Freethought Archives > Walter R. Cassels > Supernatural Religion 




IN order more fully to appreciate the nature of the narratives which the four Evangelists give of the last hours of the life of Jesus, we may take them up at the point where, mocked and buffeted by the Roman soldiers, he is finally led away to be crucified. [808:1]

According to the Synoptics, the Roman guard entrusted with the duty of executing the cruel sentence find a man of Cyrene, Simon by name, and compel him to carry the cross. [808:2] It was customary for those condemned to crucifixion to carry the cross, or at least the main portion of it, themselves to the place of execution, and no explanation is given by the Synoptists for the deviation from this practice which they relate. The fourth Gospel, however, does not appear to know anything of this incident, or of Simon of Cyrene, but distinctly states that Jesus bore his own cross. [808:3] On the way to Golgotha, according to the third Gospel, Jesus is followed by a great multitude of the people, and of women who were bewailing and lamenting him, and he addresses to them a few prophetic sentences. [808:4] We might be surprised at the singular fact that there is no reference to this incident in any other Gospel, and that words of Jesus, so weighty in themselves and spoken at so supreme a moment, should not elsewhere have been recorded, but for the fact that, from internal evidence, the address must be assigned to a period subsequent to the destruction of Jerusalem. The other Evangelists may, therefore, well ignore it.

Vinegar mixed with gall
It was the custom to give those about to be crucified a draught of wine containing a strong opiate, which in some degree alleviated the intense suffering of that mode of death. Mark [809:1] probably refers to this (15:23) when he states that, on reaching the place of execution, "they gave him wine (oinon) mingled with myrrh." The fourth Gospel has nothing of this. Matthew says (27:34): "They gave him vinegar (oxos)to drink mingled with gall" [809:2] (meta cholês). Even if, instead of oxos with the Alexandrian and a majority of MSS., we read oinos, "wine," with the Sinaitic, Vatican, and some other ancient codices, this is a curious statement, and is well worthy of a moment's notice as suggestive of the way in which these narratives were written. The conception of a suffering Messiah, it is well known, was more particularly supported, by New Testament writers, by attributing a Messianic character to Psalm 22, 69, and Isaiah 53, and throughout the narrative of the Passion we are perpetually referred to these and other Scriptures, as finding their fulfilment in the sufferings of Jesus. The first Synoptist found in Psalm 69:21 (Sept. 68:21): "They gave me also gall (cholên) for my food, and in my thirst they gave me vinegar (oxos) to drink"; and apparently, in order to make the supposed fulfilment correspond as closely as possible, he combined the "gall" of the food with the vinegar or wine in strangely literal fashion, [809:3] very characteristic, however, of the whole of the Evangelists. Luke, who seems not to have understood the custom known perhaps to Mark, represents (23:36) the soldiers as mocking Jesus by "offering him vinegar" [809:4] (oxos); he omits the gall, but probably refers to the same Psalm without being so falsely literal as Matthew.

We need not enter into the discussion as to the chronology of the Passion week, regarding which there is so much discrepancy in the accounts of the fourth Gospel and of the Synoptics, nor shall we pause minutely to deal with the irreconcilable difference which, it is admitted, exists in their statement of the hours at which the events of the last fatal day occurred. The fourth Gospel (19:4) represents Pilate as bringing Jesus forth to the Jews "about the sixth hour" (noon). Mark (15:25), in obvious agreement with the other Synoptics as further statements prove, distinctly says: "And it was the third hour (9 o'clock a.m.), and they crucified him." At the sixth hour (noon), according to the three Synoptists, there was darkness over the earth till about the ninth hour (3 o'clock p. m.), shortly after which time Jesus expired. [810:1] As, according to the fourth Gospel, the sentence was not even passed before midday, and some time must be allowed for preparation and going to the place of execution, it is clear that there is a very wide discrepancy between the hours at which Jesus was crucified and died, unless, as regards the latter point, we take agreement in all as to the hour of death. In this case, commencing at the hour of the fourth Gospel and ending with that of the Synoptics, Jesus must have expired after being less than three hours on the cross. According to the Synoptics, and also, if we assign a later hour for the death, according to the fourth Gospel, he cannot have been more than six hours on the cross. We shall presently see that this remarkably rapid death has an important bearing upon the history and the views formed regarding it. It is known that crucifixion, besides being the most shameful mode of death, and indeed chiefly reserved for slaves and the lowest criminals, was one of the most lingering and atrociously cruel punishments ever invented by the malignity of man. Persons crucified, it is stated and admitted, generally lived for at least twelve hours, and sometimes even survived the excruciating tortures of the cross for three days. We shall not further anticipate remarks which must hereafter be made regarding this.

We need not do more than again point out that no two of the Gospels agree upon so simple, yet important, a point as the inscription on the cross. [810:2] It is argued that "a close examination of the narratives furnishes no sufficient reason for supposing that all proposed to give the same or the entire inscription," and, after some curious reasoning, it is concluded that "there is at least no possibility of showing any inconsistency on the strictly literal interpretation of the words of the evangelist." [810:3] On the contrary, we had ventured to suppose that, in giving a form of words said to have been affixed to the cross, the evangelists intended to give the form actually used, and consequently "the same" and "entire inscription," which must have been short; and we consider it quite inconceivable that such was not their deliberate intention, however imperfectly fulfilled.

Parting of the garments
We pass on merely to notice a curious point in connection with an incident related by all the Gospels. It is stated that the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus divided his garments amongst them, casting lots to determine what part each should take. The clothing of criminals executed was the perquisite of the soldiers who performed the duty, and there is nothing improbable in the story that the four soldiers decided by lot the partition of the garments -- indeed, there is every reason to suppose that such was the practice. The incident is mentioned as the direct fulfilment of the Psalm 22:18, which is quoted literally from the Septuagint version (21:18) by the author of the fourth Gospel. He did not, however, understand the passage, or disregarded its true meaning, and in order to make the incident accord better, as he supposed, with the prophetic Psalm, he represents that the soldiers amicably parted the rest of his garments amongst them without lot, but cast lots for the coat, which was without seam: (19:24) "They said, therefore, among themselves: let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be; that the Scripture might be fulfilled: They parted my garments among them, and for my vesture they cast lots. These things, therefore, the soldiers did." The Evangelist does not perceive that the two parts of the sentence in the Psalm really refer to the same action, but exhibits the partition of the garments and the lots for the vesture as separately fulfilled. The Synoptists apparently divide the whole by lot. [811:1] They do not expressly refer to the Psalm, except in the received text of Matthew 27:35, into which and some other MSS. the quotation has been interpolated. [811:2] That the narrative of the Gospels, instead of being independent and genuine history, is constructed upon the lines of supposed Messianic Psalms and passages of the Old Testament will become increasingly evident as we proceed.

It is stated by all the Gospels that two malefactors -- the first and second calling them "robbers" -- were crucified with Jesus, the one on the right hand and the other on the left. The statement in Mark 15:28, that this fulfilled Isaiah 53:12, which is found in our received text, is omitted by all the oldest codices, and is an interpolation; [812:1] but we shall hereafter have to speak of this point in connection with another matter, and we now merely point out that, though the verse was thus inserted here, it is placed in the mouth of Jesus himself by the third Synoptist (22:37), and the whole passage from which it was taken has evidently largely influenced the composition of the narrative before us. According to the first and second Gospels, [812:2] the robbers joined with the chief priests and the scribes and elders and those who passed by in mocking and reviling Jesus. This is directly contradicted by the third Synoptist, who states that only one of the malefactors did so (23:39 f.): "But the other answering rebuked him and said: Dost thou not even fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man did nothing amiss. And he said: Jesus, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom. And he said unto him: Verily, I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise." It requires very little examination to detect that this story is legendary, and cannot be maintained as historical. Those who dwell upon its symbolical character do nothing to establish its veracity. This exemplary robber speaks like an Apostle, and in praying Jesus as the Messiah to remember him when he came into his kingdom, he shows much more than apostolic appreciation of the claims and character of Jesus. The reply of Jesus, moreover, contains a statement not only wholly contradictory of Jewish belief as to the place of departed spirits, but of all Christian doctrine at the time as to the descent of Jesus into Hades. Into this, however, it is needless for us to go. [812:3] Not only do the other Gospels show no knowledge of so interesting an episode, but, as we have pointed out, the first and second Synoptics positively exclude it. We shall see, moreover, that there is a serious difficulty in understanding how this conversation on the cross, which is so exclusively the property of the third Synoptist, could have been reported to him.

The Synoptics represent the passers-by and the chief priests, scribes, and elders as mocking Jesus as he hung on the cross. The fourth Gospel preserves total silence as to all this. It is curious also that the mocking is based upon that described in the Psalm 22, to which we have already several times had to refer. In verse 7 f. we have: "All they that see me laughed me to scorn; they shot out the lip; they shook the head (saying), 8. He trusted in the Lord, let Him deliver him, let Him save him (seeing) that he delighteth in him." [813:1] Compare with this Matt. 27:39 f., Mark 15:29 f., Luke 23:35. Is it possible to suppose that the chief priests and elders and scribes could actually have quoted the words of this Psalm, there put into the mouth of the Psalmist's enemies, as the first Synoptist represents (27:43)? It is obvious that the speeches ascribed to the chief priests and elders can be nothing more than the expressions which the writers considered suitable to them, and the fact that they seek their inspiration in a Psalm which they suppose to be Messianic is suggestive.

The women by the Cross
We have already mentioned that the fourth Gospel says nothing of any mocking speeches. The author, however, narrates an episode (19:25-27) in which the dying Jesus is represented as confiding his mother to the care of "the disciple whom he loved," of which, in their turn, the Synoptists seem to be perfectly ignorant. We have already elsewhere remarked that there is no evidence that there was any disciple whom Jesus specially loved, except the repeated statement in this Gospel. No other work of the New Testament contains a hint of such an individual, and much less that he was the Apostle John. Nor is there any evidence that any one of the disciples took the mother of Jesus to his own home. There is, therefore, no external confirmation of this episode; but there is, on the contrary, much which leads to the conclusion that it is not historical. There has been some discussion as to whether four women are mentioned (19:25), or whether "his mother's sister" is represented as "Mary, the wife of Clopas," or was a different person. There are, we think, reasons for concluding that there were four; but, in the doubt, we shall not base any argument on the point. The Synoptics [813:2] distinctly state that "the women that followed him from Galilee," amongst whom were "Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of Zebedee's sons," [813:3] and, as the third Synoptic says, "all his acquaintance," (Lk. 23:49) were standing "afar off" (makrothen). They are unanimous in saying this, and there is every reason for supposing that they are correct. [813:5] This is, consequently, a contradiction of the account in the fourth Gospel that John and the women were standing "by the cross of Jesus." Olshausen, Lücke, and others, suggest that they subsequently came from a distance up to the cross; but the statement of the Synoptists is made at the close, and after this scene is supposed to have taken place. The opposite conjecture, that from standing close to the cross they removed to a distance, has little to recommend it. Both explanations are equally arbitrary and unsupported by evidence.

It may be well, in connection with this, to refer to the various sayings and cries ascribed by the different Evangelists to Jesus on the cross. We have already mentioned the conversation with the "penitent thief," which is peculiar to the third Gospel, and now that with the "beloved disciple," which is only in the fourth. The third Synoptic (23:34) states that, on being crucified, Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" -- a saying which is in the spirit of Jesus and worthy of him, but of which the other Gospels do not take any notice. [814:2] The fourth Gospel again has a cry (19:28): "After this, Jesus, knowing that all things are now fulfilled, that the Scripture might be accomplished, saith: I thirst." The majority of critics understand by this that "I thirst" is said in order "that the Scripture might be fulfilled" by the offer of the vinegar, related in the following verse. The Scripture referred to is of course Psalm 69:21, "They gave me also gall for my food, and in my thirst they gave me vinegar (oxos) to drink"; which we have already quoted in connection with Matthew 27:34. The third Synoptic (23:36) represents the vinegar as being offered in mockery at a much earlier period, and Matthew and Mark [814:3] connect the offer of the vinegar with quite a different cry from that in the fourth Gospel. Nothing could be more natural than that, after protracted agony, the patient sufferer should cry, "I thirst"; but the dogmatic purpose, which dictates the whole narrative in the fourth Gospel, is rendered obvious by the reference of such a cry to a supposed Messianic prophecy. This is further displayed by the statement (v. 29) that the sponge with vinegar was put "upon hyssop" (hyssôpô) -- the two Synoptics have "on a reed" (kalamô) -- which the author probably uses in association with the paschal lamb, [814:4] an idea present to his mind throughout the Passion. The first and second Synoptics [814:5] represent the last cry of Jesus to have been a quotation from Psalm 22:1: "Eli (or Mark, Eloi), Eli, lema sabacthani? that is to say: My God, my God, why didst thou forsake me?" This, according to them, evidently, was the last articulate utterance of the expiring Master, for they merely add that "when he cried again with a loud voice" Jesus yielded up his spirit. [814:6] Neither of the other Gospels has any mention of this cry. The third Gospel substitutes: "And when Jesus cried with a loud voice he said: Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit, and having said this he expired" (Lk. 23:46). This is an almost literal quotation from the Septuagint version of Psalm 31:5. The fourth Gospel has a totally different cry (19:30), for, on receiving the vinegar, which accomplished the Scripture, he represents Jesus as saying, "It is finished" (Tetelestai), and immediately expiring.

The seven sayings on the Cross
It will be observed that seven sayings are attributed to Jesus on the cross, of which the first two Gospels have only one, the third Synoptic three, and the fourth Gospel three. We do not intend to express any opinion here in favour of any of these, but we merely point out the remarkable fact that, with the exception of the one cry in the first two Synoptics, each Gospel has ascribed different sayings to the dying Master, and not only no two of them agree, but in some important instances the statement of the one Evangelist seems to exclude the accounts of the others. Everyone knows the hackneyed explanation of Apologists, but in works which repeat each other so much elsewhere it certainly is a curious phenomenon that there is so little agreement here. If all the Master's disciples "forsook him and fled" (Matt. 26:56), and his few friends and acquaintances stood "afar off" regarding his sufferings, it is readily conceivable that pious tradition had unlimited play. We must return to the cry recorded in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34, the only one about which two witnesses agree. Both of them give this quotation from Psalm 22:1 in Aramaic: Eli (Mark: Eloi), Eli[815:4] lema sabacthani. The purpose is clearly to enable the reader to understand what follows, which we quote from the first Gospel: "And some of them that stood there, when they heard it said: This man calleth for Elijah ... The rest said: Let be, let us see whether Elijah cometh to save him." [815:5] It is impossible to confuse "Eli" or "Eloi" with "Elijahu," and the explanations suggested by Apologists are not sufficient to remove a difficulty which seems to betray the legendary character of the statement. The mistake of supposing that Jesus called for Elijah could not possibly have been made by those who spoke Aramaic; that strangers not perfectly understanding Aramaic should be here intended cannot be maintained, for the suggestion is represented as adopted by "the rest." The Roman soldiers had probably never heard of Elijah; and there is nothing to support the allegation of mockery as accounting for the singular episode. The verse of the Psalm was too well known to the Jews to admit of any suggested play upon words.

Miracles occurring at the Crucifixion
The three Synoptics state that, from the sixth hour (mid-day) to the ninth (3 o'clock), "there was darkness over all the earth" (skotos egeneto epi pasan tên gên). [816:1] The third Gospel adds, "the sun having failed" (tou hêliou eklipontos). [816:2] By the term "all the earth" some critics maintain that the Evangelist merely meant the Holy Land, [816:3] whilst others hold that he uses the expression in its literal sense. The fourth Gospel takes no notice of this darkness. Such a phenomenon is not a trifle to be ignored in any account of the crucifixion, if it actually occurred. The omission of all mention of it either amounts to a denial of its occurrence, or betrays most suspicious familiarity with supernatural interference. Many efforts have been made to explain this darkness naturally, or at least to find some allusion to it in contemporary history, all of which have signally failed. As the moon was at the full, it is admitted that the darkness could not have been an eclipse. The Fathers appealed to Phlegon the Chronicler, who mentions [816:4] an eclipse of the sun about this period accompanied by an earthquake, and also to a similar occurrence referred to by Eusebius, [816:5] probably quoted from the historian Thallus; but, of course, modern knowledge has dispelled the illusion that these phenomena have any connection with the darkness we are discussing, and the theory that the Evangelists are confirmed in their account by this evidence is now generally abandoned. It is apart from our object to show how common it was amongst classical and other writers to represent nature as sympathising with national or social disasters; [816:6] and as a poetical touch this remarkable darkness of the Synoptists, of which no one else knows anything, is quite intelligible. The statement, however, is as seriously and deliberately made as any other in their narrative, and does not add to its credibility. It is obvious that the account is mythical, and it bears a strange likeness to passages in the Old Testament, from the imagery of which the representation in all probability was derived. [816:7]

The first and second Gospels state that when Jesus cried with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit "the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom" (Matt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38). The third Synoptic associates this occurrence with the eclipse of the sun, and narrates it before the final cry and death of the Master (Lk. 23:45). The fourth Gospel takes no notice of so extraordinary a phenomenon. The question might be asked: how could the chief priests, who do not appear to have been at all convinced by such a miracle, but still continued their invincible animosity against the Christian sect, reveal the occurrence of such a wonder, of which there is no mention elsewhere? Here again the account is legendary and symbolical, and in the spirit of the age of miracles. [817:3]

Earthquake and resurrection of saints
The first Synoptist, however, has further marvels to relate. He states in continuation of the passage quoted above: "and the earth was shaken (eseisthê) and the rocks were rent and the sepulchres were opened, and many bodies of the saints who slept were raised; and they came out of the sepulchres after his resurrection, and entered into the holy city and appeared unto many" (Matt. 27:51-53). How great must be the amazement of anyone, who may have been inclined to suppose the Gospels sober historical works, on finding that the other three Evangelists do not even mention these astounding occurrences related by the first Synoptist! An earthquake (seismos[817:5] and the still more astounding resurrection of many saints who appeared unto "many," and, therefore, an event by no means secret and unknown to all but the Synoptist, and yet three other writers, who give accounts of the crucifixion and death of Jesus, and who enter throughout into very minute details, do not even condescend to mention them! Nor does any other New Testament writer chronicle them. It is unnecessary to say that the passage has been a very serious difficulty for Apologists; and one of the latest writers of this school, reproducing the theories of earlier critics, deals with it in a Life of Christ, which "is avowedly and unconditionally the work of a believer," [817:6] as follows: "An earthquake shook the earth and split the rocks, and as it rolled away from their places the great stones which closed and covered the cavern sepulchres of the Jews, it seemed to the imaginations of many to have disimprisoned the spirits of the dead, and to have filled the air with ghostly visitants, who after Christ had risen appeared to linger in the Holy City." In a note he adds: "Only in some such way as this can I account for the singular and wholly isolated allusion of Matt. 27:52, 53." [818:1] It is worthy of note, and we may hereafter refer to the point, that learned divines thus do not scruple to adopt the "vision hypothesis" of the resurrection. Even if the resurrection of the saints so seriously related by the Evangelist be thus disposed of, and it be assumed that the other Gospels, likewise adopting the "vision" explanation, consequently declined to give an objective place in their narrative to what they believed to be a purely subjective and unreal phenomenon, there still remains the earthquake, to which supernatural incident of the crucifixion none of the other Evangelists think it worthwhile to refer. Need we argue that the earthquake is as mythical as the resurrection of the saints? In some apocryphal writings even the names of some of these risen saints are given. [818:2] As the case actually stands, with these marvellous incidents related solely by the first Synoptist and ignored by the other Evangelists, it would seem superfluous to enter upon more detailed criticism of the passage, and to point out the incongruity of the fact that these saints are said to be raised from the dead just as the Messiah expires, or the strange circumstance that, although the sepulchres are said to have been opened at that moment and the resurrection to have then taken place, it is stated that they only came out of their graves after the resurrection of Jesus. The allegation, moreover, that they were raised from the dead at that time, and before the resurrection of Jesus, virtually contradicts the saying of the Apocalypse (1:5) that Jesus was the "first begotten of the dead," and of Paul (1 Cor. 15:20) that he was "the first fruits of them who had fallen asleep. " [818:3] Paul's whole argument is opposed to such a story; for he does not base the resurrection of the dead upon the death of Jesus, but, in contradistinction, upon his resurrection only. The Synoptist evidently desires to associate the resurrection of the saints with the death of Jesus to render that event more impressive, but delays the completion of it in order to give a kind of precedence to the resurrection of the Master. The attempt leads to nothing but confusion. What could be the object of such a resurrection? It could not be represented as any effect produced by the death of Jesus, nor even by his alleged resurrection, for what dogmatic connection could there be between that event and the fact that a few saints only were raised from their graves, whilst it was not pretended that the dead "saints" generally participated in this resurrection? No intimation is given that their appearance to many was for any special purpose, and certainly no practical result has ever been traced to it. Finally we might ask: what became of these saints raised from the dead? Did they die again? Or did they also "ascend into Heaven"? A little reflection will show that these questions are pertinent. It is almost inconceivable that any serious mind could maintain the actual truth of such a story, upon such evidence. Its objective truth not being maintainable, however, the character of the work which advances such an unhesitating statement is determined, and the value of its testimony can without difficulty be settled.

The continuation of this episode in the first Synoptic is quite in keeping with its commencement. It is stated: "But when the centurion and they that were with him watching Jesus saw the earthquake (seismon) and the things that were done (ta genonmena) they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was a son of God" (Alêthôs uios Theou ên outous). [819:1] In Mark the statement is very curiously varied: "And when the centurion who stood over against him saw that he so expired, he said: Truly this man was a son of God." [819:2] It is argued on the one hand that the centurion's wonder was caused by Jesus dying with so loud a cry, and the reading of many MSS. would clearly support this; [819:3] and on the other that the cause of his exclamation was the unexpectedly rapid death of Jesus. Whichever view be taken, the centurion's deduction, it must be admitted, rests upon singularly inconclusive reasoning. We venture to think that it is impossible that a Roman soldier could either have been led to form such an opinion upon such grounds, or to express it in such terms. In Luke we have a third reading: "But when the centurion saw what was done, he glorified God, saying, Certainly this man was righteous" (23:47) (Ontôs ho anthrôpos outos dikaios ên). There is nothing here about the "Son of God"; but when the writer represents the Roman soldier as glorifying God the narrative does not seem much more probable than that of the other Synoptists.

The crurifragium
The fourth Evangelist does not refer to any such episode, but, as usual, introduces a very remarkable incident of his own, of which the Synoptists, who record such peculiar details of what passed, seem very strangely to know nothing. The fourth Evangelist states: "The Jews, therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies might not remain upon the cross on the sabbath (for that Sabbath-day was a high day), besought Pilate that their legs might be broken and they might be taken away. So the soldiers came and brake the legs of the first, and of the other who was crucified with him; but when they came to Jesus, as they saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs; but one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith there came out blood and water. And he that hath seen hath borne witness, and his witness is true; and that man knoweth that he saith what is true, that ye also may believe. For these things came to pass that the Scripture might be fulfilled: A bone of him shall not be broken. And again another Scripture saith: They shall look on him whom they pierced" (Jn. 19:31-37). It is inconceivable that, if this actually occurred, and occurred more especially that the "Scripture might be fulfilled," the other three Evangelists could thus totally ignore it all. [820:3] The second Synoptist does more: he not only ignores, but excludes it; for (15:43 f.) he represents Joseph as begging the body of Jesus from Pilate "when evening was now come." "And Pilate marvelled if he were already dead; and, calling unto him the centurion, he asked him whether he had been long dead. And, when he knew it of the centurion, he gave the corpse to Joseph" (Mk. 15:44-45). Now, although there could be no doubt on the point, the fourth Gospel clearly states (19:38, meta tauta) that Joseph made his request for the body after the order had been given by Pilate to break the legs of the crucified, and after it had been executed as above described. If Pilate had already given the order to break the legs, how is it possible he could have marvelled, or acted as he is described in Mark to have done?

It is well known that the Crurifragium, which is here applied, was not usually an accompaniment of crucifixion, though it may have been sometimes employed along with it, [821:1] but that it was a distinct punishment. It consisted in breaking, with hammers or clubs, the bones of the condemned from the hips to the feet. We shall not discuss whether, in the present case, this measure really was adopted or not. The representation is that the Jews requested Pilate to break the legs of the crucified that the bodies might be removed before the Sabbath, and that the order was given and executed. The first point to be noted is the very singular manner in which the leg-breaking was performed. The soldiers are said to have broken the legs of the first, and then of the other who was crucified with Jesus, thus passing over Jesus in the first instance; and then the Evangelist says: "but when they came to Jesus, as they saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs, but one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side." This order of procedure is singular; but the whole conduct of the guard is so extraordinary that such details become comparatively insignificant. An order having been given to the Roman soldiers, in accordance with the request of the Jews, to break the legs of the crucified, we are asked to believe that they did not execute it in the case of Jesus! It is not reasonable to suppose that Roman soldiers either were in the habit of disregarding their orders, or could have any motive for doing so in this case, and subjecting themselves to the severe punishment for disobedience inflicted by Roman military law. It is argued that they saw that Jesus was already dead, and, therefore, that it was not necessary to break his legs; but soldiers are not in the habit of thinking in this way: they are disciplined to obey. The fact is that the certainty that Jesus was dead already did not actually exist in their minds, for, in that case, why should the soldier have pierced his side with a spear? The only conceivable motive for doing so was to make sure that Jesus really was dead; but is it possible to suppose that a Roman soldier, being in the slightest doubt, actually chose to assure himself in this way when he might still more effectually have done so by simply obeying the order of his superior and breaking the legs? The whole episode is manifestly unhistorical.

It is clear that to fulfil in a marked way the prophecies which the writer had in his mind, and wished specially to apply to Jesus, it was necessary that, in the first place, there should have been a distinct danger of the bones being broken, and at the same time of the side not being pierced. The order to break the legs of the crucified is therefore given, but an extraordinary exception is made in favour of Jesus, and a thrust with the lance substituted, so that both passages of the Scripture are supposed to be fulfilled. What Scriptures, however, are fulfilled? The first, "A bone of him shall not be broken," is merely the prescription with regard to the Paschal lamb, Ex. 12:46, [822:1] and the dogmatic view of the fourth Evangelist leads him throughout to represent Jesus as the true Paschal lamb. The second is Zech. 12:10, [822:2] and anyone who reads the passage, even without the assistance of learned exegesis, may perceive that it has no such application as our Evangelist gives it. We shall pass over, as not absolutely necessary for our immediate purpose, very many important details of the episode; but regarding this part of the subject we may say that we consider it evident that, if an order was given to break the legs of the crucified upon this occasion, that order must have been executed upon Jesus equally with any others who may have been crucified with him.

There has been much discussion as to the intention of the author in stating that, from the wound made by the lance, there forthwith came out "blood and water" (aima kai hudôr); and likewise as to whether the special testimony here referred to in the third person is to attest more immediately the flow of blood and water, or the whole episode. [822:3] In regard to the latter point, we need not pause to discuss the question. As to the "blood and water," some see in the statement made an intention to show the reality of the death of Jesus, whilst others more rightly regard the phenomenon described as a representation of a supernatural and symbolical incident, closely connected with the whole dogmatic view of the Gospel. It is impossible not to see in this the same idea as that expressed in 1 John 5:6: "This is he that came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not in the water only, but in the water and the blood." [822:4] As a natural incident it cannot be entertained, for in no sense but mere quibbling could it be said that "blood and water" could flow from such a wound, and as a supernatural phenomenon it must be rejected. As a proof of the reality of the death of Jesus, it could only have been thought of at a time when gross ignorance prevailed upon all medical subjects. We shall not here discuss the reality of the death of Jesus, but we may merely point out that the almost unprecedentedly rapid decease of Jesus was explained by Origen [823:1] and some of the Fathers as miraculous. It has been argued that the thrust of the lance may have been intended to silence those objectors who might have denied the actual death on the ground that the legs of Jesus were not broken like those of the two malefactors, [823:2] and it certainly is generally quoted as having assured the fact of death. The statement that blood flowed from the wound by no means supports the allegation; and, although we may make little use of the argument, it is right to say that there is no evidence of any serious kind advanced of the reality of the death of Jesus, here or in the other Gospels. [823:3]

The descent from the Cross
The author of the fourth Gospel himself seems to betray that this episode is a mere interpolation of his own into a narrative to which it does not properly belong. According to his own account (19:31), the Jews besought Pilate that the legs might be broken and that the bodies "might be taken away" (arthôsin). The order to do this was obviously given, for the legs are forthwith broken, and, of course, immediately after, the bodies, in pursuance of the same order, would have been taken away. As soon as the Evangelist has secured his purpose of showing how the Scriptures were fulfilled by means of this episode, he takes up the story as though it had not been interrupted, and proceeds, verse 38: "After these things" (meta tauta), that is to say after the legs of the malefactors had been broken and the side of Jesus pierced, Joseph besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave leave. But, if verse 31 f. be historical, the body must already have been taken away. All the Synoptics agree with the fourth Gospel in stating that Joseph of Arimathaea begged for and obtained the body of Jesus from Pilate. [823:4] The second and third Synoptics describe him as belonging to the Council, but the first Gospel merely calls him "a rich man," whilst the fourth omits both of these descriptions. They all call him a disciple of Jesus -- secretly for fear of the Jews, the fourth Gospel characteristically adds -- although the term that he was "waiting for the Kingdom of God," used by the second and third Gospels, is somewhat vague. The fourth Gospel introduces a second personage in the shape of Nicodemus, "who at the first came to him by night," (Jn. 3:1) and who, it will be remembered, had previously been described as "a ruler of the Jews" (Jn. 3:1, 7:50). The Synoptics do not once mention such a person, either in the narrative of the Passion or in the earlier chapters, and there are more than doubts as to his historical character.

The embalmment
The accounts of the Entombment given by the three Synoptists, or at least by the second and third, distinctly exclude the narrative of the fourth Gospel, both as regards Nicodemus and the part he is represented as taking. The contradictions which commence here between the account of the fourth Gospel and the Synoptics, in fact, are of the most glaring and important nature, and demand marked attention. The fourth Gospel states that, having obtained permission from Pilate, Joseph came and took the body of Jesus away. "And there came also Nicodemus… bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pound weight. They took, therefore, the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen cloths with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. Now, in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new sepulchre wherein was never man yet laid. There, therefore, on account of the preparation of the Jews (ekei oun dia tên paraskeuên tôn Ioudaiôn), they laid Jesus, for the sepulchre was at hand" (hoti engus ên to mnêmeion) (Jn. 19:39-42).

According to the first Synoptic, when Joseph took the body, he simply wrapped it "in clean linen" (en sindoni kathara) and "laid it in his own new sepulchre, which he hewed in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed" (Matt. 27:59). There is no mention of spices or any anointing of the body, and the statement that the women provide for this is not made in this Gospel. According to the writer, the burial is complete, and the sepulchre finally closed. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary come merely "to behold the sepulchre" at the end of the Sabbath (Matt. 28:1). The fourth Evangelist apparently does not know anything of the sepulchre being Joseph's own tomb, and the body is, according to him, although fully embalmed, only laid in the sepulchre in the garden on account of the Sabbath and because it was at hand. We shall refer to this point, which must be noted, further on.

There are very striking differences between these two accounts, but the narratives of the second and third Synoptists are still more emphatically contradictory of both. In Mark (15:46) we are told that Joseph "brought linen, and took him down and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulchre which had been hewn out of a rock, and rolled a stone against the door of the sepulchre." There is no mention here of any embalming performed by Joseph or Nicodemus, nor are any particulars given as to the ownership of the sepulchre, or the reasons for its selection. We are, however, told (Mk. 16:1): "And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices that they might come and anoint him." It is distinctly stated in connection with the entombment, moreover, in agreement with the first Synoptic (Matt. 27:61): "And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses beheld where he was laid" (Mk. 15:47). According to this account and that of the first Gospel, the women, having remained to the last and seen the body deposited in the sepulchre, knew so little of its having been embalmed by Joseph and Nicodemus that they actually purchase the spices and come to perform that office themselves.

In Luke the statement is still more specific, in agreement with Mark, and in contradiction to the fourth Gospel. Joseph took down the body "and wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a sepulchre that was hewn in stone, wherein never man before was laid … And women who had come with him out of Galilee followed after, and beheld the sepulchre and how his body was laid. And they returned and prepared spices and ointments." Upon the first day of the week, the author adds, "they came unto the sepulchre bringing the spices which they had prepared" (Lk. 23:53 f., 24:1).

Which of these accounts are we to believe? According to the first Gospel, there is no embalmment at all; according to the second and third Gospels, the embalmment is undertaken by the women, and not by Joseph and Nicodemus, but is never carried out; according to the fourth Gospel, the embalmment is completed on Friday evening by Joseph and Nicodemus, and not by the women. According to the first Gospel, the burial is completed on Friday evening; according to the second and third, it is only provisional; and according to the fourth, the embalmment is final, but it is doubtful whether the entombment is final or temporary; several critics consider it to have been only provisional. In Mark the women buy the spices "when the Sabbath was past" (diagenomenou tou sabbatou); (Mk. 16:1) in Luke before it has begun; (Lk. 23:35) and in Matthew and John they do not buy them at all, In the first and fourth Gospels the women come after the Sabbath merely to behold the sepulchre, (Matt. 28:1; Jn. 20:1) and in the second and third they bring the spices to complete the burial. Amid these conflicting statements we may suggest one consideration. It is not probable, in a hot climate, that a wounded body, hastily laid in a sepulchre on Friday evening before six o'clock, would be disturbed again on Sunday morning for the purpose of being anointed and embalmed. Corruption would, under the circumstances, already have commenced. Besides, as Keim [826:1] has pointed out, the last duties to the dead were not forbidden amongst the Jews on the Sabbath, and there is really no reason why any care for the body of the Master which reverence or affection might have dictated should not at once have been bestowed.

The enormous amount of myrrh and aloes -- "about a hundred pound weight" (hôs litras ekaton) -- brought by Nicodemus has excited much discussion, and adds to the extreme improbability of the story related by the fourth Evangelist. To whatever weight the litra may be reduced, the quantity specified is very great; and it is a question whether the body thus enveloped "as the manner of the Jews is to bury" could have entered the sepulchre. The practice of embalming the dead, although well known amongst the Jews, and invariable in the case of kings and noble or very wealthy persons, was by no means generally prevalent. In the burial of Gamaliel the elder, chief of the party of the Pharisees, it is stated that over eighty pounds of balsam were burnt in his honour by the proselyte Onkelos; but this quantity, which was considered very remarkable, is totally eclipsed by the provision of Nicodemus.

The key to the whole of this history of the burial of Jesus, however, is to be found in the celebrated chapter 53 of "Isaiah." We have already, in passing, pointed out that, in the third Gospel (22:37), Jesus is represented as saying: "For I say unto you, that this which is written must be accomplished in me: And he was reckoned among transgressors." The same quotation from Is. 53:12 is likewise interpolated in Mark 15:28. Now the whole representation of the burial and embalmment of Jesus is evidently based upon the same chapter, and more especially upon verse 9, which is wrongly rendered both in the Authorised Version and in the Septuagint, in the latter of which the passage reads: "I will give the wicked for his grave and the rich for his death." [826:2] The Evangelists, taking this to be the sense of the passage, which they suppose to be a Messianic prophecy, have represented the death of Jesus as being with the wicked, crucified as he is between two robbers; and through Joseph of Arimathaea, significantly called "a rich man" (anthrôpos plousious) by the first Synoptist, especially according to the fourth Evangelist by his addition of the counsellor Nicodemus and his hundred pounds weight of mingled myrrh and aloes, as being "with the rich in his death." Unfortunately, the passage in the "prophecy" does not mean what the Evangelists have been led to understand, and the ablest Hebrew scholars and critics are now agreed that both phrases quoted refer, in true Hebrew manner, to one representation, and that the word above translated "rich" is not used in a favourable sense, but that the passage must be rendered: "And they made his grave with the wicked and his sepulchre with the evil-doers," or words to that effect. Without going minutely into the details of opinion on the subject of the "servant of Jehovah" in this writing of the Old Testament, we may add that upon one point at least the great majority of critics are of one accord: that Is. 53 and other passages of "Isaiah" describing the sufferings of the "Servant of Jehovah" have no reference to the Messiah. As we have touched upon this subject, it may not be out of place to add that Psalms 22 and 69, which are so frequently quoted in connection with the Passion, and represented by New Testament and other early writers as Messianic, are determined, by sounder principles of criticism applied to them in modern times, not to refer to the Messiah at all.

The watch at the sepulchre
We now come to a remarkable episode, which is peculiar to the first Synoptic and strangely ignored by all the other Gospels. It is stated that the next day -- that is to say, on the Sabbath -- the chief priests and the Pharisees came together to Pilate, saying: "Sir, we remember that that deceiver said while he was yet alive: After three days I am raised (Meta treis hêmeras egeiromai). Command, therefore, that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come and steal him away and say unto the people: He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first. Pilate said unto them: Ye have a guard (Hechete koustôdian): go, make it as sure as ye can. So they went and made the sepulchre sure, scaling the stone, with the guard" (Matt. 27:62-66). Not only do the other Evangelists pass over this strange proceeding in total silence, but their narratives, or at least those of the second and third Synoptists, exclude it. The women came with their spices to embalm the body, in total ignorance of there being any guard to interfere with their performance of that last sad office for the Master. We are asked to believe that the chief priests and the Pharisees actually desecrated the Sabbath by scaling the stone, and visited the house of the heathen Pilate on so holy a day, for the purpose of asking for the guard (cf. Jn. 28:28; 19:31). These priests are said to have remembered and understood a prophecy of Jesus regarding his resurrection, of which his disciples are represented to be in ignorance (cf. John 20:9). The remark about "the last error," moreover, is very suspicious. The ready acquiescence of Pilate is quite incredible. [828:2] That he should employ Roman soldiers to watch the sepulchre of a man who had been crucified cannot be entertained; and his friendly, "Go, make it as sure as ye can," is not in the spirit of Pilate. It is conceivable that to satisfy their clamour he may, without much difficulty, have consented to crucify a Jew, more especially as his crime was of a political character represented as in some degree affecting the Roman power; but, once crucified, it is not in the slightest degree likely that Pilate would care what became of his body, and still less that he would employ Roman soldiers to mount guard over it.

It may be as well to dispose finally of this episode, so we at once proceed to its conclusion. When the resurrection takes place, it is stated that some of the guard went into the city, and, instead of making their report to Pilate, as might have been expected, told the chief priests all that had occurred. A council is held, and the soldiers are largely bribed, and instructed: "Say that his disciples came by night and stole him while we slept. And if this come to the governor's ears we will persuade him and make you free from care. So they took the money and did as they were taught" (Matt. 28:11-15). Nothing could be more simple than the construction of the story, which follows the usual broad lines of legend. The idea of Roman soldiers confessing that they slept whilst on watch, and allowed that to occur which they were there to prevent! And this to oblige the chief priests and elders, at the risk of their lives! Then, are we to suppose that the chief priests and council believed this story of the earthquake and angel, and yet acted in this way? And if they did not believe it, would not the very story itself have led to the punishment of the men, and to the confirmation of the report they desired to spread, that the disciples had stolen the body? The large bribe seems to have been very ineffectual, since the Christian historian is able to report precisely what the chief priests and elders instruct them to say. [828:4] Is it not palpable that the whole story is legendary? If it be so, and we think this cannot be doubted, a conclusion which the total silence of the other Gospels seems to confirm, very suggestive consequences may be deduced from it. The first Synoptist, referring to the false report which the Sanhedrin instruct the soldiers to make, says: "And this saying was spread among the Jews unto this day" (Matt. 28:15). The probable origin of the legend may have been an objection to the Christian affirmation of the resurrection to the above effect; but it is instructive to find that Christian tradition was equal to the occasion, and invented a story to refute it. It is the tendency to this very system of defence and confirmation, everywhere apparent, which renders early Christian tradition so mythical and untrustworthy.

< Previous section      Contents      Home      Top of Page      Next section >