Sunday, March 25, 2018

The seven last words of Christ

1. There are harmonies of the Gospels that collate the "seven last words of Christ" on the cross:

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Lk 23:34)

Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise (Lk 23:43)

Woman, see your son. Son, see your mother (Jn 19:26-27)

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Mk 15:34, par. Mt 27:46)

I'm thirsty (Jn 19:28)

It is finished (Jn 19:30)

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit (Lk 23:46)

There are Good Friday liturgies centered on the last seven words, as well as musical settings (e.g. Haydn). 

Many cultures attach special significance to a person's dying words. And Jesus is extra special. 

2. However, there are "scholars" who don't think Jesus spoke all the words attributed to him from the cross. They think it's artificial to take different sayings from different Gospels and splice them together. They think the sayings attributed to Jesus in each Gospel make sense in the context of each Gospel's Passion narrative, but when you try to combine them, you end up with unrelated sayings. That disrupts the logical connections and narrative strategy of each Gospel writer. And a harmonistic sequence is arbitrary, by breaking them apart, as they exist in each Gospel, then mixing and matching them. 

3. There's a grain of truth to the objection inasmuch as any reconstructed order will be a bit conjectural. That said:

4. The dying words of Christ recorded in the four Gospels are realistic if you consider the situation:

i) Some people die a peaceful painless death. Likewise, some people are lucid right up to the moment of death. But even in that ideal situation, if they sense they're dying, this is their last chance to tell their loved certain things. So I expect they frantically consider what to say. They're rapidly running out of time, so they say whatever comes to mind whenever it comes to mind. Long silences in-between. Things pop into their heads. So there's no logical flow to what they say. 

Most of us don't make a list of things we'd like to say on our deathbed. So we improvise at the end. It might be a good spiritual exercise to draw up a list.

ii) However, that's a best-case scenario. Some dying people are only intermittently lucid. So there will be no logical connection between what they said before and what they said later. During moments of lucidity, they say whatever comes to mind. They don't keep track of what they said before. 

In addition, if, like Jesus, they're in unbearable pain, then consecutive thought isn't even possible. The pain consumes their attention. Unbearable pain destroys sustained concentration. They can't maintain a train of thought. It's all they can do is muster their dwindling energy to temporally force the pain into the back of their minds in order to think, reflect, and say something coherent. 

If would be completely unrealistic if the last recorded words of Christ read like a nice little prepared speech. It's not coincidental that the pre-Passion teaching of Christ consists of extended talks. Parables, speeches, and dialogues–whereas what he says from the cross is reduced to fragments. Broken sentences and terse utterances. A few words here, a few words there. That's what we'd expect given his excruciating ordeal. 

5. Now the Gospel writers, in selecting what statements to record, may select related sayings. 

6. The authenticity of Lk 23:34 is disputed, but that's on text-critical grounds rather than redaction critical grounds. 


  1. //...whereas what he says from the cross is reduced to fragments. Broken sentences and terse utterances. A few words here, a few words there. That's what we'd expect given his excruciating ordeal. //

    Exactly. That's in favor of or lends credibility to the Gospel's historicity. The fact that Jesus isn't recorded to have said very much on the cross even though He was on it for hours. The same thing is true regarding His resurrection. No human witnessed it. It would have been easy to make up a story of how someone or a group saw Jesus walk out of the tomb. Compare that to the Gospel of Peter were the cross comes out of the tomb and starts testifying to Jesus' resurrection.

    If the story of the guards in Matthew were made up, then it would have been wise for them to have guarded the tomb starting Friday night, instead of Saturday. Since Jesus' disciples could have theoretically stolen his body before then. So, the crafters of the story would have been pretty incompetent if their purpose was to remove all possibility that the body was stolen.

    Also, Matthew's story of an angel of the Lord descending and frightening the guards suggests that Jesus had already resurrected and left the (still enclosed) tomb BEFORE the angel rolled the stone away and sat on it. It would have been just as easy to say Jesus walked out of the tomb after the angel rolled the stone away. Then saying the women arrived sometime afterwards (in keeping with Mark, which was probably one of Matthew's sources). But even in Matthew no one saw Jesus walk out of the tomb. Probably because he walked through the walls of the tomb similar to how Jesus was able to enter a locked room in John 20:19.

    1. Gospel's historicity = Gospels' historicity

      were the cross = where the cross

  2. Isn't it funny that, though he was on the cross for hours and we have only these few things recorded in all the gospels put together, redaction critics *still* try to reduce the total number of things he said? They even go so far as to pretend that one of them is in some sense a version of an *obviously totally different saying* in a different gospel.