Darkness over the land
Pp Mark 15:33-37, Luke 23:44-46, John 19:28-30
The theology of the cross
The goat for Azazel
The first three Gospel records are careful to fairly precisely provide a time framework in which the events of the next few verses take place, tying it down to a period during the daylight period (Mtw 27:45 Pp Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44)
‘...from the sixth hour...until the ninth hour’
I’ve already provided a brief article on the timing methods of the ancients in the context of the Gospels on a previous page where I noted that an ‘hour’ was simply one twelfth part of either the light or dark period and not fixed to a specific length of time as it is today regardless of sunrise or sunset.
For this reason, an hour in ancient time in Britain could have meant a present day period of between thirty and ninety minutes depending on the time of year but, in the land of Israel, it varied only between forty-five and seventy-five minutes.
Being March or April in the Gospel record, however, the daylight period must have been close to twelve hours and I’ve taken the approach to define the day as 6am-6pm simply to give the reader something by which they might more easily fix the time into our present framework.
But, having said that, the definition of the sixth hour seems to be somewhat defective in most modern minds - just as an understanding of when the new millennium actually began was! - and, when we read a statement which speaks about the sixth hour, it’s often taken to mean the hour which began at twelve noon (that is, 6am plus six hours is 12pm).
This doesn’t appear to be the case, however, for the first hour would have begun at 6am and run until the second hour which began at 7am. In like manner, the sixth hour begins at 11am and runs until noon and the ninth hour would begin at 2pm and run until 3pm. Although we tend to fix the statements in the Gospels to a too precise 12pm and 3pm respectively, these only represent the end of the hours in question and there’s sufficient leeway to think of the period of darkness as being anything from four (11am-3pm) to two (12pm-2pm) hours long.
What seems to be a precise time period, then, actually becomes rather vague.
One final note about time needs to be made here about John’s statement in the Gospel concerning the trial before Pilate (John 19:14 - my italics) where we read that
‘Now it was the day of Preparation [that is, the day before the sabbath] of the Passover [the seven day festival being denoted here]; it was about the sixth hour...’
Quite obviously, if John is now using the Jewish concept of time, it would place Jesus in the praetorium at 11am, something which is impossible to reconcile with the first three Gospel accounts. But, as Bickerman notes
‘For some reason...the Roman dies civilis...began at midnight’
and this reckoning would place the time of the incident somewhere between 6-7am. When John says ‘about’, there may also be some leeway to think of it even taking place after 7am but not too far from this. Why John should have reverted to a Roman concept of time is uncertain but there may be an indication in the text here that the original recipients of this Gospel were more accustomed to that sort of time keeping than they were Jewish.
Whatever his precise reason, we’ll never know - but this appears to be the reasoning behind his use of a non-Jewish time statement.
Darkness over the land
Mtw 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44-45
Matthew, Mark and Luke all speak of a period of darkness as Jesus hung on the cross which occurred between the sixth and ninth hours (see above) though John jumps from some preliminary observations about what occurred prior to this period to the final few moments of His life on earth (John 19:28-30). In this section, we need to consider briefly what this darkness meant in its Biblical context and then go on to think about what natural phenomena might have been recorded by ancient historians.
Firstly, then, it’s Biblical setting.
The ‘day of the Lord’ in the OT was referred to occasionally as a day of darkness (Is 13:10-11, Amos 5:18-20, Zeph 1:14-16, Joel 2:31), a day when God’s judgment was poured out upon men in the form of His wrath. Whether what was intended by the Scriptures was limited to a specific people or, as in the case of Isaiah 13:9-11, the entire world, the underlying message was one of wrath and judgment directed against those people who’d set themselves in opposition to His will.
When the nation of Israel were using that day as, I surmise, a wish that justice might be done when they were wronged, the prophet Amos warned them (Amos 5:18-20) that
‘...It is darkness, and not light; as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house and leaned with his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the Lord darkness and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?’
and Zephaniah also defined that day (Zeph 1:14-16) as
‘A day of wrath...a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements’
For, in the final outworking of God’s wrath upon the earth, there shall be no escape from the judgment. Though, for a time, judgment is limited to regions and peoples throughout history, the final and ultimate day of the Lord will be something from which no one will find an escape. The ‘day of the Lord’ can be used to refer to many different concepts but it primarily has the wrath of God intricately bound up with whatever event it’s referring to.
It could also be spoken of as a time of literal darkness as in Amos 8:9-10 where the prophet notes (in words which seem to be literally true of the time period noted on the cross) that
‘I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight’
accompanying the darkness with fear and dread that would
‘...turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth upon all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day’
But a literal darkness is not all that’s supposed to happen. The real fear from the day of the Lord is the darkness of God’s judgment which comes upon the recipients of His wrath and this seems to be what’s meant in at least two specific places in the OT.
When God covenanted with Abraham, the Scriptures (Gen 15:12) record that, with the going down of the sun as he waited for God to confirm and seal the covenant
‘...a dread and great darkness fell upon him’
when God seems to explain what Abraham experiences with the words (Gen 15:13-14)
‘...your descendants...will be oppressed for four hundred years but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve...’
It wasn’t just that Abraham saw it all from a distance and thought
‘It’ll all work out in the end’
but that he experienced a little of the plight that was to befall his people, an oppression which would come upon them but out of which God would deliver them. This ‘oppression’ is also clearly expressed in the story of the Exodus (Ex 10:20-23 - my italics) where God commands Moses to stretch out his hand towards heaven
‘...that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt’
where what befalls the Egyptians is spoken of in physical terminology but which seems to imply a more spiritual manifestation than simply the sun’s light being blocked from view. Although I wouldn’t be happy to go on to say that what the Scriptures are saying is that the sunlight didn’t fade, it seems certain that part and parcel of the plague was a spiritual aspect where oppression came upon those who experienced it - an oppression which came directly from God or, perhaps better, an oppression which came as a result of God withdrawing His presence.
The darkness of the Gospel narrative should, I believe, be taken not only as literal but as spiritual - a time when the ultimate ‘day of the Lord’ was being poured out upon Jesus on the cross, when God the Father withdrew in His entirety from the Son that He experiences the full weight of what it means to experience separation from God and the judgment of the sins of mankind. Matcar, however, sees the darkness also as representative of
‘...a judgment of the land and its people’
but it’s unclear just how this judgment was worked out for we’re given no further indication as to what this might have been. When God judges, events happen - for there just to be a period of darkness for a few hours after which light returned is hardly what one would have expected from a judgment of God upon the land of Israel.
When we looked at Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (‘The cup and the agony’), I noted that the concept of the cup in the OT was one that also indicated the wrath of God and that Jesus knew full well that what was about to transpire was to be something which He’d never experienced. The physical sufferings which He’d already endured paled into insignificance before what was to take place between the sixth and ninth hours when He would experience what every man and women on this earth has deserved.
Mtw 27:45 is the central pivot and prime reason for the coming and ministry of Jesus, is the verse upon which the rest of Matthew’s Gospel turns and upon which all the other verses must be interpreted. Jesus came to experience the judgment, the wrath of God, that’s the just reward of all men. He that knew no sin became sin for mankind so that they might stand blameless before God, acceptable to Him because of the Christ (II Cor 5:21). His rejection, therefore, secures man’s acceptance.
This physical darkness, then, wasn’t the darkness spoken of in itself but was used as a symbol for men to observe that the spiritual darkness that hides God’s face from mankind was being allowed to separate Jesus from God’s presence in much the same way that the stone rolled away from the door of the tomb wasn’t to enable Jesus to get out but for the disciples to look in (Luke 24:2).
This ‘darkness’ has caused at least one commentator (Luknol) to ask the question
‘Is the darkness Luke reports literally intended or is the language purely symbolic?’
and to answer honestly
‘We cannot be absolutely sure’
but there seems no other way than to accept that Luke expects his readers to understand that there was a withdrawal of natural light in his statement of Luke 23:45 for he there clearly mentions the sun. Perhaps the commentator is thinking of a passage in Josephus 14.12.3 in which he alludes to the darkness which came upon the land following the death of Julius Caesar, but it seems necessary to take this event as literal rather than figurative as well. A word must also be added about some modern translations of Luke 23:45 which interpret the Greek as meaning
‘...the sun was eclipsed...’
where the RSV notes this possibility in a marginal translation but prefers the better
‘the sun’s light faded...’
The new moon began waxing on the first day of every Jewish month and finally waned on the last day (see my notes on the Festival of Trumpets under section 1a), thus making the full moon to occur in the centre of the month - that is, around the fifteenth of Nisan in the context of the present passage. The keeping of festivals, therefore, was regulated by the appearance of the new moon.
The celebration of the Passover had occurred the night preceding the crucifixion and, as the Jewish day began at sundown and continued until the next evening, the day on which Jesus was crucified was also the 15th of Nisan.
What this all means is that it couldn’t have possibly have been a natural eclipse for such a phenomenon can’t occur at full moon when the moon is on the opposite side of earth to the sun (and neither can an eclipse last for three hours! There can, however, be an eclipse of the moon’s light by the earth’s shadow being cast on it at or around the full moon as occurred here just last night!) but can only occur on or around the time of the new moon when the satellite is on the same side of earth as the sun. Therefore, the translation that
‘...the sun’s light failed...’
is much more accurate and we can’t account for the darkness as being a natural event which could be tied in to the calendar and which could be looked for in the pages of astronomy. Marklane, however, comments that
‘The objection that a solar eclipse is astronomically impossible at the time of the Passover fails to appreciate the significance of the event for which there are numerous parallels’
but he seems to be missing the point, for there doesn’t appear to be a clear statement that a solar eclipse is being referred to in the text. If it had been just such an astronomical event, we should expect clear universal written records in the pages of ancient history for everyone would have clearly seen the moon to have been ‘out of place’. We may with absolute certainty, therefore, say that it wasn’t a natural astronomical event and was never meant to be taken by the reader to have been such but, as to the natural cause - if, indeed there was one - there are no indications in the text.
It’s more certain that the darkness is meant to be taken as a supernatural event.
We must also consider here the statement of Matthew 27:45 (my italics) that
‘...there was darkness over all the land’
for most commentators accept the italicised phrase as meaning a purely localised event which spread over an area greater than simply the city of Jerusalem but which was constrained within the boundaries of the nation. This is certainly what one would expect to limit the historian’s need of finding literary evidence in the annals of ancient history for no direct references appear to exist from primary sources but, as Mathag notes
‘...the evangelist may mean the whole earth which is the way he generally uses the word...’
For, when Matthew uses the Greek word to mean anything other than the entire earth, Mathag points out that he normally qualifies his statement so that it has to refer to a specific geographic location such as in Mtw 2:6 where we read of the ‘land’ of Judah. It would be more natural to take what Matthew writes as being a reference to the entire earth and the only commentator to attempt to found the darkness into contemporary history can find only two sources who refer to works which are now, sadly, lost to history.
Mathen cites Origen in Against Celsus (2.33) as referring to the Roman historian Phlegon who’s said to mention the darkness and the earthquake, but what Origen actually writes (my italics) is
‘...with regard to the eclipse in the time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place, Phlegon too, I think, has written in the thirteenth or fourteenth book of his Chronicles’
Obviously, this is far from conclusive simply because the author is relying on his memory and could be mistaken. Tertullian also mentions the darkness when he writes in Apology chapter 22 (my italics) and directed to unbelievers that
‘In the same hour, too, the light of day was withdrawn, when the sun at the very time was in his meridian blaze. Those who were not aware that this had been predicted about Christ, no doubt thought it an eclipse. You yourselves have the account of the world-portent still in your archives’
and, although it’s incorrect to say with certainty that Tertullian must have misunderstood the archive, judging by other statements which have been cited in support of the Gospel’s testimony, we shouldn’t take these as necessarily accurate confirmations. One thing it does show us, however, is that the Church of that time certainly believed in a more universal darkness than most modern commentators do.
But if we’re right in taking the darkness as purely localised, it still doesn’t help the commentator to tie down the event by reference to Jewish historical sources for neither Philo (resident in Alexandria in Egypt) nor Josephus (born after the crucifixion) make any mention of it. Neither is it easy to interpret the event as God’s use of a natural event in order to demonstrate a spiritual one. Matfran suggests that
‘...perhaps it was caused by a dust storm or heavy cloud cover...’
but his is no more than an observation which he doesn’t believe. The Hollywood film Ben Hur interprets it as a thunderstorm with rain which is integral to their own plot but which is also purely fanciful.
The bottom line is that we simply don’t know if there was any natural event which God used to show the spiritual darkness which had descended upon Jesus during that period of time between the sixth and ninth hours - that there was some physical phenomenon is certain from the first phrase of Luke 23:45. But, however we care to interpret the verse and place it into the context of the first century, it’s main implication is primarily as to what Jesus experienced and what that experience was to achieve for believers as already securely founded in the teaching of the early Church.
The theology of the cross
There are only six verses in Matthew which deal with the three hour period on the cross when the work was completed which reconciled mankind to God. John doesn’t even so much as mention this time and skips directly on to Jesus’ final action before He breathed His last (John 19:28).
But the importance of this three hours for mankind can’t be underestimated.
There’s no direct theology here of the cross in either of the four Gospels which makes one realise that they were never meant to be theological treatises but that the incidents were brought together to give the early Church an accurate record of those things which they were assured had occurred in Jesus’ life.
Commenting on the record of darkness over the land, Matcar writes that
‘The evangelists [Matthew, Mark and Luke] are chiefly interested in the theological implications that rise out of the historical phenomena’
but, if they had been, why didn’t they add a word of explanation to a potentially puzzling event? It’s much better to see the Gospel writers as being careful to commit to parchment a record of the facts rather than to use the facts as proof of the theology which they wanted to convey - for such theological inferences and interpretations are lacking here and we might have expected either one of the three writers to append a note such as
‘...when the weight of the world’s sin was laid upon Him’
if they’d been concerned with theological implications - though there are statements by Jesus in the events leading up to the crucifixion, they also seem to have been recorded for the reader as statements of what took place and not as theological expansions of the events which were to follow. The theology of the cross was already embedded in the fellowships through the preaching of the Gospel in their midst and, no doubt, through the copying of the letters of those teachers who were the most respected amongst them (Col 4:16). Therefore, to read about those things which the early Church believed had been accomplished by Jesus on the cross, it’s to the pronouncements in the Book of Acts and the details in the letters that the reader must refer.
And here there’s a wealth of information.
I’ve dealt with many of the aspects of the work in my ‘Cross’ series of notes - the very first articles I put together for the web site and for good reason. If a person doesn’t get a right perspective of the centrality of the cross, all the other Scriptures will be wrongly interpreted and understood.
So, although there’s no deep theology of the cross in the Gospels, the letters give information in great detail, and it’s from these that a good understanding of the work is put together.
Aspects of the cross can be found on the following web pages, but the cross is never far away from any of the pages on this web site for it’s central to everything in the life of the disciple. Once a believer moves away from the centrality of the cross, they all too easily think that they can operate independently of the will of the Father.
Baptism in water (60K)
Creation/Restoration of Creation (136K)
Yom Kippur (74K)
Love of God (32K)
What we will do in the following space of this web page, then, is to try and be careful to stay within the observations of the Gospel writers but with some interpretation of how what occurred speaks of the work which Jesus did for all mankind.
The goat for Azazel
see also my notes on ‘Yom Kippur’
Mtw 27:46, Mark 15:33
Leviticus chapter 16 (the passage which deals with the priestly enactment of the Day of Atonement, the annual ceremony when Israel’s sins were dealt with) speaks of the one sin offering which comprised two male goats for the congregation of the people of Israel (Lev 16:5). Yoma 6:1 in the Mishnah tells us that
‘...the two he-goats of the Day of Atonement should be alike in appearance, in size and in value, and have been bought at the same time’
for, though there were two goats, the Rabbis considered them to be two different aspects of the one offering. This was clearly in accordance with the Scriptural instructions for, in Lev 16:5 (my italics), it says that there should be
‘...two male goats for a sin offering...’
Notice that the passage doesn’t say ‘for sin offerings’ which would have taught that their were two but ‘for a sin offering’ indicating one. Though one offering was sufficient to remove the sins of Israel, there needed to be two goats because it wasn’t possible for the single goat to take upon itself both aspects that the dealing with sin required.
The blood offering for sin, represented by the first goat (Lev 16:15-19) is spoken of as being fulfilled by Jesus Christ in His poured out blood on the cross and prophetically spoken of by Him the evening before it was to happen at the Last Supper when He instructed His disciples (Mtw 26:28) that
‘...this is My blood...poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’
The second goat’s blood, however, was never shed yet (Lev 16:22) it was to
‘...bear all their iniquities...to a solitary land...’
This ‘cutting off’ of the goat was specifically from the Presence of God (the Life) that resided within the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and from the congregation of Israel, God’s people. Isaiah, speaking of the fulfilment of the second goat of the Day of Atonement, prophesied concerning the Christ (Is 53:10) that He would make Himself
‘...an offering for sin...’
(Is 53:11) that
‘...He shall bear their iniquities...’
(Is 53:12) that
‘...He bore the sin of many...’
and (Is 53:8) that
‘...He was cut off out of the land of the living...’
Jesus, crucified ‘outside the gate’ (Heb 13:12, Mtw 27:32 - that is, away from the congregation of God’s people) and cut off from the Life and Presence of the Father (Mtw 27:46) became the perfect embodiment and fulfilment of this sin offering to reconcile God’s people back into a relationship with God Himself.
This separation from the presence of the Father (spoken of clearly in Is 53:8 quoted above) can be seen by comparing the three of His seven sayings from the cross which speak directly to God and by carefully considering the implications of each.
Firstly, Jesus speaks directly in terms which He’d used throughout His life, calling God His Father (Luke 23:34) as He does in the final of the three utterances being considered (Luke 23:46). This personal relationship with God is clearly discernible here but, in the midst of these, when darkness had descended upon the land, we read of His cry (Mtw 27:46-47)
‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’
the only time throughout His entire life when Jesus speaks directly to the Father but addresses Him impersonally as ‘God’ - this was much more than a simple quote from the OT Scriptures (which we’ll consider below) but a heart felt cry of anguish, expressing His feelings which mirrored those of the psalmist recorded so many years previously - just as Jonah’s cry from the belly of the fish echoed many OT Scriptures but which weren’t simply a series of quotes strung together (Jonah 2:2-9). Matfran speaks of the word translated ‘cried’ as conveying
‘...powerful emotion...This is no dispassionate theological statement but an agonised expression of a real sense of alienation...’
Clearly there’s something that’s changed in the relationship of the Son with the Father and this can only be explained by seeing the presence of God as having been withdrawn from Jesus as the sins of mankind were being laid on Him to be dealt with by God’s judgment.
Truly, then, Jesus was cut off from Life - from the land of the living - and was experiencing the eternal separation that each man and woman will reap if the work of the cross isn’t made effective in their lives. It isn’t saying too much to see Jesus’ experience as ‘hell’ in the full meaning and sense of the word.
Jesus, as the perfect fulfilment of that one sin offering on the Day of Atonement, has done what no repeated offering of the two goats annually could ever do and has brought the OT shadow to a fulfilment in Himself. We see the fulfilment of the promised redemption as Jesus’ blood is shed for the forgiveness of sins and man’s justification and, as He’s cut off from the Presence of the Father, He bears the punishment that mankind’s sins deserve to a place from which the sins will never return.
Both sight and sound were used by God to show mankind that Jesus bore their sin, through the darkness which fell over the land (Mtw 27:45) and the sound of Jesus’ voice as He declared the separation from the Presence of God (Mtw 27:46).
One would, perhaps, have imagined that the cry of desolation from the cross by Jesus (‘My God! My God! Why have You forsaken Me?’) would have occurred at the beginning of the darkness which covered the land during the sixth hour but Mtw 27:45 notes that it took place
‘...about the ninth hour...’
and shortly before Jesus breathed His last. The saying is transliterated into Greek by both Matthew and Mark but the former author renders the phrase ‘My God’ with ‘Eli’ and the latter with ‘Eloi’ (both words also transliterated from the Greek). Matcar makes a lot of these two differences, noting that Matthew renders the phrase as it would appear in Hebrew whereas Mark uses the Aramaic equivalent. One might have imagined that both authors would then go on to render the remaining part of the verse in the language in which they began, but both continue to the end in Aramaic.
This could mean one of several things but all of which are supposition - even the much asserted reasoning that Jesus would have to have spoken in Hebrew because the reference to Elijah couldn’t otherwise have been misunderstood isn’t correct because both renderings require a mishearing of what was said (Mtw 27:47, Mark 15:35). Neither can it be used to show that Jesus’ regular language was Aramaic and that Matthew has only rendered the front two phrases in Hebrew to draw the reader’s attention to the misunderstanding.
What it might indicate, however, is that both Matthew and Mark were following different manuscripts in their compilation of their Gospels, for it seems strange that Matthew would simply change a version he found in Mark to make it Hebrew without also changing the remaining sentence. It’s generally asserted that Mark, having been written first, was the source for both Matthew and Luke but it’s difficult to see how this could be at this point in the narrative.
Whatever the reasons for the change of language, the entire declaration is taken directly from Ps 22:1, the psalm which specifically finds its fulfilment during the hours in which Jesus was on the cross. I’ve mentioned this psalm in numerous places in the preceding web pages where direct fulfilments have taken place and noted that both the first and last words of the psalm are both uttered from the cross by Jesus. The last few words of the psalm are rendered by the RSV with the translation
‘...He has wrought it’
but, as Pskid comments it’s
‘...an announcement not far removed from our Lord’s great cry “It is finished”’
Morris CNT cites A M Hunter in his comments on John 19:30 where the phrase occurs and who paraphrases it
‘I have drained the cup. I have travelled the road. I have paid the price’
The idea behind the declarative statement is one of completion and finality, that the work which One has been called to is now fully achieved. Johncar notes concerning the Greek verb from which Jesus’ statement comes that it
‘...denotes the carrying out of a task and in religious contexts bears the overtone of fulfilling one’s religious obligations’
Although Psalm 22 begins for the psalmist in a state of God-forsakenness and of being oppressed by his enemies, it takes an about turn in verse 22 (so much so that some commentators believe that it was originally two psalms that have been joined together - but this is an unnecessary assertion) and ends on a triumphant note declaring that the men of a future generation will proclaim that YHWH has wrought deliverance for mankind from their God-forsakenness and oppression.
As such, it can only have been fully fulfilled in the cross - the separation and victory are closely linked in this psalm so that the experience of the former is the way that David finds the realisation of the latter. So, too, in Jesus as He emerged from God-forsakenness into a totally unreserved and universal victory over all His and man’s enemies (Col 2:8-15 - the cross’s ‘Greatest Hits’ passage) in the triumph of the cross.
The ‘cry’ of Mtw 27:50 is taken to refer to the declaration that the work is finished in John 19:30 and the Greek word (Strongs Greek number 2896) more rightly means a ‘scream’ but, even so, it’s defined by the phrase ‘with a loud voice’ which occurs immediately afterwards. By just reading the former statement, the reader may have assumed that what Jesus uttered was simply a loud scream but the latter verse in John gives words to the action.
To those who stood around watching the crucifixion, the phrase ‘It is finished’ may have seemed to have meant no more than Jesus knew that His time to die had come and that He was shortly to breathe His last, justified further by the speed with which He hung His head in death. Only if one had fully understood the implications of the darkness and the cry of dereliction (which as of this moment was yet to be comprehended) could anyone possibly have realised Jesus’ reference to the completed redemptive work.
But there should have been some indication that all wasn’t what it appeared to be when they heard Jesus’ last words from the cross, a prayer directed towards the Father. Matthew simply describes the action of Jesus, that He immediately
‘...yielded up His spirit’
but, again, it’s left to another of the Gospels to note that, again with a loud voice, Jesus expressed the action by declaring to the Father (Luke 23:46)
‘Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit’
Matthew’s turn of phrase, however, is not one that would normally be associated with a person’s death. What both Matthew and Luke are trying to say here (Mark simply notes that Jesus breathed His last) seems to be that Jesus chose the time of His physical death and that no man took it from Him (John 10:17-18). This is difficult to reconcile with the continued assertion throughout this commentary that Jesus was dependent upon the provision and will of God as any man must be and yet, at the same time, was God in all His fulness. But here the victory has been secured, commitment into the hands of the Father has been prayed and the removal of Jesus from the earth is completed with almost immediate effect. This yielding to God, therefore, should be seen as the work of the Father but as the result of the prayer of the Son.
It’s rightly been said that Jesus wasn’t so much nailed to the cross as He was holding on to complete the work on mankind’s behalf, for the initiative for the crucifixion belonged with Him and, had He not been willing to be executed in this manner, He surely would have fled arrest and not come forward to the arresting soldiers the evening before in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:4).
In my notes here, I’ve jumped directly from a consideration of the cry of desolation on the cross (Mtw 27:45) to Jesus’ final two utterances without dealing with the incident which occurred as a result of the former prayer, but before His final breath. To this we must now turn.
The crowds, then, seem to misunderstand the cry of dereliction, assuming that Jesus is calling on the prophet Elijah in Heaven to come and save Him. I’ve noted above that it’s been suggested that Jesus uttered the first part of this cry in Hebrew rather than Aramaic and that this accounts for the mistake but this hardly seems a certain conclusion to draw from the variation between Matthew and Mark.
When Mtw 27:47-48 notes that it was one of the bystanders who ran to Jesus to offer Him vinegar to drink on a sponge, one is naturally drawn into thinking that a Jew from the crowd had come forward and approached the Roman guard which stood about the cross. This hardly seems likely, however, and it seems best to interpret the reference to the man who came forward as being one of the soldiers themselves and that it came about because Jesus inferred that He wanted a drink (John 19:28).
Commentators are divided between whether the offering to Jesus of vinegar was kindness or mockery though Matfran seems plausible in his quoting of Blinzer who describes the liquid as
‘...wine vinegar diluted with water, the usual refreshing drink of labourers and soldiers’
while, contrary to this, Matcar writes that
‘The best explanation is that of mockery...its purpose may have been to prolong life and agony...’
The pronouncement to the soldier to wait to see if Elijah was to come and save Him could also have been either an ironic statement which centred in cynicism where the person really didn’t believe that such a thing was possible, or one of faith which confessed either the eschatological expectation of the Jews that the prophet Elijah would be sent back to the earth before the end of the world (but the evidence for a first century belief in this is not certain unless inferred from such passages as Mtw 17:10 and that the bystanders saw in the darkness an indication that the end might have come) or the assumed coming of Elijah to the aid of those righteous people who were being oppressed by the wicked (but, if this was the crowds’ belief, it self-portrays them in a bad light as the wicked who were oppressing the righteous servant of the Lord! Again, a first century belief in this doesn’t appear to be provable from ancient contemporary sources). Perhaps it’s best to err on the side of caution along with Mathag who comments
‘There is little need...to argue that the bystanders had clearly worked out views on the subject. They thought they heard Elijah’s name and so thought that Jesus was crying out to be delivered...’
Whichever option might be chosen (whether cynicism or faith, kindness or mockery) it’s certain from John that the offering of the drink to Jesus was done
‘...to fulfil the Scripture...’
a reference to the second part of Ps 69:21 which reads
‘...for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink’
The sponge mentioned in Mtw 27:48, Mark 15:36 and John 19:29 seems to have been a common part of a soldier’s kit during the first century, Zondervan citing Pliny (but with no reference so that it can be checked out) as stating that
‘...it was standard practice for Roman soldiers to carry a piece of sponge for use as a drinking vessel precisely as described in the Gospels’
but, as we also know, it was ‘standard practice’ for each Roman soldier to have their own sponge for use in their daily visits to the lavatory so that it’s far from certain whether a soldier would have employed such a method for his own drinking when he was only sitting a short way from the praetorium when a direct drink from a wineskin or bottle would have been more direct. The sponge may, therefore, have been carried by crucifying soldiers as part of their specialised equipment for that type of duty.
The soldiers attached this sponge to a reed (Mtw 27:48, Mark 15:36) or, perhaps, hyssop (John 19:29). There’s a world of difference between the two types of plants which has led commentators to try and propose an adequate harmonisation.
Johncar notes that it was long proposed that the Greek word for hyssop was mistaken at an early date for the one for ‘javelin’ and that Matthew described the shaft but John the actual instrument which was used. This has recently been shown to be unlikely, however, for the javelin so used would have been a specialised piece of equipment that other sources indicate wouldn’t have been part of the cohort’s armoury in Israel.
The main problem with hyssop is that the plant which we generally associate with the name is a small shrub and it’s not easy to see how it could be used as a ‘rod’ upon which the sponge would be conveyed to Jesus’ mouth. This dilemma is partly the result of our own concepts of the height of the cross for paintings and pictures have Jesus hanging very high above the earth and the need for something like Matthew and Mark’s ‘reed’ becomes immediately apparent.
In truth, the crucified didn’t need to be very far from the ground and, so long as the legs of the victim were raised off the earth, height was unimportant. Besides, Johnmor quotes Sherwell-Cooper in his attempts at discovering the correct plant normally associated by the term ‘hyssop’ as writing
‘I find it difficult to discover what hyssop really is’
and as concluding that it probably refers to a range of plants which cannot be easily tied down to a specific group. The term, then, could have included a larger plant from which a branch was cut to use in the offering of liquid to the crucified but it doesn’t have to have been a long pole as is usually imagined.
So, the pivotal event of the Church’s pronouncements is completed in the texts and, apart from observations of occurrences which took place after Jesus breathed His last, it’s taken Matthew just six verses to describe it. We find no easily explained theology here, neither a determination of the author to make sure that His readers don’t miss the point of the significance of His death.
For Matthew - as well as the other three authors - the point has been to simply relate the incident and move on. The theological teaching and expounding of the meaning and accomplishment of Jesus’ death is left to the teacher within the churches who understand the implications of the greatest act of redemption which has ever been performed on earth and which is both all sufficient and all encompassing.
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