John W. Welch
Central to any interpretation of the New Testament is an understanding of the trial and resurrection of Jesus. Everything in the Gospels builds to the concluding hours of his life, and virtually everything in Christianity turns on how one views these critical events.
The death of Jesus, however, is not easy to understand. From the beginning, it was difficult for many of his followers to understand and accept. Most messianic expectations assumed that the Anointed One would come in a glorious fashion, even though Isaiah 53 had prophesied otherwise; and the fact that Jesus was hung on a tree was scandal to many, who used this shameful execution in denigrating him.
In light of the importance and complexity of these historic moments, it is not surprising that the four Gospels take different approaches to these far-reaching events. Consistent with the varying approaches taken in the Gospels generally, each of the four Gospels emphasizes different aspects of the trial and death of Jesus and often uniquely so. Consider the following:
Matthew significantly draws upon many Israelite factors.
His gospel alone mentions that Jesus said he could call down more than twelve legions of angels to rescue him if he wanted (26:53), the number twelve being significant as in the number of the tribes of Israel or as the number of the minor prophets from Hosea to Malachi. Jesus is taken directly to Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, who is mentioned by name (26:57). The council sought false testimony against Jesus (26:59), and eventually two false witnesses were found (26:60), which compares with the witnesses against Naboth in 1 Kings 21 and the law against false witnesses in Deuteronomy 19:15-21. Jesus shows respect for the Jewish Temple, having simply said that he was able to destroy it, not that he necessarily would (26:61). The case against Jesus focuses on blasphemy (26:65), a violation of Jewish law. Pilate’s hand washing (27:24) may relate to the ritual in Deuteronomy 21:6. When the earth shook, dead Israelites arose (27:52). The angel of the Lord descended from heaven to roll away the stone in front of the tomb (28:2). These elements in the gospel of Matthew would have resonated especially with a Jewish audience.
Mark gives a straightforward, powerful account.
Mark seems more interested in reporting things that were done than words that were spoken. Thus, when the ear of the high priest’s servant was cut off and healed, Jesus says nothing; only actions are mentioned, not words (14:48). Mark makes the point that they arrested Jesus and took him away under heavy guard (14:44). False witnesses are notably powerless (14:56, 59). Jesus potently had said, “I will destroy this temple” (14:58).Jesus responded powerfully, “I am” (14:62). Those with power move against Jesus, all condemning Jesus (14:64). Jewish guards beat Jesus (14:65). The crowd is very demanding, threatening to riot (15:15). Roman soldiers mock Jesus’ power (15:19). Joseph of Arimathea, a powerful member of the Sanhedrin, is mentioned as taking courage in asking for the body of Jesus (15:43). The women at the tomb were afraid (16:8). These distinctive elements in Mark give this account a strong sense of power, commotion, and violence.
Luke consistently features humanitarian and public elements.
As is his sentiment throughout his gospel, Luke pays great attention to the ordinary populace, to women, to the poor, and to the weak. This trend continues throughout his telling of the trial of Jesus.
Luke gives details about the healing of the lowly servant’s ear (22:51). The arresters are said to blaspheme Jesus, as some of the popular world rejected Jesus (22:65). No actual accusation was brought against Jesus until before Pilate (23:2). The allegations then involve ordinary public offenses, such as that he allegedly stirs up the people and forbids people from paying taxes (23:2). Herod’s soldiers play mocking games (23:6-11). Jesus prophesies to the women (23:28-31). Jesus asked the Father to forgive even those functionaries who crucified him (23:34). One of the robbers on the cross was invited into paradise (23:39-43). The crowd beats their breasts (23:48). Other women were also at the tomb (24:10). These characteristic features only in the gospel of Luke draw even the most ordinary members of Judean society into this story.
John consistently directs attention toward eternal and divine elements.
Of all the New Testament gospels, John is by far concerned the most with the sublime, the heavenly, and purity.
Here in this gospel we learn about Jesus’s foreknowledge of all the things that would come upon him (18:4). Only here do we learn about the concern of the accusers over impurity by going into the Praetorium (18:28). The Jews do not accuse Jesus of worldly offenses but rather of being a “malefactor” (a likely reference to his supernatural, wonder-working powers, 18:30). Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world” (18:36), and Pilate and Jesus talk about who really has the power to deliver Jesus (19:10). Priests deny God as their king and say, “We have no king but Caesar” (19:15). Jesus says, “For this cause came I into the world” (18:37). Prophecy was fulfilled when Jesus thirsts and is given vinegar, and his side is pierced but no bones broken (19:34-36). Ultimately Jesus says, “It is finished” (or “perfected,” tetelestai, 19:30). The resurrected Jesus tells Mary not to hold (or embrace) him, as he had not yet ascended to the Father, “my Father and your Father, my God and your God” (20:17-18).
These and many other elevating perspectives in the gospel of John help readers to understand the essential role played in the eternal plan of salvation, which was set in place before the foundation of this physical cosmos, by Jesus being lifted up that he might draw all people up unto him (12:32), that where he is, his followers may eventually be also, and that whither he went, they may truly know the way that leads to life eternal (14:4-5; 17:3).