plausible... until you remember that there were no Gospel-writing eyewitnesses to what went on inside of the palace, and Jesus left the palace without that purple robe. At best, this mockery and beating is hearsay, but we will see indications later on suggesting that it is a work of fiction.

Next we have the strange bit where, on the way to the crucifixion, the soldiers forced a man named Simon to carry Jesus' cross (Mark 15:21-22). There is no explanation as to why that occurred, which is odd. Most believers came to the conclusion that Jesus was buckling under the load of the cross due to his flogging and beating injuries. That is a plausible explanation.

On the other hand, on the skeptical side of the fence, the odd name dropping and cross transference without explicit reason is suspicious. Perhaps a man named Simon was used as a "celebrity" eyewitness to help make converts in the early days of the movement by claiming to have carried Jesus' cross for Him. But that is fairly wild speculation...

Next, we get to a rather curious verse, Mark 15:23:
Then they offered Him wine mixed with myrrh, but He did not take it. NIV
Wine mixed with myrrh? Myrrh? Myrrh was one of the gifts to the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:11). Myrrh was also used as part of Jesus burial dressing (John 19:39). Myrrh was a highly aromatic oil, used in the nearly-illicit verse of Song of Songs 1:13:
My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts. NIV
I am not sure how myrrh would taste, especially myrrh resting between breasts, but it certainly appears to be a highly desirable substance, none-the-less. (Wikipedia suggests bitter and spicy, as it was used medicinally.) Beyond that, there appears to be no significance to this myrrh-wine offering, but do not worry. We will find one in a moment.

After the offering, they crucified Jesus and then cast lots to see who would get Jesus' clothes. If you are not familiar with "casting lots", it is essentially like rolling dice to see who rolls the highest number. It is somewhat easy to imagine soldiers wanting to cash in on the misfortune of their charges, but you have to keep in mind that Jesus was freshly flogged (Mark 15:15) and beaten up (Mark 15:19). If so, that would be a rather repugnant garment, full of blood, and perhaps little bits of flesh and scabs. It is hard to believe that anyone would want that... but believers do want to fulfill "prophesy", which is why that is in there. Enter Psalm 22:18:
They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment. NIV
Wow. Another prophetic match. Until you read the next three verses where the speaker/prayer of Psalm 22 is pleading with God to save his life from the fate which was set before him. There is no humble submission to God's will (Matthew 26:39, Mark 14:36, Luke 22:42), or recognition that this was going according to God's plan (John 12:27) which would be thwarted if God intervened. Then of course you have the possible cognitive dissonance of God (Jesus) wanting something different than God (the Father). There are many other issues in this Psalm as well, which you can read about in my thorough analysis of Psalm 22.

OK, what about Matthew? Matthew makes my work easy. He essentially copied Mark, so much so that it reminds me of a report I did in third grade where I copied the text from the encyclopedia, making only minor word changes. :-)

There was one important change in Matthew. In Matthew 27:34, they mixed gall, not myrrh, into the wine offering. That we have a Scriptural "prophesy" match for. In Psalm 69:21, you find:
They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst. NIV
This does not appear to be a good match, as the gall was put into food, not into drink (wine). However, according to the Jewish poetic structure of the verse, the gall-in-food and vinegar-for-thirst are really meaning the same things: they gave me horrible tasting stuff on which to sustain myself. So in that sense, it does match.

Yet the "prophesy" as whole does not match. You may remember from the post about Judas being replaced that this same "prophesy" was used in regards to how Judas would be killed, but Judas was not the one giving out the gall here. However, while there are issues with Psalm 69 (mostly do to the speaker praying for God to get him out of the fate before him), it is a far better match here than in Peter's pathetic tie-in to Judas in Acts 1:20.

Note that it could also be a reference to Lamentations 3:15, where gall is imbibed. However, in Lamentations 3, it was God who made the speaker drink the gall. :-) Plus, we should remember that Jesus refused this wine mixture, whatever it was.

On to Luke. As we have noticed before, in this latter section of the Scriptures involving Jesus' Passion play, Luke took some artistic liberties in rewriting this story.

Luke never mentioned that Jesus was given a crown of thorns. That omission is very odd, as it seems like such a powerful visual image; one found in the other three Gospels. My guess is that Luke accidentally lost this detail in the act of re-crafting the story. Luke also dropped the bitter wine offering, quite likely because he saw it as being redundant with the wine vinegar offering which would occur later (Luke 23:36).

Speaking of re-crafting, you may also remember that Luke had the episode with Jesus given a purple robe occur back when Jesus was sent to Herod, before Jesus was sentenced to crucifixion (Luke 23:11). The advantage of Luke's version is that there could have been eyewitnesses to the robe, as Herod sent the robe-wearing Jesus back to Pilate.

Like Matthew and Mark, Luke 23:26 does mention Simon carrying Jesus' cross.

Luke 23:27-31 uniquely includes a report of a large crowd following Jesus to the cross, weeping and moaning along the way. Of course, that really makes you wonder... where was this large crowd when the crowd was demanding unanimously that Jesus be crucified? ;-)

Luke 23:32-34 then concludes with the crucifixion and the soldiers casting lots for Jesus' bloody garment. Luke did add detail in those verses about thieves who were crucified with Jesus (which Matthew and Mark will cover later), and added Jesus' interesting, often-quoted words from the first part of Luke 23:34:
Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." NIV
That is really a kind and wonderful sentiment. Of course, it is easily argued that none of Jesus' opposition really knew what they were doing in condemning Jesus to crucifixion. So if ignorance is an excuse worthy of forgiveness, everyone is off the hook, especially non-believers! ;-)

That brings us to John. John, always the rebel, claimed that Jesus did His own cross-carrying (John 19:17)! We cannot necessarily call this a contradiction with the other Gospels, as presumably for some amount of time Jesus did carry His own cross before Simon was forced to carry it.

John 19:18 also mentions the two other people crucified with Jesus.

There is a fairly insignificant twist where John discussed the dividing of Jesus' clothes. According to John 19:23-24, Jesus was wearing (at least) five pieces of clothing, and only Jesus' underwear (certainly the bloodiest piece) was the subject of the lot casting.

Summing all of this up, what do we have? Reports without eyewitnesses. Name dropping and forced-cross-carrying without reason. "Prophetic" references which do not match well when the entire "prophesy" is compared against the circumstances. A discrepancy regarding when and where Jesus received His purple robe. A crowd of Jesus-supporters who were conspicuously absent during Jesus' sentencing. An huge loophole of forgiveness to those who lack understanding. And strangers strangely desiring Jesus' bloody clothing. It is just a little too odd to be true, right? I would not make an answer solely based off of this study, but you really should ponder these things more deeply.


  1. I recall reading somewhere that the ancient Romans would dissolve sedatives in vinegar for crucifixion victims to drink, so as to mercifully hasten their deaths. If true, this could explain the vinegar reference in Jesus' crucifixion story. Is there any truth to this, to your knowledge.

  2. You know, Ahab, I think I have heard the same thing somewhere, but I do not remember where. Although, it would seem odd to hasten the deaths of the crucified when that was part of the reason for the crucifixion; a long, painful death on public display.

  3. I could imagine a single soldier acting on his own as an act of mercy for the person being executed. Perhaps it wasn't exactly policy, but would happen fairly often.

  4. Indeed Hausdorff. And if you believe the Gospels about the harsh taunting that the soldiers gave Jesus, any rogue soldier acting to comfort Jesus would have likely faced some harsh criticism.