Our approach to John’s narrative of the Crucifixion and Death of Jesus is largely literary. We focus on its dramatic tension, its use of symbol, its powerful irony and the complexity of its characters. Does all this mean that this is just fiction? Not necessarily. We have seen that John can be historically accurate (N.B. his reference to Annas the father-in-law of Caiaphas). And yet we have to admit that there is no way anyone could know what exactly was said between Jesus and Pilate in the Praetorium. So it is probably fair to say that John bases his account on historical facts and then weaves them into a narrative in order to communicate his theology.
- Pilate is convinced that Jesus is innocent but he is politically compromised, and the Jews exploit this weakness in Pilate’s character – he cannot be on the side of Jesus and of Caesar!
- v.13: Pilate then brings Jesus out onto the balcony. The ambiguity of the johannine account allows the coronation cermony to be carried one step further: the text is unclear as to whether Pilate or Jesus sit at the Dallage (i.e. seat of judgement). Pilate may well have made Jesus sit there in mockery and then sarcastically declared to the Jews: “here is your king”! This would be totally in keeping with the irony of John.
- v.14: reference to day and time highly symbolic: it is noon on the day of preparation for the Passover – the time when the Temple priests begin to ritually slaughter the lambs in the temple. Mk, followed by Mt and Lk, has Jesus crucified at 9 o’clock in the morning and he dies at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. In John, Jesus is still before Pilate at noon and there is no time given for his crucifixion and death. We are left to assume that it happens in the afternoon. Pilate taunts the Jews, “Here is your king” Once more he proclaims that Jesus is King of the Jews.
- v.15: Pilate continues to taunt the Jews, “Will I crucify your king?” and in a final ironic twist, the very people who proclaim God as King daily in the Temple, renounce their faith and their messianic hope and declare, “We have no king except Caesar”. Raymond Brown captures the irony and the drama: “Israel had proudly claimed Yahweh as its king (Judg 8,23; 1 Sam 8,7). From the time of Nathan’s promise to David (2 Sam 7,11-16), God’s kingship was made visible in the rule of the Davidic king whom he took as his son (Ps 2,7). In post-exilic times a mystique had grown up around the unique anointed king of the House of David, the future Messiah, who was to come and establish God’s rule on earth (Is 26,13). But now hundreds of years of waiting are cast aside. “The Jews” had renounced their status as God’s people. It is an ironical touch of the writer to have “the Jews” renounce the Covenant at the moment when their priests are beginning the preparations for the feast that annually recalls God’s deliverance of his people” (Anchor Bible p.895).
- v.17: Jesus carries the cross by himself – no Simon of Cyrene.
- v.18: The final stage in the coronation ceremony comes on Calvary. We note the “economy” of details concerning the crucifixion. There is absolutely no focus on the bloody or gorey aspect of the event (in contrast to, for example, the film The Passion of Christ directed by Mel Gibson). Jesus is “enthroned” on the cross and once again it is Pilate who is at the service of the truth and who declares (as opposed to the Synoptics) “Jesus the Nazarean, King of the Jews”. It is written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek – it is therefore a universal declaration and John mentions that it was seen by many Jews.
- v.19-20: The inscription. John is more detailed than the other evangelists:
- Mk 15,26: “the King of the Jews”
- Mt 27,37: “this is Jesus, the King of the Jews”
- Lk 23,38: “This is the King of the Jews”
- Jn 19,19: “Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews”
John’s inscription is more expansive than the others. Only John says that it was Pilate who ordered the inscription to be put on the cross, so right up to the end, Pilate remains the character who proclaims Jesus as King. Only Lk and Jn state that the inscription was written in three languages (Latin, Greek and Hebrew) – this suits Jn. At the moment of his crucifixion, Jesus is universally proclaimed the Messiah. (INRI in Western Church and INBI in Eastern Church).
- v.21-22: Pilate stands by his declaration – it is not to be changed.
- v.23: Like Mt, Mk and Lk, John has the soldiers dividing or casting lots for the clothing of Jesus. But John adds the extra detail of the seamless garment. This is usually understood as a reference to the garment of the High Priest in the Temple, who once a year went into the Holy of Holies (i.e. the presence of God) to ask forgiveness for the sins of the people. Jesus is seen as the new High Priest through whom everybody has access to the presence of God and to the forgiveness of sins.
- People standing at the cross: the three Marys and “the disciple Jesus loved” (Beloved Disciple). I’ll say more about the Beloved Disciple towards the end of the talk. Suffice to say here that the death of Jesus on the cross is the birth of the new family of Jesus, the Church.
- Wine on a branch of hyssop. Only Jn mentions the hyssop, a kind of reed, hardly suitable for holding up a soaking sponge. It so happens that this was the type of reed used by the Hebrews in Egypt to put the blood of the lamb on the doorposts to save them from plague of death. It’s use here creates another link with the Passover.
- No cry of despair “”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In Jn, Jesus remains in control at all times and chooses the moment when everything has been accomplished.
- A crucified person usually died of asphyxiation. To precipitate death, it was not unusual for the criminal to have his legs broken so that he would no longer be able to lift his body to allow himself to breath.
- Jesus has already died so for some reason the soldier pierces his side with a lance/spear. Jn recounts that blood and water flowed from his side. From the body of the crucified Christ comes the blood of sacrifice and the water of new life, Eucharist and Baptism. Jesus is the Lamb whose blood saves us from death and who offers new life through the waters of baptism.
- Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (only Jn mentions him) come to take the body of Jesus. 100 pounds of ointment is a huge amount – fit for the burial of a king!
The Beloved Disciple
- Appears in the gospel narrative for the first time at the Last Supper: he lies across and puts his head close to the heart of Christ
- We find him in the courtyard of the high priest caught between Jesus’ testimony to the truth and Peter’s triple denial.
- We find him at the foot of the Cross, where he receives the mission to establish the Church, the new family of Christ, and where he witnesses the blood and water flowing from the side of Christ.
- We also find him on Easter Morning, hearing that Christ is Risen, running to the tomb, running faster than Peter but standing back at the last minute to let Peter go first into the tomb.