So I randomly learned that John — which was the last of the Canonical gospels to be written and the one that isn’t synoptic — is the only of the Canonical gospels to make mention of the Roman soldier spearing Jesus on the cross.* Considering the fact that Easter is only two weeks away, I decided to do a textual comparison of Jesus’ crucifixion in each of the four gospels to see what else is dissimilar; it was a pretty fun exercise.
Here’s the list:
- Matthew 27:5 is the only gospel reference to Judas Iscariot’s death. (The only other reference in the Bible is Acts 1:18.)**
- Matthew 27:19 is the only reference to what we call “Pilate’s Dream.” Except that it wasn’t his dream, it was his wife’s.
- Matthew 27:24 is the only reference to Pilate washing his hands of the whole thing.***
- That said, Matthew is also the only gospel in which Pilate doesn’t point out to the rabble that Jesus has committed no crime.
- Mark 15:1 is the only reference in the story of Jesus’ death to mention the Sanhedrin by name.
- Mark 15:25 is the only reference to the time of Jesus’ crucifixion — 9am (though all three of the synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke – note that from noon until 3, the sky got dark)
- Luke 23:8-12 is the only appearance Herod makes in this part of the Jesus story.
- Luke is the only gospel not to mention Pilate’s choice to flog Jesus.
- Luke is also the only one not to make note of the robe (which in Mark and John is described as purple, but in Matthew is scarlet) and crown of thorns.
- John is all over the effing place (because John isn’t one of the synoptic gospels). John goes off-script. A lot.
- In addition to the spear to the side bit, John is the only one to say that Jesus carried his own cross through the city**** (the synoptic gospels name a man called Simon and note he’s from Cyrene. Mark names his sons for reasons I assume are to distinguish this particular Simon from other guys from Cyrene who bore the same name.) He’s also the only one to make reference to prophecies and broken bones.
-NONE of the gospels give any count on the lashes, although there is all sorts of evidence in Biblical and Talmudic law that would make 39 the fair assumption. And in 2 Corinthians, Paul notes that he had been flogged on several occasions, receiving 40 lashes minus 1 (the reason for this — if you can’t be bothered to read the link above on Biblical/Talmudic law — is that 40 lashes was the legal limit and, in order to avoid going above that, even by accident, the standard was 39). However…as he was in Pilate’s (and, therefore, Rome’s) custody, Jesus was likely flogged by the Romans, who were not likely held to the religious standard that the Jews maintained. So who knows, really?
- Matthew and Mark are the only gospels where Jesus asks, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”; Luke is the only one in which he says, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit”; John is the only one where he says, “It is finished.”
- Matthew and Mark identify two Marys at the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph. John notes that Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ mother Mary, his mother’s sister, and Mary the wife of Clopas were in attendance. Luke doesn’t pick anyone out specifically, instead calling them “the women who had followed him from Galilee.” What’s interesting to me here is that this ties back to the lesson from a couple months ago about the adelphoi and the desposyni.
In the entire story of Jesus’ crucifixion, there are only a few things that are the same across the board. They are: Jesus’ appearance before Pilate, the discontent of the Sanhedrin (and the people), the release of Barabbas, that Golgotha (which is only expressly named in Matthew and Mark, though all four refer to it as “the Skull”) was the site of the crucifixion, that the soldiers drew lots for Jesus’ clothing, that there was a plaque on the cross that identified Jesus as “King of the Jews”, that Jesus was offered wine vinegar on a sponge, and that he died. So basically, the story we know as one story, with Judas’ death, Herod, Pilate washing his hands of the whole event, the crown of thorns, the 39 lashes, and our friend Simon the crucifer, is actually a composite of all four gospels, some textual exegesis, and a likely Q source.
So after all of this, I decided to see what the Gnostic gospels have to say. Unfortunately, none of them, complete (Philip, Thomas, — which most scholars acknowledge predates the four Canonical gospels — and Truth) or otherwise (Hebrews, Mary and Judas), tell the story of Jesus’ death. You have no idea how disappointing that was to discover.
Anyway, it actually makes quite a lot of sense that Matthew and Mark are so similar; they’re the two earliest — Mark first, then Matthew. And it makes sense that John would be so dissimilar because it’s the non-synoptic gospel. But I think this is a really interesting exercise in how storytelling works. I’m particularly intrigued by Herod’s late addition to the party. But really, what becomes very, very clear, especially when considering the additions Matthew and Luke make to Mark, is that the scholars’ belief that there’s a Q Source from which Matthew and Luke draw, in addition to Mark, isn’t a crackpot theory. And that aspect actually illustrates exactly where my problem lies in viewing the Bible as a historical document.
Anyway, that was fun! I’ve never actually sat down and done a textual comparison with Biblical text before…
**This one’s cheating; I know this offhand. I’ve done a lot of research into Judas Iscariot over my many years of academia…I think he’s the most interesting character in Christianity, not because of his position at the time, but because of his image after the fact.
***It shouldn’t surprise anyone with half a brain who was raised in the Christian tradition that this is where we get the idiom “to wash [one's] hands of”.