Chapter 22h - Synoptic Gospels

Continued from Chapter 22g

Was Jesus abandoned by everyone in his last hours?

The Synoptic Gospels maintain that at the crucifixion “many women were there looking on from a distance” who were supporters of Jesus (Matthew 27:55; see also Mark 15:40, Luke 23:49).

Luke adds that besides the women “all those acquainted with him were standing at a distance” (Luke 23:49). In addition, “all the multitude who came together for this spectacle, when they observed what had happened, began to return, beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48). John mentions a number of women supporters of Jesus being present at the crucifixion as well as “the disciple whom he loved” (John 19:26). John alleges that after Jesus’ death, Nicodemus, a Pharisee and “a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1), joined Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, in preparing the body for burial (John 19:39). Joseph was not only a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 27:57, John 19:38), but a counselor (member of the Sanhedrin) who “had not consented to their plan and action” (Luke 23:50-51). Joseph took the bold but dangerous step of asking Pilate for the body. We should not forget Mary Magdalene and the “other women” who it is said came to the tomb (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10, John 20:1 [Mary alone]), and the alleged multitude who, throughout it all, continued their loyalty to Jesus despite his sentence and crucifixion. As he went to be crucified, “there were following him a great multitude of the people, and of women who were beating themselves and bewailing him” (Luke 23:27). The overall Gospel accounts claim that besides this “multitude” Jesus had a large and loyal following throughout Judea, Galilee and the surrounding territories.

This group, it is alleged, consisted of people from among every level of society. These were individuals who did not know of events in Jerusalem and who still looked to Jesus as the Messiah.

Jesus’ popularity in review:

Do the Gospel’s describe Jesus as a person who “was despised and rejected,” or from whom people fled? The words: “He was despised and rejected of men … and as one from whom men hide their faces … and we esteemed him not” cannot be applied to Jesus if one is to believe the Gospel narratives.

The Gospels claim that Jesus enjoyed widespread popularity during his lifetime among all classes of society. The evangelists report that the chief priests and the scribes sought to take Jesus “by craft” but, as we have seen, not during the festival because they feared a popular demonstration against them if the people learned of Jesus’ arrest (Mark 14:1-2). Mark has these plans for the arrest of Jesus take place two days before Passover: “After two days was the Passover and Unleavened Bread” (Mark 14:1). Hence, very shortly before his death, we are told, Jesus’ enemies expressed fear of the wrath of the people if they should arrest him. As we have seen, the Gospels claim that even just before the end of his life, Jesus had a significant following among all social classes. According to the Gospel narratives, the Jewish leaders had been cautiously avoiding involvement of the Jewish masses in the scheme to execute Jesus (Matthew 21:46, Mark 14:1-2, Luke 22:2). It is claimed that the Jewish masses were favorably impressed with the “prophet” Jesus (Matthew 21:11, 46; Mark 6:15; Luke 7:16; John 6:14).

According to the Gospels, did the masses turn against Jesus?

The Gospels claim that the Jewish leaders feared that the one prisoner whom the crowd would want Pilate to release during his annual amnesty would be Jesus (Matthew 27:15, Mark 15:6, Luke 23:17, John 18:39). The Gospels maintain that Pilate discounted the seriousness of the charges brought against Jesus because he knew that the Jewish leaders sought his death out of envy (Matthew 27:18, Mark 15:10). Therefore, he sought a way to release the innocent Jesus rather than the guilty Barabbas (Luke 23:20, John 19:12). Desperate, because of Pilate’s maneuver to release Jesus (Matthew 27:22-23; Mark 15:9, 14; Luke 23:20, 22; John 19:4, 12) the Jewish leaders supposedly felt compelled to sway the Jewish crowd against the extremely popular Jesus. The “chief priests and elders” allegedly attempted to persuade not only Pilate (Matthew 27:12-13; Mark 15:1-3; Luke 23:2, 5, 14; John 18:30-31, 19:6-7, 12) but a crowd of their own people that Jesus should be executed (Matthew 27:20, Mark 15:11).

But, now we come to a question that has ramifications throughout the centuries as it was and is used to justify blaming all Jews for the death of Jesus. How large a crowd could possibly have gathered outside the judgment hall? Even if we accept that a crowd actually stood there demanding that Pilate execute Jesus (Matthew 27:22; Mark 15:13; Luke 23:21, 23; John 18:39-40), it must have constituted only an extremely small fraction of the people then in Jerusalem. In this alleged incident, the evangelists have distorted developments in order to condemn the entire Jewish people for their rejection of the messianic pretensions of Jesus. Matthew 27:25 neatly packages the slander to incorporate Jews of every generation: “Then answered all the people, and said: ‘His blood be on us, and on or children.’”

Contrary to this report of rejection, the major thrust of the Gospels argues for popular support, not only in the country as a whole, but even in those last hours in Jerusalem itself (Luke 23:27). Primarily we see how the Gospel narratives insist on a strong unwavering following for Jesus even as he was being crucified. Yet, they feel compelled to condemn the Jews. If the people who were Jesus’ contemporaries saw him in action and yet rejected his assertions why should those who were not there accept him? Thus there is a tension in the Gospels between claiming on the one hand that he was greatly admired and followed and on the other that he was rejected.

© Gerald Sigal