Friday, June 7, 2013

Cross Talk

After being tried by the Priests and investigated by Pilate, Pilate relented to the crowd's demand to have Jesus crucified. So Pilate chose to flog Jesus, and then soldiers led Him away to face His fate. Those soldiers may have mocked Jesus with purple robe and false praise of kingship (Matthew, Mark), unless that happened before Jesus was sentenced, under Herod's watch (Luke). Then, Jesus carried His own cross to the mount where He was crucified (John), unless a man named Simon carried it for Him (Matthew, Mark, Luke).

Cross Talk
One of the aspects I enjoy about the Bible is that, like many other literary works, it captures human nature fairly well. The Bible provides an unusual slice of that nature because the Gospels, in particular, were written with an intent of building credibility behind the claim of Jesus being the Messiah, among other intents. Let us take a look at this facet of nature as we examine Jesus' time on the cross up to, but not including, His death.

Matthew 27:36-49, Mark 15:25-36, Luke 23:35-45, and John 19:19-29 all cover Jesus' hang time on the cross. Let us begin with Mark, shall we?

Mark 15:25 tells us that it was 9 A.M. (the third hour) when Jesus was put on the cross. The timer begins. There were two daily sacrifices that the Priests carried out on a regular basis. The first just happened to be at around 9 A.M. Coincidence, or deliberate writing? You know the answer. ;-)

In Mark 15:26 we read:
The written notice of the charge against Him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS. NIV
You may remember from the previous posts, the Priests charged Jesus with blaspheme, but instead they presented Jesus to Pilate as an insurrectionist claiming to be king.

In Mark 15:27, you find Jesus was crucified between two thieves. This seemingly benign verse is used to tie in the prophesy of Isaiah 53, in particular the verse of Isaiah 53:12 where a suffering servant of God was "numbered with the transgressors".

Any association with prophesy would bolster credibility, and that of Isaiah 53 is one of two Old Testament prophesies which, as a whole, actually come close to matching parts of the Jesus story. The language in Isaiah 53 is a bit vague, and requires context to properly discern. Please see this very detailed post discussing Isaiah 53 if you are interested in the refuting of that prophesy.

With Jesus on such a shameful display, it is a fitting portrayal of human nature that we find Him being mocked. The mocking in Mark 15:29-30 is particularly interesting, because people walking by mocked that Jesus said He would "destroy the Temple and build it in three days". However, despite the apparent commonality of the knowledge of this claim presented here, back when Jesus was being questioned before the Priests they could not get witnesses to agree that Jesus had actually made such a claim (Mark 14:58-59)! So to find people walking by using that statement as a point of mockery is strange, to say the least.

Of course, the Chief Priests and Teachers of the Law also mocked Jesus, demanding that He miraculously come down from the cross to prove his Messianic status, and both of the thieves crucified with Him mocked Him as well (Mark 15:31-32). It is a great display of an unsavory side of human nature. Everyone around Jesus was united in mob mentality to pick on Him, given His lofty claims versus His then-present lowly situation.

Next, from noon to 3 P.M. (the ninth hour), it got dark outside. Three hours of darkness in "the whole land", and yet there is no recorded history of this event happening outside the Bible. This was probably just thrown in for dramatic effect. :-) The end was about to come...

3 P.M. was also the time of the second ritual, daily sacrifice for the Priests. Another likely contrived coincidence.

Speaking of contrived coincidences, in Mark 15:34 we read:
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" NIV
The Christian story behind this cry, as Gill puts it, was that Jesus was "now without a sense of the gracious presence of God" and was facing the divine wrath for the sins of mankind. It is a quaint story, but it does not hold up to scrutiny.

Given that Jesus was God, or at least some integral part of God, how could Jesus not feel the presence of God? That would be like not being aware of your own presence, which is fairly difficult to do when you are conscious. ;-)

Yet an even greater paradox than that bizarre scenario of God not feeling His own pretense is the question of "why". Not my "why", but rather Jesus' "why". For Jesus to ask why this was happening would indicate that He did not know His purpose and God's plan, and yet He did know. Why would Jesus ask such a question when He knew the answer?

I will tell you why. Because the author of this Gospel wanted you to know what "prophesy" he was using as a script for the crucifixion, so that it would appear that the prophesy was fulfilled and thus enhance his credibility. It is a quote of Psalm 22:1. Psalm 22 was allegedly written by King David, metaphorically describing the events before he was king, when King Saul had his men hunting down David. Saul had essentially labeled David as public enemy #1.

While quite a bit of Psalm 22 appears to be a good match for the Jesus story, refer to this post to see that focusing on the details reveals that Psalm 22 has quite a bit that is not about Jesus at all, and even runs contrary to Jesus' story.

Anyway, people around Jesus thought that He was calling for Elijah when He made that yelp (Mark15:35). If people standing near the cross could not understand Jesus, then it is a bit of a mystery how anyone did understand Him enough to record Jesus' cry of forsakenness.

Someone offered Jesus wine vinegar to drink, which is a tie in to Psalm 69:21 (we discussed Psalm 69 in the previous post), and others mocked Jesus some more by saying that Elijah should save Him (Mark 15:36).

OK, on to Matthew. Again, as is typical with Matthew, he essentially copied Mark with only slight wording changes, with two exceptions where he, also as typical, added material.

The first significant change is that, while the time of the beginning of the crucifixion is not mentioned, instead we have a reference to soldiers keeping watch on Jesus (Matthew 27:36). This is unique to Matthew, and the vigilance displayed here portends the soldiers which would be used to guard Jesus tomb in Matthew 27:62-66. Matthew was trying to persuade his readers that there was no possible substitution or saving of Jesus, or taking of His body afterward.

The second addition comes in the form of a particular insult hurled at Jesus by the Chief Priests and Teachers of the Law in Matthew 27:43, which is mostly unremarkable other than that they are quoted as saying "He (Jesus) trusts in God" as if they did not, providing a little more slander against the Jewish religious elite.

Now, to Luke. Luke edited and rearranged the story quite a bit.

Luke 23:35 begins our study with people mocking Jesus on the cross. Noticeably absent is the mocking found in Matthew 27:39-40 and Mark 15:29-30 regarding Jesus destroying the Temple and rebuilding it in three days. That is no surprise, but is rather a mark of consistency for Luke, who had earlier edited out that charge against Jesus.

While Luke gets some points for consistency, we may need to subtract some for strangeness when we find in Luke 23:36-37:
The soldiers also came up and mocked Him. They offered Him wine vinegar and said, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself." NIV
The soldiers, who are implicitly Roman, somehow manage to associate being King of the Jews with having miraculous powers. Of course, it is also reasonable to guess that they had heard of the Messianic prophesies, or possibly that some Jews had been conscripted as soldiers, so we can give Luke a pass on this oddity.

In Luke 23:38 is the sign on the cross, which is essentially the same as Mark.

Next we come to the thieves on the cross. Different than Matthew and Mark, Luke 23:39-43 says that only one of the thieves mocked Jesus, while the other one claimed that Jesus was being punished without having done anything wrong. (Thanks, Luke, for that convenient, convincing reminder of Jesus' innocence.) That thief asked Jesus to remember him, and in Luke 23:43, we find this remarkable reply:
Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." NIV
This is a rather problematic verse on many levels, but the main issue is the "today" part for a few reasons.

The first reason is the technical detail that death by crucifixion would often take days, so it would be unlikely for that thief to have died that day in order to be in paradise with Jesus.

The second reason is the Scriptural contradiction versus John 20:17, where, after His resurrection, Jesus had said that He had not yet been to Heaven.

The third reason is the way in which it overturns so much dogma. But do not take my word for it. Here is what Christian Dr. Charles R. Erdman inserted into John Gill's biblical commentary:
In the salvation of one of the thieves, theology finds one of its finest demonstrations. Sacrementalism was refuted, for the thief was saved without recourse to baptism, the Lord's Supper, church, ceremony, or good works. The dogma of purgatory was refuted, for this vile sinner was instantly transformed into a saint and made fit for paradise apart from his personal expiation of a single sin. The teaching of universalism was refuted, for only one was saved of all who might have been saved. Jesus did not say, "Today shall ye be with me in paradise," but "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise." The notion of soul-sleep was refuted, for the clear implication of the entire incident is that the redeemed thief would be in conscious fellowship with his Saviour in paradise even while his body disintegrated in some grave. Too, it is doubtful whether any other gospel incident presents the plan of salvation more clearly or simply.
Like Matthew and Mark, Luke also recorded three hours of darkness (Luke 23:44), but Luke 23:45 added this interesting detail to explain why it was dark:
for the sun stopped shining. NIV
The sun stopped shining. When a skeptic asks why were there not contemporaneous reports about Jesus outside of the Bible, a common counter is that the religious elite suppressed the reporting of Jesus. However, even if they could have done such a thing, and somehow the rumors and stories the great teaching and miracles stayed within the bounds of Jewish influence, we should still see reports about the sun not shining all over the region, which, obviously, defies the laws of physics as we know them.

That is it for Luke. He edited out the claim of Jesus calling out, asking God why He had forsaken Him. Perhaps Luke realized how ludicrous such a cry would have been for Jesus to make, even at the expense of dropping a "prophetic" reference.

Finally, we come to John. If you have been following along, you already know that John will be different. ;-) However, it is not too different, suggesting that the story of the crucifixion was an early part of the Christian tradition. Anyway...

John 19:19-22 also mentions the sign on the cross calling Jesus the "King of the Jews" (although each of the four Gospels disagree over the precise wording of the sign). John adds the details that it was written in three languages, and that the Chief Priests complained to Pilate regarding the sign.

Then John 19:23-24 discussed the casting of lots for Jesus' bloody underwear, as we discussed previously. It is a different order than the other Gospels mention this, but really that is a trivial change, given the simultaneous nature of the event.

John 19:25-27 then uniquely recorded the charming scene of Jesus giving His mother to "the disciple whom he loved" (who most Christians consider to be John), and recorded how Jesus' mom then stayed in the home of that disciple. Of course, this makes us question if Jesus' father dead at that time, or did Joseph kick Mary out of the house? There is no mention either way, so we are left with speculation.

Without either a perceived call for Elijah or soldiers mocking Him, Jesus prompted receiving a wine vinegar spong-drink by saying "I am thirsty" (John 19:28-29).

And that is it! There was absolutely no mention of mocking Jesus on the cross, including any speech at all by the thieves recorded in John. That in and of itself is not so remarkable, as mocking was likely a common occurrence of the victims of crucifixion and therefore may not have been worth noting.

However, John does not even mention the land getting dark or the sun ceasing to shine for three hours. That is precisely the kind of detail you would want to include it it had actually happened, as you could easily say to a potential convert "Hey, do you remember years ago when the sun stopped shining in the middle of the day for three hours? That was because they crucified our Savior, Jesus, at that time."

Having all of these differences across the four Gospels, and some interesting conundrums within the accounts themselves, we have a blurry picture of what occurred in what is arguably the most important moment in Jesus' life. At best, it speaks of faulty memory and the fidelity loss in communicating between an eyewitness and a third party. At worst, it is fiction; a common story point in the myth which was tweaked as each author saw fit. Given the track record of the Gospels thus far, the latter case appears to be more likely.


  1. Aye. You'd think such shocking natural phenomenon would have been recorded elsewhere, but we don't see it.

  2. Yeah, that kind of makes the story suspect from the start. Not only that, but it suggests that God is not powerful enough to ensure that such independent witnesses of those events are maintained in order to bolster credibility to the future generations.

  3. I found the statement by Dr. Charles R. Erdman to be very interesting here. He seems to be using that verse to list off a number of ideas (which are held by some churches) and claiming them to be wrong. Is that his whole point or was he getting at something else as well?

  4. Obviously, I thought his comment was very interesting too, Hausdorff. :-) I read it over and thought that I could not really have phrased it much better, and the fact that it comes from a Christian as opposed to being from me would certainly give it more credibility to those that do not trust skeptics.

    I have to extrapolate a little bit to get his whole point, but this is how I read it:

    There are many established doctrines regarding what must be done to be saved and what happens when we die, but the truth of the matter is that these doctrines are misinterpretations at best. This verse clearly illustrates the simplicity of God's salvation: we are saved through God's grace alone, and the saved will be with Him in Heaven upon the very hour of their death.

  5. It's interesting to see him basically tear down other churches interpretation of how you get saved. He used scripture, but I'm sure they could do the same thing to support their views.

  6. Hausdorff, it is even more interesting that this doctrine of "by grace alone" (Sola Gratia) was one of the pillars of the Protestant Reformation, and was even claimed by Catholicism a long time ago, and yet there has been a back-sliding in many denominations into more of a legalistic "you must do X to be saved" kind of attitude. :-)

  7. Oh right, that's the idea that we all deserve hell so the only way to heaven is through God's grace. For some reason that didn't click for me when you said "through God's grace alone". It's funny, that idea seems to inseparable from Christianity to me, are there any people out there who think differently? I know the church I grew up in talked from time to time about faith vs works. They basically tried to have it both ways by saying that works don't get you in to heaven, but if you don't do those works it might be an indication that you aren't really saved. You don't need to do works to get into heaven, but if you are truly saved God will change your heart and make you want to do them.

  8. There is a whole spectrum of "grace" beliefs out there, Hausdorff, including that fundamental one you are talking about; that Salvation is possible only because of God's grace. But then there is also the specific level of who gets that Salvation, which I think the doctor's discussion is referring. Is it an open offer, or does God only offer it to some people, or does God force/did God make people in a certain way that only those people will accept Salvation? Plus, of course, there is the layer you reference as well, of are you "qualified" for Salvation by your works or by faith.

    Reading Romans 9:6-29 gives you the idea that those who are Saved are made to be Saved, and so it is by God's choice alone, which, in my opinion, could hardly be called "grace"! :-) Naturally, you can find verses which contradict that concept...