Well, I’ve talked about the resurrection narrative, and I’ve talked about the birth narrative, so now seems a good time to talk about the trial and crucifixion narrative. This is mostly for completeness: unlike the birth and resurrection, the stories contain few supernatural claims, and it doesn’t seem so surprising that someone claiming to be the Messiah and upsetting established authorities might end up being crucified.
Unlike the previous posts, there are a surprising number of points which are agreed on by all four gospels (it’s rare even for John to talk about the same events as the synoptics). But there are also significant disagreements and isolated stories that suggest later elaborations, so I’m going to focus on those.
There are a large number of minor differences in details between gospels. For example, the robe placed on Jesus is called purple in some records and scarlet in others. The different gospels also put some of the same events in different orders. I don’t intend to talk about these, as they could easily be explained by different people seeing the events from different perspectives, and don’t seem that important anyway.
(feel free to comment if you think some of the areas I pick on are similarly minor).
How many trials?
If we combine all the accounts from the gospels, Jesus was tried quite a few times in the hours between his arrest and his crucifixion. The gospels seem to agree on at least one trial before the Jewish authorities, and at least one trial before Herod.
John states there are two different trials before the Jewish leaders: One before Annas (father-in-law of the high priest), and the other before Caiaphas (the actual high priest). However, he gives very little detail about the trial in front of Caiaphas, and appears to talk of Annas as the high priest as well. Various details of John’s trial before Annas match with details of the single trial before the high priest in the other gospels.
Luke splits the trial before Pilate into two, with Jesus being sent to Herod in the middle for a separate trial. He also has Jesus dressed up in fine robes in Herod’s court rather than in Pilate’s court.
The witnesses did not agree
Given we’re discussing differences between the gospel records, it’s slightly ironic to see the trial of Jesus held up by false witnesses who could not agree. Though it is interesting that none of the other gospels agree with Mark on this story (Matthew talks about problems finding the appropriate false testimony, but doesn’t elaborate).
The thief on the cross
I think it is fair to say that the thief on the cross has become the patron saint of death-bed repentance. In a few short hours Jesus’ behaviour was enough to convince a fellow criminal that Jesus was truly the Messiah, and in God’s great mercy this criminal went straight to Paradise after he died. I guess for Jesus this act of mercy was fit preparation for the Harrowing of Hell.
Even theologically this traditional view has problems: It’s not quite clear why Jesus would go straight to Paradise without a body, return to his resurrected body on earth a few days later, then after a month go up into heaven with that resurrected body. Christadelphians tend to reconcile it by stating that Jesus was giving the thief immediate assurance that on the day of judgement Christ would admit him into paradise (see for example here, including some comments from me).
But even without the theological issues, this explanation has textual difficulties when reconciling with the other gospels. Matthew and Mark record that, as well as chief priests and bystanders, both of those crucified with him mocked him. Luke uses exactly the same slot in the narrative to state that one of the criminals mocked Jesus, and the other criminal corrected him. This doesn’t leave any room for a late conversion after a few hours of watching Jesus. Following the same distinction as I’ve used in my other articles, I don’t think these are different aspects of the same story: Luke is giving a different story.
To be fair, there is another explanation which allows these accounts to be reconciled. It also fits with Christadelphian theology without any need for repunctuation. What if Luke was merely recording how the two criminals mocked Jesus? In this theory, the second criminal had no death-bed repentance: he was merely sarcastically baiting the man dying beside him. Not really different from the first criminal, the soldiers, or the crowd: all of which Luke records taunting Jesus to save himself. A death-bed repentance requires a lot of this criminal: he would need to have some way to know that Jesus was innocent, and to have some reason to expect that the man dying on the cross next to him would have a kingdom in the future. However, all mockery requires is knowledge that Jesus claimed to be a king - a thing said to be literally written on Jesus’ cross. Jesus then responded to that sarcasm with equal sarcasm. By the end of the day both of them would be in “Paradise”: dead and buried. Whether or not Jesus expected to be resurrected, there would be no resurrection for this criminal.
Personally, I don’t think this second explanation compelling. But it does at least reconcile textually with Matthew and Mark better than the traditional explanation.
I think it much more likely that the entire story was a later addition which was meant to support death-bed repentance and provide another witness to Jesus’ greatness, his mercy, and his coming kingdom. It fits well with the Jesus who forgave those crucifying him (also unique to Luke).
The seven last sayings of Jesus
Jesus is claimed to have said seven things while on the cross (seven being the number of perfection). This is the traditional order:
- Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke)
- Today you will be with me in paradise (Luke)
- Behold your son: behold your mother (John)
- My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew and Mark)
- I thirst (John)
- It is finished (John)
- Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke)
However, the thing that stands out to me here is that there are three separate lists of sayings with no real commonality. Three of the sayings appear only in Luke, three of them appear only in John, and the remaining one appears in both Matthew and Mark. No overlap at all. The order we have them in is a reconciliation: someone’s best guess that has become dogma.
To be fair, they aren’t completely distinct records: some of the sayings in Luke and John look like elaborations on spots left in Matthew and Mark. But there are some odd omissions from the different records, and I think the oddest one is that “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is omitted from both Luke and John.
The phrase itself seems to be a reference to an account of David’s experiences in Psalm 22. In his crucifixion account, John makes no less than four references to specific prophecies being fulfilled. One of them is even from a later part of Psalm 22. And yet he does not even mention this saying, let alone relate it back to the Psalm as a fulfillment of prophecy. Why not?
Luke’s record is also significant: he seems to be following the narrative structure of Matthew and Mark, and even elaborates on the later “loud cry” of Matthew and Mark. And yet he leaves this out completely. Why?
With the exception of the three hours of darkness, there is very little in the accounts in Mark, Luke, or John that appears supernatural. Matthew, on the other hand, is filled with supernatural events and claims:
- Jesus claims he can summon twelve legions of angels to defend him: The number of men in a legion varied significantly at different times of the Roman empire, but it suggests a force of 40 - 70 thousand angels. Had such an army responded, this might have been sufficient to fulfill the role of the expected Messiah and take over the Roman empire. It was certainly a larger force than the combined standing legions of neighbours Syria and Egypt. And when one considers that a single angel can kill 185,000 in a single night, this could be an unstoppable force. But as it is that claim of force was never demonstrated.
- Pilate’s wife has a dream: Pilate’s wife is somehow able to know Jesus is a righteous person, in spite of probably never meeting him. She suffers in a dream and tells Pilate to have nothing to do with Jesus. Don’t forget, dreams were also Matthew’s preferred way to advance the story-line in Jesus’ birth narrative. None of the other gospels seem to use them at all.
- Two earthquakes: It’s not fair: None of the other gospels gets a single earthquake, but Matthew gets two. One when Jesus dies, and one when an angel comes down from heaven after he is resurrected.
- Resurrection of the saints: At Jesus’ death, the earthquake opens some tombs, and dead saints are resurrected. However, it appears they stay in their comfortable tombs for the next three days, as they only go into the city after his resurrection (maybe Matthew got confused and really meant them to be resurrected by the second earthquake?)
- An angel opening the tomb: Matthew is the only one who has guards in front of the tomb. Fortunately, an angel comes from heaven to stun the guards, set off the second earthquake, roll back the stone, sit on it, and then tell the women not to be afraid because he has a message for them. This whole situation with the guards has the feel of Matthew inventing a problem just so he can solve it by supernatural means. It also has the advantage of co-opting the Jewish authorities as unwilling witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection predictions.
I have heard apologists talk about the Gospel of Peter as an example of later embellishment. And the case they point to is the resurrection: The Gospel of Peter has the tomb visited by two men with heads reaching to heaven and a walking and talking cross. And I agree: this does sound like a few fantastical elements have been added.
The assertion is then that the canonical gospels must be historical fact, since they do not show this level of embellishment. Sounds plausible, until you realise the various supernatural elements I’ve discussed are only added by Matthew. How is this not legendary development? Is an angel coming down from heaven with an earthquake to overcome the newly invented guards really more plausible than a talking cross? How about saints being resurrected, testifying in the city, then never being heard of again?
It’s also worth noting that these supernatural interludes could easily have been introduced to illustrate theological points:
- The twelve legions of angels shows Jesus could have been the powerful Messiah he was prophesied to be, but didn’t fulfill that destiny because it wouldn’t match other prophecies (maybe next time!)
- Pilate’s wife’s dream shows an important Roman being convinced of Jesus’ righteousness.
- The resurrection of the saints at Jesus’ death shows that in Jesus’ death believers can have life (I think that is why it is inserted then rather than at Jesus’ resurrection where the timeline would make more sense).
- The angel overcoming the guards and opening the tomb shows that neither human authorities nor death itself could prevent the Messiah’s destiny.
The four gospels are probably more united in their account of the crucifixion than in their account of any other event in the life of Jesus. In spite of that, there are still significant differences between the different accounts. I’ve identified a few sections which seem to me particularly suspicious, but there are others (for example, I have my doubts about the three hours of darkness in the synoptics).
It is possible to reconcile just about all the differences between the different accounts, though some of the reconciliations are a stretch. In fact, my biggest source for this study was reading through a gospel harmony with a critical eye.
If we knew the records were independent eye-witness accounts, I might give more thought to how to reconcile them. But we don’t know that, and I think the evidence points once again to legends which developed over time. Particularly for the synoptics, the similarities in the narrative flow could easily suggest a common source (maybe even Mark itself). It doesn’t suggest independent witnesses that just happened to record different views of the same event following the same structure.
But really, whether or not the stories started from a common historical core, without the resurrection Jesus’ crucifixion does little to support the remarkable claims of Christianity.