As the Roman soldiers led Jesus away, they seized a man named Simon, from Cyrene, a Roman colony on the north coast of Africa. Simon was a faithful Jew of the Diaspora—those who lived beyond the borders of ancient Israel and were spread throughout the empire. He had come to Yerushalayim to celebrate the festival, and was on his way to purchase a lamb for Passover when the soldiers requisitioned his strong back, putting the crossbeam on his shoulders and making him carry it behind Jesus, who was barely able to stumble along.
A large crowd followed them, including women who were friends of Mary and Martha and had been present when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus turned to the women, who were mourning and wailing, and said to them through his wounded lips, “Daughters of Yerushalayim, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
When they came to the place called Golgotha, the Place of the Skull—so called because of the shape of the rock outcropping on this hill—they crucified Jesus, along with two revolutionaries: one on his right, the other on his left.
One soldier offered Jesus wine mixed with myrrh in order to lessen the pain, but Jesus did not take it. Dividing up his clothes, the soldiers cast lots to see what each would get. It was about the third hour, or nine in the morning, when they crucified him.
As the hours passed, people drew closer and closer to the crucified Jesus, growing ever bolder. Many of those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads in mockery and saying, “So, you who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!”
In the same way, some of the chief priests and the teachers of the Law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this so-called Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”
One of those crucified with him also heaped insults upon him, but the other revolutionary objected. “Don’t you fear G-d, since you are under the same sentence of death? We are being punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he turned his face to Jesus. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your dominion.” Jesus answered him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” He was speaking of the highest level in heaven. The man dropped his head, a slight smile parting his lips. The other spat in disgust.
At the sixth hour—noon—darkness came over the whole land, the sun obscured, and it remained so until the ninth hour. At about the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My G-d, my G-d, why have you forsaken me?”
When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” A bystander snorted out loud. “Well, let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down.”
If Jesus heard this exchange, he gave no indication of it. Instead, he looked down at the soldiers standing guard at the foot of the cross. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
It was at this juncture that some of Jesus’ family and disciples arrived, having heard the rumor late that morning that Jesus was being executed. None of the male disciples from Galilee were present, but the female disciples—Miryam of Migdal, Joanna, Susanna, and others—were there, standing near enough to hear what was happening. Lazarus, the beloved disciple, had summoned up his courage and was also present, and the female disciples had gone to the home of Mary and Martha to tell Jesus’ mother what was happening. Jesus’ brothers and sisters were staying with cousins in the city.
At the ninth hour, under a pitch-black sky, the women stood as close to the cross of Jesus as the soldiers would allow. Jesus’ mother had arrived, and when Jesus saw her with the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” Thus Jesus honored and provided for his mother with nearly his last breath. From that time on, Lazarus took her into his home.
Jesus knew that he had now finished his work. In order to fulfill the Scriptures, he said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of cheap wine was there. Someone soaked a sponge with the wine and held it up to Jesus’ mouth on the stem of a hyssop plant. After Jesus drank the wine, he said, “It is finished.”
Suddenly a violent wind whipped up dust all around them, and in the city at that moment, the great curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. There was an enormous thunderclap, and Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. Torrents of rain began to pelt down from the sky above.
The centurion overseeing the crucifixions had marveled at the way Jesus had not railed against G-d or his tormentors, unlike most people he nailed to crosses. As Jesus slowly released his last breath, the Roman exclaimed, “Surely, this man was a son of G-d.”
When all the people who had gathered to witness Jesus’ death saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. But those who knew him—including the rest of the women who had followed him from Galilee—stood at a distance, watching these things under the soaking rain. Because the Jewish authorities did not want the bodies left on the crosses during Shabbat, much less during Passover, they sent word to Pilate to have the soldiers break the legs of the three men to hasten their deaths, and then bring the bodies down.
The soldiers, therefore, came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. Lazarus had stayed with Jesus’ mother to the end—as she refused to move until then—and so he, too, witnessed all of this.
This entry is an excerpt from Ben Witherington’s The Gospel of Jesus: A True Story. In this imaginative harmonization of the four Gospels, Witherington opens up the world of Jesus and helps us hear his story as one seamless narrative.
With his customary eye for cultural and historical details, and engaging commentary on what are sometimes overly-familiar stories, this New Testament scholar invites us to join those first century followers of Jesus around their fires and at their dinner tables, and hear the Gospel of Jesus for the first time all over again.