Crucifixion (Matthew 27:31-56; Mark 15:20-41; Luke 23:26-49; John 19:17-37)

After having been sentenced, Jesus was led away to the location where Roman soldiers would crucify him. Initially, he carried the beam (staurós). (John 19:16, 17) Eventually, however, his strength seems to have given out totally. Likely the extreme abuse and torture to which he had been submitted, coupled with much blood loss, had left him in a very weak state. At the time he could no longer carry the beam, Simon of Cyrene (the father of Alexander and Rufus) happened to be coming from the direction of a field outside the city. Seemingly, upon noticing him, the Roman soldiers impressed him into service, forcing him to carry the beam behind Jesus. (Matthew 27:31, 32; Mark 15:20, 21; Luke 23:26; see the Notes section for additional comments.)

As Jesus walked to the place where he would die, many people followed, including women. Overcome with emotion, the women beat themselves on their breasts and wailed for him. Turning around, Jesus spoke to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me. Instead, weep for yourselves and your children, for, see! days are coming when they will say, ‘Fortunate [are] the barren women and the wombs that did not bear and the breasts that did not nurse!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall over us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For, if they do this when the wood is green, what will occur when it is dry?” (Luke 23:27-31)

Jesus’ words anticipated the horrific suffering that would befall everyone in Jerusalem during the time of the Roman siege. So intense would be the distress from famine and war that people would wish that they could be so completely removed and concealed from the calamity as if mountains and hills were to cover them.

The proverbial reference to the green wood (or a living tree through which the sap continued to circulate) may be understood to apply to the Jewish nation. Within it, many godly persons grieved on account of the injustices they witnessed, and numerous influential men reflected a moderate disposition. Yet, despite the good existing in the nation, a grave injustice had been committed. The situation would prove to be far worse, however, when the nation, particularly as represented by Jerusalem (its center for worship) would come to be like dry wood or a dead tree. At that time, the absence of the wholesome influence of a devout remnant and of influential members of the nation who resisted the kind of fanaticism displayed by those who had requested the release of a murderous seditionist (Barabbas, an enemy of Rome), and who had shouted for Jesus to be crucified, would inevitably lead to civil strife and conflict with Rome, and the people would suffer.

Besides Jesus, two other condemned men were taken to the place where they would be crucified. (Luke 23:32) The location was called “Golgotha,” meaning “Skull Place.” (Matthew 27:33; Mark 15:22) There Jesus was offered wine to drink. According to Matthew 27:34, this wine was mixed with “gall” (cholé, a very bitter or unpleasant-tasting substance), and Mark 15:23 indicates that the wine contained myrrh. Possibly the gall was myrrh, or the wine was mixed with both gall and myrrh. As a drugged wine, the drink would have had a stupefying effect, serving to somewhat dull the pain inflicted during the crucifixion. Upon tasting the wine, Jesus refused to drink it, likely because of wanting to maintain full control of his senses as the sinless “Lamb of God.” The Scriptures do not mention who offered the drink to Jesus. It may have been one of the compassionate Jewish women, for the Romans did permit them to give drugged wine to the condemned.

After the Roman soldiers stripped Jesus of his clothing, they nailed him to the beam and, as he had foretold, lifted him up. Two bandits were also crucified, one on his right and the other one on his left. (Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:27; Luke 23:33; John 19:18; see the Notes section regarding crucifixion and Mark 15:25.) According to many manuscript readings of Mark 15:28 (but not the oldest extant ones), this development fulfilled the words of scripture (Isaiah 53:12), “And with [among the, LXX] lawless ones he was counted.”

In Luke 23:34, many manuscripts include Jesus’ prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” The oldest extant manuscript (P75 of the late second century or the early third century), fourth-century Codex Vaticanus, and other manuscripts do not include these words. If not original, the prayer would still reflect the loving and forgiving spirit of God’s Son, for the disciple Stephen expressed himself to this effect before his death from stoning. (Acts 7:60)

The charge against Jesus (identifying his crime as being that of “King of the Jews”) had been posted above his head. (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19; see the Notes section for additional comments.) Pilate had written it in three languages (Latin [the official language of Rome], Greek [the commonly used language in the Greco-Roman world], and Hebrew [the language of the native Jews]). The writing was large enough to be readable from a distance. Many Jews did read the words, for the location was near Jerusalem. After Pilate had written the charge, the chief priests objected, saying, “Do not write ‘the King of the Jews,’ but that “he said, I am King of the Jews.” Pilate, though, had made a legal decision, which he refused to alter. “What I have written,” he said, “I have written.” (John 19:19-22)

After the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they divided his robe (himátion, an outer garment) into four parts, with each soldier taking a part. This reveals that four soldiers were in charge of the crucifixion. They did not want to divide the tunic (chitón, a garment worn next to the skin), for it was a seamless garment, having been woven in one piece. For this reason, they decided to cast lots to determine which of them would get it. Their action corresponded to the words of Psalm 22:18(19) (21:19, LXX), “They divided my garments among themselves, and for my clothes they cast lots.” Because this was indeed what the soldiers did, the words of the psalmist were fulfilled, finding their fullest significance in what happened in the case of God’s Son. (Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:23, 24) Thereafter the soldiers seated themselves and kept watch. (Matthew 27:36)

At the crucifixion site, chief priests, prominent Jews, and passersby began to blaspheme Jesus. Among them were those who mockingly wagged their heads and said, “You who would break down the temple and in three days rebuild [it], save yourself. If you are [the] Son of God, come down from the staurós.” The chief priests, scribes, and certain elders of the nation participated in scoffing at him, saying, “Others he saved; himself he cannot save. He is King of Israel. Let him now descend from the staurós, and we will believe in him. He trusted in God. If [God] wants him, let him now rescue him, for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” (Matthew 27:39-43; Mark 15:29-32; Luke 23:35; compare Psalm 22:7[8], 8[9], 17(18) and see the Notes section for additional comments.)

It is noteworthy that, even in mockery, the chief priests and other prominent Jews acknowledged that Jesus had done good works. He had “saved” others or brought relief to them. Thus, unwittingly, they condemned themselves as persons who hated him without cause.

The Roman soldiers also shared in making fun of Jesus. They approached, offered him vinegar (sour wine), and said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” (Luke 23:36, 37)

Initially, both of the malefactors appear to have been emotionally caught up in siding with those who hurled abuses at Jesus. (Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32) One of them then had a change of heart when he heard the other one say, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” He responded to his fellow malefactor, “Do you not fear God, since you are now experiencing the same judgment? And we rightly so, for we deserve the retribution we are receiving for our acts, but he did nothing wrong.” Directing his words to Jesus, he asked him to remember him upon coming into his kingdom. On that dark day, the very day when he endured physical suffering and abusive mockery and outwardly possessed nothing suggestive of royal splendor, Jesus assured the repentant wrongdoer that he would be with him in paradise. Whereas the chief priests and other prominent Jews scoffed, the evildoer perceived in Jesus the purity and dignity of Israel’s foretold king and he responded with genuine faith. He believed, and died with the comforting assurance that he would be favorably remembered by his king. (Luke 23:39-43; see the Notes section regarding Luke 23:43.) What the repentant wrongdoer understood being in paradise with Jesus would mean for him is not revealed in the account. In view of his request to be remembered, it would appear that the fulfillment of the promise would relate to entrance into the paradisaical realm where Jesus is king by his Father’s appointment.

Not all who were standing at the site of Golgotha participated in the hateful mockery. They looked on with intense grief. The disciple whom Jesus deeply loved, the apostle John, was there and so was Mary. Her pain would have been indescribable. As Simeon had foretold years earlier, her experience proved to be comparable to being pierced with a sword. (Luke 2:35) Other women with Mary included Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Clopas (the mother of James the less [or younger] and Joses [Joseph]), and Salome (the mother of James and John, the wife of Zebedee, and the sister of Jesus’ mother Mary). Additionally, present were many other women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee and had attended to his needs. (Matthew 27:55, 56; Mark 15:40, 41; Luke 23:49; John 19:25)

With her nephew John at her side, Mary approached close enough to Jesus to be able to hear him speak. When he saw his mother and John, the disciple whom he loved and implicitly trusted, he lovingly arranged to have him care for her. Directing his words to Mary, Jesus said, “Woman, see! Your son.” His words to John were, “See! Your mother.” From that “hour” or time onward, John assumed the role of a son to Mary and apparently had her live where he did. (John 19:26, 27)

About the sixth hour (or after the noon hour), an extraordinary darkness settled over the land and lasted until the ninth hour (or three o’clock in the afternoon). About the ninth hour, Jesus cried out loudly, Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani, meaning “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” With this outcry of the psalmist (Psalm 22:1[2]), Jesus revealed his complete innocence and the deep sense of pain from having been forsaken, for his Father had not intervened to spare him from experiencing an agonizing end to his life. The “why” implied that he had not committed any wrong that would have been deserving of the state in which he found himself. (Matthew 27:45, 46; Mark 15:33, 34; see the Notes section for additional comments.)

Bystanders misunderstood Jesus’ words. In view of his intense pain and his extremely stressed bodily condition, he may not have been able to speak clearly. Moreover, his Galilean accent may have been a contributory factor. The bystanders concluded that he called for Elijah to come. (Matthew 27:47; Mark 15:35)

According to John 19:28, Jesus also cried out, “I thirst.” The reason for his saying this is prefaced with an explanation. He knew that everything had been accomplished and so said what he did to fulfill “the scripture.” His words, “I thirst,” led to the fulfillment of Psalm 69:21(22), “For my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” (Psalm 68:22, LXX)

One of those nearby, probably a Roman soldier, acted quickly. He ran to a vessel filled with vinegar (sour wine). After filling a sponge with the vinegar, he placed it on a reed, intending to provide Jesus with a little relief by offering him a drink. Others tried to delay him from doing this, saying, “Let [him] be. Let us see whether Elijah is coming to save him.” (Matthew 27:48, 49; Mark 15:36; John 19:29; see the Notes section for additional comments.)

Besides saying “it is finished” after receiving the vinegar, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” These words paralleled those of the psalmist (Psalm 31:5[6]; 30:6, LXX) and indicated that Jesus was entrusting his life breath to his Father, looking to him to restore him to life. Jesus then bowed his head, and yielded up his life breath. (Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46; John 19:30)

At that time, the thick curtain separating the Holy from the Most Holy of the temple ripped in two from top to bottom. A significant earthquake split rocks and opened up tombs. The shaking of the ground, coupled with the extraordinary darkness that had begun about three hours earlier, caused the Roman soldiers to be fearful. The centurion, the soldier with the highest rank of the four, was moved to glorify God, acknowledging that Jesus must have been a righteous man, the Son of God. (Matthew 27:51-54; Mark 15:38, 39; Luke 23:47; see the Notes section for comments on Matthew 27:52, 53.)

Other observers beat their breasts in grief and left the scene. At a distance stood acquaintances of Jesus and women who had followed him from Galilee. Among the women were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the less (the younger) and of Joses (Joseph), and Salome (the mother of Zebedee’s sons). Mary, the mother of Jesus, is not mentioned as being among them. This suggests that John, though himself later returning, had kindly conducted her away from the scene so that she would not be pained to an extent that would have been difficult for her to bear. (Matthew 27:55, 56; Mark 15:40, 41; Luke 23:48, 49)

Not wanting to have the men remain crucified until after the start of the Sabbath at sundown, the prominent Jews requested Pilate to hasten their death. They asked him to direct that their legs be broken and that their dead bodies to be taken away. John 19:31 refers to that particular Sabbath as being “great,” possibly because the Sabbath, according to their reckoning that year, coincided with the first day of the Festival of Unfermented Bread (Nisan 15).

When the soldiers received the order to break the legs of the crucified men, Jesus was already dead. They only broke the legs of the two malefactors, but not those of Jesus. One of the soldiers did pierce his side with a spear, and blood and water flowed out. (John 19:32-34)

John was there to witness these developments. The account includes his solemn declaration, “He who saw [this] has testified, and his testimony is true. And he knows (or there is one who knows [God]) that he is telling the truth, so that you, too, may believe.” (John 19:35) The basis for believing is the fulfillment of the scriptures regarding him. (John 19:36, 37) “Not a bone of his will be broken.” (Psalm 34:20[21]) “They will look at whom they pierced.” (Zechariah 12:10; see the comments regarding Zechariah 12:10 in the Notes section.)


Simon was from Cyrene, the ancient capital of Cyrenaica, in what is now part of present-day Libya in northern Africa. He may have traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover and then stayed at a location just outside the city. This could explain why he happened to be coming from the field or the country. The details provided regarding him and his family suggest that he was known to the community of believers and that he and his two sons, Rufus and Alexander, came to be disciples. Although specific identification is lacking, the Rufus whom the apostle Paul mentioned in his letter to the Romans may have been the son of Simon. If so, the apostle referred to the believing wife of Simon and the mother of Rufus as “his mother and mine.” (Romans 16:13)

The biblical accounts do not include the hideous details about the crucifixion. They to not even provide a limited description of the implement on which Jesus died nor of the manner in which he was nailed to it. The writers’ reticence is more in keeping with their main purpose, setting forth the reason for Jesus’ suffering and death.

In itself, the Greek word staurós, commonly translated “cross,” can refer to a stake or pole, and the staurós which Jesus and later Simon carried was a beam. A long stake with a transverse beam would have been too heavy for one man to carry or drag. The Latin term crux, from which the English word “cross” is derived, can designate a tree or a wooden instrument on which victims were either hanged or impaled.

In the allegorical Epistle of Barnabas (thought to date from the early second century and so from a time when the Romans continued to practice crucifixion), the staurós is linked to the letter tau (T). Moreover, very limited archaeological evidence does indicate that the Romans did make use of upright poles with a transverse beam.

Ancient abbreviated forms of the noun staurós and the verb stauróo (a number of preserved occurrences in P66 [second century] and P75 [though not consistently used in this late second-century or early third-century manuscript]) combine the letters tau (T) and rho (R) in a manner that is visually suggestive of a cross. This tau-rho ligature also appears in pre-Christian and non-Christian texts as an abbreviation for a number of terms, including the word trópos (meaning “way,” “manner,” or “habit”). Possibly Christian copyists adopted this ligature when abbreviating staurós because of associating the implement on which Jesus died with the letter tau (T). The existence of other abbreviated forms for the noun staurós and the verb stauróo in ancient biblical manuscripts which do not use the tau-rho ligature would seem to support the conjecture that early copyists chose this ligature for its visual effect.

The Greek word rendered “crucify” (stauróo) can denote hanging, binding, or nailing a victim on or to a stake, a tree, or an implement with a transverse beam. Doubtless the availability of wood and the number of individuals who were executed determined the shape of the implement used for crucifixion. In a Latin work attributed to Vulcatius Gallicanus, Emperor Avidius Cassius had criminals tied from the top to the bottom of a 180-foot high wooden stake. The manner in which these persons were attached to this stake is referred to as crucifixion (in crucem sustulit, according to the Latin text). Roman soldiers do not appear to have followed any specific method when carrying out crucifixions. According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus (War, V, xi, 1), the soldiers, out of wrath and hatred for the Jews, nailed those they caught, one in one way, and another in another way.

It is commonly believed that upright stakes were already at Golgotha or that the beams that had been carried to the site were attached to three adjacent trees (or possibly even the same tree) there. The minority view (expressed, for example, in Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words) is that Jesus was nailed in an upright position to the pole that Simon had carried and that it was not used as a transverse beam.

According to Mark 15:25, it was at the “third hour” (about nine o’clock in the morning) when Roman soldiers crucified Jesus. Possibly their flogging him is here regarded as the start of the crucifixion process, and the soldiers may have started beating him at that time. This, though, would mean that the time reference does not follow the chronological order of the narrative. The reading “sixth hour” (about noon) is found in a number of later manuscripts, but this is commonly viewed as a scribal correction.

In the accounts, the wording of the charge varies (“This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” [Matthew 27:37], “The King of the Jews” [Mark 15:26], “The King of the Jews this one [is] [Luke 23:38], and “Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews” [John 19:19]). If the words in Matthew, Mark, and Luke are regarded as abbreviated versions that convey the substance of the charge, the fullest text may be the one found in John 19:19. Another possibility is that the inscription was not identical in the three languages, and so the writers could have chosen a form of one of the three versions. At any rate, all the accounts are in agreement in identifying Jesus as “the King of the Jews.”

The words of mockery (Matthew 27:39-43; Mark 15:29-32; Luke 23:35) reflect the substance of the expressions that were made. Understandably, therefore, they are not identical in the accounts. Matthew 27:39-43 contains the longest version.

In Luke 23:43, translators have commonly inserted a comma before the word “today” (sémeron). This, however, does not necessarily convey the correct meaning. In the Septuagint, there are numerous cases where the Greek term for “today” (sémeron) is unmistakably linked to the words “I command you” (ego entéllomai soi [or the plural “you” (hymín)] sémeron) or “I tell you” (anangéllo soi sémeron). (Deuteronomy 4:2; 6:2, 6, 8:1, 11; 10:13; 11:8, 13, 27, 28; 12:11, 14, 32; 13:1, 19, 15:5; 19:9; 27:1, 4, 10; 28:1, 13, 14, 15; 30:2, 8, 11, 16, 18)

This also appears to be the preferable way in which to understand Jesus’ words, “Amen, I tell you today, You will be with me in paradise.” The repentant malefactor asked to be remembered at the future time when Jesus would come to be in his kingdom. He then received the assurance on that very day that he would be remembered and, in fact, would come to be with Jesus in paradise. This meaning would seemingly agree with fourth-century Codex Vaticanus, which appears to include a rare punctuation mark after sémeron. It cannot be established with absolute certainty, however, that the dot served to punctuate the text.

In the French ecumenical translation of the Bible (TOB), commas separate the word “today” from the promise, “You will be with me in paradise” (je te le dis, aujourd’hui, tu seras avec mois dans le paradis). The placement of a comma before the adverb “today” (aujourd’hui) creates an ambiguity, requiring the reader to decide whether the adverb modifies either “say” or “will be.” A number of English translations punctuate the verse so as to include “today” in the introductory phrase, making the meaning explicit. J. B. Rotherham’s translation reads, “And he said unto him — Verily, I say unto thee this day: With me, shalt thou be in Paradise.” George Lamsa’s translation, based on the Peshitta, expresses the same thought with the punctuation, “Jesus said to him, Truly I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

The expression for “my God” (Eli) in Matthew 27:46 is transliterated Eloi in numerous manuscripts of Mark 15:34, and there are also manuscript variations in the transliteration of other terms that follow this expression. These differences do not have any bearing on the meaning. Similarly, the Greek renderings of the transliterated terms in Matthew and Mark, though consisting of different words, convey the same significance.

Whereas Matthew 27:48 and Mark 15:36 indicate that the sponge was put on a reed, John 19:29 says it was placed on “hyssop.” There is a measure of uncertainty about the precise plant to which the Greek term hyssopos refers. Possibly, in this case, it designates a plant that would have grown to sufficient height to supply a firm reed. In John 19:29, the rendering “javelin” has the support of one late extant manuscript. This rendering, however, would not agree with the reference to a reed in Matthew 27:48 and Mark 15:36, making it an unacceptable option that has no ancient manuscript support.

The accounts (Matthew 27:48; Mark 15:36) do not say that it was a Roman soldier who gave Jesus a drink. It does not appear likely that a mere bystander would have undertaken to do so, for the vessel containing vinegar would have been at the location for the soldiers who carried out the crucifixions and who thereafter remained on guard duty. Possibly the one who extended the small gesture of kindness was the centurion who, based on the developments associated with Jesus’ death, later acknowledged that he must have been a righteous man, God’s Son. (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39; Luke 23:47)

The limited particulars about the raising up of “many bodies of the saints” makes it difficult to determine exactly what occurred. With its being restricted to saints, holy ones, or God’s people who were sleeping in death, the raising up appears to be equated with a resurrection. This is the generally accepted meaning that is explicitly expressed in the renderings of numerous translations. “Many of God’s people who had died were raised from the dead.” (NCV) “Many of God’s people were raised to life.” (CEV) “A number of bodies of holy men who were asleep in death rose again.” (J. B. Phillips) “The bodies of many holy people rose from the dead.” (NJB) “The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” (NIV) For the resurrected ones to have been able to come out of the tombs required that these be opened, which is what the earthquake accomplished. (Matthew 27:51-53) The reference to “many” (not “all”) and “bodies of the saints” (not just “saints”) may indicate that this resurrection involved godly ones who had died recently and whose bodies (not just bones) were in the tombs. Only persons familiar with the area and having living relatives, friends, or acquaintances would have known where and to whom to go in order to be recognized.

According to Matthew 27:53, those who had been raised did not enter the city until after Jesus was resurrected from the dead and were then seen by many. Therefore, the raising of the sleeping holy ones may not have been simultaneous with the earthquake and the opening of the tombs but could have taken place later. The brief reference to this event may serve to highlight that Jesus’ death opened up life for the dead.

His miraculous works were more numerous and performed on a far greater scale than those of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. An occurrence associated with Elisha provides a small-scale parallel with the event linked to Jesus’ death and resurrection. While in the process of burying a man, certain ones saw a band of Moabite marauders and so hastily tossed the corpse into the burial place of the prophet Elisha. Upon touching Elisha’s bones, the dead man came to life. (2 Kings 13:20, 21) Against the backdrop of this recorded miracle, it should not seem unusual that a more noteworthy resurrection is mentioned as having taken place after Jesus’ death.

In the case of those who had not as yet eaten the Passover, the time that Jesus died as the “Lamb of God” would have been when Passover lambs or goats would have been slaughtered in the temple courtyard. The extraordinary darkness, the earthquake, and the ripping of the temple curtain would have been particularly disturbing signs for all who were there.

The extant Hebrew text of Zechariah 12:10 reads, “They shall look to me whom they have pierced.” If this represents the original text, it could mean that the Almighty regards the piercing of the one for whom there should be mourning as having been done to him.