MATTHEW 27:35-38
Mark 15:24,26-28, Luke 23:32-34,38-43, John 19:18-24

The garments
The inscription
The robbers

With the advent of Mtw 27:35, the crucifixion begins but, in Matthew, it runs for just 16 verses - Mark has the same number while Luke takes 15 and John just 13. Considering that the cross is the centre of the Church, there’s so little written about it as to cause the reader to wonder why. After all, the Roman trial in Matthew has spanned the same amount of verses but it took place in a shorter period of time than Jesus spent on the cross.

All the writers seem to want to pass on the details of the event as one would in a biography of a life but without too much explanation as to the reason behind it or the work which it accomplished. The Gospels, then, shouldn’t be taken to be so much theological treatises as a recollection of the facts of Jesus’ life and death.

The churches to whom these works would have come would already have been aware of the truth of the Gospel - of the forgiveness of sins through the cross, the impartation of new life through the resurrection and the bestowal of authority in the ascension - both as knowledge in the mind and as an experience in their own lives, so that a systematic theology was never what was required.

All that the four writers do, then, is to record the facts as they believed them to be and, perhaps, added some observations about the fulfilment of OT Scriptures - but they left the implications of the facts to others.

And the act of the crucifixion is no more than a passing statement in the overall flow of the narrative in all four of the Gospels. Mark 15:24, Luke 23:33 and John 19:18 summarise the nailing of Jesus to the beam with a simplicity of words by recording

‘...they crucified Him...’

while Mtw 27:35 uses the statement as an event which he immediately goes on from to speak about the division of His garments by the soldiers. Each of them detail the actual act in an economy of words, passing over the pain and agony of the crucifixion. Mattask observes that the description shows

‘...impressive restraint...’

where a sordid description of the cruelties of this method of execution might have been inserted and the reader made to feel sorry for the fate which befell Jesus. Matmor comments that none of the four Gospel writers

‘...tries to harrow the feelings of his readers by going into detail about what pains He had to bear’

and we should, perhaps, have been careful in the Church to have mimicked their wisdom.

It’s now that two specific verses from Psalm 22 are possibly fulfilled. The first certain allusion to crucifixion is in verse 16 which states that

‘...they have pierced My hands and feet’

referring to the application of the nails, but verse 14 is more hypothetical for the psalmist writes that

‘...all my bones are out of joint...’

referring supposedly to what took place as the Roman soldiers raised the cross up and dropped it into the posthole which held the vertical shaft aloft - this part of the proceedings isn’t mentioned in the Gospel narrative, however, and there appears to have been other methods of securing the crossbeam to the shaft when the latter was already in place at the site of the crucifixion (see my short discussion below).

How David could ever have written this psalm as his remembrance of a literal event is difficult to imagine, but the depth of feeling here points the reader to think that, perhaps, he was expressing the feelings of his heart rather than putting an experience into figurative language which, in the two verses quoted above, seems tenuous. Psalm 22 is specifically the ‘psalm of the cross’ and it isn’t too difficult in reading it as if Jesus Himself had written it of His experience in those few hours, the psalm beginning and ending with direct statements that He made while hanging there (the very last words are actually ‘He has done it’ which parallel Jesus’ ‘It is finished’).

The Gospel writers are more concerned with the spiritual suffering that Jesus underwent (but, even here, they deal with it in an economy of words) than to play upon the emotions of their readers. Before the spiritual sufferings, the physical pain and agony pale into insignificance and it’s only the former through which the world is redeemed, not the latter. This is the reason for my very reserved approach in expounding the simple statements of Scripture concerning not only the crucifixion but the beatings which Jesus received prior to it. It’s best not to let our minds drift onto the physical sufferings but to concentrate on the spiritual separation from the Father which secured mankind’s release from the power of sin. Matmor is correct to conclude that

‘...what mattered for the NT writers was that in His death Jesus dealt with our sins; they try to bring out the meaning of His death and leave their readers to work out for themselves that crucifixion was such a painful way of dying’

Only Mark records the time of day at which Jesus was crucified (Mark 15:25). His ‘third hour’ is often taken to mean 9am according to our own time keeping but this needs some clarification. The daylight period of days was divided into twelve equal units which we now call hours so that one isn’t looking at these hours being of the same length in summer as in winter and could range from 30 to 90 minutes with the seasonal variations.

Being somewhere around April, however, the hours would have been close to our own fixed length of sixty minutes and, if we take a day as running from 6am to 6pm, the third hour would be the one which ran from 8-9am and not that which began at 9am as commentators like to assert. When it’s 9am in Western time, it means that nine hours have elapsed, but the start of that ninth hour begins at the end of the eighth - so, too, the third hour begins when the second begins and the crucifixion is timed by Mark, therefore, as having occurred somewhere between 8-9am.

We need to permit ourselves one final observation about the shape of the cross and the evidence which might be gleaned from both archaeological and literary evidence (though, from the latter, the authorities seem to make absolute statements but with little or no reference to justify them). It’s hardly surprising that no ‘cross’ has been unearthed in excavations (excluding Empress Helena’s miraculous discovery of part of the true cross - I wonder how she knew it was part of the real cross? Did it have an inscription on it? Did she carbon date it?) even though both nine and six inch iron spikes were discovered in Scotland, dateable to the time around or immediately before 78AD.

NIDBA points out that the stake was normally secured at the place of execution but they cite no documentary or archaeological evidence to substantiate such a statement. An acknowledged lack of depictions of the cross by first century artists also hinders the reader from ascertaining the exact shape, for it appears that the early Church made few symbols of the cross in their worship and as inscriptions, the popular practice seeming to date to about the fourth century. NIDBA also notes that the cross was a symbol which was hated by the Romans and this may also have been a good reason for the early believers to have chosen to ignore such a shape - but the Church were predominantly Jews in the first years and may still have been mindful of the Mosaic commands of Ex 20:4-6 about making for themselves images and symbols.

The main evidence for the shape of the cross comes from an excavation in 1968 in a Jerusalem cave at Givat Hamivtar in which was discovered the first physical evidence of a crucifixion. The indication is that the man had been crucified in a sitting position with his legs bent outward from the waist and back in again at the knees to be secured at the feet.

There would be no reason, therefore, for the vertical beam above the T to have been included to form the classic † shape and, if the executed carried their own crossbeam to the place of execution, affixing the wood to the already secured stake to make this shape would make execution more difficult. In the case of the T shape, however, the crosses would be very close to the ground and not as highly elevated as many artistic representations impress upon the viewer (though high enough for the Roman soldiers to have to use a reed to convey liquid to Jesus’ mouth - Mtw 27:48, John 19:29), the charge against Jesus (Mtw 27:37) more easily placed above the executed on the cross beam even though affixing to the vertical shaft would also have been possible.

But, whether Jesus was crucified on a T, X, † or | shape (and the X shape is unlikely when we read that the inscription was affixed ‘over his head’ - Mtw 27:37), the point really doesn’t matter - what is important is what Jesus did for mankind while He was there. A man is not saved by a belief in the correct shape of the cross but by a living relationship with God through the work which was accomplished.

The garments
Mtw 27:35-36, Mark 15:24, Luke 23:34, John 19:23-24

Some interpretation of the division of Jesus’ garments needs to be given here to the reader for there are a number of possibilities. Mtw 27:35 simply says that

‘...they [the soldiers] divided His garments among them by casting lots...’

where Mark 15:24 gives more of the sense of what they did when the author observes that lots were cast

‘ decide what each should take’

According to Johnmor, the standard dress of a Jew in first century Israel (citing another commentator) consisted of six articles of clothing - the sandals, head dress, inner garment, outer garment, belt and loincloth - so that four bundles of clothing would have been made for each of the soldiers to take after drawing lots. That there were four soldiers is plainly stated in John 19:23 (my italics) where it’s recorded that

‘...they took his garments and made four parts, one for each soldier...’

I’ve already noted that this doesn’t mean that there were only four soldiers present for we can’t be sure whether the centurion should be included in this number (Mtw 27:54) or whether there were other soldiers responsible for the execution of the other condemned men but, in Jesus’ case, there were four soldiers who had the call over the executed man’s last earthly possessions. Johncar states that

‘By custom, the clothes of an executed criminal were the perquisite of the executioners’

along with a similar statement in Johnmor, but where exactly this is gleaned from isn’t stated. That it happened, however, shouldn’t be considered to be something which was unusual in those times.

John 19:23-24, however, seems to imply that the garments were ripped apart for distribution for it notes one of the soldiers reasoning that they shouldn’t tear the inner garment (Strongs Greek number 5509) because it was without seam and would have been useless to them had it been done. The outer garment, therefore, might have been a piece of clothing which was comprised of four sections or more which had been sown together and which the soldiers now separated in order that each of them might receive a piece of cloth useful to them.

To these four pieces, the sandals, head dress, belt and loincloth would have been added to make, very neatly, four items over which they could cast lots (Mtw 27:35, Mark 15:24, Luke 23:34) - some of the clothing items would have been immediately more useful than others.

Alternatively, if the inference that they unpicked the seams of the outer garment gleaned from the soldiers’ statement that they didn’t want to rip the inner garment is incorrect, we should see it as having been included as one of the four lots which would have been won by one of the soldiers. There may even be a case for arguing that the loincloth wasn’t removed from Jesus as was done in other parts of the Roman Empire so as not to overly offend Jewish sensibilities, for Sanhedrin 6:3, referring to stoning, notes that

‘When [the condemned] was four cubits from the place of stoning, they stripped off his clothes. A man is kept covered in front and a woman both in front and behind’

and the absolute statement that a man was stripped inferring nakedness is further clarified by observing that it wasn’t to be taken as a total removal of clothing (though the same verse notes that the Sages taught that a man was stoned naked and a woman not so).

For some reason, however, the soldiers decided to draw lots in a ‘winner-takes-all’ event for the inner garment which was seamless - there would be no point in ripping the garment into four pieces simply because it would be useless to each of them. Better that at least one of the soldiers obtained some benefit from it than all four none. Therefore, they cast lots once more but this time for the garment.

This inner garment refers us back to Mtw 26:65 where we saw how the high priest tore the Levitical priesthood away from himself in his joy of trapping Jesus to admit that He was the Christ by ripping the clothes that he was wearing (see my previous web page) - the word used here is the one used for the outer garment and which, in the plural, refers to clothes in general as it does in Mtw 27:35 (Strongs Greek number 2440). The parallel passage in Mark 14:63 uses the word for the inner garment, however, noted above but, because it, too, is in the plural, little probably can be inferred from it as to which garment the high priest rent.

Josephus in Antiquities 3.7.4 observes that the blue garment of the high priest was of one piece in a fairly accurate description of the Mosaic commands (Ex 28:6-7, 31-34) which indicates that the reason for its construction was so that

‘ may not be torn’

It would be incorrect to think that the high priest was wearing this garment of service when Jesus stood before him, but the symbol of its rending is important for the reader to grasp for there’s an allusion to the need for a comparison of the two high priests. Jesus, the High Priest according to promise (Ps 110:4, Heb 7:23-28) continues forever, the eternality of His priesthood symbolised in the maintenance of His inner garment even to the point of death, whereas Caiaphas ripped his garments and tore away from himself the promise of the Old Covenant.

John goes on to see a fulfilment of Ps 22:18 which he quotes as

‘They parted my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots’

and which refers to both divisions of His clothes amongst the soldiers. As I’ve said before, Psalm 22 begins and ends with a phrase which is spoken on the cross by Jesus and contains numerous allusions to the literal events as recorded in Scripture, so it should be regarded as being a prophetic insight into what was happening.

It would be going too far to say that the thoughts of David, the psalmist, are perfectly representative of what Jesus was going through as He hung there, but a careful read of them will draw the reader to see how they can be applied relevantly.

We may complain that we know little about the workings of Jesus’ mind as He hung there but, prophetically, we may be able to tell quite a bit from Psalm 22.

Having had His freedom, His friends and now His clothes taken from Him, the last thing Jesus owned was Himself and, in a few short moments, even this He’ll give up in exchange for mankind’s freedom. Once crucified, the soldiers (Mtw 27:36)

‘...sat down and kept watch over Him there’

an observation which is unique to Matthew and performed by the soldiers not to prevent Jesus from getting off the cross but to prevent friends or relatives from attempting to take crucifixion victims down. It’s John, noted above, who informs the reader that there were four soldiers charged with the responsibility of securing Jesus’ crucifixion (John 19:23) and such a small number is indicative of a heavy Roman presence close by to which they might have secured reinforcements had they been attacked.

The inscription
Mtw 27:37, Mark 15:26, Luke 23:38, John 19:19-22

All four Gospels record the inscription which was placed over Jesus’ head when crucified (Mtw 27:37, Luke 23:38) but it’s John who gives the reader the fullest account, supplying details which took place behind the scenes between Pilate and the religious leaders near the praetorium.

The charge would have presumably already been prepared before Jesus set out for Golgotha and perhaps have been hung around His neck as they journeyed towards the place of execution or borne before Him as He made His way out (so Matfran). Either way, the Jewish leaders would have known what the title read a while before the crucifixion took place and the scene recorded by John is perhaps best placed around the time of the exit from the praetorium - it sits equally well shortly after the act of crucifixion, however, and it remains an incident that’s not easy to place in chronological order.

Johncar writes that

‘The statement of the crime was often written on a white tablet in red or black letters...’

but short of an ancient reference, I have no idea where such a statement comes from.

But why did Pilate write a title which made readers infer

‘This is the King of the Jews’

rather than simply, as the Jews requested, that Jesus only claimed Himself to be? Retaliation against the Jewish leaders seems to be the prime motive. Their charge against Him was that He claimed to be their King (Luke 23:2) even though Pilate knew that He was no earthly King and was making no claims to be such (John 18:33-37) - and that it was out of envy that they’d delivered Him up to be crucified (Mtw 27:18). Johncar interprets it as

‘...the hurt obstinacy and bitter rage of a man who feels set upon...he is determined to humiliate those who have humiliated him’

So Pilate used the claim they’d made for Him into a declarative phrase that made it read as if Jesus was the King which they’d summarily rejected but which he’d been forced into condemning by their careful manipulation of the situation.

But there was probably more to it than this and Pilate, no doubt, took great pleasure in that he was also able to use it as a political statement to show all Jews that Rome was their king now because they’d crucified the King that they could have chosen. It was a particularly wise move to remove hope from those who looked for an earthly deliverer, and especially from some who would have seen in Jesus what they were expecting (for example, John 6:15).

There’s also the possibility that Pilate was using it in mockery of Jesus but, in the light of the Jews’ request to have it altered and Pilate’s refusal, it doesn’t seem very likely (John 19:21-22).

Whatever Pilate’s precise motives for the placard (and it would be expected that the placard in itself wasn’t unusual - only the content which it announced), all four Gospel writers are concerned to record for the reader that, in His death, Jesus was proclaimed as King - that He reigned from the cross, not put there by chance but in obedience to the Father’s will. And those who bow their will before Him today share in that Kingdom that He died to bring in for mankind.

Some commentators have made much of the ‘discrepancy’ of the record of the actual words which are recorded as having been placed over Jesus’ head on the cross but John 19:20 notes that it bore three separate inscriptions

‘ Hebrew [or Aramaic], in Latin and in Greek...’

and it may be reasoned that each of the writers is using the inscription which most suited their own intentions. Having said that, if Mtw 27:37 is taken as being the full text of one of the languages used - which I’ll presume to be the Greek or Latin, but more probably the former - Luke 23:38 is immediately seen to be a condensing of the title while Mark 15:26 is an even briefer summary. These three references, then, could quite easily be taken as different versions of one and the same.

John 19:19 is wholly different, however, and should, I feel, be taken as a representation of the Aramaic inscription for it records it as running (my italics)

‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews’

where the italicised words would certainly be out of place in a Latin description. Indeed, they make more sense as a description of Jesus in Aramaic or Hebrew than Greek for it’s a specifically Jewish description of the executed. Having said that, Matmor notes that, if in Aramaic or Hebrew, one might have expected the rendering ‘King of Israel’.

Finally, there’s some importance in the three languages which were used which can be taken to be indicative of a something which John may have been wanting his readers to infer. Zondervan comments that

‘[Latin] was the official language of the Roman Empire and was used in such provinces as Judea in official acts and Roman courts’

whereas Greek was the common language of communication throughout the Roman world. Hebrew or Aramaic (the same Greek word can be used to denote either), according to Zondervan

‘...was the language spoken in the rural districts and more remote towns, while in the cities both Aramaic and Greek were used’

This language was also used in the service and liturgy of the Temple and, though the translation of the Scriptures into Greek had already taken place (the LXX) for those who had difficulty reading the original Hebrew and Aramaic, the ancient languages were the ones accepted as being those which God had ordained to be used.

The Sovereignty of Jesus (His Kingship) was thus proclaimed in three languages so that all the men who might pass by would be able to plainly read the inscription. In like manner, the Church must reach the remotest parts of the earth with the message of the Kingdom, communicating the Sovereignty of Jesus Christ in whatever language people will understand so as to be able to reach all men at their own level.

The three different languages also teach concerning the universality of the Kingship of Jesus - not that these languages were universally used in the first century (for example, the American Indians or the Chinese would have only been able to use their native tongues) but that their usage covered all levels of human life.

Latin - used in the life of Government - teaches man that he can only rule in righteousness and justice before God if he seeks to establish the rule and will of Jesus in society. Greek - used in secular life - teaches man that he can only live out a righteous life before God when he subjects his will to that of Jesus Christ and lives all that God requires from him (for example, honesty in business, faithfulness in marriage, truthfulness in speech and merciful in deed).

Aramaic - used in religious life - shows man that he can only serve God properly if he serves in the freedom that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has won, in the way that Jesus taught (John 4:24), by obedience to the way that the Holy Spirit leads (Gal 5:25).

Jesus’ rule must be brought into the religious, the secular and the governmental if the Kingdom of God is to be fully expressed ‘on earth as it is in Heaven’ (Mtw 6:10). His Sovereignty extends into every area of man’s society and isn’t confined only to the religious - and it’s that Sovereignty that’s ultimately displayed in His death.

The robbers
Mtw 27:38, Mark 15:27(-28), Luke 23:32-33,39-43, John 19:18

We’ll only deal briefly with Matthew’s statement in Mtw 27:38 that

‘...two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and one on the left’

as the mention by the writer at this point seems to have been a way that he introduces their existence to prepare the reader for their mockery of Jesus in Mtw 27:44. Mark 15:27 (and John 19:18) also notes of their existence either side of Jesus but the following verse here is normally taken as being unoriginal and is excluded from most modern translations. Modern scholarship regards it as an absolute banker (if one was gambling!) that such a verse has been added to later manuscripts and copies but we should note that the AV retains it and translates

‘And the scripture was fulfilled which saith “And He was numbered with the transgressors”’

This is far more than the product of a copyist’s own personal study and becoming over-zealous in his writing for we read in Luke 22:37 at the Passover which occurred the previous evening, Jesus’ words

‘For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in Me “And He was reckoned with transgressors”; for what is written about Me has its fulfilment’

While it may be a bleed over from Luke’s Gospel, the content is entirely plausible, the quote coming from Is 53:12. Perhaps Is 53:9 should also be seen to find its fulfilment here for the prophet recorded that

‘...they made His grave with the wicked’

Finally, I noted on a previous web page that, in John 18:40, the word ‘robber’ is used of Barabbas

‘...where the Greek word (Strongs Greek number 3027) may also denote a revolutionary. Josephus appears to use it this way when referring to the Zealot political and military group...It’s the word used of the two robbers who were crucified alongside Mtw 27:38 and the intention at that point in Matthew’s account may be to point the reader towards an understanding of them as failed revolutionaries, the description over Jesus’ head (Mtw 27:37) inferring that the cause for which they’d been fighting was over in the death of their assumed King (assumed by the Romans, that is)’

The picture of the three crucified men at Golgotha, then, was to be representative of a failed insurrection against the Roman authorities and Jesus is being numbered along with the revolutionaries - yet, more than this, as their head and leader.

To the general onlooker, it seemed as if just another overthrow of the Roman authorities had failed and it wasn’t until one looked more carefully at the inscription over Jesus’ head, that one might have thought that there was something unusual in the execution.

Nevertheless, executions such as these were common in first century Israel.