Comparing the Death of Jesus in the Four Gospels

Matthew

According to the gospel of Matthew, Matthew was a “publican” or “tax collector” called by Jesus to follow him (5:9) though Mark and Luke identify this man as Levi. His gospel is anonymous, with the subscription of “according to Matthew” at least a couple hundred years after the death of Jesus. His gospel is, in some ways, a compilation of the ancient Jewish prophecies, and the ways in which Jesus fulfilled those prophecies. His gospel may have once been called the “gospel of the Hebrews,” a compilation of lost Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek texts that detail the birth and life of a savior for the much-suffering Jewish people.

At any rate, the death of Jesus is the crescendo of each gospel. In Matthew, Jesus’s popularity grows among the multitude wherever he speaks  and, since his new teaching contradicts the teaching of the Torah per the Pharisees and the Saducees, the high priests (particularly Caiphas) conspire to kill Jesus, though they cannot cause an uproar on the Passover feast (26:5). Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus, going to the high priests and demanding payment (thirty pieces of silver) if he delivers Jesus to them. Then, Jesus and his disciples celebrate the Passover feast together and Jesus acknowledges Judas’s betrayal before they all sing a hymn and go to the Mount of Olives. Jesus takes with him the sons of Zebedee (James and John) and also Peter into the garden of Gethsemane (coming from the Aramaic for “oil press”) at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Here, Jesus grows sorrowful, weeping and praying to God to spare him of the coming suffering. His disciples standing watch fall asleep three times, to Jesus’s great disappointment, and then the elders and high priests arrive to capture Jesus led by Judas. He is brought before Caiaphas and the high priests who hear his blasphemy of being the “son of God” and the “son of Man” so they hit him and spit on him and, as foretold by Jesus, Peter denies being a follower of Jesus three times. As morning comes, Judas becomes repentant and tries to return the silver to the high priests but it is money for blood, so they use it purchase a graveyard for burying strangers. Meanwhile, Judas hangs himself.

Jesus’s breach of the law is twofold: he commits sacrilege against the Torah tradition, thus offending the Jewish elders and high priests, and also claims kingship of a new kingdom, and is even considered the new King of the Jews, thus offending the Roman imperial rulers over Judaea. However, Pontius Pilate, aware of the importance of the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Judean people, ultimately leaves the fate of Jesus up the Jewish leadership, and they cry to free Barabas, and crucify Jesus instead. Thus Pilate removes blame from himself. He reluctantly orders Jesus to be crucified. He is mocked with a crown of thorns, staff, and robe. He is helped by a Cyrene named Simon in carrying the cross to Golgatha, the “place of the skull.” His accusation is in claiming to be the King of the Jews. He is crucified alongside two thieves and is fed vinegar.

At his sixth hour to his ninth hour on the cross a great darkness comes. His last words in Matthew are: “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani” or “My God, my God why hast thou foresaken me?” -expressing his feeling of utter desolation. His death is a sorrowful, tragic affair. Some passers by think he calls out to Elijah, the ancient prophet.

Jesus dies as he gives out a loud cry and ‘gives up the ghost’ (27:50).

At that moment the temple cloth is torn in two (opening the sacred enclosure of the temple, signifying a new age of public access to the divine), and also an earthquake strikes, and the graves are opened and many saints arise and go into the “holy city” and appear to many (27:51-53).

At the end, Joseph of Aramathea, a wealthy man and follower of Jesus, recovers the body of Jesus and buries him in a tomb. As the Sabbath ends, and dawn rises for a new week, some of the women, including Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene go to the tomb. Just then an earthquake strikes and an “angel of the Lord” appears from the heavens and rolls back the stone and sits on it. He looks like “lightning” and is “white as snow” (28:3). They rush to tell the disciples and are met by Jesus, himself. Meanwhile, the Jewish elders pay money to the soldiers to convince politicians and the public that the disciples of Jesus stole his body away, in an effort to show him resurrected.

In conclusion, the eleven disciples go to Galilee to a mountain where Jesus appointed them and Jesus appears to them commanding them to “go forth” to all the nations of the world and baptize people and profess his teachings, for Jesus is with them always even unto the end of the world.

Mark

Much of Matthew mirrors the text of Mark, however Matthew contains significantly greater accounts of miraculous, almost unbelievable, events. Exorcism plays a particularly notable role, as does Jesus’s physical ascendance into heaven. Nevertheless the gospels of MatthewMark, and Luke bear striking verbatim similarities with one another. Some have suggested Mark is the earliest and therefore most authoritative gospel, though John has the earliest fragments we have found (approximately 150-200 years after Jesus’s death). The gospel of Mark may have been a second-hand account of John Mark, as mentioned in Acts (though the text is anonymous), and was likely written for a non-Jewish audience, perhaps first written in Rome. Mark contains the eschatological and even apocalyptic imagery to a much greater degree, perhaps in reference to Isaiah and other texts of the Hebrew Bible calling for a deliverance for the nation of Israel. Whereas Matthew proclaims a fulfillment of the ancient prophecies, Mark shows Jesus appearing to James, John, and Peter with Moses as well as Elias (“Elijah”) (9:1-8). Jesus is the secret messiah, only to be fully revealed by his disciples after his death and through the writings of the gospels.

In Mark, as in Matthew, the chief of priests seek to destroy Jesus, but do not wish to cause on uproar during the feast of Passover. As in Matthew, he celebrates the Passover meal in Bethany at the home of Simon, a leper, where Jesus is anointed with oils by a woman (also featured in Matthew) -a strange occurrence considering Jesus’s rebuke of riches and giving to the poor. He acknowledges and accepts the ointment, rebuking his disciples for wishing to gift it to the poor, as it will be for his burial (14:1-11). Meanwhile, Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus.

Jesus and the disciples go to the Mount of Olives. Three times James, John, and Peter fall asleep while they are supposed to watching guard of Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane. Judas and the elders arrive and a minor brawl occurs (also as in Matthew) in which one’s ear is cut off, but Jesus puts a stop to this, lamenting violence.

Strangely in Mark, a “young man” arrives only wearing a linen cloth and other young men put their hands on him so flees naked leaving behind his linen cloth (14:50-52). This vague interlude is mysterious. Perhaps it was intended to be the author of the gospel. Perhaps this is the linen cloth Jesus is intended to wear.

At any rate, the story continues as in Matthew, in which Jesus is brought before the high priests and is accused of heresy, and Peter denies being a follower of Jesus three times before the cock crows early in the morning. Jesus is taken to Pontius Pilate who is compelled to free Barabas, a murderer and insurrectionist, while Jesus is condemned to crucifixion, at the demands of the resentful high priests. He is taunted and brought to Golgotha, his cross is carried by Simon, a Cyrene.

Jesus’s death is mirrored almost as exactly as in Matthew. At the sixth hour darkness comes over the land until the ninth hour, and Jesus cries out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and he cries out with a loud cry and gives up the ghost (15:37). Just then the temple cloth is torn in two (notably the graves do not open in Jerusalem as they do in Matthew).

After the sabbath, the women (Mary, Mary Magadalene, and Salone) go to Jesus’s tomb and find a man in a long white robe sitting inside (not an angel descending from heaven as in Matthew). Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene first (the women whom he cast “seven devils out of”). Jesus appears to two more and then to the eleven disciples while they eat and commands them to go out and “preach the gospel to every creature” and “he that is baptized shall be saved, but nonbelievers will be damned” and believers will marked by “casting out devils and speaking in tongues” and they shall “take up serpents” and if they drink any “deadly thing” they will not die and lastly they will also heal the sick (16:15-18). His last testament to his disciples is notably different from Matthew. In Mark, Jesus apparently delivers god-like powers to his disciples. These “signs” are to serve important purposes for the ministry, for mere words are not to be believed. The force of belief requires signs and miracles, physical demonstrations to defeat skepticism. After all, what are the gospels without suspensions of the natural world? Jesus would simply be another apocalyptic preacher who caused a minor revolution in Judea, until he is betrayed and caught and killed for committing heresy and insurrection. The miracles serve as a kind of proof of his divinity.

Lastly, Jesus ascends into heaven and sits at the right hand of God. This anabasis is not included in Matthew and it has been suggested with some degree of certainty that the latter resurrection narrative was a much later interpolation in Mark (the original text, confirmed by early gospels available to Jerome and others suggest the text ended at the point in which the women flee from the tomb of Jesus).

Luke

The gospel according to Luke opens with a unique letter to Theophilus, perhaps meaning “lover of God” who may have been Paul’s patron. In the letter the author spells out his intentions -to speak orderly about the events of Jesus, not to give an accurate historical account as a justification for belief, but rather simply to present the story and provide interpretation. The author claims a “perfect understanding” of all these events (1:3). It then proceeds with details of John the Baptist’s birth and rise, followed by Jesus’s story.

Luke is also an anonymous book, perhaps the work of latter interpolators, from the stories of Luke, companion of the apostle Paul. At any rate, it is under anoymous authorship, and as evidenced by many varying fragments that have been found, it was revised heavily, particularly in the West in the early centuries. No two surviving texts of Luke are alike. It is often coupled with Acts as a sequential account of Jesus and then his followers.

At any rate, Luke‘s account of Jesus’s death: Unlike Matthew or Mark, in Luke “Satan” orthe “adversary” comes into Judas which forces him to betray Jesus. At the Passover feast, there is strife among the disciples about who is the betrayer, but also who is the “greatest” (22:24).  Jesus promises them greatness as judges in the new kingdom, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. They go to the Mount of Olives and Jesus’s disciples fall asleep (only a single time) before Judas and his band of elders arrives. He is smocked and reluctantly committed to crucifixion punishment by Pontius Pilate, before being led to Cavalry (not Golgatha) where he is crucified.

He prays aloud to God: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (23:34). And darkness comes over the land from the sixth hour to the ninth hour, until Jesus cries up: “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit” (23:46). Joseph of Aramathea, a “just” “counsellor” buries Jesus.

Then, after the sabbath, the women go to his tomb and find him missing, but are “perplexed” to find two men in shining robes. The eleven disciples do not believe the women, Peter goes into the tomb, himself, to seethe garments of Jesus left behind. Jesus appears in disguise to some of the disciples on the road, as they are dismayed, in believing Jesus to be the prophet of God and the liberator of Israel, so Jesus, still in disguise, expounds to them about the history of the prophets and the law and breaks bread with them. As soon as they realize it is Jesus, he vanishes.

Jesus appears to the elven disciples the next day bringing peace, showing them the holes in his hands and feet, and asking them for meat to consume. He claims that the law of Moses, the Psalms, and the writings of the prophets were about himself, Jesus. He sends them to Jerusalem to await power to arrive to them from on high. Jesus lead them to Bethany, prays over them with his arms raised, and he then ascends into heaven (24:51). The disciples worship him and return to Jerusalem with joy. They spend their time “continually” in the temple praising Jesus. Thus concludes Luke.

John

The source for the gospel according to John is the disciple “whom Jesus loved” -an anonymous person that tradition ascribed to John. It is a gospel about the logos, sometimes translated into English as the “word.” The text relates the history of the word that was with God in the beginning (an allusion to the opening of Genesis), In fact, the word is God. The power of the word is attested to, as John the Baptist paves the way for the coming light of the word, and the word becomes flesh (in the form of Jesus). Who is Jesus? According to John, he is the undying embodiment of the logos, which created our world and also can never die.

In this way, John, is remarkably different from the three previous gospels (so-called “synoptic gospels” for their historical accounts of Jesus’s life) in that John presents an existential option for readers and listeners to simply believe (“credo” in Latin), rather than behave in accordance with the “kingdom of heaven” as described in Matthew. As the logos Jesus overcomes death, and the miracles of Jesus are mere means to show the people of the true things, the immutable unperishable things. Jesus calls himself the “light of the world” (8:12), the “good shepherd who giveth life for his sheep” (10:11) “the resurrection and the life that he that believeth in him though he were yet dead shall yet live” (11:25). Jesus also says: “Verily, verily I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die: it abideth alone, but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (12:24) and “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (15:13). The teaching of John is one of self-sacrifice (passion), love, and friendship. Jesus tells his followers to pursue the light, bring forth fruit, and spread love and self-sacrifice. This is notably distinct from Jesus’s claims in the Sermon on the Moun in Matthew in which he commands his followers to love their enemies, rather than lay their lives down, out of love, for their friends. The distinction between friends and enemies is a key element of the question of justice in Plato’s Republic.

In John, John the Baptist proselytizes of the coming of Jesus -while Moses gave the law, Jesus brings grace and truth (1:17). And John refers to Jesus as the “Lamb of God.”

At any rate, onto the scene of Jesus’s death in John. At the Passover, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, while Judas is filled with the “devil” in his heart to betray Jesus. Jesus commands Judas Iscariot to do what must be done quickly, confusing the other disciples. Jesus relates a considerably lengthy teaching, and reminds his followers that they will be hated. He offers prayers for himself, his followers, and all believers. Then he departs with his disciples into a garden “over the brook at Cedron.” In the account of John Jesus identifies himself (Judas does not betray him with a kiss) and it is Simon Peter who cuts off one of the soldiers ears, who is identified as Malchus.

Jesus is taken to Annas, father of Caiaphas of the high priests, then Caiaphas by the Pharisees. Then, in the night, he is taken to Pontius Pilate who initially does not want to prosecute Jesus, but eventually agrees to their demands. The claim of Jesus’s kingship comes into confrontation with the rulership of Caesar, thus he is led away to die at Golgotha. His mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and his “beloved disciple” stand at the foot of the cross.

When Jesus knows it is his time to die, he grows thirsty, is given vinegar, bows his head, and declares “it is finished” and gives up the ghost (19:30). Pilate then tries to expedite the deaths of the people on the crosses, so a soldier is commanded to break the legs of the people on the cross, but he skips Jesus upon seeing him already dead (thus fulfilling a scripture that he not have a bone broken) and also a soldier pierces his side so blood and water come pouring out.

Joseph of Aramaetha and Nicodemus bury Jesus in a private tomb (Joseph feared what the Jews might do to the body of Jesus). On the first day of the week Mary Magdalene goes to Jesus’s tomb and finds it open so she runs to Simon Peter to tell him. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and she tells the others, save for Thomas, who doubts the authenticity of this account. This story is particularly remarkable considering that the book of John is a book about the believability of logos. How can a story be believed? What criteria are needed to overcome doubt and skepticism? Thomas claims he needs to physically touch Jesus’s wounds as proof. Thus Jesus appears to Thomas as proof, but he blesses those who have not seen his wounds as proof and yet still believe.

This and many other “signs” happened upon Jesus’s disciples. They are written (logos) so that people will believe, and by believing people will have new life through his name (Jesus’s name) (20:30-31). Lastly, Jesus appears to them from the shore while they are fishing and tells them to cast their net on the other side, yielding many fish. They eat together, and Jesus calls Simon Peter to follow him (in reconcliation after Peter’s three denials), and the author of the text identifies himself as the ‘most loved disciple of Jesus’ (tradition holds this to be John). The gospel ends beautifully, framing the narrative with an account of the many things Jesus did, which not even every library in the world could contain. In other words, the logos is limited by the biblios and must extend beyond. And indeed he was correct, as perhaps nothing has spawned more interest, speculation, skepticism, and passion than the writings contained within the Bible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s