Chapter 17: Jesus’ Death and Burial

Jesus in the First Three Gospels
by Millar Burrows

Chapter 17: Jesus’ Death and Burial

Having had their cruel fun with Jesus, Pilate’s soldiers "led him out to crucify him" (Mk 15:20-21; Mt 27:31-32; Lk 23:26). For some reason not stated Jesus was not compelled to carry the heavy crossbar to which his hands were to be nailed. There is a tradition that he tried but was unable to carry it. The second station on the Via Dolorosa, the traditional route from the praetorium to Calvary, is the place where the cross is thought to have been laid upon him. The third station, a little way down the street to the west, marks the place where, according to the legend, he fell under the burden.

The Gospel of John (19:17) implies that Jesus carried the cross all the way himself. The Synoptic Gospels, however, say that a man from Cyrene named Simon was compelled to carry it for him. Mark calls Simon a passerby; Matthew says that the soldiers came upon him as they were starting out. Both Mark and Luke say that he "was coming in from the country." Mark further identifies him as "the father of Alexander and Rufus." Alexander is not mentioned elsewhere, but Paul sends greetings (Rom 16:13) to a man named Rufus, "eminent in the Lord," and his mother. Cyrene was in North Africa. Simon may have come to Jerusalem as a pilgrim for the Passover (cf. Acts 2.10), or perhaps he had come to Palestine previously and was living in one of the villages near Jerusalem.

Luke mentions (23:27) "a great multitude of the people" who followed, "and of women who bewailed and lamented him." Jesus turned to the women and told them to weep not for him but for themselves and their children, because a time was coming when to be childless would be considered a blessing (Lk 23:28-31; cf. Mk 13:17 and parallels). Quoting Hosea (10:8), Jesus added, "For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?" Luke notes also that two criminals were led away at the same time to be crucified (23:32).

Like the site of the praetorium, the location of Calvary is at best uncertain. None of the stations of the cross between them, therefore, has any claim to historical validity. Only about half of the incidents thus commemorated are recorded in the Gospels. In fact, the records of early pilgrims show that the stations have not always been placed where they are now. Furthermore, the level of the ground in the central valley that is crossed by the Via Dolorosa is much higher now than it was in New Testament times. The whole series of events, however, so far as it is historical, took place not far from here, especially if the traditional sites of the praetorium and Calvary are authentic.

The place to which Jesus was taken was called Golgotha (Mk 15:22; Mt 27:33; Lk 23:33), which is a Greek transcription of the Aramaic word for "skull." The familiar name Calvary is from the Latin Calvariae, which is used in the Vulgate. The traditional site of Golgotha is just inside the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to the right as one enters. It is a portion of the native rock, left standing in approximately the form of a cube by cutting down the sides to the level of the floor of the church.

That this is indeed the place where Jesus was crucified can probably never be proved or disproved. There is much in its favor, as well as some reason for doubt. Unfortunately there was a radical break in the history of Jerusalem in the second century, which to some degree interrupted the local tradition of the sacred sites. When the emperor Hadrian, after putting down the Jewish revolt of AD. 135, undertook to eradicate Palestinian Judaism and Jewish Christianity, he destroyed Jerusalem and built in its place a Roman city, which he named Aelia Capitolina. Where Jesus was believed to have been crucified and buried, Hadrian had the ground filled in and a temple to Venus built over Jesus’ tomb. Not until the time of Constantine, two hundred years later, was this destroyed.

It may be, however, that the temple of Venus, intended to blot out the memory of what had happened there, served instead to preserve that memory. When the Jewish Christians were expelled from the city with the Jews, Gentile Christians were not banished. Among these there must have been many who had known the place before it was altered and desecrated. They could tell their children and grandchildren that the temple covered the place where Jesus was buried. When Bishop Macarius got permission from Constantine to excavate the area, he apparently knew where to dig.

The discovery of Calvary by Constantine’s mother, the empress Helena, is another matter. She went to Jerusalem while Macarius was preparing to build the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The story of her dream, leading to the finding of the cross, is not mentioned by Eusebius, who was bishop of Caesarea at the time and left the chief contemporary account of the discovery of the tomb. Perhaps Macarius had no such definite tradition concerning Calvary as he had for the tomb.

The main objection to the traditional site lies in the fact that it is now inside the city walls, whereas the crucifixion took place outside the city (Jn 19:20; Heb 13:12; Lev 16:27). Just where the northern wall was in the first century is not yet conclusively established, but it is difficult to find a convincing course for it that would leave the traditional Calvary and tomb outside. The persistence of the tradition in spite of this fact is a point in its favor. Some remains of what may have been a city wall have been found, but the area cannot be thoroughly excavated because it is covered with buildings. No other site, however, has any evidence at all to support it.

Some difficult questions are raised by the accounts of Jesus’ death. Our brief review of the facts will have to give more attention to the data in the Gospel of John than was necessary or feasible in the earlier parts of the story.

The amount of variation among the Gospels is obscured by the traditional practice of "harmonizing." This is conspicuously evident in the "Seven Words" of Jesus from the cross, commonly used in Good Friday services. Only one of these appears in more than one Gospel, and it is the only one recorded by Mark or Matthew: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Mk 15:34; Mt 27:46). Luke alone has three of the Words: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (23:34); "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (v 43); and "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit" (v 46). The rest are in John: "Woman, behold your son!" and "Behold, your mother!" (19:26-27); "I thirst" (v 28); "It is finished!" (v 30).

Some of the Words are quotations from the Psalms. The cry of despair in Mark and Matthew is the first verse of Psalm 22. The statement, "I thirst" is said to have been made to fulfill scripture (Jn 19:28-29). in this case Psalm 69:21. The final expression of commitment (Lk 23:46) is a quotation of Psalm 31:5. Is it credible that in such moments Jesus would quote scripture? What might seem likely once becomes less so with three instances: yet it is not inconceivable. In any case, the variations among the Gospels show that we cannot know what Jesus said, if anything. as he hung on the cross.

Unlike the Seven Words, most of the sixteen incidents in the accounts of the crucifixion are found in at least three Gospels, though not always in the same order: six are in all four Gospels. five in all the Synoptic Gospels, and one in Mark and Matthew only.

According to Mark and Matthew, before Jesus was crucified he was offered wine mixed with myrrh or gall, but refused to drink it (Mk 15:23; Mt 27:34). Psalm 69:21 says in the Hebrew. "They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink." Instead of "poison" the Greek version reads "gall," as Matthew does. Mark has no such scriptural reference; myrrhed wine" was given as a humane measure to dull the pain of one crucified.

The crucifixion itself is mentioned almost incidentally in the Gospels (Mk 15:24; Mt 27:35; Lk 23:33;Jn 19:18). Matthew even puts it in a subordinate construction, making the division of the garments the main part of the sentence. The story of the soldiers dividing Jesus’ garments by lot (Mk 15:24; Mt 27:35; Lk 23:34; in 19:23) is a reflection of Psalm 22:18. There is nothing intrinsically improbable in it; possibly, however, after Psalm 22 came to be regarded as referring prophetically to Jesus, the inference was drawn that his clothes had been so divided.

Mark and Matthew record next (Mk 15:26; Mt 27:37) "the inscription of the charge against him" (Mk): "The King of the Jews." Luke puts this a little later (23:38). Mark and Matthew note here also the crucifixion of the two robbers or bandits, which Luke has already mentioned. The Romans used crucifixion for executing common criminals, especially slaves. It was considered unsuitable for a Roman citizen. Subjecting Jesus to this indignity was an expression of contempt.

As if the mockery he had already endured was not enough, Jesus had to endure the jeers of passers by, who "derided him, wagging their heads, and saying. ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross’" (Mk 15:29-30; Mt 27:39-40). The words "wagging their heads" echo Psalm 22:7. The chief priests and scribes said: "He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe" (Mk 15:31-32; Mt 27:41-42: cf. Lk 23:35). Matthew adds (v 43) an almost exact quotation of Psalm 22:8.

Luke now says (23:36-37). "The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him vinegar," which recalls Psalm 69:21, as Matthew did with the offer of mixed wine. Here the act is one of mockery. Mark and Matthew have later another drink of vinegar, apparently given in a different spirit. Here they report that the robbers crucified with Jesus joined in reviling him (Mk 15:32; Mt 27:44). According to Luke (23:40-42) only one of them railed at Jesus, and he was rebuked by the other, who then said to Jesus, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus’ response to this plea is the second of the Seven Words (Lk 23:43): "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Both the term Paradise and the idea of entering Paradise immediately at death are unique in the Synoptic Gospels and almost without parallel in the whole New Testament. Lacking any corroborative evidence, it is at best uncertain that the promise to the penitent robber represents Jesus’ conception of the future life.

The crucifixion had taken place at about nine o’clock. From the sixth hour to the ninth (that is, from about noon until three o’clock in the afternoon) "there was darkness over the whole land" (Mk 15:33; Mt 27:45; Lk 23:44-45). The Greek noun may mean "earth," as the KJV reads in Luke but not in Mark or Matthew. Whether the darkness was a physical phenomenon or a poetic expression of horror at the death of Jesus is uncertain. Luke adds, "While the sun’s light failed." A solar eclipse, which could be exactly dated, would be a welcome help to the historian, fixing the year when Jesus was crucified. No such eclipse occurred, however, during Pilate’s term of office. Many manuscripts and versions, in fact, have the reading followed by the KJV, "the sun was darkened," which might refer to a heavy cloud. Luke notes here also the rending of the curtain in the temple, which comes a little later in Mark and Matthew.

After Jesus’ despairing cry and the misunderstanding of some who thought he was calling upon Elijah, Mark and Matthew relate the offer of a sponge soaked with vinegar (Mk 15:36; Mt 27:48-49), recalling again Psalm 69:21. This was an act of compassion, as also apparently in John (19:29). The variant versions of the story, however, make it appear likely that the verse in the Psalm suggested that Jesus had been offered vinegar.

The reserve with which the evangelists record the moment of Jesus’ death is notable (Mk 15:37; Mt 27:50; Lk 23:46; in 19:30). Their simple statements of the fact are more moving than any emotional comment or any attempt to bring out the significance of the event. Here Mark and Matthew appropriately tell of the rending of the curtain in the temple (Mk 15:38; Mt 27:51; cf. Lk 23:45). Though recorded in all three Synoptic Gospels, this item is undoubtedly legendary, perhaps originally intended as symbolic, signifying the coming destruction of the temple and the end of the old dispensation.

Matthew alone adds (27:51-53) that there was an earthquake, which split the rocks; "and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many."

Like the preceding phenomena, all this points up the cosmic significance of Jesus’ death. For the prescientific mind it was easy (and still is) to assume that signs and wonders must have occurred at such a time.

The idea of a resurrection of "many" of the righteous who were "asleep" goes back to Daniel 12:2, where it is associated with the end of the age. These verses in Matthew stand alone in regarding such a resurrection as connected with the death and resurrection of Jesus and therefore already past. The phrase "after his resurrection" is confusing at this point, because the opening of the tombs is associated with the earthquake when Jesus died.

All three Synoptic Gospels tell of the Roman centurion’s testimony (Mk 15:39; Mt 27:54; Lk 23:47), though differing somewhat as to what he saw and what he said. According to Mark and Matthew he said, "Truly this man was the Son of God." or a Son of God" (the Greek text omits the definite article). Being presumably a pagan, the centurion could have used the expression "a son of God" or "a son of a god," meaning simply "a god." In Luke, however, he says, "Certainly this man was innocent!" Possibly this is a paraphrase of what Matthew and Mark quote literally. By "son of God" the centurion might have meant a righteous man. In the Wisdom of Solomon the unbelieving enemies of a righteous man complain (2:13, 16-18) that he "calls himself a child of the Lord" and "boasts that God is his father." Scornfully they say, "Let us see if his words are true, . . . for if the righteous man is God’s son, he will help him."

The three evangelists go on to say that a group of women, who had ministered to Jesus in Galilee and followed him to Jerusalem. stood at a distance looking on while these things took place (Mk 15:40-41; Mt 27:55-56; Lk 23:55). Mark and Matthew mention Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses (or Joseph). These two appear again later in connection with Jesus’ burial and resurrection. A third woman also is named. Mark calls her Salome; Matthew, presumably referring to the same woman, calls her the mother of the sons of Zebedee (cf. Mt 20:20-21). Mark names Salome with the two Marys again in the next verse (16:1). She does not appear anywhere else in the New Testament.

The Fourth Gospel relates (in 19:31-37) that the Jews asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and to have the bodies taken away, but the soldiers found Jesus already dead and did not break his legs, "that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘Not a bone of him shall be broken.’" This refers to a law concerning the Passover lamb (Ex 12:46; Num 9:12); thus the idea that Jesus was the true Passover lamb finds expression again. One of the soldiers, John continues, pierced Jesus’ side with his spear, "and at once there came out blood and water." Thus another scripture (Zech 12:10) was fulfilled: "They shall look on him whom they have pierced."

All four Gospels tell of Joseph of Arimathea, who asked Pilate for Jesus’ body and gave it a proper burial (Mk 15:42-47; Mt 27:57-61; Lk 23:50-56; in 19:38-42). Joseph, we are told, was "a rich man" (Matthew), a "member of the council" (Mark, Luke), "respected" (Mark) and "righteous" (Luke), "who had not consented to their purpose and deed" (Luke). Matthew and John say that he was a disciple of Jesus; Mark and Luke say that he was "looking for the kingdom of God."

Mark adds that Pilate was surprised at Joseph’s request and granted it only after learning from the centurion that Jesus was already dead. Joseph then took the body down from the cross, wrapped it in a linen shroud, and laid it in a tomb hewn out of the rock. Matthew says it was Joseph’s tomb. Luke and John say that it had not been used before, and John says that it was in a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified. Perhaps the newness of the tomb is explained by Joseph’s having moved to Jerusalem from Arimathea, where his family tomb would have been.

The tomb under the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is about 125 feet west-northwest of the traditional Calvary. The case for its authenticity is if anything somewhat stronger than the case for the traditional Calvary. No other place that has been suggested has as much in its favor as this site. That there was an ancient tomb here can hardly be doubted. What remains of it in the tiny chapel erected over it is so encased in marble that a visitor can see nothing of it. At the western edge of the rotunda, however, some ancient rock-hewn tombs are still to be seen, showing conclusively that the area was used as a burial ground before it was enclosed within the city wall.

In the fourth century, as at the nearby traditional site of Calvary, the rocky slope around the tomb was cut away, so that the floor within the rotunda was made level, and only a small mass of rock immediately around the tomb was left standing. In the eleventh century a fanatical Muslim ruler tried to demolish not only the chapel but the tomb itself, going so far as to have part of the rock in which it was cut removed. There is therefore no room for hope that the authenticity of the tomb can ever be proved or disproved by archaeological research. The evidence is cumulative and at best can establish only a relative probability.

Mark, telling of the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea, says "and he rolled a stone against the door of the tomb" (15:46). Matthew also mentions this (27:60), calling the stone "a great stone." There are still to be seen at Jerusalem several rock-hewn Jewish tombs of the Roman period with round stones like large millstones set on edge in grooves so that they can be rolled across the entrances. Mark concludes (15:47; cf, v 40), "Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid." Matthew says (27:61) that they "were there, sitting opposite the sepulchre." Luke says in a more general way (23:55-56), "The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid; then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments."

Matthew has a paragraph here (27:62-66) which begins, "Next day, that is, after the day of Preparation," which amounts to saying "the day after the day before the Sabbath." The chief priest and Pharisees, it seems, did not allow the observance of the Sabbath to interfere with taking precautions against a possible fraud by Jesus’ disciples. They told Pilate that "that impostor" had said he would rise again after three days, and asked him to have the tomb made so secure that the disciples would not be able to steal the body of Jesus and claim that he had risen from the dead. Pilate assigned soldiers to go with them and told them to make the tomb as secure as they could. They went to the tomb, sealed the stone, and left the soldiers on guard.

No other incident in the Gospels seems quite so patently a bit of counter-propaganda. If the disciples had not proclaimed the resurrection, and the tomb had not been declared empty, no one would have thought of accusing them of stealing the body. The whole story of the guard and the sealing of the tomb was probably devised to refute that charge after it had been made (cf. Mt 28:11-15).

Since the eighteenth-century "Enlightenment" it has been suggested now and then that Jesus was not dead when he was taken down from the cross. A recent revival of this notion postulates that to fulfill prophecy, Jesus simulated death with the aid of a drug, and the disciples kept him hidden until he recovered. There is no sound basis for this fantastic theory. It is arrived at by inventing far-fetched rationalistic explanations of the most obviously legendary details in the biblical narratives. No fact in the whole Gospel story is more certain than that Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried under Pontius Pilate.

In all that the Gospels tell us about the crucifixion there is a notable lack of anything about the divine purpose of Jesus’ death and what it accomplished. There have been scattered allusions to Isaiah 53 in the narratives; but when the evangelists come to the event itself, they are content to tell their story and let us deduce what they believe about it from the way they tell it. For doctrinal interpretations of the cross we have to read on into the rest of the New Testament.