Somewhere around AD 30 Jesus, a Jewish wisdom teacher from Nazareth, was crucified by the Romans. According to Christians this Jesus was the Messiah predicted in earlier Jewish scriptures. All Jews agreed that this Messiah would come to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, but the opinions on how this would come to pass differed greatly from sect to sect. Many Jews believed that the Messiah would establish a wordly kingdom and overthrow all wicked rulers, but there was also a minority that believed that the Messiah had to suffer greatly and even die to save his people. Early Christians adhered to this minority view and thus believed that Jesus’s death on the cross served a special divine purpose. For this reason, about a third of every Gospel is dedicated to the final 24 hours of Jesus’s life. These Gospels contain detailed information on Jesus’s death, but how much of it can be used for historical reconstruction?
During the first century four Canonical Gospels were written. Three of these Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) have a similar plot structure with only a few (interesting) differences. These Synoptic Gospels were most likely written during or shortly after the Jewish Revolt of AD 66-73. The Gospel of Mark is the shortest one and possibly the oldest. The Gospel of Matthew is very similar to the Gospel of Mark and targets an educated Jewish audience. Throughout this Gospel there are references to earlier Jewish scriptures concerning the Messiah. The Gospel of Luke is still very similar to the Gospel of Mark, but deviates more from it than the Gospel of Matthew. The Gospel of Luke was written by a companion of the Apostle Paul, who preached to the Gentiles. The Gospel of Luke therefore targets a Graeco-Roman audience. Finally, there is the Gospel of John, that was written towards the end of the first century AD. This Gospel was allegedly written by John the Apostle, who had known Jesus personally and was even called ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. The Gospel of John has a different plot structure and consists mostly of speeches that Jesus held, in which he told the people who he was, why he had come to earth and why he had to die. The narrative sometimes follow the Synoptic Gospels, but also deviates from it. The differences in style can mostly be ascribed to the fact that the Gospel of John focuses more on the nature of Christ than on his life story.
A methodology for analysing the Gospels
Given this information, a historian should first read the Gospel of Mark. Even though this is the earliest source, we should remind ourselves that the events are described in a way that fits the practice of storytelling and that the account is colored by the author’s own interpretation. We should read the Gospel of Mark along with the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and make note of the differences. We should take into account the fact that Matthew and Luke probably added much of their own interpretation to the story. Only after reading the three synoptic Gospels and reconstructing the basic plot structure should we read the Gospel of John. Based on the methodology outlined above, let us now reconstruct the events of Good Friday.
According to the Gospels of Mark (14:1-11) and Matthew (26:1-16) Jesus and his disciples were staying in Bethany on the day before Passover, at the house of Simon the Leper. While they were dining an unnamed woman came in and poured out an expensive alabastron of ointment over Jesus’s head. Some of Jesus’s followers became indignant that such a precious ointment was wasted and said that it should have been sold to help the poor. Jesus replied that there would always be enough poor people to help, but that he himself would not always be with them. Jesus also adds that the woman who had annointed him did so in order to prepare him for his funeral. These passages imply that Jesus knew about him coming death and are therefore often seen as late additions by modern scholars. Nevertheless, the anecdote about the woman pouring ointment over Jesus’s head, some of his disciples becoming indignant and Jesus’s waving away their criticism may well be true, as it depicts Jesus in a somewhat unflattering light.
Immediately after this event Judas decides to go to the high priests and scribes to betray Jesus. According to the Gospel of Luke Satan himself took possession of Judas (Luke 22:1-6). The high priests and scribes had just before decided that Jesus had to die before Passover, because they feared that there would be an uproar if they would arrest him during the Holy Week.
The Last Supper
The next day Jesus and his disciples held Passover dinner in Jerusalem (Mark 14:12-31, Matthew 26:17-35, Luke 22:7-38). The Synoptic Gospels agree that Jesus shared bread and wine, saying that these were his flesh and blood, and that he would not dine with them again before the Kingdom of God had come. Jesus also said that one of his disciples would betray him and that they would all deny him before daybreak. Only in the Gospel of Matthew (26:25) does Jesus identify Judas as the traitor. Since this episode is of profound religious importance, it is difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction. Many modern scholars doubt that Jesus knew about his crucifixion beforehand, but since Jesus often sought the confrontation with the authorities it is not unreasonable to assume that he suspected that there were people out to kill him. This may have led him to distrust even his closest friends. If we are to assume that Jesus indeed believed himself to be the Messiah, he probably believed that he would enter Jerusalem triumphantly, starting the Kingdom of God. However, Jesus must also have known about the scriptures that stated that the Messiah had to suffer and die in order to save his people. Jesus himself may not have been certain about the ending, but it could well be that he saw his arrest and execution as a real possibility. In support of this view, it should be noted that according to the Gospel of Luke (22:24-38) Jesus urged his followers to be well prepared for future persecutions and that they should always look out for each other. Some of his followers even suggested that Jesus should arm himself, but he didn’t want to hear about it (Luke 22:38).
After the Last Supper Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, outside Jerusalem, to a garden named Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-52, Matthew 26:36-56, Luke 22:39-53). Jesus always spent the night outside of the city, perhaps because he did not feel safe inside Jerusalem where his enemies were in charge. In Gethsemane Jesus, along with his most devoted disciples Peter, John and James, kept watch and prayed. Although it is never stated explicitly, they probably ‘kept watch’ because Jesus feared that he would be arrested at the night of the Passover. All three synoptic Gospels state that Jesus became sad and frightened, but according to the Gospel of Luke (22:43) an angel came to comfort him. In all synoptic Gospels Jesus asks God to ‘let this cup pass from him’, which implies that he may still have hoped for a happy end where he would enter Jerusalem as the victor. Still, he emphasized that he would be willing to suffer and die if that was God’s will. One might argue that Jesus’s whole prayer is a late addition. Peter, John and James fell asleep after all. However, they must have noticed Jesus, whom they believed to be the Messiah, feeling uneasy, sad and frightened. This may have made a great impression on them. If Jesus was feeling this way, how could they themselves remain confident?
Late at night an armed gang, sent by the high priest and led by Judas, came to Gethsemane to arrest Jesus. Judas allegedly betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Initially the disciples resisted arrest. All Gospels agree that one man cut off an ear from a servant of the high priest (Mark 14:47, Matthew 26:51, Luke 22:50). Jesus, however, urged his disciples to put away their swords. According to Luke (22:51) he healed the servant whose ear had been cut off and according to Matthew (26:52-54) he calmly explained that these events fulfilled the prophecies. Both of these events are probably late additions. Upon Jesus’s arrest, all disciples fled. In the Gospel of Mark we find the anecdote that the soldiers who arrested Jesus also tried to arrest one of his disciples, although the latter managed to escape by leaving his garment behind and running away naked (Mark 14:51-52).
Trial before the Sanhedrin
All Synoptic Gospels agree that Jesus was first led before a convention of the Sanhedrin at the house of Caiaphas (Mark 14:53-72, Matthew 26:57-75, Luke 22:54-71). According to these Gospels the Sanhedrin was intent on killing Jesus and was looking for false witnesses to make fake accusations against Jesus, but they could not find anything by which he could be condemned to death. Even the accusation that Jesus claimed to be able to destroy and rebuild the Temple in three days didn’t pass the test, as he never claimed that he himself would be the one destroying the Temple. Obviously these accounts are colored by a strong Christian bias. Besides, no disciples were present at the high priest’s house. Only Peter was present, but he came no further the courtyard. When looking past the Christian bias we see that the Sanhedrin actually held a fair trial. Why else would they need testimonies? And why else would they conclude that they could find nothing by which he could be condemned? Eventually the high priest Caiaphas asked Jesus if he was the Messiah and the Son of God. Jesus answered in the affirmative and added that they would soon see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven and sitting at the right hand of God. According to the Gospels, this was all the evidence they needed to condemn him. However, nowhere in the Torah is there a law that prescribes the death penalty for claiming to be the Messiah, or even the Son of God. The accusation that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah was therefore not an offense against Jewish law, but against Roman rule. Caiaphas probably realized that if Jesus were to be brought before Pilate with the accusation that he wanted to be ‘king’, Pilate would take care of the rest.
The account of the trial before the Sanhedrin is combined with the anecdote of Peter’s denial. According to all the Gospels Peter followed Jesus from a distance and tried to get into the high priest’s house. However, he was soon recognized as one of Jesus’s followers and decided to flee, which he ended up regretting. In the Gospels this anecdote is modeled after a storytelling pattern, which had Peter deny Christ three times, after which the cock crows. It is unlikely that Peter saw much of the trial.
Trial before Pilate
Jesus was led before Pilate on the accusation that he had claimed to be king of the Jews (Mark 15:1-15, Matthew 27:1-26, Luke 23:1-25). Since no disciples were present at this trial, most of the narrative is probably fictional. However, the notion that Jesus was crucified for claiming to be king of the Jews is not at all unlikely. All Synoptic Gospels treat Pilate in a mild and even somewhat favorable way. This was most likely done in order to shift the blame for Jesus’s death from the Romans to the Jews. Already in the Gospel of Mark does Pilate state that he sees no evil in Jesus. He also offers to have Jesus released, but instead the crowd asks for a certain Barabbas, a violent Jewish rebel, to be released. Only because the crowd kept on calling for Jesus’s crucifixion did Pilate finally decide to have Jesus whipped and crucified. In the Gospel of Matthew (27:24-25) Pilate denies responsibilty by washing his hands and the crowd subsequently takes on the responsibility by crying: “His blood be upon us and our children.” This is a clear case of the anti-Jewish rhetoric that came to dominate early Christianity after the failure of the Jewish Revolt. The Gospel of Luke adds an anecdote of Jesus standing trial before Herod (Luke 32:8-12) that in every way looks like a political satire.
Only in the Gospel of Matthew (27:3-10) do we find an account of Judas’s death. While Jesus was being led before Pilate, Judas repented his betrayal and threw the thirty silver pieces that he had received as a reward into the Temple. He then hung himself. The high priests decided to buy a potter’s field with the money, for the burial of foreigners, because they would not fill the Temple’s coffers wih blood money. The potter’s field was henceforth known as the Field of Blood. This is a clear case of folk etymology. According to the Acts of the Apostles (1:18-19) it was Judas who bought the potter’s field. Apparently he stayed alive for some time after Jesus’s death, until he died from what appears to have be an accident.
Witnesses to the crucifixion
In all likelihood no disciples were present at the crucifixion, with the possible exception of John the Apostle. According to the Gospel of John he watched the crucifixion from a distance, along with the women. The Gospels of Mark and Matthew identify the women as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Salome the mother of the sons of Zebedaeus. All Synoptic Gospels agree that a certain Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’s cross (Mark 15:21, Matthew 27:32, Luke 23:26), so he may have been a witness as well. The Gospel of Mark identifies this Simon as the father of Alexander and Rufus, which implies that the latter were well known among the early Christians.
As for the description of the crucifixion itself, all Synoptic Gospels agree that Jesus was crucified on Mount Golgotha. The Gospels of Mark (15:16-20) and Matthew (27:27-31) state that Jesus was mocked by Roman soldiers for claiming to be king of the Jews and that these soldiers later gambled for his clothes (Mark 15:24, Matthew 27:35, Luke 23:34), which was believed to be a fulfillment of the prophecy in Psalm 22:19. The Synoptic Gospels also agree that Jesus was crucified between two criminals, who both mocked him. However, the Gospel of Luke (23:39-43) tells us that the criminal crucified to Jesus’s right eventually recognized him as the Messiah and repented. All Synoptic Gospels agree that Jesus was mocked for not being able to save himself, but according to the Gospel of Luke (23:27:31) there were also people, mostly women, who lamented his crucifixion. The Gospels of Mark (15:33-39) and Mattthew (27:45-54) agree that Jesus’s last words were “Eli, Eli lama sabachtani”, or “My God, my God, why have you forgotten me.” Although it is tempting to see this as a cry out of desperation, these words are actually the opening lines of Psalm 22, that allegedly describes the suffering of the Messiah. It could be that this was Jesus’s final prayer, but it could also be a pious addition to the narrative. All synoptic Gospels agree that Jesus’s death was accompanied by a darkness at noon, the ripping of the veil of the Temple and a centurion recognizing Jesus as innocent (as per Luke) or even as the Son of God (as per Mark and Matthew). The Gospel of Matthew also mentions and earthquake, the crumbling of rocks and the resurrection of holy men.
Jesus died unexpectedly early (Mark 15:44), most likely because he had lost a lot of blood after being flogged. He died just before the Sabbath and the women at the cross were in a hurry to bury him before sunset. According to all Synoptic Gospels a certain Joseph or Arimathea, a prominent disciple of Jesus, asked Pilate for permission to bury the body in his own grave (Mark 15:40-47, Matthew 27:57-61, Luke 23:50-56). The Gospel of Matthew (28:62-66) adds the information that the high priests and Pharisees asked Pilate to guard the grave, because they feared that Jesus’s disciples would steal his body and claim that he had risen from the dead. This anecdote was obviously added as a defence against a very early Jewish argument against the resurrection. The Gospel of Matthew offers the rebuttal that, since the tomb was guarded, the disciples could not have stolen the body.
Good Friday according to the Gospel of John
Now that we have reconstructed the events of Good Friday from the Synoptic Gospels, let us see how the Gospel of John differs.
- First of all, the account of the Last Supper is very different. The ceremony with the bread and the wine is totally absent and instead Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, urging them to serve other people like he had served them (John 13:1-20). This episode may indeed be a reflection on things that Jesus said at the Last Supper, since in the Gospel of Luke Jesus also talks about how his disciples should carry on after his death (Luke 22:24-38). Still, it is clear that this anecdote has been embellished.
- The Gospel of John repeats Luke’s claim that Satan had taken possession of Judas (John 13:21-30), although in this case it looks like Jesus gave Satan permission to take over Judas, making Judas nothing more than a tool in the hands of God.
- Jesus’s prayer before his capture (John 17:1-26) is also very different. No trace is left of Jesus’s despair, but instead Jesus looks forward to being raised up to his Father. He also prays for the well-being of the world, rather than his own well-being. All of these are later pious additions.
- When the servants of the high priests come to arrest Jesus, Jesus willingly offers himself to them (John 18:1-8). According to the Gospel of John, it was Peter who cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant, who was named Malchus. This information might come directly from John the Apostle, but it could also be that this deed was attributed to Peter in later tradition (John 18:9-11).
- The Gospel of John follows the same general plot structure as the Synoptic Gospels when dealing with Jesus’s trial before the Sanhedrin and Pilate (John 18:1-19:16). The similarities are probably due to the fact that, because no disciples were present at these trials, the account of what had happened there was mostly fictional. The Gospel of John does add a lot information and even dialogue, but most of this is probably apocryphal.
- As for the crucifixion, the author of the Gospel of John states that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was present, as well as the disciple whom Jesus loved, i.e. John the Apostle, i.e. the supposed author of the Gospel (19:25-27). Jesus urged John to take care of Mary as if she were his own mother. The notion that John took care of Mary after Jesus’s death may well be true, as the Gospel of John presents this as common knowledge. However, Jesus himself may have been too exhausted from the crucifixion to have given this command personally to John.
- As for the burial, the Gospel of John adds that along with Joseph of Arimathea a certain Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee and a secret follower of Christ, ask Pilate for permission to bury Jesus. Nicodemus was probably a prominent Jew whose support must have meant a lot to Christians. He may have been the same man as Nicodemus ben Gurion, who is mentioned by Josephus and in the Talmud as a pious and wealthy man with miraculous powers. The mention of Nicodemus is an interesting case of late first century Christians still trying to claim the approval of respected Jewish leaders.