Jesus’ Death in Mark and Luke: Do They Disagree?

Skeptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman says that Mark and Luke tell two irreconcilably different stories about Jesus’ death. In his book Jesus, Interrupted, Ehrman describes Mark’s account: 

Jesus is silent the entire time, as if in shock, until his cry at the end, echoing Psalm 22…Mark is trying to say something by this portrayal. He doesn’t want his readers to take solace in the fact that God was really there providing Jesus with physical comfort. He dies in agony, unsure of the reason he must die.

Jesus, Interrupted p 65-66

Ehrman says this stands in sharp contrast with Luke’s calm and collected version of Jesus: 

In this account, Jesus is not at all confused about what is happening to him or why. He is completely calm and in control of the situation; he knows what is about to occur, and he knows what will happen afterward…This is a far cry from the Jesus of Mark, who felt forsaken to the end.

Did Jesus really not know why he had to die in Mark’s Gospel?

But according to Mark, is Jesus all that doubtful about why he has to die? No, Jesus talks about his imminent demise repeatedly: 

  • Mark 8:31 – “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” 
  • Mark 9:31 – “…for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 
  • Mark 10:32-34 – “And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”
  • Mark 10:45 – “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” 

Other verses throughout Mark support that Jesus knew his mission was to suffer and ultimately be crucified. (Mark 2:20, 12:1-12, 14:9, 22-24, 27-28)

For example, when Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper with his disciples, he presents his own death as a covenant sacrifice. Notice that Jesus deliberately picks the Passover festival as the time of the high point of his ministry. Mark 14:22-24 reads, ‘Take; this is my body.’ And he took a cup and…gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’ Jesus saw his death typified in the Passover meal components. If you remember, the blood of the Passover lamb was wiped on the doorpost of the Jew’s homes in Israel. It saved them from God’s judgment against Egypt. (Exodus 12:13-14)

And when Jesus uses the words ‘pour out’, this is a clear allusion to Isaiah 53:12, which reads: “because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” Jesus saw himself as the Suffering Servant and sin-bearer in Isaiah 53, which is why he earlier said that he “didn’t come to serve, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Why did Jesus quote Psalm 22:1?

Ehrman notes that Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1 as an indication that Jesus’ faith in his Father began to waver. Let’s look at the text itself:

And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

Mark 15:33-35

Notice that Matthew includes this text in his version of the story as well, and we know Matthew is quick to connect Jesus to the Old Testament. (Matthew 27:45-50) He is always pointing to Jesus’ Jewish context. Matthew apparently didn’t see this “cry of dereliction” as problematic.

Why? In early Judaism, it was common to invoke a complete Psalm just by quoting the opening line. For example, Mishna Taanit 2.3 reads,

These are they [the six additional benedictions]: Zikhronot, Shofarot, “In my distress I called to the Lord and He answered me” (Psalm 120), “I turn my eyes to the mountains” (Psalm 121).“Out of the depths I call you, O Lord” (Psalm 130), “A prayer of lowly man when he is faint” (Psalm 102).

(See PJ Williams’ essay The Linguistic Background to Jesus’ Dereliction Cry for more details.)

So to understand why Jesus is quoting 22:1, we have to read the entire psalm.

Psalm 22 is Messianic

Against the ‘confused Jesus’ theory, Psalm 22:5 speaks of how those who trust in God are delivered and not disappointed: “To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.”

Psalm 22:23-24 talks about how God will ultimately not hide his face from his afflicted ones: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.” So this isn’t all about Jesus feeling completely and forever abandoned on the cross, unsure of his mission.

Secondly, it is difficult to see how Psalm 22 is just a psalm about one of David’s rough days. 

Psalm 22:14-15 says: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.”

While the psalmists are given to hyperbole, it takes a real stretch of the imagination to see David applying this to his own sufferings and living to sing about it. Let’s look and see why.

  • “I am poured out like water” – This is certainly one way to describe someone bleeding out.
  • “All my bones are out of joint” – In the crucifixion, physicians tell us that one’s full weight pulls down on their nailed wrists and both their shoulders and elbows dislocate. In this position, the victim’s arms stretch to a minimum of 6 inches longer than their original length.
  • “My heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast” – This could be metaphorical for the psalmists’ emotions, but given the context of physical suffering it’s unlikely. Here’s one medical doctor’s description of what happens to the human heart of someone who has been crucified:

“The difficulty surrounding exhalation leads to a slow form of suffocation. Carbon dioxide builds up in the blood, resulting in a high level of carbonic acid in the blood. The body responds instinctively, triggering the desire to breathe. At the same time, the heart beats faster to circulate available oxygen. The decreased oxygen (due to the difficulty in exhaling) causes damage to the tissues and the capillaries begin leaking watery fluid from the blood into the tissues. This results in a build-up of fluid around the heart (pericardial effusion) and lungs (pleural effusion). The collapsing lungs, failing heart, dehydration, and the inability to get sufficient oxygen to the tissues essentially suffocate the victim. The decreased oxygen also damages the heart itself (myocardial infarction) which leads to cardiac arrest. In severe cases of cardiac stress, the heart can even burst, a process known as cardiac rupture. Jesus most likely died of a heart attack.”

  • My strength is dried up. My tongue sticks to my jaws” – Medical science tells us that with great blood loss one’s thirst increases greatly.  Drinking water increases blood volume.
  • “you lay me in the dust of death” – All of these verses sound like someone who is in great physical agony. They’re knocking on death’s door, not merely just having a really rough day. This doesn’t really fit David at all but one can see why Jesus applied it to himself.

They pierced my hands and my feet

Psalm 22:16: “For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet”. Now here we have some controversy. The charge is made that Christians changed a few letters in the Hebrew text to make it read “they pierced my hands and feet.” The Complete Jewish Bible reads “like a lion [at] my hands and feet”. I’m not going to spend a ton of time here because I think the debate over this passage makes a mountain out of a molehill.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Greek Septuagint were both written before Jesus, and they both contain the word for pierced, or more accurately, bore through. And even if the original wording is “like a lion at my hands and feet”, what follows exactly? The writer talks about the sufferer surrounded by fierce beasts, a metaphor for human enemies who are acting like savage animals. Look at verse 13: “they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.” These lines describe the ridicule, abuse, and execution of the psalmist and yet this didn’t happen to David.

The sufferer is delivered and the nations praise God

Psalm 22:18: “they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” The psalmist says this to show how close he is to death. His enemies are expecting his death so much that they’ve already divided his clothes among themselves. Both Mark and Luke describe this event. (Mark 15:24Luke 23:34).

Finally, Psalm 22 begins with the persecution and death of the king of Israel, and ends with the pagan nations turning to God:

Psalm 22:26-31: “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.

So to recap:

  1. The psalmist feels forsaken by God but puts his trust in Yahweh.
  2. He apparently dies or is dying but is rescued.
  3. He says that all of the offspring of Jacob should stand in awe of the deliverance that happened.
  4. All the ends of the earth (the Gentiles) will remember this deliverance and turn to the Lord!
  5. Future generations are told of this deliverance.

This is the psalm Jesus applies to himself on the cross! In light of these facts, Jewish scholar Judith Newman remarks, “Jesus’ words on the cross from Psalm 22:1…may not thus simply lament divine abandonment, but point to the end of the psalm with its praise for divine restoration.” Jesus understood his death as what would lead the Gentiles into the worship of the God of Israel. And that’s what starts to happen at the foot of the cross. 

And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

Mark 15:37-39

Notice that the first person who really gets the meaning of it all in Mark’s Gospel is a Roman soldier. It seems then to be incorrect then to say that Jesus saw his death as a failure. Instead, he saw it as a fulfillment of prophecy. Through it, the Gentiles will worship the God of Abraham. That’s exactly what’s happened for the past 2000 years. Mission accomplished.

What about the cool and collected Jesus in Luke’s Gospel?

Jesus wasn’t all that of a stoic in Luke’s Gospel. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Luke says Jesus’ sweat became like drops of blood because of his agony over going to the cross. He writes: “And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22:43-44)

To do away with this problem, Ehrman says that these verses were later scribal interpolations, and to be fair, some of the oldest manuscripts we have do not include these verses. This passage is noted and bracketed in many translations. On the other hand, we have tons of external evidence that these two verses are genuine. Early church fathers like Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, Dionysus, Eusebius, Epiphanius, Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine all quote these passages. 

In The Dictionary of Jesus in the Gospels, noted New Testament scholars Joel B. Green and Scott McKnight also provide several internal reasons for accepting these two verses as genuine. They write:

“Others, however, observe the impressive Lukan character of these verses, which speaks for their originality to the Third Gospel. In addition to (1) the inclusion of characteristic Lukan vocabulary, one may also observe (2) the Lukan emphasis on the appearance of an angel (e.g., 1:11, 26; 2:13, 15; Acts 5:19; 7:30; 8:26; 10:3; 12:7), (3) Luke’s interest in simile (“his sweat was like drops of blood,” v. 44; cf. e.g., 3:22; 10:18; 11:44; 22:31) and (4) Luke’s fondness for physical manifestations (like sweat) accompanying extramundane events (e.g., 1:20; 3:22; Acts 2:2–3; 9:18). These data, along with the fact that the presence of these verses is of a piece with Luke’s interpretation of this scene as a whole, point clearly to the originality of 22:43–44. Moreover, it is not difficult to imagine a rationale for the early exclusion of these verses in the manuscript tradition. The portrait of Jesus contained therein—human, agonizing, needful, requiring angelic support—would have been problematic to some. Accordingly, they may have been dropped for doctrinal reasons. There is thus good reason for taking these verses as original to Luke.”

Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, pp 267-268

For these reasons and others, scholars split on the inclusion of these passages in Luke’s Gospel. We can’t say with confidence they aren’t original to the text, and they present a very human portrait of Jesus. Elsewhere in Luke, Jesus shows that he’s hardly a Vulcan and weeps over Jerusalem. (Luke 19:41)

Conclusion

This alleged contradiction is hardly insurmountable. Mark’s Jesus knows why he is dying and what it will accomplish. And Luke’s Jesus shows he underwent some very deep human emotions and needed divine assistance. Bart seems to be overplaying his hand here.

Sources and recommended resources:


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