Jesus is Crucified

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(This is an excerpt from the chapter "Son of David" from the book God So Loved the World.)

As was common for convicted criminals, Jesus was compelled to carry his own cross—likely just the crossbeam but perhaps the stake itself—to the place of his execution. The synoptic Gospels agree that a man from Cyrene named Simon was pressed into service to carry Jesus’ cross, presumably because Jesus was no longer physically capable after the ordeals of the previous night and that morning (Mark 15:21–22; Matthew 27:32; Luke 23:26). As Jesus and Simon made their way to the place of crucifixion, they encountered a group of women who lamented his impending execution. To them he prophesied the coming destruction of Jerusalem, recalling the Olivet Discourse (Luke 23:27–31). In a significant departure from the synoptic accounts, John omits the story of Simon of Cyrene and maintains that Jesus carried his own cross all the way to Golgotha (John 19:16–17). The symbolism here is important: the Jesus portrayed by John was divinely powerful and needed no help. Regardless of who actually carried the cross, John’s point is that Jesus went to his death on his own, “bearing his cross” (John 19:17), perhaps in a metaphorical sense, and accomplishing the final act of the Atonement alone.

The name used in three of the Gospels for the place of Jesus’ crucifixion is Golgotha, an Aramaic word meaning “skull” (Mark 15:22; Matthew 27:33; John 19:17). Luke 23:33 uses the Greek word for skull, kranion, which the King James translators rendered as “Calvary,” from the term used in the Latin Vulgate. Although one explanation of the name suggests that it was a hill that looked like a skull, it is likely that the reference is to skulls of executed persons that in a pagan culture could have been left lying about but in Judea would probably have been buried. Significantly, Joseph Smith’s translation of Mark, Matthew, and John changes the description from “the place of the skull” to “the place of a burial,” and indeed John 19:41 notes that the garden and the tomb where Jesus was buried were near the place where Jesus was crucified.

Once at Golgotha, Jesus was offered cheap wine mixed with a bitter agent (Mark 15:23; Matthew 27:34), which might have been intended as a narcotic to lessen the pain and hasten his death. Though the soldiers’ offering him “gall” fulfilled the prophecy of Psalm 69:21, Jesus refused it. The soldiers charged with crucifying him then stripped him, a common indignity imposed upon those being executed, and divided his clothing among themselves, which had been foreseen in Psalm 22:18 (Mark 15:24; Matthew 27:35; Luke 23:34; John 19:23–24). Luke, ever aware of examples of Jesus’ compassion and mercy, stresses that Jesus forgave the men who were in the very act of crucifying him, saying, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). John adds the details that they divided his outer garments (Greek, ta himatia, KJV “raiment”) into four parts and distributed them among themselves but cast dice for his inner tunic (ton chitōna, KJV “coat”). Understanding that the item for which they cast lots was an inner garment and not an outer “coat” may be significant, because John notes that it “was without seam, woven from the top throughout” (John 19:23). Some have connected it with the special inner garment of the high priest (Exodus 39:22–26), which accords with the idea that even at the moment of his imminent death Jesus was, in fact, a priestly messiah who was about to offer the greatest of sacrifices: himself (Hebrews 9:11–14, 23–28).

The Gospels then simply state that “they crucified him” (Mark 15:25; Matthew 27:35; Luke 23:33; John 19:18), without going into any of the graphic detail that became common in the Middle Ages. Mark, followed by Matthew and Luke, notes the time carefully as being “about the third hour,” or 9:00 a.m. (Mark 15:25). This is the first of three time markers, the others being the sixth hour, or 12:00 noon, when the land was covered with darkness, and the ninth hour, or 3:00 p.m., when Jesus died (Mark 15:33; Matthew 27:45; Luke 23:44). Some scholars have suggested that perhaps these times are not the exact times when events occurred on Jesus’ last day in mortality but rather approximate times that were later used as liturgical hours of prayer by early Christians in pausing on Good Friday to remember what had occurred to their Lord on that day. Regardless, John’s chronology places the crucifixion at the sixth hour, or noon (John 19:14–18). This later time would have allowed more time in the morning for the trial and torture of Jesus, but it also fits better with the symbolism that pervades the Gospel of John, because Jesus hangs—and suffers—on the cross for a shorter period of time.

... The final action in crucifying Jesus was the placing of a title, or titulus, above him to identify him and his crime. The fullest form of the titulus appears in the account of John, who records that Pilate directed that it read “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Over the protestations of the Jewish leaders, Pilate kept the title just as he had written it. In a legal sense, it probably represented the treason against Rome for which Jesus was being executed, a fact underscored by the execution with him of two “thieves” (Mark 15:27–28; Matthew 27:38; see also Luke 23:33; John 19:18). John does not identify their crime, and Luke simply calls them “malefactors,” or evildoers (Greek, kakourgoi). Mark and Matthew, however, call them lĈstai, which can mean “bandits” and thus even “thieves,” in line with the prophecy that Jesus would be “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). But it is also the same word that Jesus used of the priests in the temple at its cleansing, and here it probably means that the two men were insurrectionists or revolutionaries, like Barabbas. Though Pilate may have thought that he was executing revolutionaries, the charge that Jesus was a would-be king belied the truth that this man on the cross was, in fact, the true King of Israel.

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