Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah,
v.2, Act 4, scene 1 - #31. Introduction: Structure of the Crucifixion and Burial Accounts, pp 900-909

(detailed summary)

Introduction: Structure of the Crucifixion and Burial Accounts


The account of Jesus' crucifixion and death would go back to a very ancient tradition known to Mark and John. Each independently edited this account by inserting their own theological vision into it. Following Mark's story, we can identify a five-part structure with a central piece centered on the last words of Jesus and his death. Luke generally follows Mark's account, but he inserts his own themes, such as forgiveness and the crowd's benevolent attitude towards Jesus, and in the middle of this dark picture he insists on introducing positive notes, such as the repenting evildoer. As for John, his narrative takes the form of a chiastic structure, where the second part takes up the themes of the first part to form an inclusion, whose pivotal centre, giving the key to interpretation, is centred on the beloved disciple to whom Jesus entrusts his mother, the embryo of the believing community, which allows Jesus to say: "All is finished".

  1. Structure of the Mark/Matthew Account
  2. Structure of Luke's Account
    1. 23: 26-32
    2. 23: 33-34
    3. 23: 35-43
    4. 23: 44-46
    5. 23: 47-49
    6. 23: 50-56
  3. Structure of John's Account


In general, we will follow the structure of Mark, while warning the reader about the points where the other Gospels diverge from Mark. In this final act of the passion narrative, we will find certain characteristics particular to each Gospel which must be emphasized if we are to understand the thought of the evangelist. It is wise to begin with an overview of the three different structures of the accounts of the crucifixion and burial.

  1. Structure of the Mark/Matthew Account

    32. Transitional Episode: Jesus Led Out to Be Crucified
    Mk 15: 20b-21Mt 27: 31b-32Lk 23: 26-32
    Leading him outSameSame
    Simon the CyrenianSameSame
    Father of Alexander, RufusMultitude and Daughters of Jerusalem followed and lamented; J. [Jesus] spoke to them
    33. Jesus Crucified, Part One: The Setting
    Mk 15: 22-27Mt 27: 31b-32Lk 23: 26-32
    Seven itemsSix items in same order as Mark (Omits 3d hour; adds guard)Four items rearranged (centered on Jesus' saying "Father, forgive them")
    34. Jesus Crucified, Part Two: Activities at the Cross
    Mk 15: 28-32Mt 27: 39-44Lk 23: 35-43
    Three mocking groupsSame (2d group and mocking expanded)People standing, observing
    Three mocking groups (partly different makeup from Mark)
    "Penitent thief"
    35. Jesus Crucified, Part Three: Last Events, Death
    Mk 15: 33-37Mt 27: 45-50Lk 23: 44-46
    Darkness 6th to 9th hoursSameSame (sun eclipsed)
    Sanctuary veil rent
    At 9th hour J. screamed to God cry of derelictionSameJ. cried loud cry committing into Father's hands
    Elijah interpretationSame
    Offering vinegary wine; Elijah mockerySame
    Having cried aloud, J. expiredHaving shouted, J. let go the spiritHaving said this, J. expired
    36-37. Jesus Crucified, Part Four: Happenings after Jesus' death
    Mk 15: 38-41Mt 27: 51-56Lk 23: 47-49
    Sanctuary veil rentSame
    earth shaken, rocks rent, tombs opened, holy ones raised, entered holy city
    Centurion, having seen, confessed J. as Son of GodSame (others with centurion)Centurion, having seen, confessed J. as just man
    Crowds returned striking breasts
    Four Galilean women observed from distanceSameThose known to J. and Galilean women standing from a distance saw
    38-39. The Burial of Jesus, arts One and Two: Joseph and Entombment
    Mk 15: 42-47Mt 27: 57-61Lk 23: 50-56a
    Evening, preparation day before SabbathEvening
    Joseph asked Pilate for bodySameSame (Joseph did not agree with decision vs. J.)
    Pilate asked centurion if J. was dead
    Pilate granted corpse to JosephSame
    Joseph tied up body and buried itSameSame
    Two women observed tombTwo women sat opposite sepulcherWomen looked at tomb
    They returned, readied spices
    40. The Burial of Jesus, Part Three: On the Sabbath
    Mt 27: 62-66Lc 27: 56b
    After preparation day chief priests got guard from Pilate to watch sepulcherWomen rested

    1. Content

      If we disregard the transition section (32), Mark's account can be divided into five parts, the middle part being part three (35) where Jesus, dying, says his last words. It contains the typical rule of three: three mockings of Jesus before dying, three mentions of the hour (3rd, 6th, and 9th hour). The emphasis is on the fulfilment of what was announced: the mockery and what happens after his death is the fulfilment of the object of the trial before the Sanhedrin, the destruction of the temple and the title of messiah; Old Testament themes are fulfilled, such as the righteous suffering of the psalms and Wisdom 2:17-20.

    2. Composition

      The biblical scholars have put forward various theories about the composition of this section, several of them detecting a primitive pre-Markan nucleus which they have tried to delineate with varying degrees of success, others putting forward the idea that Mark put two different stories together. The very fact that there is no agreement among the biblical scholars demonstrates the precariousness of the arguments. To all this, we must add the observation of the agreements between Mark and John, even though the majority of biblical scholars recognize John's independence from Mark. Indeed, the two evangelists agree on the place, the fact that Jesus is crucified between two criminals, the charge against Jesus, the mockery by the chief priests, the distribution of his clothes, the sour wine offered to him, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. It is better to admit that we are facing a very old tradition that it is impossible to reconstruct exactly, and that Mark probably uses.

  2. Structure of Luke's Account

    On the whole, Luke is following Mark. When he distances himself from him, it is to integrate certain themes common to Luke-Actes: forgiveness, being at peace with God, the sympathetic multitude in contrast with the leaders. Thus, Luke would have freely reworked Mark's material with the help of isolated sources unknown to Mark. The result is a much more artistic structure than that of Mark.

    1. 23: 26-32 (32. Jesus led out to be crucified). Three groups appear to be in favor of Jesus: (i) Simon, who carries the cross behind Jesus, (ii) the great multitude of the people and the daughters of Jerusalem, (iii) the two criminals, one of whom sympathizes with Jesus.

    2. 23: 33-34 (33. The setting of the crucifixion). It consists of three sub-sections: (i) the place, the fact of the crucifixion, the introduction of the two criminals taken from Mark; (ii) Jesus' prayer to the Father for forgiveness, unique to Luke; (iii) the distribution of the garments taken from Mark.

    3. 23: 35-43 (34. The activities at the cross). There are five items: (i) the people stand and watch; (ii) the rulers sneer; (iii) the soldiers mock; (iv) one of the criminals blasphemes; (v) one of the criminals sympathizes and is rewarded. Luke has the peculiarity here of softening the scene by framing the three hostile items with a non-hostile beginning and end.

    4. 23: 44-46 (35. The last events, death). Shorter than Mark, Luke first presents (i) the darkness of the sixth to the ninth hour and the rending of the veil of the sanctuary (in Mark the veil is torn after Jesus' death), then (ii) the cry of Jesus as he entrusts his spirit to the hands of the Father (in contrast to Mark where there is a feeling of abandonment), a more positive atmosphere.

    5. 23: 47-49 (37. Happenings after Jesus' death). Here again we find three groups that are in favor of Jesus: (i) the centurion confessing that Jesus is a righteous man, echoing Simon carrying the cross of Jesus; (ii) the crowds going home beating their breasts, echoing the multitude of people in section 32; (iii) those Jesus knew and the women of Galilee who stood at a distance and watched, echoing the girls of Jerusalem in section 32.

    6. 23: 50-56 (38-40. The burial of Jesus and the day after). Joseph of Arimathea claims the body of Jesus and buries it in a tomb where no one had yet been placed. This is a repetition of Mark, except that Luke has eliminated Pilate's amazement at Jesus' death and insists that Joseph is a righteous man, and the mention of the absence of another body in the tomb is apologetic: there can be no confusion with another body in the same tomb; then he adds the information that the women prepared spices and perfumes and rested.

    Overall, Luke offers us a more caring theology, both in human participation and in the exercise of forgiveness in Jesus. His art sometimes resembles John's in highlighting incidents of crucifixion and showing their possibility: his sovereign Jesus who promises to share paradise with the evildoer resembles John's Jesus who reigns from the cross.

  3. Structure of John's Account

    John's story can be represented in the form of a chiasm.

    Introduction (19: 16b-18)
    Jesus taken along; carries own cross; Golgotha; crucified with two others
    ↓ = ↑Episode 6 (19: 38-42)
    Joseph asks Pilate for Jesus' body; Nicodemus brings myrrh; they bind it with cloths and spices, burying it in new garden tomb
    Episode 1 (19: 19-22)
    Inscription dramatized in Pilate's trilingual proclamation of Jesus as king; chief priests ask Pilate to change, but he refuses
    ↓ = ↑Episode 5 (19: 31-37)
    Day of Preparation; Jews ask Pilate to take away bodies; his soldiers break legs of others, stab Jesus' side; blood and water; two Scripture citations
    Episode 2 (19: 23-24)
    Soldiers divide clothes in four parts; lots for seamless tunic; Scripture fulfilled
    ↓ = ↑Episode 4 (19: 28-30)
    Aware of finishing all, Jesus says he is thirsty; vinegary wine sponge on hyssop; "It is finished"; gives over spirit
    Episode 3 (19: 25-27)
    Women standing near cross; Jesus addresses mother and beloved disciple; disciple takes her to his own

    The centerpiece of the chiastic structure is episode 3 where Jesus is surrounded by a believing community, the one given to him by the Father and which he has kept; this now allows him to say: "It is finished". As is typical of a chiasm, the other episodes can be paralleled, although not strictly: the introduction and episode 6 evoke the sequence of events, episodes 1 and 5 show people hostile to Jesus, episodes 2 and 4 focus on fulfilment. All of John's elements are found in Mark's account, even if they are not in the same sequence. This is not because he knew Mark, but because he drew from a source that they both knew. On the other hand, we must recognize the details that are in one or the other of the Synoptics, and that are absent from John.

    • Simon of Cyrene (present in all three synoptics)
    • The lamentations of the women on their way to Calvary (Luke)
    • The initial offering of the mixed wine (Mark/Matthieu)
    • Jesus' prayer of forgiveness for his executionerss (Luke)
    • Time indications, e.g. 9 a.m. (Mark); 12 noon to 3 p.m. (all three)
    • The various mockeries (all three)
    • The repentance of the "good thief" (Luke)
    • Darkness over the land (all three)
    • The cry "Elōi, Elōi, lama sabachtani" (Mark/Matthew)
    • The suggestion that he seek deliverance by Elijah (Mark/Matthew)
    • The last loud cry of Jesus (the three)
    • The words "Father, into your hands I place my spirit" (Luke).
    • The rending of the sanctuary veil (all three)
    • The earthquake and the opening of the tombs (Matthew)
    • The centurion's reaction (all three)
    • The repentance of the crowds returning home (Luke)
    • Pilate's investigation to affirm the death of Jesus (Mark)
    • The wrapping of the body of Jesus in a linen shroud (the three)
    • The presence of women at the tomb (all three)
    • Purchase of spices by the women (Luke)

Next chapter: Transitional Episode: Jesus Led Out to be Crucified

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