Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah,
v.2, Act 4, scene 1 - #37. Jesus Crucified, Part Four: Happenings after Jesus' Death: b. Reactions of Those Present, pp 1141-1198

(detailed summary)

Jesus Crucified, Part Four: Happenings after Jesus' Death: b. Reactions of Those Present
(Mk 15: 39-41; Mt 27: 54-56; Lk 23: 47-49; Jn 19: 31-37)


At the death of Jesus, there are various reactions among those present. In Mark's Gospel, the centurion's reaction to what had just happened, i.e. the darkness, Jesus' call to God and especially the veil of the sanctuary which was rent in two, led him to confess his faith in Jesus, the Son of God, the very content of the creed of Mark's community. It is the same with Matthew, except that because of the earthquake, the centurion experiences fear, and it is not only he who confesses his faith, but the guards with him.

In addition to the centurion, Mark mentions women who stood at a distance and followed him from Galilee. Even though they were not called disciples, they were. However, their attitude is totally passive, they will not confess anything, and when the angel invites them to go and announce that Jesus has risen, they will do nothing, frozen by fear. For Mark, this is the type of disciple whose attitude is inadequate. Matthew softens Mark's harsh attitude, so that these women will go and proclaim the good news and will be able to experience the resurrected Jesus.

Luke changes Mark's account. It is not the eschatological signs that are the source of his confession of faith, but the attitude of abandonment of Jesus who entrusts himself to the Father, an attitude sung by Psalm 31. He does not confess that Jesus was a son of God, but that he was righteous, reflecting the character at the heart of the psalm, and taking up the theme of the Davidic king expected in the first Christian communities. As for the portrait of the women who stood at a distance, it is more positive: they stand like sturdy poles, preparing the burial and proclaiming the good news. They will be accompanied by male acquaintances, no doubt part of the larger group of disciples. In addition to the centurion and the women-acquaintances, Luke adds a third group, the crowds: during the Jewish trial they were hostile, but seeing the attitude of abandonment of Jesus who entrusts himself to the Father and the confession of the centurion, they go home beating their breasts, a gesture of repentance without going as far as the confession of faith.

It is to a completely different picture that John invites us. First of all, the hostile Jews ask to break the legs of the crucified, under the pretext of accelerating their death before the great Passover festivity begins, but also to impose one last suffering on Jesus. Finally, being already dead, Jesus' legs will not be broken, but a soldier will pierce the side of his spear to verify that he is indeed dead. On this side will come out blood and water, the blood symbolizing his sacrificial death, like the paschal lamb, and the water, symbolizing the gift of the spirit that will draw all humans to Jesus. According to the evangelist, the beloved disciple is the witness who assures the truth of this heavenly sign.

  1. Translation
  2. Comment
    1. Reactions of Those Present According to Mark/Matthew
      1. Reaction of the Centurion (Mark 15: 39; Matthew 27: 54)
        1. What the centurion saw
        2. What is meant by "God's Son"?
        3. "Truly THIS man was Gos's Son"
      2. Reaction of the Woman (Mark 15: 40-41; Matthew 27: 55-56)
        1. The identification of the women
        2. Were the women who observed from a distance disciples?
        3. How were the evangelist's readers meant to evaluate the women's observing from a distance?
    2. Reactions of Those Present according to Luke
      1. Reactions of the Centurion (23: 47)
        1. Three Differences from Mark
        2. The Meaning of the Lucan Centurion's Confession
      2. Reaction of the Crowds (23: 48)
      3. Reaction of Those Standing at a Distance (23: 49)
    3. Reactions of Those Present according to John
      1. The Request Made to Pilate (19: 31)
      2. The Soldiers' Action (19: 32-34a)
      3. The True Witness of the One Who Has seen (19: 35)
      4. Fulfillment of Scripture (19: 36-37)
    4. Reactions of Those Present according to GPet
  3. Analysis
    1. The Historicity of the Reactors and of Their Reactions
      1. Roman Soldiers
      2. Jewish Crowds and/or Authorities
      3. Followers of Jesus
    2. The Composition of the Synoptic and the Johannine Accounts

  1. Translation

    Words of Mark shared by the other evangelists are underlined. Words in blue indicate what is common to Luke and Mattew, in red words of John shared by other evangelists.

    Mark 15Matthew 27Luke 23John 19Gospel of Peter
    39 But the centurion who had been standing there opposite him, having seen that he thus expired, said, "Truly this man was God’s Son."54 But the centurion and those who with him were keeping (guard over) Jesus, having seen the (earth)shaking and these happenings, feared exceedingly, saying, "Truly this was God’s Son."47 But the centurion, having seen this happening, was glorifying God, saying, "Certainly this man was just."
    40a But there were also women observing from a distance, 55a But there were there many women observing from a distance, 48 And all the crowds who were gathered together for the observation of this, having observed these happenings, returned striking their breasts.
    40b and among them Mary Magdalene, and Mary mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome
    41 (who, when he was in Galilee, used to follow him and serve him), and many others who had come up with him to Jerusalem55b such ones as had followed Jesus from Galilee, serving him,49 But all those known to him were standing from a distance, and the women who were following with him from Galilee, seeing these things.
    56 among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary mother of James and of Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
    31 Then the Jews, since it was preparation day, in order that the bodies might not remain on the cross on the Sabbath, for that Sabbath was a great day, asked Pilate that their legs be broken and they be taken away.4: 14 (after 4: 13 where one of the crucified wrongdoers reviled the Jews for making the Savior suffer unjustly): And having become irritated at him, they ordered that there be no leg-breaking, so that he might die tormented.
    32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the one and of the other who had been crucified with him;6: 21: And then they drew out the nails from the hands of the Lord and placed him on the earth; and all the earth was shaken, and a great fear came about.
    33 but having come to Jesus, when they saw him already dead, they did not break his legs.7:25 Then the Jews and the elders and the priests, having come to know how much wrong they had done to themselves, began to beat themselves and say, "Woe to our sins. The judgment has approached and the end of Jerusalem."
    34 However, one of the soldiers stabbed his side with a lance, and immediately there came out blood and water.26 But I with the companions was sorrowful; and having been wounded in spirit, we were in hiding, for we were sought after by them as wrongdoers and as wishing to set fire to the sanctuary.
    35 And the one who has seen has borne witness, and true is his witness; and that one knows that he speaks what is true in order that you too may believe.27 In addition to all these things we were fasting; and we were sitting mourning and weeping night and day until the Sabbath
    36 For these things happened in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled: "Its (his) bone shall not be fractured."8, 28 But the scribes and Pharisees and elders, having gathered together with one another, having heard that all the people were murmuring and beating their breasts, saying that, "If at his death these very great signs happened, behold how just the was,"
    37 And again another Scripture says, "They all see whom they have pierced."8, 29 feared (especially the elders) and...

  2. Comment

    1. Reactions of Those Present According to Mark/Matthew

      1. Reaction of the Centurion (Mark 15: 39; Matthew 27: 54)

        Mark takes us by surprise by introducing, without having announced it, a high-ranking army officer, a centurion (kentyriōn, a Latinism of Mark, copied from the Latin term: centurio, responsible for 100 soldiers), who would have watched the scene from the beginning and was probably in charge of supervising the execution. Matthew takes up this account again, but with improvements: before, he had taken the trouble to mention that soldiers were guarding Jesus, and now they come back to the forefront with the centurie (hekatontarchēs, the usual Greek term for a leader of 100 soldiers), and it is all of these soldiers who confess the quality of Jesus, a valid and legal confession, because there were many of them.

        1. What the centurion saw ("had been standing... that he thus expired")

          • What would "thus" refer to? It is first of all a reference to what precedes the death of Jesus (15:34-36): the darkness and the call to God, but especially to what follows (15:38), i.e. the veil of the sanctuary which is rent in two. God finally intervened and demonstrated that he did not abandon Jesus. Some biblical scholars have wrongly objected that the centurion could not have seen the veil being rent, since only the priests could see the inner veil, and the outer veil could only be seen from the Mount of Olives, not from the Golgotha; these biblical scholars forget two things: first, we are at the level of eschatological signs, not factual events, and second, Mark and his readers probably knew nothing about the topography of the temple and its location in relation to Golgotha.

          • Mark's first known commentator, Matthew, read this scene by including what happened after Jesus' death: the earthquake, the rocks splitting, the tombs opening, the saints waking up. If he emphasizes the "earthquake", it is because it explains everything else and remains the most visible. Just as with Mark, these signs must be "historicized". They are eschatological signs that arouse terrible fear and lead the soldiers to say with one voice: "Truly, this man was a son of God".

        2. What is meant by "God's Son"?

          • It may have been noted that the centurion in both Mark and Matthew asserted that Jesus was "Son of God" and not "the Son of God", as in the trial before the Sanhedrin ("Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?", Mk 14:61; "if you are the Messiah, the Son of God", Mt 26:63). Does it make a difference whether or not the use of the definite article? Several biblical scholars have argued that it does, stating that the centurion's confession (without the article) means less than the expression with the article: the Son of God. These biblical scholars are wrong for the following reasons.

            1. The fact that no human being in Mark has so far confessed Jesus as the Son of God is normal, for it is not possible to make such a confession until the Son of Man has passed through suffering. Moreover, this scene is included with the baptism of Jesus when God says: "You are my beloved son" (1:11). In addition, the scene of the centurion takes up the dispute of the Jewish trial in which Jesus was asked if he was the son of the Blessed One: when Jesus answered in the affirmative, the Jews laughed and shouted blasphemy; the centurion, a Gentile, on the other hand, confessed his faith.

            2. Is the statement with the article ("the Son of God") stronger than without the article ("a Son of God")? Nothing is less certain. For example, Matthew uses the titles interchangeably in ch. 14 and 16, just as in 26:63 (article) and 27:40.43 (no article). Is the proclamation of the Angel Gabriel (Lk 1:32.35) less powerful because "Son of the Most High" and "Son of God" have no article? And on the linguistic level, when the predicate precedes the verb to be, as here (litt. in Greek: this man son of God was), it does not take a definite article and aims at expressing the nature and character of the subject. For Mark, this nature and character is that of a son of God marked by suffering and death.

            3. When biblical scholars deny that a Roman pagan could have made such a confession, they fall into the trap of historization. For one should not ask what a soldier meant in Golgotha in the year 30, but rather what the significance of this scene was for the readers of the Mark community in the late 60s or 70s. For them, the centurion personifies all those Gentiles or Greco-Romans who saw and believed in Jesus when the Jewish authorities had just mocked him: "Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross in order that we may see and believe" (15:32). This scene plays the same role as the story of the centurion in the Q document (Mt 8:5-13 || Lk 7:1-10) which announces that Jesus' message will reach the whole universe. Let us not forget that there is no story about the resurrected Jesus in Mark, and therefore no scene like Matthew 28:19-20, where Jesus sends his disciples into the world. Rather, it is the scene of the centurion that allows him to announce the realization of what Jesus announced earlier: "First the Gospel must be proclaimed to all nations" (13:10).

              It should be added that for the reader of Mark, this scene around the centurion could appear quite plausible. Let us recall Acts 10 when another centurion, Cornelius, spontaneously came to believe in Jesus. In Acts 16:2-34 we have the account of the jailer in the Roman city of Philip who is instantly converted by Paul because he did not try to flee. All this is in line with the wrongdoer of Lk 23:42 who suddenly asks Jesus to be with him. Everything must have seemed plausible to the Christians of the time.

          • What is the meaning of the expression "Son of God" in the centurion's mouth? The same meaning that was found in the creed of the community of Mark at the turn of the year 70.

          • The expression has the same meaning in Matthew. The difference comes from the set of eschatological signs that he presents and that make the soldiers fear terribly, to the point of exclaiming: "Truly this was God's Son", no doubt an evocation of Ezekiel 37 where the dead who are awakening lead to confess the work of God. In Matthew, the link between the centurion's confession and Jewish rejection is even stronger, for this is exactly the title used by the chief priests (the Son of God) at his trial, and on the cross, the chief priests, the scribes and the elders mock him and his claim to be the Son of God. Finally, the scene of the centurion forms an inclusion with the account of the Magi at the beginning of his Gospel, when Gentiles came to pay homage to the king of the Jews, while Herod, the chief priests and the scribes express their hostility.

        3. "Truly THIS man was Gos's Son"

          • Let's now look at the sentence structure, starting with the verb: was. Why the imperfect? Obviously, evangelists do not confine divine filiation to the past tense. But the fact remains that this is an evaluation of the past tense: Jesus showed himself to be the Son of God from the very beginning of his ministry. Then the subject: this man. This is an expression that is rarely found in Mark to describe Jesus. The last time it was used was in Peter's mouth during the scene of denial: "I do not know this man" (14:71). It is ironic that the same expression is now used to express faith. In any case, the "this man" is primarily used to refer to Jesus on the cross, and in this expresses the heart of Mark's theology where it is through the cross that Jesus revealed himself as the son of God. But the expression also intends to insist on the reconciliation in Jesus of man with God: throughout his Gospel, Mark presented the contrast and opposition between human values and those of God; but in Jesus, this opposition no longer exists.

          • In Matthew, we could find a different nuance: "Truly this was God's Son". "This (one)" refers to the person who was mocked on the cross, especially saying, "He has trusted in God. Let him be delivered if He wants him, for he said, 'I am Son of God'". Then the centurion would find himself saying, "Yes, he really is".

      2. Reaction of the Woman (Mark 15: 40-41; Matthew 27: 55-56)

        1. The identification of the women

          • Mark identifies women who kept their distance:
            1. Mary Magdalene, i.e. Mary from Magdala on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee (see map of Palestine)
            2. "Mary mother of James the younger and of Joses"
            3. Salome
            (who, when he was in Galilee, used to follow him and serve him)
            1. and many others who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

            One is a little surprised to see Mark suddenly introduce these women whom he had never spoken of before, and it is not clear whether they had come with Jesus on the same journey.

          • According to his habit, Matthew simplifies the portrait he receives of Mark by collecting Mark's two groups into a single group:
            1. The "many women watching from a distance" are those who "had followed Jesus from Galilee, serving him", all Galilean women.
            2. Among them, Mary Magdalene.
            3. Mary mother of James and of Joseph
            4. the mother of the sons of Zebedee

          • For what follows, we will refer to the table already produced where were provided the names of the women present on Friday, in the vicinity of the cross, then at the burial, and finally at the empty tomb on Sunday. In column I of this table are compiled the names of those present at the cross. Mary Magdelene is the one most remembered. In row B appears the second most frequently named woman, Mary, known through her sons James and Joses/Joseph. Unfortunately, Mark is confusing by calling her by three different names, i.e. Mary of James the younger and of Joses at a distance from the cross, Mary of Joses at the burial, Mary of James at the empty tomb. In row C, Mark is the only one to mention Salome, a very common name in Palestine at the time, a name that recurs in a number of apocryphal writings: The Secret Gospel of Mark, The First Apocalypse of James, The Protevangelium of James, where she appears in turn as the sister of the young man whom Jesus loved, one of the four female disciples, or the child of Joseph's first marriage. Matthew, on the other hand, speaks rather of the mother of the sons of Zebedee. Should she be identified with Salome, or did Matthew rather want to reintroduce a figure important to him? We have more questions than answers.

        2. Were the women who observed from a distance disciples?

          • Let's start with Matthew: even though he uses the word mathētēs (disciple) 65 times to refer to those who have become adherents to Jesus, we never clearly see him use this word outside of a reference to the Twelve.

          • Mark, for his part, gives us the impression that he chose the Twelve from a larger group of disciples (3:14). Could it be considered that these three women explicitly named in 15:41 could be considered members of this larger group of disciples? This is a question that Mark probably never asked himself, but which might receive a positive answer if it were asked. On the other hand, he may not have been thinking of them when he used the word disciple when describing Jesus' ministry.

          • More likely, these women were not among those who were with him at his last supper and then in Gethsemane, and who later fled. Mark's interest is in showing the failure of the Twelve, not the failure of women he never named. At the empty tomb, the young man (angel) will tell them: "But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee". Clearly, if they are to bring the message to the disciples, they are not among those disciples. That is why Mark must introduce them.

        3. How were the evangelist's readers meant to evaluate the women's observing from a distance?

          • First of all, let's get rid of the misinterpretations that have been made.

            • The presence of these women watching from a distance would have been a source of comfort to Jesus. Not plausible. Mark does not introduce them until after Jesus' death, and gives no indication that Jesus would have seen them.

            • These women would present a model of bravery by daring to come to Golgotha. Not plausible. It is hardly a sign of bravery to observe from a distance, especially since Mark used the same expression for Peter, when he denied it, to express the fact that he did not want to be recognized.

            • These women would form a contrast to the male disciples who fled cowardly. Not plausible. When Mark introduces these women, he does not write that they "stayed," while the men fled; such a comparison is all the more unlikely since the flight took place 60 verses earlier.

          • In the present context, the only possible contrast is with the centurion: the centurion "stood in front of Jesus", while the women "watched from a distance". One, having seen how Jesus expired, gave testimony. The women, having observed from a distance, said nothing. Knowing how hard Mark treats Jesus' intimates (his family, his disciples), it would be quite consistent for him to do the same thing with these women who followed him from Galilee: their attitude is inadequate.

          • To verify this perception of the women, let us look at the other scenes in which they are involved. In the following one where Joseph of Arimathea (15:42-47) claims the body of Jesus and puts him in the tomb, the women remain passive, content to look only at where he has been put. Then, when they decide to take action by buying spices (6:1), their initiative is totally useless, since Jesus is no longer there. Finally, when the young man (16:5-8) asks them to go and inform the disciples that Jesus has risen, they do not have the courage to act and do nothing; even divine intervention was not enough. Thus, after having illustrated the failure of men by their flight to Gethsemane, Mark would affirm that observing Jesus sympathetically from a distance is not enough to guarantee fidelity: being a disciple is not easy, for women as for men. Let us remember that Mark is probably addressing himself above all to his persecuted community in Rome. His readers, who gave in to persecution by fleeing or by denying their faith, can recognize themselves in the male disciples and hope that, like them, they will one day become good witnesses, capable of bearing the cross. Those who have so far escaped persecution and could boast of not having failed, are warned through these women on the cross that to remain passive and not to have the courage to confess one's faith openly is reprehensible, but they can still hope that they can change; for if the names of these women have been retained, it is because they later became true witnesses, as the author of the appendix to the Gospel of Mark points out (16:9-10).

          • What about Matthew? At first glance, there does not seem to be much difference. But when we look closely, Matthew seems to find Mark's approach too harsh (for example, he eliminated unbelief from Jesus' family), and at the tomb, after a moment of fear, the women will obey the angel's word and run to proclaim the good news with joy. When the risen Jesus makes himself present to them (28:8-10), they grasp his feet and "pay homage to him", the same expression to describe the Magi before the child Jesus (2:11). In short, if their reaction was slower than that of the centurion, in the end they demonstrated the true fidelity of the disciple.

    2. Reactions of Those Present according to Luke

      Luke likes triptychs, and organizes the reactions in groups of three.

      On the way to the crossReaction to the death of Jesus
      1. Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross as a disciple1. Having seen, the centurion glorified God and affirmed that he was just
      2. A large multitude of the people follow Jesus, sympathetic, but without revealing anything of their location.2. Having seen, all the crowds go home beating their breasts
      3. The "daughters of Jerusalem" beat their breasts and lament over him.3. Acquaintances stand at a distance as well as women who had followed him from Galilee, but without revealing anything of their location.

      1. Reactions of the Centurion (23: 47)

        "having seen this happening, was glorifying God, saying, "Certainly this man was just". What has been highlighted represents the differences from Mark. But let us first recognize the similarities: the scene begins with the centurion's act of seeing, and the sequence of words is identical (literal translation):

        Mk 15: 39Trulythis manGod's Son was
        Lk 23: 47Certainlythe man this (one)just was

        In both cases, the sentence begins with an adverb in an emphatic position, and the verb is at the imperfect, which is rare for a confession of faith.

        1. Three Differences from Mark

          • The first difference is what the centurion saw and brings him to his confession of faith. In Mark, as we have seen, the "thus" refers to the cry of Jesus who feels abandoned, the mockery of the people around, and finally, when Jesus expires, the rending of the veil through which God intervenes and brings his answer. In Luke, the eschatological signs took place earlier, and the "what had happened" only points to Jesus who trusts his life in the hands of the Father.

          • The second difference is the reaction of the centurion who begins to glorify God, in the image of the shepherds who, at the birth of Jesus, glorify God for what they have seen (2:20). All this is from the pen of Luke and is consistent with the whole of his Gospel where those who have eyes to see glorify God for his wonders.

          • The third difference is that the centurion does not confess that Jesus was the son of God, but that he was just. Some biblical scholars have tried in vain to establish that "just" was the equivalent of "Son of God. This is forgetting that Luke is familiar with the expression "Son of God", which he takes up as it is from Mark at the Jewish trial. Why, then, would Luke deliberately change Mark's words here to prefer "just"?

        2. The Meaning of the Lucan Centurion's Confession

          • The Greek word dikaios is usually translated as just, sometimes as innocent. If Luke chose dikaios, it was not because it seemed more appropriate to him in the mouth of a pagan who would assert that Jesus was innocent, not politically subversive, whereas the title "Son of God" would certainly have been misunderstood. Once again, we fall into the trap of historization.

          • Rather, one has to look at the whole story of Luke and his theology. The gesture of Jesus' surrender into the hands of his Father, without spectacular divine intervention, does not really provide an opportunity for a full recognition of his divinity on the part of a pagan. And especially in Luke's plan, the Acts of the Apostles offer him the space necessary to achieve the full acceptance of the faith by the pagans, without rushing: thus Acts 10 presents a centurion becoming fully believing.

          • But then why choose this word: just?

            • First, the prayer of Jesus as he died is taken from Psalm 31:6 ("Into your hands I place my spirit") where the psalmist refers to slanderers and further writes: "Silence to the lying lips that speak of the just man insolently with beauty and contempt!" (v. 19). In the same line, while the adversaries want to destroy the just man who confesses to have the knowledge of God and calls himself a child of God and acknowledges God as a father, the Book of Wisdom writes: "The souls of the just are in the hand of God. And no torment shall touch them" (3:1). In such a situation where the justs trust in God and consider themselves his child, Luke can be understood to have felt free to exchange "son of God" for the "just".

            • Second, in the early Christian communities the title "just" was used to designate the expected Davidic king, referring to Jeremiah 23:5; Zechariah 9:9; Psalms of Salmon 17:31, and the suffering servant of Isaiah 53:11. This is echoed in Acts 3:14 ("But you have appointed the Holy and just One") and Acts 7:52 ("They (your fathers) killed those who foretold the coming of the just One"). Luke's reader could easily understand who it was.

            • Third, dikaios fitted perfectly into the whole chain of reactions in Luke's passion story. Pilate, following Herod, repeats over and over again that he does not find in "this man" any grounds for accusation (23, 4.14.22). It is now the centurion's turn to add to this testimony. And there is more. Like Simon of Cyrene, who experienced a form of conversion, since he then takes the pose of the disciple, like the wrongdoer who experienced a form of conversion, since he wants to be with Jesus, so the centurion experiences a form of conversion, since he recognizes the truth about Jesus. This sequence of conversions was a challenge and an encouragement to the Lucanian reader. And it allows for an inclusion with the account of the prophet Simeon at the beginning of his Gospel who, seeing the child Jesus, speaks of the light revealed to the Gentiles; the centurion is an example of this light received by the Gentiles.

      2. Reaction of the Crowds (23: 48)

        • Structurally, the reaction of the crowds is a parallel to the centurion'. In terms of content, it is typical of Luke.

          centurionhaving seenhappeningwas glorifyingsaying
          crowdshaving observedhappeningsreturnedstriking breasts

          The crowds, like the centurion, are in the same place of observation near the cross, a place that Luke reserves for those who have not yet committed themselves to Jesus, a different place from those who are "at a distance". These crowds represent the people mentioned before and during the crucifixion.

          23: 27There was following him (Jesus) a large multitude of the people
          23: 35And the people were standing there OBSERVING
          23: 48All the crowds who were gathered together for the OBSERVATION

          Yet this people were hostile during the Roman trial and demanded his death. But they evolved, began to follow him sympathetically, and his observation led to repentance. What kind of observation is this? "The things that had happened," Luke tells us. For the centurion he had written: "having seen this happening", referring to Jesus' surrender into the Father's hands. Why now the plural? In addition to the way Jesus died, we must now add the centurion's testimony.

        • The repentance of the people should not be confused with the conversion of the centurion's level: the people do not give glory to God and do not confess Jesus. They return home, facing an uncertain future, like the one announced to the daughters of Jerusalem, but from which divine forgiveness is not excluded. In a way, this scene echoes a parable of Luke, that of the Pharisee and the publican: during the Roman trial, the religious authorities and the people demanded the condemnation of Jesus, but when Jesus died, the authorities showed no sorrow, sure that they were just like the Pharisee, while the people beat their breasts, just like the publican.

      3. Reaction of Those Standing at a Distance (23: 49)

        • Luke takes from Mark the fact that there were Galilean women watching from a distance. However, he does not name them. But for Luke's reader this is not important, for their names will appear on the scene of the empty tomb (Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary, mother of James), and above all, Luke had already begun to speak about them earlier when he wrote that Jesus was proclaiming the good news in the towns and villages, "the Twelve with him, and some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, wife of Herod's steward (epitropos), Susanna and many others, who were serving (diakonein) them out of their own means" (8:1-3). The fact that these women assisted Jesus with their means anticipates the role of some of them in the early Church, such as Lydia, who attached herself to Paul, was baptized and offered hospitality to the preachers (16:14-15). If we add to this the mention that they were healed by Jesus, it is clear to Luke that they are committed disciples.

        • These women are to be distinguished from the crowds who return to the previous verses: they "stood" (histēmi) at a distance like a solid pole and did not return home. And in the following verses Luke will give us a much more positive picture than Mark: they do not just watch, but immediately go and prepare the spices and perfumes, to be ready after the Sabbath; afterwards they will pass on the angel's message to the Eleven and the others. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells us that they will stand with the Eleven, the mother and brothers of Jesus, devoting themselves to prayer and preparing for the coming of Pentecost (1:13-14).

        Male acquaintances

        "all those known (gnōstoi) to him were standing from a distance". gnōstos is an adjective meaning: to be known, used here in the masculine plural. Who are they? Biblical scholars have proposed various hypotheses.

        • They could be a reference to the Eleven (the Twelve minus Judas), because Luke never spoke of flight on the part of the apostles. Didn't he associate earlier (8:1) the women with the Twelve, and logically they would discreetly come back together on stage here? This hypothesis is implausible: how could an evangelist who so often names the Twelve refrain from naming them at such a crucial moment?

        • Gnōstoi could refer to relatives, male or female. Doesn't Luke write in Acts: "All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. " (1:14). And in the infancy narrative, telling how Joseph and Mary went in search of the child they thought lost, he writes: "Then they began to look for him among their relatives and acquaintances (gnōstoi)" (2:44). This hypothesis is too fragile: in vocabulary, the word is not necessarily associated with kinship (for example, in 2 Kings 10:11 and Nehemiah 5:10, the word does not refer to close relatives), and Luke never refers to Jesus' brothers in the account of the passion and appearances.

        The most plausible hypothesis is that gnōstoi vaguely refers to a number of other disciples. Let us remember that the Jesus of Luke, in addition to sending the Twelve on mission, sends 70 others (10:1.17). When the women return from the tomb to tell the news, Luke writes, "they reported all this to the Eleven and to all the others" (24:9). It is the same Luke who gives us the story of two disciples on their way on the same day to a village called Emmaus. Finally, in his Acts, he refers to a group of 120 people who gather around the Eleven, together with some women, including Mary, the mother of Jesus, and some of Jesus' brothers (1:13-15).

    3. Reactions of Those Present according to John

      1. The Request Made to Pilate (19: 31)

        • "since it was preparation day (paraskeuē)". The Hebrew word underlying this "preparation day" is ’ereb, which means: evening, vigil The fact that it was the eve of the Jewish Passover is mentioned by : "for that Sabbath was a great day," i.e. that year the Passover fell on a Sabbath. This reference to the Passover was mentioned at the time of Jesus' condemnation at noon, and it now returns after his death as an inclusion.

        • "in order that the bodies might not remain on the cross on the Sabbath". The law that underlies this requirement comes from Deuteronomy 21:23: "His dead body (of the man hanging from a tree) may not be left on the tree by night; you shall bury him the same day". In fact, this law applies not only to the eve of the Sabbath, but to every day of the year. Obviously, the approach of a great feast makes the matter more urgent.

        • The Gospels are unanimous in presenting Joseph of Arimathea as the one who claimed the body of Jesus from Pilate. But in John, even before Joseph intervenes, the Jews ask Pilate that the legs of the crucified be broken. When the soldiers responded to this request, they found that he was already dead. On this point, John joins Mark: Jesus' death has been verified by the Roman military personnel.

        • Why do the Jews ask that the legs be broken? Of course, they want to fulfill the law by accelerating the death of the crucified. But in John, the Jews also show hostility. And here, they talk about breaking the legs before asking to remove the bodies. Note that the breaking of the legs was not really part of the crucifixion process. One might think that John's account is intended to show that the hostile Jews, even before removing Jesus' body, wanted to impose one last suffering on him. Since this action will not succeed, John may see it as the triumph of God's plan announced in advance in Scripture (19:36).

      2. The Soldiers' Action (19: 32-34a)

        • "So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the one and of the other who had been crucified with him". If the two criminals were crucified on either side of Jesus, why wait last to deal with him who is in the middle? This is part of John's composition plan (see the structure of John's passion narrative): the failure to break Jesus' legs is a refusal by the soldiers to comply with the Jews' request (Episode 5 of the structure), an episode parallel to Episode 1 where Pilate refuses to comply with the Jews' request to change the sign above Jesus' head.

        • "However, one of the soldiers stabbed his side with a lance, and immediately there came out blood and water". Why pierce a crucified man? Obviously, it is to make sure that someone is really dead; it is not a question of giving a coup de grâce, but of verifying that the crucified one is dead. But the important thing is that John sees in it a Christological sign: even from the dead body of Jesus came forth elements that are the source of life, symbolized by blood and water. Some biblical scholars have seen in the mention of the "side" (gr: pleura) an allusion to Adam's rib from which Eve is taken. Ancient tradition considers that it was on the right side that Jesus was pierced, probably influenced by Ezekiel 47:1 where the prophet presents his vision: "Water came down from under the right side of the Temple". But these last points probably go beyond the intention of the 4th Gospel.

        Immediately there came out blood and water (19: 34b)

        • In Mark/Matthew, it was the eschatological signs that led to the Roman centurion's confession. In John, the sign is triggered by a Roman soldier: he pierces the side of Jesus from which blood and water come out. How is this sign to be interpreted? First of all, we must immediately eliminate the physiological causes that have caused much debate: all this is out of the evangelist's perspective when he produces this account. What is clear is that this phenomenon is so marvellous that, in the next verse, he must assure his reader that this testimony is absolutely true, which would not be the case of a normal and explainable phenomenon.

        • From the consensus that we are faced with a theological language, the biblical scholars have proposed a thousand and one interpretations of blood and water. Let us name a few.

          • Would it not be a way to present Jesus as a divine being, because according to Homeric legend it is a mixture of blood and water that flowed in the veins of the gods, as in Aphrodite? But would the reader of John have understood this allusion to a pagan symbolism, whereas the evangelist does not resort to any pagan imagery elsewhere?

          • Would we not be faced with an anti-gnostic intention? In fact, we know that in the second century there was a Gnostic and docetic current that denied that Jesus was really a man and really suffered. But does this also apply to the end of the first century and to the milieu to which John is addressing himself? Why would the evangelist add these signs only to confirm the death of Jesus, when a soldier has already established that he is dead? Most importantly, by speaking later of "that you also may believe", he suggests that his purpose was aiming the core of faith, not the correction of an error.

          • Does this not allude to the paschal lamb for whom the blood was to be shed at his death so that he might be sprinkled with it? But then, why also speak of the water that comes out? Above all, when John makes an allusion to the paschal lamb, it is in connection with the fact that his bones were not broken.

        • John himself gives us the clues to interpret this symbolism properly. In 7: 37-38, he puts in the mouth of Jesus this word: "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'". Then the evangelist adds: "Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified" (39). Thus, the flowing water refers to the Spirit. And this water will flow when Jesus is glorified, i.e. lifted up on the cross, when his blood is shed. Thus, the flowing water represents the gift of the Spirit, and the shed blood represents his death that allows the gift of the Spirit. This idea is not in contraction with the beginning of the gift of the Spirit before his death, as we mentioned earlier, when the mother of Jesus and the disciple whom Jesus loved formed the beginning of the Johannine community; it is only after his death that all, and not only the intimate ones, will be drawn to him. Here, in v. 34b, the evangelist may have been influenced by a number of Old Testament passages:
          • Zechariah 13: 1: "In that day there will be an open fountain for David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to wash away sin and filthiness".
          • Zechariah 12: 10: "But I will pour out a spirit of mercy and compassion on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem".

      3. The True Witness of the One Who Has seen (19: 35)

        • We have seen that in Mark the eschatological signs, especially the rending of the temple veil, trigger the centurion's confession of faith. In John, it is the gesture of the soldier, opening the side of Jesus from which the blood and water came out, which triggers the confession of faith expressed by the narrator: "that you too may believe".

        • "And the one who has seen has borne witness, and true is his witness". Who is this "the one who has seen"? The subject of the verb is in the masculine form, so you have to look at the male characters. The one immediately preceding is the Roman soldier. But it would be astonishing if the evangelist gave him such a solemn proclamation without indicating that he has begun to believe. It is more likely that this is the beloved disciple to whom Jesus entrusted his mother a few verses earlier. This is confirmed in the next chapter: "It is this disciple who testifies to these facts and who wrote them, and we know that his testimony is true" (21:24).

        • "and that one (ekeinos) knows that he speaks what is true in order that you too may believe". This sentence is more difficult to interpret. Who is this "ekeinos" (this one). Some have thought that "that one" introduces a new subject, different from "the one who has seen" who has been identified with the beloved disciple.

          • Some have suggested that "that one" refers to God, or Jesus or the Paraclete, but the context does not prepare us to understand this actor in this way.
          • Others have suggested the evangelist himself, but it would be very odd if the evangelist identified himself in this way
          • Others again have proposed a third party who could support the words of the beloved disciple, but here again it is to evoke a character that the evangelist did not introduce to us

        • The simplest and most logical solution is to admit that "that one" does not introduce a new subject and refers to the beloved disciple; it is an anaphoric use of the word, which has the same value as "he". Thus, the beloved disciple is the instrument of the Spirit to bear witness to the Christological and salvific value of the death of Jesus, just as John the Baptist saw and bears witness to what he lived at the beginning of the Gospel (1:34); here there is a form of inclusion in which the two figures bear witness to the same truth.

      4. Fulfillment of Scripture (19: 36-37)

        • "For these things happened in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled". What does the expression "these things" mean? Since it is a plural, we must understand that there are at least two things. There was the fact that Jesus' legs were not broken, and there was also the spear stabbing Jesus' side. The citation in v. 36 concerns the first fact, the citation in v. 37 concerns the second fact.

          1. "Its [or his] (autou) bone (osteon) shall not be fractured (syntribēsetai)"

            • The word autou (of him), translated as "its", is ambiguous when it comes to finding an Old Testament reference: does it refer to a person, i.e. the psalmist, or to an animal, i.e. the paschal lamb. Let us first recall that when John described the event, he said: "they did not break (katagnynai) his legs (skelos)". The citation from Scripture with osteon (bone) and syntribein (fraturing) does not have the same vocabulary, and therefore, clearly, was added after the description of the episode. Where could osteon and syntribein come from? Two candidates were proposed:
              • Exodus 12: 46: (LXX: 12:10) "You (pl) shall not fracture (syntripsete) a bone (osteon) from it (ap’ autou)"
              • Numbers 9: 12 : " They shall not fracture (syntripsete) a bone (osteon) from it (ap’ autou)

              These are two references to Easter lamb. And this fits well with the Johannine framework: at the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus is presented as the Lamb of God; he is condemned at the hour when the paschal lamb was sacrificed in the temple; he is given a branch of hyssop to quench his thirst, the hyssop used to sprinkle the paschal lamb with blood.

            • Certains biblical scholars have seen a problem with these 2 references (they come from the Pentateuch, while John never quotes the Pentateuch, and the verbs are in the active form, whereas the quotation from John is in the passive form), and have proposed a psalm instead:
              • Ps 34: 21 : "The Lord watches over all their bones (osteon),
                and not one of them (ex autōn) will be fractured (syntribēsetai)"

              We have the verb in the passive (to be fractured), but we don't have the (autou, "of him").

            • In short, the majority of biblical scholars see here primarily a reference to the paschal lamb, but secondarily, there may be an echo of the persecuted just one who expects to be set free by his Savior in Psalm 34. Both aspects fit in with the theology of the 4th Gospel.

          2. "They shall see (opsontai) whom (eis) they have pierced (ekkentein)"

            • It is a citation from Zechariah 12:10, but as with the previous citation, there is a difference between the vocabulary of the citation and that of the description of the episode earlier: "one of the soldiers stabbed (nyssein) his side"; and in the episode there was never any mention of a group watching. Moreover, despite the fact that John presents us with a citation from Zechariah 12:10, what he quotes is not from either the Hebrew or Massoretic version ("they shall look to me, whom they have pierced") or the standard version of the Septuagint ("they shall look [epiblepsontai] to me, because they have insulted me"). It is possible that John is using a different Greek version of the Bible than the Septuagint when quoting the prophet Zechariah (this is confirmed by an echo of Zechariah in Revelation 1:7 which uses a similar vocabulary to John with opsontai and ekkentein, just as in Barnabas 7:9 or Justin's Apology 1:52:12).

            • A question arises: why was the Scripture citation on the unbroken bone in v. 36 not placed immediately after the episode in v. 33b, and the citation on the pierced person in v. 37 immediately after the episode in v. 34a? One possible explanation is that John does not intend to refer only to half a verse, but to the whole scene, just as in what he quotes he does not intend to refer only to the end of the verse quoted, but to the whole. Let us look more closely for the citation of Zechariah.
              John 19Zechariah 10, 12 (LXX)
              34 However, one of the soldiers stabbed his side with a lance, and immediately there came out blood and water. 35 And the one who has seen has borne witness, and true is his witness; and that one knows that he speaks what is true in order that you too may believe.And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and compassion: and they shall look upon me, because they have mocked [me], and they shall make lamentation for him, as for a beloved [friend], and they shall grieve intensely, as for a firstborn [son].

              It's probable that John had the whole v. 12 in mind, so that Zechariah's spirit of compassion and mercy becomes the water coming out of Jesus' side, and Zechariah's "they" ("they shall look upon me") becomes the Roman soldier who, even after Jesus died, nevertheless pierces his side, as well as the beloved disciple who saw the whole scene. Zechariah's gesture of lamenting the people as a beloved child and a firstborn child refers in John to "that one knows that he speaks what is true in order that you too may believe"; the content of this time will be further elaborated upon later: that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

    4. Reactions of Those Present according to GPet

      • We are interested in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter because it attests that the narrative development, present in all four Gospels, continued into the second century. On what we have just analyzed, we note the following differences in this apocryphal writing:
        1. The breaking of the legs took place before Jesus' death (GPet 4:14).
        2. there is no mention of the side stabbed by a spear or of the flow of blood and water

      • In the whole story of GPet 7: 25 - 8: 29, the characters can be grouped into four categories
        1. The Jews, the Elders and the priests
        2. Peter and his companions
        3. The scribes, Pharisees and elders
        4. All the people

        The whole scene reveals the author's attitude towards the Jews. For it was no longer the Romans who executed Jesus, but the Jews themselves. Among them, there would be two categories: the unrepentant (scribes, Pharisees, elders, priests) who will approach Pilate about the sepulcher, who know that people beat their breasts and must beware of it, who will beat their breasts not because they repent, but because their fault makes them susceptible to divine wrath; the repentant (all the people) murmur against the religious authority and beat their breasts because the great signs have shown that Jesus was just. There is a certain kinship between the Gospel of Luke where people beat their breasts and the Gospel of Peter.

      • A new feature of GPet is to give Peter the word with his companions after Jesus' death and before his resurrection. The account is in the first person: "I with the companions was sorrowful..." What Peter tells is not without echoes of what we find elsewhere in the Gospels :
        • "we were in hiding, for we were sought after by them as wrongdoers " (see Jn 20:10, "the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews").
        • "wishing to set fire to the sanctuary" (see the trial of Stephen and the accusation of attacking the temple Acts 6:13) "They set up false witnesses who said, 'This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law'".
        • "In addition to all these things we were fasting; and we were sitting mourning and weeping night and day" (see Mk 2:20 where Jesus says that when the bridegroom is no longer there, the disciples will fast)

  • Analysis

    1. The Historicity of the Reactors and of Their Reactions

      1. Roman Soldiers

        • The presence of Roman soldiers is certain. But it gets more complicated when you want to specify the role of each one. We can think that in a group of four soldiers, one of them had the responsibility of executing Jesus, and then tradition dramatized this role. And in the context of Jewish hostility, the Roman army may have been perceived as impartial, or even favorable.

        • On the other hand, there is no way to establish the historicity of the centurion's reaction because it fits too well with the theology of the evangelist. In Mark it gives an answer to the heavenly voice at the baptism of Jesus (1:11): "Truly this man was God's Son" (15:39). In Matthew this reaction is part of an inclusion with the Magi, Gentiles people, at the beginning of the Gospel, as the centurion also recognizes Jesus as the son of God. In Luke the centurion is a stranger who recognizes in Jesus a just man.

        • The historicity of John's account is more complicated, because the evangelist insists on the presence and testimony of an eyewitness, the beloved disciple. Some biblical scholars doubt the reality of this figure, but it is quite plausible that behind the Johannine community and its tradition there was a disciple of Jesus, other than one of the Twelve, whose later role in the life of the community shows that he was especially loved by Jesus. But even if there was an eyewitness, the emphasis is on the theological level. It is not impossible for a soldier to verify whether a crucified man really died, but the difficulty in confirming the event comes from the fact that there is no other testimony. Likewise, no doctor can completely deny that blood and bodily fluid comes out by the force of gravity from someone who has just died, but the Evangelist invites us to a sign from heaven and a theological affirmation; and this is outside the historical realm.

      2. Jewish Crowds and/or Authorities

        • The presence of spectators at a crucifixion site is perfectly normal. On the other hand, the question of the presence of priests and other authorities is more complicated, because we are on the eve of a feast when priests have responsibilities in the temple, not to mention the risk of being unclean in contact with dead crucified people. It can be assumed that there must have been Jews hostile at Jesus' death as there were during his lifetime, but in John this hostility is stereotypical, and their intervention with Pilate (19:31) is a way of being included with an earlier intervention (19:21). Similarly, it is possible that onlookers may have come to the conclusion that Jesus was treated unfairly, but the scene in Luke fits too well with his theme of a sympathetic portrait of the people of Jerusalem.

      3. Followers of Jesus

        • Only John places people near the cross, and it is unlikely that the Roman authorities allowed family members or sympathizers to approach the crucified. On the other hand, the presence of female disciples who stood at a distance, without expressing their conviction, is plausible.

        • But, what is a little more complicated is the presence of these women not only at the cross, but at the burial and the discovery of the empty tomb. The strongest evangelical attestation is that Mary Magdalene (and other women?) found Jesus' tomb empty on Easter Sunday. In spite of the skepticism of some biblical scholars, the ancient value of this testimony must be recognized, because if it had been created from scratch, the story would have been centered around the men whose testimony alone had legal value. If this is the oldest tradition, some biblical scholars have thought that the ancient authors were forced to imagine that if the women were at the empty tomb, they must have been there at the burial, and if they were there at the burial, they must have been there at the cross: one would have created certain narratives backwards.

        • The relationship between the three scenes is probably more complicated. For John seems to have added to his account on the mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple an account received from tradition about the presence of women on Golgotha. Since he does not know Mark, the names of some of them diverge. And according to the triad pattern of the popular narratives, the number of three women must have been fixed quite early in the tradition. Inevitably, this tradition may have had an influence on the story of the empty tomb where, originally, there may have been only Mary Magdalene.

    2. The Composition of the Synoptic and the Johannine Accounts

      • Matthew and Luke derive their story from Mark. Mark contrasts a centurion in front of Jesus in an artistic way with the Galilean women who stand at a distance and remain passive; one will confess his faith in Jesus, the others will say nothing. Matthew accentuates the confession of faith by joining the voice of the guards with that of the centurion. Luke extended the two reactions to three characters (centurion, crowd, and a group of women), to be in harmony with the pattern of the three groups when walking to the place of execution.

      • In John, the whole section 19:31-34 (the breaking of the legs and the piercing of the side) probably comes from a tradition he receives in his community, to which he adds the parenthesis in v. 35 ("And the one who has seen has borne witness") and the two references to Scripture in v. 36-37, to provide an additional theological perspective.

  • Next chapter: The Burial of Jesus, Part One: Joseph's Request for the Body

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