Toward Understanding the New Testament
Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin
The Passion and the Resurrection
[p.214]From the beginning of the church, the Passion was crucial to the Christian doctrine of salvation.1 It is understandable, therefore, that the Gospel accounts of the last events in Jesus’s life were expanded and enriched as faith in his messiahship spread. Some details were probably modified to support the claim that these events fulfilled Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah. For example, the literary form of the reports of Jesus’s pronouncements from the cross was probably influenced by several of the Psalms (Ps 22, 31:5, 38:11, 69:21).
The Passion Narratives
Questions relating to the fact and manner of Jesus’s death greatly troubled the early Christians: Why should the Messiah suffer and die? Who brought about his execution? Did he die because of Jewish persecution or were Rome and Roman officials responsible for his death? Why were his disciples not more valiant in his defense? How did Jesus conduct himself before his accusers? How did he answer charges brought against him? How did he finally meet his suffering and death? How should a Christian conduct himself in the face of similar persecution? The passion narratives were responses to these and related questions.
Behind the account of the last events of Jesus’s life described in Mark 14 and 15, there may have been an earlier pre-Markan account consisting of at least the following elements: a conspiracy theme; a last meal, arrest, and trials before the Jewish council and Pilate; sentencing; the procession to Golgotha; and the crucifixion. [p.215]Variations among the four Gospels have led some scholars to conclude that there are really three different canonical forms of the narrative: Mark-Matthew, Luke, and John. Luke and John, although seeming to follow the same basic tradition, differ in important respects from the format of Mark-Matthew and perhaps had independent sources.2
Mark’s account began with the dramatic, succinct statement that “it was now two days before the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth, and kill him” (Mk 14:1). Matthew added that Jesus predicted his own arrest and death and that at the Passover he would be “delivered up to be crucified” (Mt 26:2-5). Matthew recorded that while Jesus was still with his disciples, a council composed of the chief priests and the elders of the people was gathering at the court of Caiaphas. Matthew interpreted this gathering as a formal meeting of the council called in order to arrest Jesus. That the council was anxious to arrest him without risking a serious disturbance among the people suggests that Jesus probably had an appreciable following.
The chief priests were apparently uncertain as to the best time to take action against Jesus. Their problem was simplified, however, when one of the twelve, Judas Iscariot, who seemed to have grave doubts about the purposes or the direction of Jesus’s ministry, stepped forward with his proposal to deliver Jesus to them. For this they paid Judas the generous sum of thirty pieces of silver (Mt 26:14-16). All he needed thereafter was an opportunity to complete the bargain. Luke added that “Satan entered into Judas” (Lk 22:3-5). In Luke’s view, this explained the betrayal.3
[p.216]The problem of Judas’s treachery is difficult and perplexing. What was his motive? The characterization of Judas as the tight-fisted keeper and manager of the treasury and as a thief, a portrayal well known to Christians over the centuries, is based primarily upon the story in John’s Gospel of the anointing of Jesus’s feet by Mary (Jn 12:4-6). According to John, Judas Iscariot said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” John added that Judas said this not because he cared for the poor “but because he was a thief” and that since Judas kept the “money box he used to take what was put into it.”
Matthew’s explanation supports the Christian claim that events involving Jesus fulfilled the prophecies and expectations of the Messiah. Matthew drew a parallel between Judas and the treasonous shepherd of Zechariah’s allegory, “And they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver” (Zec 11:7, 12-14). But if Judas was actually the miserly, treacherous thief portrayed in the Gospels, why would he have accepted the risks of joining Jesus’s company at all? And why would Jesus have chosen him as a special companion and disciple? How can Judas’s final resolve to take his own life be explained? The Gospel accounts fail to answer these questions; rather, they tell more about the strong feelings of the evangelists toward Judas than about Judas’s own character and motives.
The name “Iscariot” is used to distinguish Judas, the betrayer, from the other Judas, son of James, who was also a disciple of Jesus. Judas Iscariot was apparently a southerner, a Judean rather than a Galilean. He may have gone to Jerusalem expecting Jesus to confront Jewish officials and, based on the model of John the Baptist, bring them and the populace to repentance in preparation for the coming of God’s kingdom. This view assumes that Judas was devoted to Jesus and was loyal to his cause until a critical point. But as a Judean, his loyalty to traditional Judaism was deeper, and he could not betray it. Judas’s commitment to the Jewish religion—to the way of Torah—is the crucial element of [p.217]this theory. It was not possible for Judas to depart in any fundamental way from Judaism, and Jesus seemed to be going beyond his original aim to reform and restore Israel according to the Mosaic Covenant. Specifically, Jesus’s direct attack upon the Temple and its officials seemed to Judas to threaten the very integrity and foundation of Judaism itself. Also, the course Jesus was pursuing would inevitably bring him into confrontation with Roman power with disastrous consequences both for him and his followers and for the Jewish religious and civil establishment. On this theory, Judas betrayed Jesus in order to prevent such a disaster.
According to an alternative view, Judas had been a member of a company of Jewish radicals or revolutionaries such as the Zealots and had joined Jesus’s band expecting that Jesus would play a political/military role in leading the populace in Jerusalem and Judea to overthrow the Romans and the privileged classes of Greeks and Syrians who had gained their prestige and power under Roman rule. When Jesus failed to satisfy these expectations, Judas became disillusioned and abandoned the entire venture. To prevent further disaster to himself and the Galilean disciples, he went to the Jewish officials intending to put an end to Jesus. Explanations such as these are at least as plausible as the accounts provided by the Gospel writers themselves. However, all attempts to explain Judas’s actions, his motives, and intentions are conjectures without much evidential support.4
The Last Supper
Jesus explicitly predicted that he would be betrayed at the so-called Last Supper which the disciples had prepared. “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” In response to the excited questions of the disciples, Jesus replied, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me” (Mk 14:18, 20). It is clear that [p.218]Mark (followed by Matthew and Luke) intended this supper to be understood as the Passover meal, which occurs on the first day of the Unleavened Bread. Although John seems to have assumed that the event took place, he gave no account of it. In place of the Last Supper, John’s Gospel included an account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet (Jn 13:1-20).5 Because essential ingredients for the celebration of the Passover are not mentioned, and because John omits the event, some historians have concluded that the original account referred to a special meal shared by Jesus with his disciples that was later, for theological purposes, recast by Mark as a Passover meal. Understood in this way, the synoptic Gospels have interpreted this last meal as the celebration of the Jewish Passover to which Jesus attached a new meaning for the Gospel writers and for the early Christian church. Whatever the occasion, the last meal was the origin of the Christian celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
According to Mark, during the meal Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mk 14:22-24).6 Sharing a meal and breaking bread in a table-fellowship is an important motif in the Gospels. This theme occurs at the most critical times in Jesus’s ministry—events connected with the feeding of the five thousand when he probably made his decision to go to Jerusalem and the Last Supper just after his confrontation at the Temple with the Jewish officials.7
[p.219]For the Gospel writers and the early church whose attitudes and beliefs they expressed, the Last Supper had a sacramental meaning. For Jesus this was the final participation in the table-fellowship with his apostles. It was the last opportunity to break bread with his closest disciples and to recommit himself and them to their common goal, the realization of the Kingdom of God. Bread and wine were symbols of their common purpose. However, it was the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine as a company or fellowship and not the bread and wine in themselves which were truly significant. Jesus and his disciples were companions breaking bread together as a last expression of their shared commitment to the promise of a new Israel.8
The “cup” stands out dramatically in the passion events—in the Last Supper and at Gethsemane. It is especially prominent in the earliest manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel (Lk 22:19f). “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” This statement and the passage “Do this in remembrance of me” may have been borrowed by Luke from Paul’s wording in 1 Corinthians 11:24f.9 In Matthew and Mark the sense of immediacy and urgency associated with the idea of the promise is clear: “I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Mt 26:29).
After eating and singing a hymn, Jesus and the disciples went outside the city walls to the Mount of Olives. Luke’s account sug-[p.220]gests that Jesus had gone on previous nights to the same place. They passed through one of the gates of the city wall, crossed the Kidron Valley, and ascended the slope of the Mount to a place called Gethsemane, meaning “oil press.” The name apparently referred to a particular olive orchard in which an olive press was located (Mt 26:36).10 Jesus went to pray in this secluded spot and, presumably, to contemplate coming events.
Apparently Jesus had realized for some time that he and his intimate associates would be extremely vulnerable in Jerusalem. His preaching had aroused opposition from some Jewish officials, and Jerusalem was the seat of their power. Now he faced his greatest opposition—he had attacked the most holy of Jewish institutions, the Temple, and had challenged the authority and power of those who controlled the Temple, the priests and Levites, most of whom were Sadducees. His preaching against the city, “Your house is forsaken” (Mt 23:28), and against the Temple, “There will not be left here one stone” (Mt 14:27, 30), could not go uncontested. Those who feared him most would surely seek to have him silenced.
On the way to Gethsemane, according to Mark and Matthew, Jesus said that his disciples would abandon him, “You will all fall away.”11 The denial motif is prominent in all four Gospels, with Peter as the central figure: “You will deny me three times” (Mk 14:27, 30).12 Perhaps these are predictions after the fact that were included by the Gospel authors in order to soften the defection of the disciples. It seems unlikely, for example, that the prediction found only in Luke (Lk 22:32) that Peter would turn again to strengthen his “brethren” is authentic to Jesus. Rather this may be an assessment of Peter by the early church after he had become a pillar of the faith. For the Gospel writers, especially Luke, the defection and Peter’s [p.221]denials were integral to the divine purpose. This interpretation absolved the disciples from full responsibility for their behavior in abandoning Jesus in his last hours. Apologetics is a basic characteristic of the Gospels.
The familiar story of Jesus’s prayer in the garden is a crucial element of the account of the Passion.
And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.” (Mk 14:33-36)13
Even this late the temptation for Jesus to abandon his course may have been great. Was it really God’s purpose to bring his mission to the climax of death? Would his disciples be able to see it through to the end? The intensity of the inner struggle and the great stress Jesus experienced are expressed in some later manuscripts of the Luke text by the report that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground” (Lk 22:44). Jesus was alone at the moment of his greatest crisis, the moment of his supreme commitment to the cause of the Kingdom, for the disciples, wrapped in their cloaks, were sleeping. When he returned to them, he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour?” (Mk 14:37.
The Arrest of Jesus
While he was still speaking, Judas came leading a crowd, armed with swords and clubs, sent by the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Mark explains that “the betrayer had given them [p.222]a sign, saying, ‘The one I shall kiss is the man'” (Mk 14:44).14 He kissed Jesus and as they seized him, one of his disciples drew his sword.15 According to Matthew, Jesus reprimanded him, saying that those who take the sword will perish by the sword. “All this has taken place,” he said, “that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Mt 26:56).
Surely Jesus was sufficiently well known in Jerusalem by this time that there was no need for Judas to identify him. It seems, rather, that the betrayal was disclosing Jesus’s nightly refuge, for it was important to take him secretly away from the main body of his Galilean followers and other sympathizers in order to avoid a possible public disturbance. If he was arrested quietly, his intimate band could be scattered without a public demonstration. He was apprehended when, with a few disciples, he was otherwise alone, isolated, and most vulnerable. No doubt this was what the Jewish officials had bargained for. Jesus’s comment, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me” (Mk 14:48f), confirms this interpretation. When Jesus yielded without a struggle, the disciples, surprised and no doubt frightened and in complete confusion, fled from the scene (Mk 14:48-50).16
Here the record from Luke differs somewhat from that of Mark and Matthew. In Luke, when the disciples saw that Jesus was about to be seized, they asked if they should strike the armed men with their swords. Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest. When Jesus saw this, he sternly replied, “No more of [p.223]this!” (Lk 22:49-51). This may be the dramatic conclusion of an earlier episode, reported only in Luke, involving Jesus’s puzzling comments about the two swords (Lk 22:35-38). In these passages Jesus reminded his disciples of their experience in Galilee when he sent them out among the people with no purse, bag, or sandals. He asked, “Did you lack anything?” and “they said, ‘Nothing.'” Jesus’s metaphor, intended as irony, “let him who has a purse take it … And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one,” was misunderstood and taken literally by his disciples, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” Once the disciples completely accepted their total dependence upon God and the generosity of the people. Now, when the tide of approval and popularity changed, they followed the way of violence and power. Then Jesus, apparently dismayed by their failure to understand correctly what had taken place, dismissed the subject, “It is enough.” In Luke’s view what they did not understand was that these happenings were much more than simply historical events. For Luke the betrayal, the arrest, and the trial leading to Jesus’s death had cosmic import; behind the conspiracy against Jesus was the power of evil. According to Luke what Jesus understood and his disciples could not “see” was that all these events occurred in accordance with the divine plan. This is what Jesus meant when he said to the crowd accompanying Judas, “But this is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Lk 22:53).
The Gospel of John repeats the major Lukan theme, that the plot to betray Jesus was a supernatural, cosmic drama with Satan at the helm. But in the Fourth Gospel the particulars of the historical conflict involving the opposition from Sadducees, Pharisees, and Herodians have all but disappeared. Here the expression “the Jews” is used to represent the entire group of unbelievers who willfully and knowingly reject the Christ. John refers to “the Jews” as though Jesus was not one of them (Jn 19:7, 12-14). They are in open rebellion against “the Light,” “the Truth,” and “the Life,” which is Christ. Thus, in John’s Gospel the theme of opposition is extended—”the Jews” are perceived as pawns playing out roles directed by Satan and his demons to bring about Jesus’ downfall. This stereotype became in time a central feature of the Passion Plays of the [p.224]medieval Christian churches and contributed greatly to the anti-Semitism of the Christians.
Jesus Before the Jewish Authorities
Jesus was taken to the private residence of the high priest, identified by Matthew as Caiaphas. He was probably held there until the early morning, when he was arraigned before the council.17 The palace of Caiaphas contained an enclosed court, and here as Peter joined the servants of the high priest who were warming themselves by the flickering fire, he was identified as a disciple of Jesus (Mk 14:67). According to Matthew, when Peter denied being with Jesus his accent betrayed him as a Galilean. Perhaps also his clothing made him a suspicious figure among the Judean servants. He denied his association with Jesus three times in the course of the night (Mt 26:69-75). Following his third denial, the cock crowed. Luke tempered the words of Peter, omitting Peter’s cursing himself as reported in Mark and Matthew, and added, “The Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered …” (Lk 22:61). This remembering is a significant feature of the synoptic interpretation of the last events, because it supported the tradition that the entire course of events accorded with the divine purpose.
Certain factors relating to the trials of Jesus have long been a matter of controversy among both Jewish and Christian scholars. All four Gospels record seven hearings or judicial proceedings, each of which is purported by one or more of the authors to have been a legal action. These proceedings cannot plausibly be harmonized into one chronological account. E. Saunders and others have pointed out that such an interpretation would require that the interval between Jesus’s arrest and his crucifixion be lengthened by several days. Such delay would undermine the claims of the evangelists that everything was done hastily to avoid undue disturbance among the populace.18 Although there is no ground for believing that the evangelists’ narratives do not report essentially [p.225]authentic data, the confusing, complex composition of the Gospels is nowhere more evident than in the Passion stories. The Gospels were written not only to preserve the tradition about Jesus but also to strengthen the faith of the Christian community at a later period. They contain an overlay of early Christian beliefs about the last events in Jesus’s life which provided direction for the church in the critical period of reconstruction after the Jewish-Roman war.
Mark and Matthew refer to Jesus’s arraignment before the “whole council,” apparently referring to the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish tribunal (Mk 14:53, 33; Mt 26:57-59). However, there is some question of whether Jesus was tried before this highest court or before some lesser assembly. Some scholars have concluded that the council indicated was not the religious Sanhedrin but rather a civil court presided over by the high priest and made up of members who were Sadducees.19 R. M. Seltzer has pointed out that for the late Second Temple period, it is unclear how much control the Sanhedrin had over provincial and local courts or what jurisdiction the Romans exercised in the Jewish court system.20 Because of the lack of reliable knowledge in such matters, many problems relating to the trials have not been fully resolved and are matters of continuing debate.
In Luke’s account, following his arrest Jesus was held for the remainder of the night at the high priest’s home. Here the circumstances of Peter’s denial were detailed and Luke reported that “the men who were holding Jesus mocked him and beat him.” Then, Luke concluded, “When day came, the assembly of the elders … gathered together, both chief priests and scribes; and they led him away to their council” (Lk 22:63, 66). Perhaps a preliminary interrogation was conducted by the high priest; however, it is doubtful that this interrogation constituted a formal trial before “the whole council” [p.226]as Matthew and Mark imply (Mk 14:55; Mt 26:59). In these accounts the council appears determined that Jesus should die.21 The pertinent question was how could his execution be brought about without creating a disturbance among the people. Many historians have concluded that the trial was illegal according to Jewish law because it was held at night and in secrecy. Others, however, have questioned the reliability of certain elements in the traditional accounts. The Jewish historian Joseph Klausner, for instance, held in his work Jesus of Nazareth that the so-called trial was a preliminary investigation only and legally could have been held at night. Moreover, Klausner doubted whether the Sadducean-dominated Sanhedrin recognized the rule prohibiting night trials. Also he questioned the report of Mark and Matthew that the “trial” was at night, since Luke placed it in the morning (Lk 22:66).22
When the high priest asked Jesus for his answer to those who testified that he had said he would destroy the Temple, he made no reply. But according to Mark, when the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Matthew reads “the Son of God” (Mt 26:63)), he replied either “you say that I am”23 or “I am” (Mk 14:61f). Then the high priest tore his mantle and, accusing Jesus of blasphemy, called for the council’s decision. “And they all condemned him as deserving death” (Mk 14:63f).
The Question of Jesus’s Guilt
In Matthew and Luke, and some manuscripts of Mark, Jesus’s answer was indirect, “You have said so,” and “If I tell you, you [p.227]will not believe” and “you say that I am” (Mk 14:62). Jesus’s response was understood by the high priest and the council to be blasphemous, and he was promptly declared worthy of death. In all of this Jesus was perceived by the Gospel writers as entirely innocent of any charge of crime or blasphemy. He was described as the model for Christian martyrdom. In demeanor he was calm and poised, at peace with himself, accepting whatever consequences might result from his confession.24
Why were some Jewish officials so opposed to Jesus? With respect to much of his teachings and practices, Jesus was thoroughly Jewish. He went regularly to the synagogue, and during his last days in Jerusalem he taught in the Temple. He cited passages from the books of the Old Testament which clearly indicate that for him they were holy scripture. When, for example, he was asked which commandment came first, he responded as a devout Jew, quoting from the Shema and from Leviticus (Dt 6:4f; Lv 19:18). When, on another occasion, he was addressed as “Good Teacher,” his response was prompt and direct, as if to correct a mistaken notion about himself: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:18).
Would the claim to be the Messiah have constituted blasphemy under Jewish custom and law? There were other messianic figures in the first century, none of whom, as far as is known, was tried by Jewish courts for blasphemy.25 Was the content of what he proclaimed and taught about the coming of God’s kingdom at issue? Did the problem lie in his eschatological pronouncements? From Jesus’s time to the present, Judaism has had the greatest tolerance for differences in belief; also apocalyptic books and themes [p.228]were well known and very popular among some Jewish religious groups in Jesus’s day. The movement associated with Jesus issued from the strong eschatological temper that prevailed among the Jews of the first century CE.
Jesus’s actions were no doubt more disconcerting than his teachings. He went to Jerusalem followed by a band of Galileans. This alone would have threatened Judean and Roman officials. Whatever Jesus believed about his own identity, for some of his disciples he was a messianic figure like Elijah, heralding the coming of the messianic era, or was the Messiah himself. In the so-called cleansing of the Temple and in the statements about the destruction of the Temple with which he was charged, Jesus appeared to attack the most sacred institution in Judaism. But his attack was directed not at the Temple itself but at the power structure which managed the Temple, the priests and their attendants who controlled many facets of the civic and personal religious life of the people. This meant that Jesus’s major opponents were the Sadducees, the most politically powerful group in Judea, whose interests coincided with those of Rome.26 The Sadducees had the most to lose from an uprising against the Temple establishment or against Rome.
The Roman Trial and the Arraignment Before Herod
The Passion narratives place the responsibility for Jesus’s conviction and death primarily on the Jewish authorities and more or less exonerate the Roman officials. This raises interesting questions concerning the relationship of the Christian churches to both Jews and Romans at the time the Gospels were composed. Pontius Pilate, who was of Spanish origin, had served in the Roman legions in the German campaigns. At the close of that war, he had led a dissolute life of pleasure in Rome. A royal marriage with Claudia, foster daughter of the Emperor Tiberius, secured him the position of procurator of Judea in 25 or 26 CE. The pro-[p.229]curator of Judea had considerable power but was responsible to the Roman governor of Syria in Antioch. Philo, a Jewish contemporary in Alexandria, is said to have referred to Pilate as a man of harsh quality. Pilate’s official residence was at Caesarea on the shore of the Mediterranean, the Roman capital city constructed by Herod the Great. However, he apparently went to Jerusalem during the holy days, perhaps for the purpose of preventing or containing any threatened uprising. It was probably at the fortress Antonia, remains of which can be seen even now near the Temple site, that Jesus was arraigned before Pilate when he was delivered by the council.
Luke’s narrative provides the fullest account of the complaints against Jesus—that he perverted the nation and forbade the payment of tribute. “We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ a king” (Lk 23:2). In the eyes of a Roman official, of course, these were damaging charges and the worst was that Jesus claimed to be “Christ, a king.” In the account of all four Gospels this claim was central to Pilate’s examination of Jesus. The charge of blasphemy or other complaints relating entirely to the Jewish religion probably would have carried little weight with Pilate.
The contention that the Roman procurator was provoked into executing Jesus by Jewish religious leaders and officials is strongly supported in the Fourth Gospel. In this connection, John added to the account the accusation of the mob that if Pilate were to release Jesus, he would not be Caesar’s friend (Jn 19:12). According to John, Caiaphas and the high priests employed this threat to force Pilate to do their bidding. A message to Rome that Pilate was protecting an insurrectionist would undermine Pilate’s apparently already precarious position as an official representative of Roman authority. In a key passage from John’s Gospel, Pilate instructed the Jewish authorities to take Jesus and judge him by their own law. But they replied that it was not lawful for them to execute a person (Jn 18:31). Whether the Jewish Sanhedrin was actually prevented from executing a person because of the restrictions placed upon it by Roman authority has been a matter of controversy among his-[p.230]torians. That the Sanhedrin was restricted in this way is challenged today by some scholars. Joseph Klausner, in Jesus of Nazareth, says, “We have seen that at that time the Jews could not pass sentence of death, at least not in a case affecting a Messiah, i.e., a political question.”27
Some have argued that the passage regarding the restriction on Jewish authority, which is recorded only in John’s Gospel, is historical on the ground that John had a historically reliable source not available to the synoptic writers. However, John’s statement might simply reflect his bias against the Jews and in favor of the Romans. In any event, according to John, one charge would ensure Jesus’s death—the charge of sedition. If the council could convince Pilate of the danger to Rome of the claims made for Jesus as a political messiah, it would have grounds for forcing the procurator’s hand.
When Pilate asked Jesus whether he was the King of the Jews, Jesus responded, as reported by all three synoptics, “You have said so” (Mt 27:11; Mk 15:2; Lk 23:3). This might be interpreted as an affirmative reply. But clearly Jesus did not intend to become a political figure, a monarch on the model of David or the Hasmonean kings. In his reply to Pilate he may have meant that he did not make the claim but that Pilate had raised the question. According to Luke, when Pilate told the chief priests and the assembled people that he found no crime in Jesus, the chief priests “were urgent, saying, ‘He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place'” (Lk 23:5).
Jesus was a Galilean and probably in some matters under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas. According to Luke’s Gospel, which contains the only report of this event (Lk 23:6-12), when Pilate learned that Jesus was a Galilean he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jeru-[p.231]salem, probably for the Passover. Herod questioned Jesus at some length, but Jesus made no response. In Luke’s account Herod and his attendants treated the entire matter lightly; they arrayed Jesus in “gorgeous apparel” to show their contempt of him and sent him back to Pilate.28
The authenticity of the account of the arraignment before Herod is subject to question. Some scholars have questioned whether the Roman procurator would have acknowledged Herod’s jurisdiction in Jerusalem.29 Moreover, Luke’s account of the trial before and after the arraignment before Herod is continuous, as if the Herod episode were arbitrarily inserted. But why might Luke have modified the story in this way? How are his curious comments about Pilate and Herod becoming friends “that very day” to be understood? (Lk 23:12).
M. Goguel has suggested that the Herod story supports one of Luke’s major beliefs, that all the powers of this world were set against Jesus. According to Luke-Acts such a state of affairs fulfilled Old Testament prophecy that “The kings of the earth set themselves in array, … against the Lord and against his Anointed” (Acts 4:26). Pilate and Herod were specifically referred to in Acts as the rulers “gathered together … against his Anointed.” All of this was happening, in Luke’s view, according to God’s predestined plan (Acts 4:27f). Some have held that the reference to Jesus in this passage as “thy holy servant” relates to the Suffering Servant,” who was oppressed, was taken away without justice, and did not open his mouth.30 Primitive Christians identified Jesus with Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, establishing a tradition that has persisted to the present.
The Sentence of Jesus
[p.232]According to Luke, neither Pilate nor Herod found Jesus’s behavior deserving of death. Presumably he could then have been released. Pilate proposed to let him off with a flogging, apparently not hesitating to scourge an innocent man if it were politically expedient (Lk 23:16). But the Gospels give another way out for Pilate. They represent Pilate as following a custom of releasing a prisoner at popular request at the Passover feast.31 However, such a Passover custom is not known from other sources. Also the evidence is lacking to show conclusively that lesser Roman officials—legates or procurators—had the power to grant pardons or that they did so. On the other hand, all four Gospel writers agree on this matter, a fact which lends some credibility to their accounts.
The identification of Barabbas as a prisoner who might be released poses yet another problem. Though Barabbas is referred to in John as “a robber” (Jn 18:40), the term can also refer to a guerrilla warrior.32 In Mark and Luke he is a rebel imprisoned for insurrection and murder (Mk 15:7). According to Luke an insurrection had been incited in the city (Lk 23:19). Apparently Jesus and Barabbas had been imprisoned on similar charges—rebellion against established authority. Although the civil charges against the two may have been similar, even identical, the crowd is represented as demanding release for Barabbas and death for Jesus. According to Mark and Matthew, the chief priests and the elders had stirred the crowd into a mob, and Pilate knew this to be the case (Mk 15:10; Mt 27:18).33
[p.233]In some manuscripts of the Matthew text (27:16f), Barabbas is identified more precisely by name as “Jesus Barabbas.”34 Because of this, some scholars have conjectured that Pilate’s question was for the purpose of identifying the prisoner who was about to appear before him. It was intended for the lesser officials who had direct charge of such matters. Who was he about to examine and sentence—Jesus Barabbas (son of Abbas) or Jesus son of Joseph?35
Matthew added that when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing and that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves” (Mt 27:24). A Roman official would not normally wash his hands on such an occasion. But this final dramatic gesture impressed upon Christian disciples in Matthew’s day Pilate’s complete innocence. Matthew added the comment, “His blood be on us and on our children!”36 Then Pilate released Barabbas, and after having scourged Jesus turned him over to the soldiers to be crucified (Mt 27:25f).
The Gospel of John supplies some additional details. After the scourging Pilate would have released Jesus, but the Jewish prosecutors cried out, “‘Everyone who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar. … We have no king but Caesar.’ Then he handed him over to them to be crucified” (Jn 19:12-16).
The castle of Antonia or the Antonia Fortress was constructed on the northeastern corner of the Temple Mount by Herod the [p.234]Great and named in honor of Mark Antony, the Roman official most instrumental in placing him on the Jewish throne. The Antonia was joined to the Temple compound by a staircase, and in Jesus’s time its highest tower (approximately 115 feet high) dominated the Temple and the city. Some historians, following a statement of Josephus that Pilate did not inhabit the Antonia when in Jerusalem, have argued that the trial was held at the Herodian palace. But it is usually believed that the Praetorium, the place of the trial, was located in the Antonia.37 It was in the Praetorium that, according to John 19:5, Pilate uttered the words which have become famous through the Latin vulgate, Ecce Homo or “Behold the man!”
On the western side of the Antonia Fortress was a tessellated stone pavement. This paved square was used in Roman times by the legionnaires for training, for parades, and for recreation. It may have been at this place that the soldiers stripped Jesus and placed a robe upon him, possibly a soldier’s cloak. They made a crown to parody the emperor’s crown and placed in his hand a reed as a sceptre of his authority. All of this was intended to mock Jesus for allegedly claiming to be the “King of the Jews” (Mk 15:17-19).
Under the Roman judicial system, sentences were carried out immediately. Jesus was dressed in his own clothing and led away to the place of execution. Crucifixion was a common mode of Roman punishment for the most serious crimes, but it was also used by other ancient people—Greeks, Phoenicians, and Persians.38 In early Roman times crucifixion was considered so demeaning that it was used only for the execution of slaves.
In the earliest form of this execution, the victim was fastened not upon a cross but on a single post set upright in the ground, and left to die. The Roman cross was more elaborate, an upright post and a cross-beam to which the victim was either nailed or tied. [p.235]Apparently the Roman mode of execution was based on a deterrence theory of punishment—the more horrible and public the punishment, the fewer the crimes. Hence the victims were placed along the main highways or near the city wall, usually on a hill where they could be easily observed.
For sixteen centuries the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been venerated by the pious as the place of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial—Golgotha. Its location at the time of Jesus was probably outside the city walls; today it is inside the “old city” whose northern wall is of more recent origin. This church was first constructed by the Roman emperor Constantine in the early fourth century in the place identified by his mother, Helena, during her pilgrimage to Jerusalem. However, evidence in support of this and other locations identified by Helena, which have become traditional in Christianity, is at best inconclusive.39 In more recent times Golgotha, the place of the skull, has been identified with a rocky prominence located outside of the ancient city of Jerusalem, north and east of the Damascus Gate.
Luke added an important detail relating to the crucifixion not included in the other Gospels. As the tragic procession wended its way through the narrow streets of Jerusalem, a number of women “bewailed and lamented him.” Jesus’s comment to them, “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children,” was not intended by Luke as a rebuke. It was a warning prompted by Jesus’s understanding of future events, specifically the impending fate of a nation blinded by an immoderate presumption of its own mission and powers (Lk 23:27-29).40
[p.236]Matthew wrote that when they crucified Jesus, “they offered him wine to drink, mingled with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it.”41 This refusal seems to be a part of a Christological theme found in Mark and Matthew (Mt 27:34; Mk 15:23). In this view the inordinate hostility of Jewish officials and the excessively brutal behavior of the Roman soldiers are explained in terms of the idea that the Messiah must suffer completely, as was predicted in Isaiah 53. Even the two who were crucified with him shared this hostility; they reviled him, as did observers and the chief priests and elders (Mt 27:38-44). The tradition of the “good” bandit, who rebuked the other for his mockery of Jesus and declared Jesus’s innocence of any crime is found only in Luke. Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43).
The suffering of the victims could last for days. They were stripped of their clothing and left exposed to the elements. They suffered great pain from their cramped and unnatural positions and were consumed by a burning thirst and fever and often severe infection from which there was no release until death. In their excruciating suffering, the victims would often cry out in anguish or curse their executioners and others who were nearby. Luke finds special meaning in Jesus’s remarkable composure. He may have seen this as a miracle; undoubtedly he intended Jesus’s example of composure while suffering the most extreme pain to be a model for all Christian disciples.42 In the early Church martyrdom became a seal of supreme piety.
“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). This first utterance from the cross was recorded only in Luke. Soldiers watched to see that no one rescued Jesus in order to revive him. The clothes of the victim stripped from his body were part [p.237]of their compensation. According to the Gospel of John, it was the outer cloak, his tunic “without seam, woven from top to bottom,” for which they cast lots. This was all done, according to John, to fulfill the scripture, “They parted my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (Jn 19:23f).43
In Roman usage, a statement of the charge against the condemned person was placed over him or hung about his neck. In the case of Jesus, the inscription of the charge read “The King of the Jews.”44 According to John, this inscription was dictated by Pilate as a final stroke of sarcasm against the Jews. When the chief priests objected, demanding that he change the wording on the placard, Pilate scornfully dismissed the matter, maintaining that what he had written should stand (Jn 19:22).
“And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?'” which Mark interpreted as “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Apparently, some of the bystanders hearing Jesus thought that he was calling Elijah.”
The Sayings from the Cross
The Gospel accounts with respect to Jesus’s sayings from the cross vary considerably. Two sayings from Luke are not recorded in any of the other three Gospels, “Father, forgive them. …” and “into thy hands I commit my spirit!” (Lk 23:34, 46). The cry, “My God, my God” appears in Mark and Matthew but not in Luke and John. Some scholars have concluded that this most agonizing cry [p.238]was omitted by Luke and John because it was not in accord with the authors’ image of Jesus as divine. The fact that the wording of the cry is almost identical with Psalm 22:1 may have had special significance to the writers, especially Matthew. Matthew depicted Jesus’s death as a voluntary surrender of his life to God’s will; he “yielded up his spirit” (Mt 27:50). Here Matthew is similar to the Gospel of John where Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said “I thirst,” merely to fulfill the scripture. And, John added, “A bowl full of vinegar stood there.” Presumably, for John, offering vinegar or sour wine did not merely show that some mocked Jesus or that Jesus took the vinegar as a mild anesthetic, but symbolized Jesus having fulfilled all that was predicted of him. John recorded that when Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished” (Jn 19:28-30).45
Notwithstanding differences in detail, the portraits of Jesus given in the Gospels have many features in common. They describe him as having complete control of himself through the Passion on the cross. When the drama of salvation had reached its climax, Jesus simply gave up his life.46 The attention given to the Prophet Elijah in Mark and in Matthew underscored this theme of control over the moment of death. According to popular Jewish tradition, based on 2 Kings 2:9-12, Elijah did not die but was miraculously carried into heaven by a whirlwind. It was believed that he would return to aid those in distress.47
[p.239]For all four evangelists the Crucifixion was the supreme event, the historical foundation for the Christian doctrine of salvation. That this event was regarded as having cosmic import is clear from details found in Matthew and Luke—the Temple curtain was torn in two, an earthquake occurred, the “rocks were split” (Mt 27:51),48 the “sun’s light failed” (Lk 23:45), the tombs opened, “and many bodies of the saints … were raised” (Mt 27:52f). The centurion who was in charge of the execution and others with him were filled with awe at what had taken place and said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mk 15:39; Mt 27:54).49 In the Christian concept of redemption, this was the beginning of the end. Christ must die and initiate the way—the way of resurrection which would come at the end of time.
In ancient Palestine, especially among the rich, family tombs were not uncommon. Caves and openings offered a ready place for the burial of the poor, but the more affluent had tombs cut from solid limestone ledges. In the Gospel of John the burial place of Jesus is described as a garden (Jn 19:41).
Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council and a follower of Jesus, obtained permission from Pilate to secure the body of Jesus (Mt 27:57-60). Luke made it clear that, although Joseph was a member of the council, Joseph had not consented to the actions against Jesus. After it had been prepared for burial according to custom, Jesus’s body was laid in Joseph’s new tomb and a stone was rolled across its entrance, sealing the opening.50 The Gospel of [p.240]John added a few details to the story—that Nicodemus came bringing costly spices, myrrh, and aloes used in the burial of noblemen and kings and that he and Joseph laid Jesus in the tomb (Jn 19:39-42). According to the synoptic writers, several women, including Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, were present at the burial in the sepulchre (Mt 27:61).51 The apostles had already fled.
The Resurrection Narratives
The Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening at sundown and ends on Saturday evening. Accordingly, by the Christian calendar it was Sunday morning when Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome went to the tomb with spices, probably fragrant oil, to anoint the body of Jesus. The Gospel stories vary at this point. The stone rolled across the opening of the tomb had been removed (Mk 16:4).52 In the tomb, by Mark’s account, the women saw a young man in a white robe. He said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here” (Mk 16:5f). Mark did not explain how the stone was rolled away, but Matthew wrote that “there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it” (Mt 28:2). Although Mark spoke only of a young man dressed in a white robe, Matthew said it was an angel, while Luke wrote of two men dressed in dazzling apparel (Lk 24:4). The Gospel writers agree that the events at the tomb filled the women with amazement and fear. It was beyond their [p.241]understanding and hence “trembling and astonishment,” overpowered them and they fled.53
In some ancient texts, Mark’s Gospel ended with verse 8 of chapter 16, the statement that the women were afraid and said nothing of what they had seen and heard. (Mk 16:8.) Nevertheless, because of grammatical problems, some scholars have concluded that the original Gospel probably did not end with verse 8. Moreover, the abruptness of that ending of Mark presents a problem, for here there is no resurrection appearance. It simply leaves the reader with the declaration of the young man sitting within the tomb, “He has risen. … he is going before you to Galilee.”
But some ancient manuscripts of Mark have a longer ending (Mk 16:9-20) which contained all of the details that Christians of a later date would have expected. In this extended ending, which is commonly added to chapter 16 as verses 9 to 20, Mark’s emphasis upon the lack of belief among the disciples is pronounced (Mk 16:11). Jesus appeared “in another form” to two of the disciples. They reported this appearance to the others “but they did not believe them” (Mk 16:12f). Finally, Jesus appeared to the eleven themselves, and reproached them for their unbelief (Mk 16:14). His final charge to the disciples featured the necessity for belief: “Go into all the world.… He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk 16:15f).
Mark was written in the shadow of the Jewish-Roman war. The author anticipated the imminent End of the Age; apparently he did not write as Luke and Matthew did in anticipation of an extended interim period in which the church was to play a central role. According to Mark, in his apocalyptic sermon Jesus had repudiated the Jewish religion in its institutional forms. The Temple, with all its attendant officials, had been overturned in the Jewish rebellion as Jesus had predicted. Jerusalem itself, which had been the center of Jewish faith, was to be replaced. In Mark’s view Galilee was to be the place for the gathering of the faithful and for the Son of man’s return to inaugurate a new era. Presumably this would occur within Mark’s generation. Later when [p.242]the turmoil had passed and explanations were needed, it is probable that the longer ending of the Gospel was composed to justify beliefs circulated in the early Christian communities about the delay of the Second Coming.54
The Gospel of Matthew probably was written in the post-war period some years later than Mark. The Christian fellowship still awaited the Parousia, the Second Coming, and as a consequence the people were trying to adjust their beliefs to the disappointing delay and to create a format for church life in the world. Peter and the disciples were pivotal figures in this adjustment. They provided the continuity needed by the church as the heads of the original company of Jesus’s followers. Mark’s harsh comments on their lack of belief and loyalty, their repeated failure “to see” and discern Jesus’s true nature, were modified in Matthew. He described the disciples’ failures as a necessary response to the requirement that Christ suffer as a solitary figure.
Two events, Jesus’s meeting with the women following his resurrection and the bribing of the soldiers, were reported only by Matthew. When Jesus met the women they were on their way to report to the disciples. In Matthew’s account this was the first appearance of the risen Lord. To Mark’s abrupt ending, Matthew added, “They [the women] departed quickly … with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” Jesus met them, “And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me'” (Mt 28:2-10).
At this point, according to Matthew, some of the guards posted at the sepulchre went into the city and reported to the chief priests what had happened. After the elders met to consider the situation, they paid the soldiers to say that Jesus’s body was stolen at night by the disciples while they slept, a story that was widely disseminated among the Jews (Mt 28:11-15).
[p.243]Earlier, in 27:62-66, Matthew reported that the chief priests were concerned about the security of the tomb lest the disciples steal the body of Jesus. According to Matthew, some recalled the statement of Jesus that he would rise again after three days. The Jewish authorities placed the official seal upon the door of the sepulchre and posted a guard. Under Roman code, the guard presumably was to forfeit his life if the guarded person escaped or if the object being watched was lost or stolen. It is quite probable that Matthew’s account of the guard and of the anxiety of the Jewish officials, reported only in his Gospel, exhibited his determination to defend the Christian claim of Jesus’s resurrection against any opposing explanation of the disappearance of his body.
Resurrection Appearances and the Parousia
Parallels may be observed between Matthew, concerned with the problems of an emerging Christian church, and the Pharisees, who were confronted with the task of developing a new life for Judaism following the destruction of Jerusalem. For Matthew Jesus was the Word, the Revelation, as Torah was for Pharisaic Judaism. Matthew’s Gospel, as the new revelation, contained the standard of faith, the basis of a new covenant. The content of this new “way” was set forth in the Sermon on the Mount.
For Matthew, then, Jesus’s resurrection appearances provided a bridge between the infant church and its origin in Christ’s commission to his apostles to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). For Matthew the end was not imminent; the Parousia was not denied or dismissed but rather postponed until after an interim period of the church in the world. According to the final chapter of Matthew, Jesus’s religion was to extend beyond Judea and Galilee to the known world of the Roman Empire; no nation or people were to be excluded. Baptism was the symbol of their commitment to God to carry through with this bold program. And to the faithful, the church, Matthew added the promise that Jesus’s spirit would never be absent from among them as a guiding influence even to the end of the age (Mt 28:20).
[p.244]The resurrection stories in the Gospel of Luke differ significantly from those of the other three Gospels. The setting in Luke is entirely in Judea, in and around Jerusalem, whereas in Mark and Matthew the focus is upon Galilee. Certain features of Luke’s Gospel stand out—the role of the women in the discovery of the empty tomb, the disbelief of the disciples, and the report of Peter running to the tomb and wondering about its being empty. As the women stood by the tomb, two men nearby spoke to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be … crucified, and on the third day rise,” and, says Luke, “they remembered his words.” But when the women reported these things, the apostles did not believe them (Lk 24:2-9). Some manuscripts of Luke include verse twelve as an extension to this account, “But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home wondering at what had happened” (Lk 24:12).
Of particular interest is the significance Luke seems to attach to “remembering” Jesus’s words, a theme developed further in Luke’s important story about the two disciples walking toward the village named Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35). The resurrected Christ joined the two men, but they did not know him. Luke said, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” The disciples assumed that he was a fellow traveler. On the way he asked them, “What is this conversation which you are holding?” Being surprised at his question, they answered,
“Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.… But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.… Some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb … and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive.” (Lk 24:18-23)
As they drew near the village, they invited the stranger to stay with them. Then, Luke related, toward evening “when he was at [p.245]table with them,” he “took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.” At that moment “their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” He then “vanished out of their sight” (Lk 24:30f).
The account of the two men in the Emmaus story, who hoped Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel, is crucial to Luke’s interpretation of the Passion and Resurrection. Despite Jesus’s declarations about his suffering, the disciples did not fully understand his teaching of the meaning of redemption and how it was to be accomplished. According to Luke, Jews in Jesus’s time, including many of his own disciples, could not possibly have understood that the Messiah should be brought to such an ignominious death as a common criminal.
This failure “to see” that the Christ must suffer came to the foreground of Luke’s Gospel when Jesus chastised the two disciples, who represent all of those who failed to understand and to believe. “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Lk 24:25f). This theme was re-emphasized shortly after the Emmaus incident, when he appeared to the eleven in Jerusalem. “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk 24:44). In Luke’s day Christian leaders searched the Hebrew scriptures to demonstrate that Jesus fulfilled prophecy. For Luke there was no ambiguity or uncertainty about Jesus’s identity or any doubt that the Messiah should suffer and die.
The two disciples returned to Jerusalem to the eleven and told them what had occurred on the way and how they recognized Jesus at the breaking of the bread. At that, according to Luke, the risen Christ appeared to them and they were frightened, thinking that they were seeing a spirit. Not until they examined his hands and feet and he had eaten before them were their minds opened to an understanding of the scriptures that Christ should die and rise from the dead (Lk 24:36-47).
Luke closed his Gospel with the final instruction by Jesus that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed to all [p.246]nations in his name. In Luke’s view, Jesus’s mortal ministry—his death, resurrection, and ascension—completed the second phase of God’s eternal plan. Preaching the Word to all nations in his name in the interim period before the Parousia is the final stage before the End of the Age. In the total scheme of things, each stage naturally succeeds the other. The age of the church and preaching the Word must begin where Jesus left off in his ministry. The disciples are witnesses who provide continuity from one phase to another. The promise of the Father was given them, but they were instructed to “stay in the city” until they were “clothed with power from on high.”55 Then in Bethany, Jesus blessed them and was “carried up into heaven” (Lk 24:49-52).
The Meaning of the Resurrection
Luke corrected the imminent eschatology of both Mark and Paul and set the stage for overcoming the disbelief of the disciples and their failure in faith. For Luke the disciples stood as the pillars of the church; they functioned as a bridge with the past. In the Acts of the Apostles Peter filled the role of a crucial transitional figure. He was an essential link between Jesus and Paul, or between Jesus and his teachings and Pauline Christianity. It is probable that a form of Jewish Christianity had developed among Christian converts in Jerusalem claiming authoritative succession through the family of Jesus. In Luke-Acts this early claim for succession and continuity was rejected and replaced with Paul’s doctrine of the Spirit. The Spirit, according to Acts, came upon the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). This was the same Spirit by which Jesus was made known to the two in Emmaus in the breaking of the bread. So it was that breaking bread and sharing the Spirit became a means of remembering, seeing, believing, and understanding the meaning of scripture in the life of the Christian church.
For the Gospel writers the resurrection story is one of promises fulfilled. This is especially true in Luke’s account, where the connection between the breaking of bread in the Emmaus incident and [p.247]the Last Supper is most evident. In the resurrection, the promise of a new covenant is fulfilled. At the Last Supper, Jesus had said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” this is “the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:19f). And in Emmaus they remembered. By the Spirit of Christ they grasped the meaning and significance of earlier events and words of Jesus which had been a puzzle to them. They understood, and at that moment the chasm between the disciples and Jesus was bridged. Thus the reconciliation implicit in the Last Supper became an accomplished fact through the coming of the Spirit of the risen Christ.
This interpretation suggests one way in which some Christians at the time of Luke’s writing may have understood the Christian doctrine of resurrection. In the breaking of the bread, “their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” “Did not our hearts burn within us … while he opened to us the scriptures?” Then they told what had happened, “how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:31f, 35). Does the story bear witness of a literal seeing of the person or of a feeling of the presence of the Christ? Perhaps, at that moment when all seemed lost and they were in despair, the Christ of faith became visible to them; there was a moment of insight, an awakening to a new beginning with a vision of the future and of a new life in the Spirit which is the Christ.
Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels
The synoptic Gospels are accounts and interpretations of Jesus and his ministry setting forth his identity and meaning as Messiah (Christ) and the son of God. Written not less than a generation after the crucifixion of Jesus, they were based on the living oral tradition that began with those who knew him and was nourished by those who believed that he was their Savior. They probably were not intended primarily to simply record the facts of Jesus’s life or even to transmit his teachings, but rather to confirm and advance the belief already established in the church that Jesus is the Christ and that those who believe in him are on the path to redemption.
Notwithstanding this central purpose of the synoptic Gospels, and their limitations as sources of accurate biographical data, com-[p.248]paratively little is known of Jesus and his teachings that does not come from Mark, Matthew, and Luke. These books provide the most reliable information about his purposes, his actions, his message, his conception of the kingdom and what it means to be his disciple. Christian theology is to a considerable degree grounded in the writings of Paul and the Fourth Gospel, but Jesus as a living human being is known for the most part from the Synoptics.
A few early non-Christian references to Jesus were mentioned previously, but their value is limited to the evidence they present of his actual historicity. Despite his impressive description of Christ as Savior, which is the main ground of Christian theology, Paul appears to have had little interest in the historical Jesus and perhaps little knowledge of him. And the Gospel of John, though obviously involved with the biographical tradition about Jesus, adds little factual information to the Synoptics. Indeed, John sometimes seems to confuse the facts. The Fourth Gospel is a theological work devoted not to the knowledge and understanding of Jesus as a human being, but to celebrating the cosmic role of Christ as the logos, the creative and saving power of God. The so-called apocryphal gospels are important in understanding the early Christian movement, as they are an index into some aspects of primitive Christianity. But they provide little or no reliable information on the life and teachings of Jesus. As sources of biographical data they do not approach the value of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
In the beginning, Jesus was drawn to John the Baptist and apparently was committed to John’s mission to prepare Israel for the coming of God’s kingdom. After the imprisonment and execution of John, Jesus emerged as the new leader of this eschatological movement and as a powerful charismatic figure. That Jesus was initially a follower of John and after John’s death assumed leadership of the movement is not commonly held. In Jesus of Nazareth, for instance, Günther Bornkamm explicitly states that “Jesus of course did not begin his own work as a disciple of John, and did not directly continue John’s work,” but neither Bornkamm nor other scholars who hold this view are very persuasive. In his Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph Klausner lays great [p.249]stress on the importance of the Baptist’s work as the foundation of Jesus’s ministry.
In the moral substance of his message—the requirements of personal righteousness, moral accountability, and civil justice—Jesus stood with the ancient prophets—Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Israel had failed for lack of knowledge and will, the failure of insight and discernment and steadfastness in observance of the Law. God will not accept the externals and forms of religion, tithes, and sacrifices as substitutes for the moral substance of authentic religious faith, social justice, kindness, and mercy. These values were the very foundation of Israel’s prophetic religion, the issue of a long history and tradition from the patriarchs to the Second Temple that will always remain as a supreme achievement of the human race. The steadfastness and confidence of Jesus’ faith in God, in his justice and love, the faith that he cares for the underprivileged and powerless as a loving father cares for his child, the clarity and persuasiveness of Jesus’s teachings about the kingdom, that its coming is imminent and even present and that God is in control of all events, and finally his courage to the end in the face of persistent and dangerous opposition left an overwhelming impression on his followers. His charismatic person and his message of hope inspired the eventual creation of an eschatological community of followers, informing their beliefs about him and his identity, the moral and spiritual meaning of his acts and teachings, and, most important, his cosmic role in their salvation.
After a year of quite spectacular success preaching, teaching, and healing in and around Galilee, Jesus led his band to Jerusalem, to the seat of religious and political authority. It was probably his intention to proclaim there the coming of God’s kingdom and seek popular support for his cause. But he had forebodings of the coming tragedy. The officials in Jerusalem, both Jewish and Roman, saw him as a major threat to the peace. He was arrested secretly to avoid arousing the populace, charged with blasphemy, and turned over to the Roman authorities for criminal prosecution. They convicted him of sedition against the government and executed him.
[p.250]In accompanying him to Jerusalem, Jesus’s followers probably expected an uprising against Roman rule as evidence of God’s approval of him and his message. But their hopes and expectations were totally frustrated. Shocked and overwhelmed by the turn of events, they fled; even the Twelve deserted him. Later after the trauma of the crucifixion, the Twelve regained their composure and came together again. And on the occasion of their breaking bread together, as was their custom when Jesus was alive and with them, they were suddenly and, they believed, miraculously inspired by his presence. It became apparent to them that it was Jesus’s profound faith in his mission, his resolute purpose to inaugurate God’s kingdom, which sustained him. Under the inspiration of his presence, they realized that their Lord was not dead, that he had risen, and that his spirit, God’s spirit, the Spirit of Elijah which was present in him, would sustain them. This became the Christian proclamation: that Jesus had risen and that the Holy Spirit would abide with the apostles until they carried his proclamation to the ends of the earth.
The authors of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are among the powerful forces in the Christian movement of the first century. If not the creators, they were the editors and shapers of the earliest surviving tradition about Jesus. Each of them was an author-editor in his own right, recording and interpreting the living tradition about Jesus in terms of the experience and beliefs of the church which he served.
In Mark, Christianity was given a new focal point—a rejection of Judaism in Jerusalem and the promise of returning to Galilee, where the initial drive for the kingdom had begun. Mark made the emphasis upon the Spirit, already basic in the writings of Paul, crucial to Christian faith in Jesus’s abiding presence, and he retained the eschatological belief, already in Paul’s letters, that the end of the age was imminent.
Within a very few years after the composition of Mark, it was apparent that the delay of Jesus’s triumphal return was a threat to the faith of those who believed that he was the Messiah. Some explanation of that delay was crucial to the survival of the community of his followers. Matthew and Luke provided that expla-[p.251]nation: God had ordained a time for the church, an interim period before the end. It was God’s plan that there should be a time of preparation and of the proclamation of the Word. This was the vision and rationale which enabled the Christian church to define its place in the course of contemporary events and to establish itself in the stream of history.
Matthew strengthened Christianity in its new foundation. For him, Jesus clearly was the long-awaited Messiah whose coming was prophesied in the Old Testament. Jesus was the new lawgiver, the new Moses, and his teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount, were the new Word or Revelation from God which became the basis of the new covenant and the foundation of the church.
Luke set the Christian movement in the center of a cosmic frame, a divine plan woven into the history of the world with Jesus as the pivotal figure, the Messiah and Savior. In Luke, Christianity is proclaimed a universal religion, with the doctrine of the Spirit—which he may have taken from Paul—as a crucial element in that proclamation. In Luke, the Spirit explains God’s power to change and save the world. In the Acts of the Apostles, the second part of Luke’s work, the spirit which was in Jesus came again into the world at Pentecost, with the promise to sustain the church and to guarantee its success until the Second Coming and the end of the age. For Luke, the power of the Spirit rested not upon individual persons directly but through the church. This doctrine of the Spirit established the institution of the church as the center of Christian life and guaranteed its preservation and continuity until it emerged eventually as the church universal.
3. Similar references to Satan entering Judas are found in John’s Gospel (Jn 13:2, 27). The view expressed in Luke 22:21-23 and John 13:21-30 that all was planned by God and known beforehand by Jesus, including his betrayal, exhibits the early church’s treatment of the difficult problem of the crucifixion by placing it squarely within the purposes of God. John has Jesus satisfying what he [p.216]regards as a prophecy in Psalm 41:9, “It is that the scripture may be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me'” (Jn 13:18).
4. On the problem of the betrayal, see A. Schweitzer, The Mystery of the Kingdom of God, trans. Walter Lowrie (New York, 1964), 214-17, and M. S. Enslin, The Prophet from Nazareth (New York, 1968), 192f. Eric Titus maintains that “the group which attached itself to Jesus was not composed of neutral people with no real involvements in society. It is entirely possible that members of the Zealot group saw in him a leader for the realization of their hopes for national independence” (Essentials of New Testament Study [New York, 1958], 65f).
7. Sharing a meal often has symbolic meaning in ancient tradition. The sharing of a banquet among the gods is one of several characteristic marks of the seasonal myth—the ritual pattern found among ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Canaanite nature cults. The practice of partaking a meal in relation to covenant making is suggested in some texts from the Hebrew tradition (Gn 14:18, 31:54; Ex 24:11; and Ez 44:3). Also “the banquet at the end of days” is a common theme in apocalyptic and rabbinic literature, e.g., Syr. Apoc. Baruch XXIX 3-8; IV Ezra VI 52. See fn. 1 in Theodor H. Gaster’s Thespis (New York, 1961), 234, also 93f, 311, for details.
8. It is of interest that the terms “companion” and “company” are from Latin com (together) plus panis (bread). Some interpreters have concluded that in the text of Mark, the supper is the anticipation of the reunion of the disciples with Jesus in the kingdom, perhaps of the messianic banquet. In John’s Gospel and in the view of Christians of John’s persuasion, Jesus himself is the bread of life. This means that for those who believe, Jesus is the Spirit and the Power which transform ordinary life into eternal life.
9. This precise formula does not appear in some manuscripts of the Luke text. In ancient Israel the palm branch and the cup were employed as messianic symbols. For example, in some Old Testament documents, “the cup” represents both divine judgment as a cup of wrath and a “cup of salvation” (Jer 25:15-17; Ps 11:6, 75:8, 116:13). Coins dating from the Maccabean period show the cup which some scholars interpret as a symbol of messianic restoration.
10. John recorded simply that Jesus “went forth with his disciples across the Kidron valley, where there was a garden” (Jn 18:1). Matthew, Mark, and Luke are in agreement that the place of betrayal and arrest was on the side or near the foot of the Mount of Olives.
13. In the Gospel of John there is no report of anguish about Jesus’s impending death and no petition, as in the synoptics—”Remove this cup from me” (Mk 14:36; Lk 22:42; Mt 26:39). In John the cup appears in a different context—in connection with the arrest and Peter’s impetuous act of resistance. Peter’s apparent misunderstanding of these events provided the occasion for Jesus’s response to Peter: “Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?” (Jn 18:11). In this connection, see John 12:27-36.
14. Matthew, Luke, and John apparently add certain details to their accounts to enlarge and dramatize the events. Matthew explains that “a great crowd” came with Judas (Mt 26:47); Luke includes “officers of the temple” (Lk 22:52); and John records that Judas himself procured a band of Roman soldiers as well as officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees to accompany him and make the arrest (Jn 18:2f).
16. Mark includes the account of a young man who apparently attempted to show his loyalty and remain with Jesus but was seized and only narrowly escaped (Mk 14:51f). The identity of this individual is not indicated, but ancient tradition suggested John or James, the Lord’s brother, and modern commentators often suggest Mark himself. See Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 2nd ed. (New York, 1966), 562.
20. R. M. Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought (New York, 1980), 215. Also, see discussions of the status and authority of the Sanhedrin in Jesus’s time in Samuel Sandmel, Judaism and Christian Beginnings (New York, 1978), 136-39, and Enslin, Prophet from Nazareth, 195-200.
21. Mark reported that “the chief priests and the whole council sought testimony against Jesus to put him to death.” Matthew added that they “sought false testimony” (Mk 14:55f; Mt 26:59f). Jewish law required that the accusors have at least two witnesses who agree before the prosecution could proceed. According to Matthew, many false witnesses came forward, and Mark said “their witness did not agree.”
23. B. H. Streeter suggests that the reading “you say that I am,” which is supported by important Greek and Armenian manuscripts, is the original text of Mark and helps explain the texts of Matthew and Luke. See The Four Gospels (London, 1930), 322.
24. According to Klausner, it is unthinkable that the high priest who was a Sadducee would have asked Jesus whether he was the Son of God as reported in Matthew 26:63. See Jesus of Nazareth, 342. See Klausner also for a discussion of the Last Supper, trial, and crucifixion in relation to the Passover.
25. It is doubtful that the Jews at this time would have regarded the claim to be the Messiah as blasphemous, as Mark reported. See Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought, 232, on this point. The Hebrew-Jewish meaning of the term “messiah” meant “one anointed by God as God’s agent”; it did not mean what Christians claimed later, for example in the Gospel of John, that the Messiah (the Christ) was the Son of God. “Do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God'” (Jn 10:36).
26. This is essentially the view presented in M. Grant, Jesus, An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (New York, 1977), 145-47. For other interpretations, see S. G. F. Brandon, The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth (New York, 1968), and Paul Winter, On the Trial of Jesus (Berlin, 1961).
27. Klausner expressed the following opinion on the arraignment before Pilate: “It is certain that the priests did not see in Jesus anything more than an ordinary rebel: they did not recognize his special spiritual nature; what they did they did, in all simplicity, in order to save the people from the cruel vengeance of Pilate, who was on the watch for some possible excuse to demonstrate the power of Rome and the nugatory nature of Jewish autonomy in any matter of political importance” (Jesus of Nazareth, 345).
30. Luke’s theme is based upon a quote from Psalm 2:lf which the author of Luke-Acts assumed was written by King David. For a discussion of this point, see G. B. Caird, The Gospel of St. Luke (Baltimore, 1963), 247.
31. That this was customary is not clear from the earliest Lukan text. However, a later addition to Luke 23:17 makes this point explicit, “Now he was obliged to release one man to them at the festival.” This is in agreement with John 18:39, “But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover.”
33. Envy can hardly be considered an adequate explanation of the motive of Jewish authorities. “The point of importance,” according to M. S. Enslin, “is that none of the principals—Roman governor or Jewish authorities—had made a detailed or dispassionate ‘study of the case.’ It seemed to them all a dangerous plot—one of but many—and to be promptly suppressed” (M. S. Enslin, Prophet from Nazareth, 206).
34. Many scholars conclude that “Jesus Barabbas” is the original reading of Matthew 27:16f. F. W. Beare says, “It is not unnatural that scribes … should be offended that the notorious bandit should also bear the name of ‘Jesus’; and that this feeling should bring about the dropping of the name …” (F. W. Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew [San Francisco, 1981], 529).
36. Matthew is the only source for the details of the dream of Pilate’s wife and of Pilate washing his hands before the crowd. The Jewish custom of washing one’s hands as a sign of innocence is found in Deuteronomy 21:6-9: “And all the elders … shall wash their hands … and they shall testify, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood.'”
39. The term “Golgotha” is from the Aramaic which means “skull.” “Calvary,” derived from the term “Calvaria” meaning “a bare skull,” “a scalp without hair,” “bald,” is a translation of the Greek kranion (skull). For a competent analysis of the problem of the location of the execution, see Kathleen M. Kenyon’s archaeological study Jerusalem (New York, 1967).
40. Jesus’ humanitarianism, his concern for women and recognition of their sensitiveness to human need, has sometimes been regarded as a special feature of the Gospel of Luke. H. Kee and others state that Luke’s purpose was to place the story of Jesus in a larger historical context; the tradition about what Jesus did and taught is set in a “ministry” of cosmic significance. See Howard Kee, Jesus in History (New York, 1977), for an informative discussion of this interpretation of Luke.
41. Apparently it was a Jewish custom to give the condemned person wine containing the opiate frankincense to numb or to render him unconscious. Luke (23:36) mentioned the offering of sour wine or vinegar to Jesus while he was on the cross. In Luke’s account the offering of wine seems to be part of the mockery by the soldiers. See Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, 352.
43. It was obviously very important to the Gospel writers, especially Matthew, that the various details of this most crucial of all events be regarded as fulfilling scripture—the garment that may not be torn, the casting of lots, the reviling by robbers, and the offering of wine. See Ps 22:18 and 69:21, and Ex 28:32. Joseph Klausner comments on the reported details of the crucifixion as claims for the fulfillment of prophecy in Jesus of Nazareth, 352. Klausner says of the statement “Father, forgive them …”: “it comes fittingly from the mouth of Jesus—but not in such terrible circumstances.”
45. John 19:28 indicates that Jesus, “knowing that all was now finished,” that all had come to its appointed end, said, to fulfill the scripture, “I thirst.” Apparently at this juncture, Jesus exclaimed precisely what John believed Psalm 69:21 had predicted.
47. Meyer Levin has described Elijah’s prominence in the Jewish celebration of Passover: “We are told that Elijah the Prophet visits every house where a Seder is being held … Of all the Biblical Prophets, it is Elijah who became the kindly mediator between Heaven and Earth.” According to Levin, it was believed that Elijah would return to help prepare mankind for the time of the coming of the Messiah. Through the centuries in times of suffering, many Jews expressed their longing for peace and security, and they told tales of how Elijah would appear “if a Jew in great trouble or danger called out, ‘Elijah! Help me!'” (Meyer Levin An Israel Haggadah for Passover [New York, n.d.], 92-94).
48. Certain other details were reported only in the Fourth Gospel—the nailing of Jesus to the cross (Jn 20:25), the breaking of the legs of the other two victims, the piercing of Jesus’s side, and the gushing forth of blood and water (Jn 19:31-37). The reference to blood and water may have been intended to establish the humanness of Jesus in opposition to those in the early church who held that he was divine only and simply appeared to suffer.
50. Many Jews at this time believed that corpses were unclean and should be removed before night, especially before the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sun-[p.240]down. This was in accord with Jewish law: “And if a man … is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God” (Dt 21:22f).
51. Earlier in the accounts of the crucifixion, there was mention of women standing “at a distance” (Lk 23:49) and women “looking on from afar” (Mk 15:40). The presence of the women “who had come with him from Galilee” was not noted until the event of the cross (Lk 23:55f). Three women were mentioned—”Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and [Salome] the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Mt 27:56; Mk 15:40).
52. A large, flat, circular stone approximately four feet in diameter and several inches thick which rolls in a groove to close the tomb may be seen today at the entrance of the Herodian family sepulchre in Jerusalem near the King David Hotel.
54. In the longer ending of Mark, the author explained that Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene. Mark’s point seems to be to show how obstinately the disciples held to their disbelief. When Mary told them she had seen Jesus, they did not believe her. The problem of the ending of Mark’s Gospel at 16:8 or 16:20 is treated in a note on pages 1238f of The New Oxford Annotated Bible (New York, 1977). See also textual note “k” on page 1,239, which is attached to Mark 16:20.