Sayings of Jesus on the cross

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The Sayings of Jesus on the cross (also called the Seven Last Words from the Cross) are seven expressions traditionally attributed to Jesus during his crucifixion, gathered from the four Canonical Gospels. Three of the sayings appear exclusively in the Gospel of Luke and three appear exclusively in the Gospel of John. The other saying appears both in the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew. In Mark and Matthew, Jesus cries out to God. In Luke, he forgives his killers, reassures the good thief, and commends his spirit to the Father. In John, he speaks to his mother, says he thirsts and declares the end of his earthly life.

Since the 16th century these sayings have been widely used in the preachings on Good Friday and entire books have been written on the theological analysis, and the devotional elements of the seven sayings. The Seven Last Words from the Cross are an integral part of the liturgy in the Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and other Christian traditions.

Physicians and scientists who have studied the medical aspects of the crucifixion concluded that the sayings had to be short because crucifixion causes asphyxia. This makes inhaling air to speak difficult and painful, especially as death approaches.

The seven sayings tradition is an example of the Christian approach to the construction of a Gospel harmony, in which material from different Gospels is combined, producing an account that goes beyond each Gospel. James Dunn considers the sayings part of the elaborations of the diverse retellings of Jesus’ final hours.

Seven sayings

The seven sayings form part of a Christian meditation that is often used during Lent, Holy Week and Good Friday. The traditional order of the sayings is:

  1. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).
  2. Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).
  3. Woman, behold your son: behold your mother (John 19:26-27).
  4. My God, My God, why have you forsaken me, (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34).
  5. I thirst (John 19:28).
  6. It is finished (John 19:30).
  7. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46).

Traditionally, these seven sayings are called words of

1. Forgiveness,

2. Salvation,

3. Relationship,

4. Abandonment,

5. Distress,

6. Triumph and

7. Reunion.

As can be seen from the above list, not all seven sayings can be found in any one account of Jesus’ crucifixion. The ordering is a harmonization of the texts from each of the four canonical gospels. In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus is quoted in Aramaic, shouting the fourth phrase only, and cries out wordlessly before dying. In Luke’s Gospel, the first, second, and seventh sayings occur. The third, fifth and sixth sayings can only be found in John’s Gospel. In other words:

In Matthew and Mark :

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

In Luke:

Father forgive them, for they know not what they do

Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise (in response to one of the two thieves crucified next to him)

Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (last words)

In John:

Woman, behold your son: behold your mother (directed at Mary, the mother of Jesus, either as a self-reference or as a reference to the beloved disciple and an instruction to the disciple himself)

I thirst (just before a wetted sponge, mentioned by all the Canonical Gospels, is offered)

It is finished (last words)

Father forgive them, for they know not what they do Luke 23:34

Then Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

This first saying of Jesus on the cross is traditionally called “The Word of Forgiveness”. It is theologically interpreted as Jesus’ prayer for forgiveness for those who were crucifying him: the Roman soldiers, and apparently for all others who were involved in his crucifixion. However, many early manuscripts omit Luke 23:34.

Today you will be with me in paradise Luke 23:43

And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you today you will be with me in paradise”.

This saying is traditionally called “The Word of Salvation”. According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was crucified between two thieves (Dismas and Gestas), one of whom supports Jesus’ innocence and asks him to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus replies, “Truly, I say to you…” (ἀμήν λέγω σοί, amēn legō soi), followed with the only appearance of the word “paradise” in the Gospels (παραδείσω, paradeisō, from the Persian pairidaeza “paradise garden”).

A seemingly simple change in punctuation in this saying has been the subject of doctrinal differences among Christian groups, given the lack of punctuation in the original Greek texts. Protestant Christians usually use a version which reads “today you will be with me in Paradise”.This reading assumes a direct voyage to Heaven and has no implications of purgatory. On the other hand, Catholic have used a reading which emphasizes “I say to you today”, leaving open the possibility that the statement was made today, but arrival in Heaven may be later.

Behold your son: behold your mother

Crucifixion depicted as Stabat Mater with the Virgin Mary, Porto Alegre, Brasil, 19th century. John 19:26-27

Jesus saw his own mother, and the disciple standing near whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son”. Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother”. And from that hour, he took his mother into his family.

This statement is traditionally called “The Word of Relationship” and in it, Jesus entrusts Mary, his mother, into the care of “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me Matthew 27:46

Around the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, saying “Eli Eli lama sabachthani?” which is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:34

And at the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This saying is traditionally called “The Word of Abandonment” and is the only saying that appears in more than one Gospel. It is a quote from King David in Psalm 22.

Thirst John 19:28

He said, “I thirst”.

This statement is traditionally called “The Word of Distress” and is compared and contrasted with the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan Woman at the Well in John 4:4-26.

It is finished John 19:30

Jesus said, “It is completed”.

This statement is traditionally called “The Word of Triumph” and is theologically interpreted as the announcement of the end of the earthly life of Jesus, in anticipation for the Resurrection.

Father, into your hands I commit my spirit Luke 23:46

And speaking in a loud voice, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit”.

From Psalm 31, this saying, which is an announcement and not a request, is traditionally called “The Word of Reunion” and is theologically interpreted as the proclamation of Jesus joining the God the Father in Heaven.

Theological interpretations

The last words of Jesus have been the subject of a wide range of Christian teachings and sermons, and a number of authors have written books specifically devoted to the last sayings of Christ.

Priest and author Timothy Radcliffe state that in the Bible, seven is the number of perfection, and he views the seven last words as God’s completion of the circle of creation and performs analysis of the structure of the seven last words to obtain further insight.

Other interpretations and translations

Michelangelo: Crucifixion of Christ, 1540

The saying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is generally given in transliterated Aramaic with a translation (originally in Greek) after it. This phrase is the opening line of Psalm 22, a psalm about persecution, the mercy and salvation of God. It was common for people at this time to reference songs by quoting their first lines. In the verses immediately following this saying, in both Gospels, the onlookers who hear Jesus’ cry understand him to be calling for help from Elijah (Eliyyâ). The slight differences between the two gospel accounts are most probably due to dialect. Matthew’s version seems to have been more influenced by Hebrew, whereas Mark’s is perhaps more colloquial.

The phrase could be either:

אלי אלי למה עזבתני [ēlî ēlî lamâ azavtanî]; or

אלי אלי למא שבקתני [ēlî ēlî lamâ šabaqtanî]; or

אלהי אלהי למא שבקתני [ēlâhî ēlâhî lamâ šabaqtanî]

The Aramaic word šabaqtanî is based on the verb šabaq, ‘to allow, to permit, to forgive, and to forsake’, with the perfect tense ending -t (2nd person singular: ‘you’), and the object suffix -anî (1st person singular: ‘me’).

A. T. Robertson noted that the “so-called Gospel of Peter 1.5 preserves this saying in a Docetic (Cerinthian) form: ‘My power, my power, thou hast forsaken me!'”

The Lamsa Bible, (based on the Aramaic Peshitta, sometimes argued to be the original New Testament), has a different interpretation of Jesus’ cry on the cross.

Matthew 27:46 is translated as:

“And about the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a loud voice and said, Eli, Eli, lemana shabakthani! My God, my God, for this I was spared!

Mark 15:34 is translated as:

“And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying Eli, Eli, lemana shabakthani! Which means, My God, my God, for this I was spared!

The historicity of the sayings

James Dunn considers the seven sayings weakly rooted in tradition and sees them as a part of the elaborations in the diverse retellings of Jesus’ final hours. Dunn, however, argues in favour of the authenticity of the Mark/Matthew saying in that by presenting Jesus as seeing himself ‘forsaken’ it would have been an embarrassment to the early Church, and hence would not have been invented. Geza Vermes, states that the first saying from (Mark and Matthew) is a quotation from Psalm 22, and is therefore occasionally seen as a theological and literary device employed by the writers. According to Vermes, attempts to interpret the expression as a hopeful reference to scripture provide indirect evidence that it is authentic. Leslie Houlden, on the other hand, states that Luke may have deliberately excluded the Mark/Matthew saying from his Gospel because it did not fit in the model of Jesus he was presenting.

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