pontius pilate readings

Who was Pontius Pilate in the gospels?

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Books about Pontius Pilate at the trial of Jesus.
Each of the gospel writers describes a slightly different man.
Who is right?

(The gospel of ) ‘John depicts Pilate, to whom Jesus was probably presented at short notice, as obliging and co-operative. He receives the chief priests early in the morning and, respectful of their purity concerns, meets them outside his residence. He politely inquires about the reason of their coming: ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’

The Jewish delegation is described as cagey and in a hurry. No doubt they had many pressing matters to attend to in preparation for Passover. On that same afternoon the Temple was to become a giant slaughterhouse where priestly butchers would kill the thousands of Passover lambs for the Seder supper.

And there were the preparations for the solemn ritual of the fifteenth day of Nisan, which the chief priests had to conduct. lt consisted, Josephus tells us, of the sacrifice of two bulls, a ram and seven lambs to serve as burnt offerings, and a kid for sin offering (Jewish Antiquities 3:249).

So when Pilate asks about the charges against Jesus, he is curtly told that the accused is a wrong- doer; otherwise they would not have brought him here. To this Pilate sensibly retorts — and John’s Pilate is even more sensible than the Pilate of the Synoptics — that if the chief priests have nothing against him that concerns Rome, they should try him themselves according to Jewish law.

This reply gives rise to a totally unexpected riposte, which grotesquely amounts to a tutorial on Roman law given by the Jewish delegation to the Roman prefect. He should know that the Romans have deprived the Sanhedrin of the right to pronounce and execute capital sentences: ‘It is not lawful for us to put any man to death.’

John’s Pilate takes the reproof in his stride and meekly agrees to handle the case. So Jesus is ordered inside the palace, and the governor focuses his inquiry on Jesus’ kingship. Pilate is told that it is spiritual, not of this world, John informs us. Pilate then concludes that the priestly leaders are trying to involve him in a theological dispute about something he would have called their superstitio, and impresses on them that religious matters are outside his sphere of competence and that he can find no crime in Jesus in the political domain.

At this juncture the evangelists, like virtuoso wizards, present their readers with a surprise, the unforeseen legal custom (or fiction) of the privilegium paschale, or Passover amnesty.’
(The Passion, Geza Vermes, Penguin Books, 2005, p.55-57)

Pontius Pilate in the Four Gospels

MARK’S GOSPEL     ‘Pilate in Mark’s gospel is not a weak governor, bowing to public pressure and the demands of the chief priesthood. Instead he is a skillful politician, manipulating the crowd to avoid a potentially difficult situation, and is a strong representative of imperial interests.

Although Mark clearly lays primary guilt for Jesus’ death upon the Jewish leadership, Pilate is not exonerated. He plays a vital part in the chain of events leading to the crucifixion and shares the guilt involved therein….

At his death not only is Jesus deserted by his closest supporters but the whole political world of first-century Palestine, both Jewish and Roman, have sided against him. The Jewish leadership have arrested and condemned him but Pilate sends Jesus for crucifixion.’
(Pontius Pilate in history and interpretation, Helen K. Bond & John Court, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p.117)

MATTHEW’S GOSPEL    The Matthean Pilate plays a much less significant role within the Roman trial scene than the Markan Pilate. The governor attempts to show his innocence by publicly washing his hands and telling the Jewish crowd to see to Jesus’ execution themselves. Yet, like the chief priest in 27.4 who say the same words to Judas, Pilate is already too deeply implicated and cannot abdicate his responsibilities....

Whilst not so harsh and calculating as in Mark, the Matthean Pilate is none the less indifferent towards Jesus and willing to let the Jewish authorities have their way as long as he does not have to take the onus of responsibility.(p.136-7)

LUKE-ACTS    In a drastic revision of his Markan source, Luke’s major apologetic purpose in 23:1-25 is to use Pilate as the official witness to Jesus’ innocence and to lay the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion first on the intrigues of the chief priests (vv. 1-12) and then on representatives of the whole Jewish nation (vv. 13-25).

This theme continues throughout Acts where Roman involvement nearly always follows Jewish plots. But once Pilate has three times declared Jesus innocent, Luke does not seem intent upon painting a glowing picture of Roman administration. In fact, quite the reverse. As C. H. Talbert notes, ‘Pilate appears more as an advocate who pleads Jesus’ case than as a judge presiding over an official hearing’.

He refuses to become involved with the charges and simply declares Jesus innocent. He does not want to bother with the case and seizes the opportunity to pass Jesus on to Herod. But Herod, who does question Jesus at length, albeit for self- interested motives, sees Jesus as no threat and returns him to the governor.

Eventually Pilate convicts a man whom he has declared innocent and releases a rebel and murderer because of the demand of the people. Bowing to Jewish pressure he undermines not only his own judgement but also that of Herod. In the end, Jewish mob pressure has triumphed over Roman justice. The weak Pilate has let down first himself and Herod, second the Roman administration he represents. (p.159)

JOHN’S GOSPEL      The Johannine Pilate is far from a weak and vacillating governor. He takes the case seriously and examines Jesus but quickly realizes that he is no political threat to Rome. He seizes on the opportunity, however, not only to mock the prisoner but also to ridicule ‘the Jews’ and their messianic aspirations. Only once does he try to release Jesus and that is after the religious charge has been brought against him, a charge which the superstitious pagan finds alarming.

Brought back to reality by the political threats of ‘the Jews’, Pilate resumes his mockery. But this time he is on the judgement seat and he is guiding ‘the Jews’ in a certain direction.

Although he finds Jesus’ messianic claims ridiculous, he reasons that the prisoner is claiming some kind of kingship and could be dangerous in the crowded city at Passover time. By the final scene, Jesus is to be put to death.

But Pilate will exact a high price from ‘the Jews’. If they want Jesus executed, they must not only renounce their messianic hopes but unconditionally accept the sovereignty of Caesar. Only after this does Pilate hand Jesus over for crucifixion.

The Johannine Pilate, particularly in Scene 6, is reminiscent of the Roman governor in Mark’s account. In both the prefect is harsh and manipulative, mocking the people and goading them into rejecting their messianic beliefs….

In the proceedings before Pilate, all earthly authority is judged and found wanting by its response to Jesus. The contrast between the true, dignified, other-worldly kingship of Jesus and that of Caesar implies that each member of John’s community, constantly coming up against the might of imperial Rome, will always have to decide vis-a-vis the Empire whether Jesus is his king or whether Caesar is. (p.192-193)

The execution of Jesus was in all probability a routine crucifixion of a messianic agitator. Pilate, however, executed only the ring-leader and not his followers. This may betray a dislike of excessive violence, but also indicates prudence at the potentially volatile Passover season. Again, the governor appears to have worked closely with the Jewish hierarchy. (Pontius Pilate in history and interpretation, Helen K. Bond & John Court, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p.204)

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Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss

Bible study questions

Judas brought soldiers to the Garden of Gethsemane and gave Jesus the infamous kiss of greeting which identified him to his enemies.

  • Why did Judas betray Jesus?A small grey bag with ancient silver coins
  • What happened at the Last Supper?
  • What is a ‘Judas kiss’?
  • What drives someone to suicide?

Judas agrees to betray Jesus

Once the Jewish authorities decided to get rid of Jesus, they had to find a way to do it without inciting a riot or an uprising. They knew that Jesus had supporters among the ordinary people, many of whom might take up arms on his behalf. They had to arrest Jesus quickly, without a fuss.

But there was a problem. Since there would have been something like 100,000 people in and around Jerusalem at Passover that year, the chances of locating and arresting an individual, especially one who did not want to be found, were slight.

Suddenly a solution to their problem appeared. One of Jesus’ disciples, Judas, approached the authorities and showed them how they might arrest Jesus.Judas looks at Jesus, scene from a film of the Life of Jesus

  • Judas knew what Jesus’ movements were likely to be.
  • He was well placed to find an occasion when Jesus would be most vulnerable.
  • He also showed them how Jesus could be arrested during the festival without the event becoming too public, too disruptive.

‘Quick and silent’ was what was needed in this combustible situation. Once Jesus was arrested, even his popularity with the people would not protect him. He could be taken into custody and dealt with before the general populace was even aware of what was happening.

Why did Judas do it?

Judas was, and still is a riddle. He walked with Jesus and knew him well. Not only that, he had been chosen as one of the special group of insiders who were Jesus’ intimates. The gospels keep identifying him as ‘one of the twelve’, a phrase which highlights the tragedy of his betrayal of Jesus. But they also say he turned to the Tempter, a stark warning for all who think they can resist temptation, and perhaps the reason for St Paul’s caution: “Let anyone who thinks that he stands, take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

Judas did not betray Jesus for the money. The equivalent modern value of thirty pieces of silver is not known, but it was a comparatively modest sum. When Judas faced the Temple authorities he did not quibble at the amount, or bargain for more.

Judas plans the betrayal of Jesus, Giotto di BondoneThe evangelist John suggests it was Judas’ avarice and dishonesty which were the deciding factors, but money cannot have been his primary motive, given the amount.

Perhaps he did not agree with the direction of Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps he had been won over to the politics of the Zealots, ancient-day terrorists who aimed to seize power and violently end Roman domination of Israel. Judas realised he was never going to get this through Jesus.

On the other hand, maybe Judas was afraid for his own safety. Did he think Jesus was becoming too radical, too dangerous? The attack on the money-changers had occurred only a few days before. Judas may have decided to get out while the going was good – and prove his loyalty to the Jewish leaders by handing over Jesus.

At the same time he fervently believed in Jesus, as his later despair showed.

Note: The gospels saw that ‘Satan entered into Judas’. This should not be confused with demonic possession. We know from the Qumran documents that many Jewish people at that time believed that there were two universal forces, good and evil. A person turned to one or the other in his actions, and in this case Judas aligned himself with evil.

Read the blue text at end of page.

Where it happened- the city of ancient JerusalemWhere it happened: the city of ancient Jerusalem lay in the lower left and centre of this 19th century photograph; the Kidron valley is lower right ; the Mount of Olives is extreme lower right

Jesus and Judas at the Last Supper

What happened? On the day in question, Jesus stayed in Jerusalem for the evening meal instead of eating in Bethany, where he had probably been staying since he arrived in the Jerusalem area. This ties in with the Last Supper being the Passover meal, which had to be eaten within the city walls.

In the middle of observing this important Jewish festival, Jesus stunned his disciples by saying that he was about to be betrayed. None of them seemed to have argued with him, which gives us some idea of the mood in that room. One by one they asked if it was they who would betray him. Not for a moment did they think he might be mistaken. Jesus then told Judas that he was the betrayer.

How does Jesus know that his betrayer was Judas? There is nothing ‘magic’ about it. Jesus had almost certainly been warned by various friendly sources in Jerusalem that the ruling priests had struck a bargain with one of his disciples. We know he had followers in positions of influence, and any one of these might have alerted Jesus to the priests’ plans. And Jesus was of course an acute judge of people, and of what they might or might not do.

Loaves of newly baked breadWhat happened then? Jesus handed Judas a piece of bread, the gesture of a friend and attentive host. The dish they dipped this morsel into was probably a bowl of sauce/gravy. To dip bread into this bowl and then give it to someone was a mark of honour. In this case it was a special, last appeal to Judas. Then Jesus told Judas to do what he must – but the meaning was ambiguous and the decision ultimately belonged to Judas.

People in the ancient world despised anyone who received hospitality or friendship (as Judas did) and then betrayed their host. Psalm 41:9 says “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” But Judas’ crime was even worse: he not only shared a meal with Jesus that evening, but took food from the very bowl used by Jesus.

Now Jesus’ words had the effect of forcing Judas to act, one way of another. Jesus was saying stay with me, or go to the priests and betray me. Make up your mind. ‘What you are going to do, do quickly’.

The gospel of John simply states that Judas immediately went out; and it was night. Again there’s a double meaning: it was night-time, but also night for the soul of Judas.

Read the green text at end of page

The Last SupperThe Last Supper, by Nikolas Ge; Jesus is filled with grief as Judas leaves the upper room

The Judas kiss

After Judas left the upper room where they had been eating, Jesus washed the feet of his friends in an act of godly service. Then they went out to a garden across the Kidron Valley, a garden they must have known well. Jesus prayed there, but the peace of the garden was shattered by the arrival of a contingent of guards and officials. They had come to arrest Jesus. With them was Judas.

Because there were many pilgrims around, it was necessary to have a sign (the kiss) to identify Jesus. If there had been a struggle the wrong man might have been arrested, especially in the dark. A kiss was normal enough; it was the way a pupil greeted a Rabbi, and Jesus had been a teacher to Judas. Mark, writing in Greek, uses an emphatic form of the verb katephilesen. Judas kissed Jesus with more than usual fervour and affection.

The Kiss of JudasThe Kiss of Judas (El Beso de Judas), Francisco Salzillo, 1754

The gospel texts describing his scene keep identifying Judas as ‘one of the twelve’, a reproach. The phrase drives home the enormity of Judas’ treachery.

Jesus submitted quietly to the soldiers, but spoke some final words to Judas: Friend, why are you here?

The words can be read as a loving rebuke, but they can also be translated as Do what you came to do.

Read the red text at end of page

The Betrayal of Jesus by Judas, CaravaggioThe Betrayal of Jesus by Judas, Caravaggio

The suicide of Judas

There was no excuse for what Judas had done, and he knew it. His breach of trust and failure of loyalty made him a pariah, even to himself.

We can guess something of his despair when we learn that he took back the money to the priests, and tried to return it. It was a hopeless, despairing gesture. He knew he could not stop the train of events, and yet he deeply regretted his own actions. Tragically, he made his crime worse by yielding to despair. He went away and hanged himself.

Conscience, by Nikolas Ge;

Conscience, by Nikolas Ge; Judas stands alone, watching as the soldiers lead Jesus away

Meanwhile, Jesus faced the hastily assembled courts. His fate was already sealed.

Read the black text at end of page


At a last meal with his closest disciples, Jesus knew that one of them, Judas, was about to betray him. He tried to draw Judas back from the brink by offering friendship and forgiveness, but it was too late. Judas sold Jesus to his enemies, identifying him with a kiss. Jesus was arrested and taken away for trial.

For more, see The Last Supper

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What  the  Gospels say

1 Judas agrees to betray Jesus: Read the blue text

2 Jesus and Judas at the Last Supper: Read the green text

3 The Judas kiss: Read the red text

4 The suicide of Judas: Read the black text

Mark 14:10-11

10 Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. 11 When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

Mark 14:17-21

17 And when it was evening, he came with the Twelve. 18 And while they were reclining and eating, Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me. 19 They began to be grieved and to say to him, one by one, “It is not I, is it?” 21 But he said to them, “One of the Twelve, one who dips into the bowl with me. 21 For the ‘son of man’ goes, just as it is written concerning him; but woe to that man through whom the ‘son of man’ is betrayed. Better for him if that man had not been born.”

Mark 14:43-46

43 And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. 44 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I shall kiss is the man; seize him and lead him away under guard.” 45 And when he came, he went up to him at once, and said, “Master!” And he kissed him. 46 And they laid hands on him and seized him.

Matthew 26:14-16

14 Then one of the twelve, the one called Judas Iscariot, came to the chief priests and said 15 ‘What will you give me so I will betray him to you?’ And they set with him the amount of thirty silver coins. 16 And from that time he began to seek an opportune time in order that he might betray him.

Matthew 26:20-25

20 And when evening came, he reclined at table with the twelve. 21 And while they were eating, he said: “Truly I tell you that one of you will betray me. “22 And becoming greatly distressed, they began to say to him, one by one: “I’m not the one, Lord, am I? ” and he answered and said: “The one having dipped his hand with mine in the bowl, this one will betray me. 24 The Son of Man goes just as it has been written concerning him, but woe to that man through whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would have been better if that man had not been born.” 25 And Judas, the one betraying him, answered and said: “I am not the one, Rabbi, am I?” And Jesus said to him: “You have said he truth.”

Matthew 26:47-50

47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him.

Matthew 27:3-5

3 When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 He said “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5 Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself.

Luke 22:3-6

3 Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the Twelve, 4 and he went and conferred with the chief priests and the officers about how he might deliver Jesus up to them. 5 They were glad and decided to give him money. 6 He agreed and began to seek for an opportunity to deliver him up in the absence of a crowd.

Luke 22:47-48

47 While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him; 48 but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of man with a kiss?”

John 13:21-30

21 After saying these things Jesus became agitated in spirit. He bore witness and said, “Amen, amen, I tell you, one of you will betray me. 22 The disciples looked at one another, at a loss to know of whom he was speaking. 23 One of his disciples was reclining at table close to the breast of Jesus–the one whom Jesus loved. 24 Simon Peter therefore made signs to him that he should inquire who it was of whom he was speaking. 25 That disciple therefore leaned back on Jesus’ chest and said to him, “Master, who is it?
26 Jesus answers, “It is he for whom I shall dip this piece of bread in the dish and give it to him.” After dipping the bread he (takes it and) gives it to Judas, son of Simon Iscariot. 27 Then after the piece of bread Satan entered into him. Jesus says to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly. 28 Now none of those reclining at table knew for what purpose he said this to him; 29 for some of them were supposing, since Judas used to keep the money-box, that Jesus was saying to him, “Buy what we need for the festival,” or that he should give something to the poor. 30 After taking the bread, therefore, he went out at once; and it was night.

John 18:1-5

1 When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples across the Kidron valley, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. 2 Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place; for Jesus often met there with his disciples. 3 So Judas, procuring a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. 4 Then Jesus, knowing all that was to befall him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” 5 They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.

Comparing the four gospel accounts

Comparing the four gospel accounts

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Gospel text for this story

Peter's story

Food in ancient times


Two disciples see Jesus at Emmaus

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. What does it mean to say ‘their eyes were kept from recognizing him’?
  2. What did Jesus do and say at Emmaus?
  3. What did the men do and say? Why was this so important at that particular moment?
On the road to Emmaus, Helge Boe

On the road to Emmaus, Helge Boe

Something happened at Emmaus that no-one could explain. Two disciples saw, talked with and shared a meal with Jesus, whose dead body had gone missing that morning. How was this possible?

On the road to Emmaus

Map of incidents in the life of Jesus, including EmmausThe resurrection occurred very early on Sunday morning.

On this same day, two disheartened people were walking along the road that led to the town of Emmaus, about 7 or 8 miles north-west of Jerusalem (see the remains of the original road leading towards the town of Emmaus below right).

One of them was called Cleopas, and may well have been the husband of the faithful woman, ‘the wife of Cleopas’, who stood at the cross, watching as Jesus died.

They were joined by a man they did not recognise. It was Jesus, but they failed to perceive his identity, which suggests he appeared in a form that was different to the one they were used to. Mark’s gospel says that ‘Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. They returned and reported it to the rest, but they did not believe them either… (Mark 16:12-13).

What this different form was, we do not know. All we know is that ‘their eyes were kept from recognizing him’.

Remains of the original road leading towards the town of Emmaus

The two travellers were talking about recent events in Jerusalem – the death of Jesus of Nazareth and the fact that Jesus’ tomb had been found empty. There was a report from women disciples that they had seen angels, but this was dismissed as improbable.

When the male disciples had checked, there had been no sign of Jesus, whose body had disappeared.

See the blue text in What The Gospels Say at end of page

Jesus guides their understanding

As they walked on, the unrecognised figure of Jesus chided them for rejecting the words of the prophets, who had foretold the wretched treatment that awaited the suffering Messiah. He went through the main books of the Jewish Scriptures and pointed out that suffering was a prelude to the glorious arrival of the Messiah.

The disciples and Jesus on the road to Emmaus If they knew their Scriptures, why would they be surprised at what had happened to this Jesus of Nazareth?

In essence, the mysterious stranger

  • walked the road with them
  • listened to them
  • and searched the Scriptures with them.

Without realizing it, they began to understand.

See the green text in What The Gospels Say at end of page

And their eyes were opened

When they arrived at Emmaus Jesus made as if to go on further, but the two disciples held him back. They insisted he stay with them, share a meal, and presumably spend the night at the inn they had chosen (or their home? the location is not clear).

Open hearth with blazing fireJesus agreed, and went in to share the evening meal with them. He was their guest, but instead he assumed the position of host.

  • He took up a piece of the bread
  • blessed the morsel
  • gave thanks to God
  • and shared it with them.

As he did so, the truth hit home. They recognised the gestures and words as the same that Jesus had used, and what is more they recognised this man for who he was: Jesus of Nazareth, the Risen Christ.

At the moment of recognition, Jesus vanished from their sight.

See the red text in What The Gospels Say at end of page

They proclaim the risen Christ

The two people sitting at that table must have been frozen with astonishment, but they soon realized what this extraordinary experience meant. There had been a strange exhilaration when Jesus spoke to them, and his gestures as he broke and blessed bread cemented their certainty. Emmaus, Painting by Caravaggio

This was Jesus of Nazareth in a form they had not recognized.

They lost no time, but set out immediately to proclaim the Risen Christ to the eleven disciples waiting, too stunned for action, in Jerusalem. The women had seen Jesus, but their story had been discounted. Simon Peter had spoken with Jesus; this was now given more credence. The two men from Emmaus provided backup up for these earlier sightings, and at last the disciples began to hope.

See the black text in What The Gospels Say at end of page

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What  the  Gospels say

1. On the road to Emmaus. Read the blue text

2. Jesus guides them. Read the green text

3. And their eyes were opened. Read the red text

4. They proclaim the risen Christ. Read the black text.

Luke 24:13-35

13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning 23 and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.”

25 And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, 29 but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”

33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, 34 who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

You might like to compare the parallel accounts of the births of Jesus and John the Baptist in Luke’s gospel. You can find the gospel texts at http://www.womeninthebible.net/Elizabeth_bible_text.htm

Notice especially statements about

the pregnancy reaching term, Luke 1.57 and 2.6

the birth statement, Luke 1.57 and 2.7

marvelling onlookers, Luke 1.63 and 2.18

the taking to heart of what had happened, Luke 1.66 and 2.19

circumcision and name-giving, Luke 1.59 and 2.21

John’s birth is clearly a prelude to the birth of Jesus.

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Jesus' story

Black silhouette of a man against a fiery background

Peter's story

Doubting Thomas

Jesus to Thomas ‘Doubt no more!’

Questions for Bible study groups

  • What sort of man was Jesus’ disciple Thomas?
  • What pivotal moment did Thomas miss?
  • What changed Thomas’ mind?

Thomas was a close friend and disciple of Jesus while he lived, but this practical man simply did not believe the other apostles when they said that Jesus was risen from the dead. Jesus appeared to him and showed him the wounds left by the nails and the spear. ‘Now do you believe?’ asked Jesus.

Doubting Thomas

In the days after the Resurrection, there was a great deal of arguing and counter-arguing, of rumor and counter-rumor. A number of the disciples were convinced that Jesus was risen; there were probably many who scoffed at the idea. It simply was not possible, they would have argued.

The hands of Jesus extended, with the marks of the nails showingAmong the scoffers was Thomas, presumably present at the Last Supper, possibly watching from afar when Jesus was crucified, and until this fatal week in Jerusalem a faithful follower of Jesus. But he had missed a pivotal moment: he was not present when Jesus appeared to the other disciples on the evening of Easter Sunday. He had not seen, as they had, the living Jesus.

He seems to have been a sensible, down-to-earth man, not given to rash judgments. Now he found it impossible to believe what many of the other disciples were believing: that Jesus had risen from the dead, and was alive and among them. He was not given to hiding his opinion: he expressed it freely. He would believe, he said, when he has actually put his hand into the horrible wounds that were left by the nails and the spear, when Jesus was crucified. He wanted physical evidence to show that the risen Jesus was the same Jesus he had known.

See the blue text in What The Gospels Say at end of page

Thomas doubts no more

Doubting Thomas, Francisco de Zurbaran, 1635A week later the disciples, including Thomas, were gathered in a house – we do not know where. The doors of the house were locked – the disciples were still afraid. But suddenly Jesus was among them. This in itself was astonishing, and seems, like the other appearances of Jesus, to suggest that Jesus’ resurrected body was not governed by the normal laws of Nature.

Jesus’ first words were ‘Peace be with you’ – a traditional greeting, but perhaps also a sort of ‘Steady on, chaps’ to the disciples, who would have been alarmed and dis-oriented by his sudden appearance among them.

Jesus then turned to Thomas, and told him to place his fingers in the nail wounds in his hands. He told Thomas to place his hand in the gaping wound in his side, where the soldier’s spear had pierced. In doing so, he showed Thomas that he somehow knew what Thomas had been saying.

‘Believe’ commanded Jesus.

Notice Thomas’ response: he calls Jesus not only Lord, but names him God as well.

There was a gentle reproach in Jesus’ response: Thomas believed because he saw with his own eyes that it was Jesus, risen from the dead. How much more blessed were people who never saw Jesus, never heard his voice, but believed in him as Lord and God.

This has applied to all believing Christians since the time of Jesus.

See the green text in What The Gospels Say at end of page

The Birth of Jesus 2There was a more civilized alternative to death by stoning: a quiet divorce. This is what Joseph decided to do.

Something now happened in the story that changed world history. Joseph had a dream, a very powerful one, in which he was guided by God to take Mary as his wife.

The text describes the message as coming from an ‘angel’, without going into details of what it meant by ‘angel’. Biblical writers seemed to have used the word as a sort of code: the message of an ‘angel’  meant that a deep conviction settled on a person that God had a particular purpose or plan, and that they were part of it. They must follow this purpose through to the end, even if it did not seem to make sense to them. They must simply trust in God.

The dream/angel told Joseph to marry Mary, even though he knew the child would not be his. This he did. Then, awed by the dream and God’s message, he decided to abstain from sexual relations with her until after the baby was born.

Read the blue text at end of page

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What  the  Gospels say

1. Doubting Thomas. Read the blue text

2. Thomas doubts no more. Read the green text

John 20:24-29

24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Jesus with doubting Thomas, Caravaggio

Jesus with doubting Thomas, Caravaggio

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Black silhouette of a man against a fiery background

Peter denies knowing Jesus


Peter & John

Mary, Peter, John on Easter morning

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. What does John the evangelist see as the most important part of the story of Easter morning?
  2. Who was first at the tomb of Jesus?
  3. What did John the apostle and Peter find in the tomb?

In brief: The disciples were slumped in grief when Mary Magdalene burst in and told them the tomb of Jesus was empty. Peter and John set out running. John arrived first. They found the linen binding clothes, but the body of Jesus was gone.

‘They have taken away the Lord…’

Entrance to underground stone tomb, photograph by Ferrell JenkinsIn this part of the story, the gospel writer John shortened the narrative, leaving out details the other gospel writers gave. For example, he did not mention the other women who came to the tomb with Mary Magdalene, but focused only on her. Nor did he mention the angels, messengers of God, who spoke to the women. For John, the important thing was that Jesus’ body was missing. Nothing else really mattered.

Mary’s reaction to the empty tomb was spontaneous. She ran full pelt, back to the male disciples, to Peter and John in particular, and told them that Jesus’ body was missing, presumably stolen by someone. The other gospels contradict this by saying that Mary already knew from an angel that Jesus was risen. All one can assume is that there was a great deal of confusion about who said what to whom, which was hardly surprising in the circumstances.

See the blue text in What The Gospels Say at end of page

The tomb was empty

When Peter and John heard what Mary had to say, they wasted no time. Peter ran as fast as he could towards the site of the tomb – but he was not as agile as the younger man, who soon outstripped him, arriving at the tomb some moments before Peter. It is a vivid, factual moment, meant to emphasize the reality of the scene.

Shroud and head cloth lying discarded in the tomb of Jesus on the first Easter morning. When John got there, he leaned down and peered into the tomb, but did not go in. He saw the linen clothes that had been used to bind the dead body of Jesus, but nothing else.

When Peter arrived, he did not hesitate, but went straight into the tomb, alone. There was no-one there. He saw the linen strips, and a little apart from them the square of cloth that had covered the head of Jesus’ corpse. This is an important detail, a factual element that verifies Peter’s attention to what was in the tomb – and what was not.

John joined him – a second witness to this scene. They looked around, but found nothing else – certainly no sign of Jesus. Then they went home, presumably to report back to the other disciples. They were beginning, slowly, to understand.

Both men saw the cloths, but the word in the original text describing each man’s action is different:

  • John looks
  • Peter peers hard at the cloth.

Again, another factual detail emphasizes the reality of the moment.

See the green text in What The Gospels Say at end of page

Diagram of an underground tomb similar to the one in which Jesus was places; different chambers, circular opening, Roman guard at the entrance

An underground tomb like the one in which Jesus’ dead body was placed

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What  the  Gospels say

1. They have taken away the Lord… Read the blue text

2. The tomb was empty. Read the green text

John 20:1-10

1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

3 Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. 4 They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; 5 and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, 7 and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.

Reconstruction of the scene as Peter and John run towards the tomb in the early morning

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Peter's story


What is an 'Angel'?


Jesus is risen!

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. What did Mary Magdalene see?
  2. What did Jesus say and do?
  3. Why is Mary Magdalene called ‘apostle to the apostles’?

In brief: Mary Magdalene, weeping at the empty tomb, sees two angels standing guard. Grief-stricken and disoriented, she mistakes Jesus for a worker in the garden. Jesus gently corrects her, telling her to go to the disciples and give them the Good News: he is risen, and will ascend to his Father.

Mary Magdalene and the angels

Underground stone tombs from the Tombs of the Kings in Jerusalem. Notice the stone slabs which held the bodies of the dead.

Underground stone tombs from the Tombs of the Kings in Jerusalem. Notice the stone slabs which held the bodies of the dead.

Mary Magdalene was outside the tomb in which Jesus had been placed immediately after he died. She had seen his body placed there, but when she and the other women returned with spices to anoint his dead body, it was missing. All of the women were distraught, but perhaps Mary especially.

When she leaned down to peer through the entrance of the tomb, she saw two ‘angels’ – though what exactly is meant by ‘angels’ is open to debate (see The Women at the Tomb).

‘Why are you weeping?’ they asked. It seemed rather an odd thing to ask in the present situation – the reason was obvious, but of course these words are God’s, and they had a special purpose. They were pushing Mary towards a greater truth than the fact that Jesus’ body was missing.

What seemed like a gentle reproof was really a subtle hint that happiness, not sorrow, should be our response to the empty tomb.

Read the blue Gospel text at bottom of page

Jesus speaks to Mary Magdalene

Black silhouette of a man against a fiery backgroundBut Mary was submerged in grief. She had fallen into a bent-over position and her eyes were blurred with tears. When she heard a male voice she did not look at the man but assumed it was a worker in the garden surrounding the tombs. Here, she thought, might be someone who knew something.

She blurted out a question, but when he answered she did not recognise the voice of Jesus. Only when he gently said her name ‘Mary’ did she recognise who it was standing there beside her.

She was immediately overcome with emotion, and grasped hold of him, calling him ‘rabboni’, a Hebrew word meaning ‘teacher’.

Statue of Mary Magdalene looking upwards towards JesusWhy Hebrew, an ancient language, and not Aramaic which was the ordinary everyday language of Jews at that time? There is a certain formality in her use of this word. It must have been the word she and the other disciples called him by in the years before his death.

This formality puts paid to the ridiculous notion that she and Jesus were at one time lovers (for the reasons why this could not have happened, see Did Jesus Marry Mary Magdalene?)

Jesus gently disengaged himself from Mary’s grasp. The words he spoke are often translated as ‘Do not touch me’, but a better translation is ‘Do not continue to grasp hold of me’. She must begin to let go, to stop clinging to his physical self. From now on, there would be a different relationship between Jesus and his disciples

Read the green Gospel text at bottom of page

Magdalene, apostle to the apostles

Mary Magdalene announces the Resurrection, Greek iconMary is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox churches as ‘Apostle to the Apostles’, because at this point in John’s gospel she is commissioned to ‘go and tell’ the male disciples the news that Jesus was risen from the dead (‘go and tell’ is apostellein in Greek). For more on this, see Mary Magdalene’s Story.

What was she to tell? That Jesus would ascend (notice that it is not ‘return’) to his Father. This ‘ascending’ will be a continuing process, not something done in a moment.

Jesus also made a distinction between his relationship with his Father, and the disciples’. He did not say ‘to our Father’. He says ‘my’ and ‘your’ Father, implying that the sonship he has with God is different to the sonship the disciples, the other children of God, have.

Mary’s initial message when she returned to the disciples was that she had seen Jesus with her own eyes. This for her was the most astounding information – as it would be to us. Then she went on to tell them the words Jesus had sent to them.

Read the red Gospel text at bottom of page

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What  the  Gospels say

1. Mary Magdalene and the angels at the tomb. Read the blue text

2. Jesus speaks to Mary Magdalene. Read the green text

3. Mary Magdalene, first apostle. Read the red text

John 20:11-18

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb;

12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

14 Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father

but go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” 18 Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Mary Magdalene running to the disciples to tell them Jesus has risen, Niccolo del Arca, wooden carving, 1462

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Women at the Tomb

What is an 'Angel'?

Paintings of angels

Mary of Nazareth

Food in ancient times


Resurrection – tragedy and triumph

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. Why did the women go to the tomb?
  2. What did the women find at the tomb?
  3. What did the women do when they saw the empty tomb?

In brief:  Notice that the Resurrection itself is never described in the gospels. There was no-one there to see it. Instead, the evangelists tell us how Jesus’ resurrection was discovered. They knew they were describing something incredible, and they wanted to do so in as credible a way as possible – hence the witnesses, people who were there at the scene.

The witnesses were specific people – Mary Magdalene, John, Peter, etc. As with all eye-witness accounts there are differences in details, but the main points are clear.

Why did the women go to the tomb?

The Three Marys by Henry Osawa Tanner, 1910In the ancient world it was women, usually family members, who washed a corpse and laid the body out for burial. In this case, the task was given to Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. They had cared for him in life, and now they would care for him in death.

The normal thing was to wash and clean the body first. In Jesus’ case, this would have been a difficult task, since his body was heavily matted with dried blood. In the second stage of this cleansing, the women would have added spices to water and gently smoothed this liquid over the body. Then they would bind the arms and legs so they were held firmly, and wrap the whole body around with a long strip of linen cloth – the shroud. This was the simple, gentle act performed by women for the people they loved.

And this was what the two Marys and Salome expected to do.

The empty tomb of Jesus, with discarded shroud lying on a stone benchBut when they reached the tomb, they were greeted by an unexpected sight. The stone that covered the entrance of the tomb was no longer in place, but rolled sideways so that anyone might enter the tomb.

They were frightened and astonished by this unexpected sight. When they had left the tomb on the evening before the Sabbath, they had placed Jesus’ dead body on one of the stone slabs inside the tomb, and then the entrance to the tomb had been firmly closed.

But now the body was missing, with no sign of where it had gone.

Read the blue Gospel text at bottom of page

What did the women find at the tomb?

Angel, by Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1887, paintingA normal reaction would have been to think that someone had stolen the body – Peter might have done it. He had a reckless streak and was ashamed of his denial of Jesus at the house of Caiphas.

But the body had not been stolen by anyone, friend or foe, and the women were perplexed.

The answer came swiftly. In the place where the women expected to find Jesus’ body, there were instead one (Luke says two) beings whom the gospels call ‘angels’, dressed in the white garments associated with heavenly beings.

This is a difficult concept for modern readers to understand. ‘Angels’ do not form part of our way of thinking. The modern reader can perhaps better understand this gospel passage if they think of angels not as messengers from God, but as the message itself, given and accepted.

  • Something in their experience of this moment convinced the women that not only was Jesus not there, which they could plainly see, but that he had undergone some transformative experience that meant he was alive, even though they had known him to be truly dead
  • if they wanted to see him (which of course they did) they should look for him not in Jerusalem, but in the rural villages of Galilee where he came from. There, away from the sophisticated city of Jerusalem, they would find him
  • they should tell others about this – especially the disciples and Peter. Peter would later gain comfort from the fact that, despite his earlier denial, Jesus singled him out as a key figure to be told.

How the women gleaned this information or from whom, we do not know, other than that the gospels point to the source of information as an ‘angel’. What did they mean by ‘angel’? They were simply but emphatically stating that the information was irrefutable. They believed that God (or God’s messenger) knew all that happened, and would not lie. They knew that Jesus had risen, and they wanted to give this truth the weight of God’s backing.

Read the green Gospel text at bottom of page

What did the women do?

The Women at the Tomb, BouruereauThe women were horrified by the loss of Jesus’ body, and dazed by the alternative possibility that he was alive. They were sensible  peasant women, not given to flights of fancy. The idea that someone could be dead and then not dead must have seemed utterly incredible. They knew it would certainly seem so to anyone who heard about it. What did ‘risen’ mean? Who would believe them when they described their experience?

At the same time the women were elated, and ran back to the house where they were staying, where many of Jesus’ disciples had gathered. They offered hope in place of despair. Mark’s gospel says they told no-one, but presumably this means no-one other than the disciples.

They were greeted with disbelief. This was surely a fantasy dreamed up by hysterical women, the disciples reasoned. Women’s testimony was not given the same weight in a court of law as men’s was, and no doubt the male disciples thought at this moment it was a good idea that it should be so.

Read the red Gospel text at bottom of page

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What  the  Gospels say

1. Why did they go? Read the blue text

2. What did they find? Read the green text

3. What did they do? Read the red text

Matthew 28:1-10

1 Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulchre.

2 And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. Lo, I have told you.”

8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.Events in the life of Jesus Christ 9 And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Hail!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

Mark 16:1-8

1 And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.

2 And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. 3 And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?” 4 And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back; –it was very large. 5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. 6 And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.”

8 And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

Luke 24:1-11

1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared.

2 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel; 5 and as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.”

8 And they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles; 11 but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

You might like to compare the parallel accounts of the births of Jesus and John the Baptist in Luke’s gospel. You can find the gospel texts at http://www.womeninthebible.net/Elizabeth_bible_text.htm

Notice especially statements about

the pregnancy reaching term, Luke 1.57 and 2.6

the birth statement, Luke 1.57 and 2.7

marvelling onlookers, Luke 1.63 and 2.18

the taking to heart of what had happened, Luke 1.66 and 2.19

circumcision and name-giving, Luke 1.59 and 2.21

John’s birth is clearly a prelude to the birth of Jesus.

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What is an 'Angel'?

Burial of Jesus

Jesus’ body is placed in the tomb

Questions for Bible study groups

  • Why is the story of Jesus’ burial important?
  • Why was Pilate surprised when he was asked about Jesus’ body?
  • What did the chief priests and Pharisees fear?
  • Why was it important that Jesus was buried in a new tomb?
  • What women prepared Jesus’ body for burial?

The gospels tell us that Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus and placed it in a tomb. Why? To show that Pontius Pilate, an independent witness, knew that Jesus was truly dead, and that the Galilean women could verify the location of the tomb.

Drawing showing reconstruction of a 1st century underground tomb

Drawing showing reconstruction of a 1st century underground tomb

The request to bury Jesus

Why is this part of Jesus’ story important? It proves that Jesus had really died, and that he was buried by not one but two influential, respected men who could testify to the fact – an important point when you remember that the first Christians were accused of concocting the story of the Resurrection. Here was certain evidence, from reputable witnesses, that Jesus really died.

The fact of his death could also be verified by the Galilean women who prepared Jesus’ body for burial; they were well-known and trusted by the Galilean disciples.

Interior of a 1st century tomb showing stone shelves to hold the bodiesWho were the men who buried Jesus?

  • Joseph, probably born in a city in Judea call Ramathaim; he was a rich, influential man, a member of the Sanhedrin. He is described as ‘looking for the Kingdom of God’, and perhaps believed he had found it in Jesus. He may have been absent from the hastily-summoned council that condemned Jesus, or his objection to the sentence of death may have been over-ridden. Or he may even have lacked the courage to speak up in Jesus’ defence – Mark’s gospel says Joseph had to ‘gather up his courage’ to ask for Jesus’ body. It was risky for him to defend or protect Jesus; it could have serious consequences for advancement in his social, religious and political life.
  • Nicodemus brought spices for the burial, powdered myrrh and aloes, about 70lbs in modern weight, a phenomenal amount. There is no explanation as to why he gave so much. But John tells us Nicodemus came to hear Jesus under cover of darkness, as if he were afraid; perhaps he was now trying to make up for this fearfulness.

Here were two highly placed men of authentic Jewish faith who were able to respond to Jesus’ teaching.

 The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1520, detail of handThe task of burying Jesus, in the two-three hours of daylight remaining before the beginning of the Sabbath, could not have been carried out by just two men. Jesus’ dead body would not have been easy to carry, and the stone at the entrance of the tomb required several men to move it. Joseph and Nicodemus were both rich men who would have had a number of servants at their disposal.

The choice of these men is a subtle criticism of the Galilean disciples. They openly followed Jesus and loudly proclaimed their loyalty, but when it came to the crunch they deserted him.

Instead, two secret disciples who had nothing to gain and everything to lose stepped forward and arranged the burial.

Read the blue Gospel text at bottom of page

Pilate, the chief priests and Pharisees

Why was Pilate surprised when he was asked about Jesus’ body? He had not expected Jesus to die so quickly. Victims of crucifixion usually lasted several cruel days before they died. But Jesus had suffered a terrible beating, no doubt causing critical internal injuries; and he had been nailed, rather than tied, to the cross, suffering debilitating blood loss.

The Centurion, woodcut by Cyril Edward Power, c1929To make sure of the facts, Pilate questioned the centurion who had been in charge of executing Jesus, and was reassured that Jesus was indeed dead. He then released the corpse for burial.

What did the chief priests and Pharisees fear?

  • That Jesus had been taken down from the cross while he was still alive, stolen away by his disciples and then resuscitated
  • or that Jesus’ friends might steal his body and later claim that he was risen from the dead, as he had predicted.

Either option would make it possible for Jesus or his disciples to claim that Jesus had made good on his promise to rise again after three days. Pilate had to be sure this would not happen.

Read the green Gospel text at bottom of page

The burial of Jesus

What actually happened when they buried Jesus?

The Burial of Jesus, by CaravaggioIn Judea, if there was an approaching feast day, the bodies of crucified men were taken down and given to relatives. A body was not allowed to hang on a cross after dark. Philo, the Jewish philosopher, writes:

Men who had been crucified when this festival and holiday was at hand, were taken down and given up to their relations, in order to receive the honours of sepulchre, and to enjoy such observances as are due to the dead; for … the sacred character of the festival ought to be observed. (Philo, Flaccus, 10.83)

John’s gospel (see below) says that Jesus was buried according to the Jewish tradition. This means that the body was washed before it was wrapped in a simple shroud made of fine linen, normally a task performed by the women relatives of the deceased. There were prescribed psalms and prayers said at this time. The body was then placed on a stone shelf within the tomb.

Jesus’ burial was quickly done. Everything had to be finished in the sort period remaining before sundown – all the people involved were strict Jews, carefully observant of the Sabbath.

There is stress on the fact that Jesus was buried in a ‘new’ tomb – why? If Jesus’ body was the only body in a new tomb, this would rule out the possibility of several dead bodies being confused. Keep in mind that the gospel writers were telling their story after the Resurrection, when there were plenty of doubters to question the veracity of Jesus’ death and Resurrection.

Entry to an underground tomb, with circular stone to block entrance. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.Matthew’s gospel (27:62-66) mentions an additional measure to prevent the theft of Jesus’ body: the posting of a guard at the tomb and the sealing of the tomb. Admittedly this was done on the Saturday morning, but the guard would certainly have checked the tomb first to see if Jesus’ body was there.

What was the tomb like? It was hewn out of solid rock; there was no possibility of a rear entrance, or a secret one, through which the body might be stolen.

Read the blue Gospel text at bottom of page

The women at the tomb

Some of the women who watched Jesus die now waited to see what would happen to his body. If no-one claimed it, it would be buried with other criminals in a common grave.

Mater Dolorosa, the Sorrowing Mother, Spanish statue, wooden Their presence is important, because

  • it positioned them as witnesses to the fact that he was buried and thus truly dead, and
  • showed there were Galilean disciples who knew, and could testify to, the exact tomb in which Jesus’ body was placed. Their courage and devotion made it unlikely they would go to the wrong tomb when they returned on Easter morning.

This knowledge was crucial after the Resurrection when people suggested that Jesus was not really dead or that there had been a mix-up in the place where he was buried.

Moreover, the women had to know the location of the tomb if they were to visit it on Easter morning.

Read the blue Gospel text at bottom of page

The Entombment, Juan de Juni, Spanish, wooden carving

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What  the  Gospels say

1. The request to bury Jesus. Read the blue text

2. Pilate’s surprise, the chief priests and the Pharisees. Read the green text

3. The burial of Jesus. Read the red text

4. The women at the tomb. Read the black text

Matthew 27:57-66

57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him.

59 And Joseph took the body, and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud, 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock; and he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and departed.

61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulchre.

62 Next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore order the sepulchre to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went and made the sepulchre secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.

Mark 15:42-47

42 And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, gathered his courage and went to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus.

44 And Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. 45 And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph.

46 And he bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud, and laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.

47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.

Luke 23:50-56

50 Now there was a man named Joseph from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, 51 who had not consented to their purpose and deed, and he was looking for the kingdom of God. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.

53 Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud, and laid him in a rock-hewn tomb, where no one had ever yet been laid. 54 It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning.

55 The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid; 56 then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

Mater Dolorosa, the Sorrowing Mother, painting, detailJohn 19:38-42

38 After this Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him leave. So he came and took away his body.

39 Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight. 40 They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid. 42 So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

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Joseph's story

Burial of Jesus painting

Mary of Nazareth

Jesus dies

Jesus of Nazareth dies on the cross

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. What were Jesus’ last words? How were they misinterpreted?
  2. What were the ‘signs and wonders’ that happened at the moment of Jesus’ death?
  3. Read Bruce Dawes’ poem ‘And a Good Friday was had by all’. What lines affect you most?
  4. Who were the women present at Jesus’ death, and why did the gospel writers mention them?

In the last moments of Jesus’ life, Nature seemed to turn upside down. This profound moment was witnessed by many people, particularly the centurion and the women who stood watching Jesus’ last agony.

Jesus’ last words on the cross

The last words that Jesus spoke were heart-rending: Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani, My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?

The crucified Jesus on the cross, from the film The Passion of the ChristThey were the opening words of Psalm 22, a prayer Jesus knew by heart. Read it, the whole psalm, and you will see that Jesus was not reproaching God but trusting him, even in this last extremity. He still prayed to God as to a father.

Some people standing nearby misunderstood his words. They thought he was calling on Elijah the prophet: ‘Eliyah, Elijah’ – easy to mis-hear the words of a dying man. Many people believed Elijah would one day return, so trying to be kind they offered him sour wine. It was a favourite cheap beverage, said to quench thirst better than water, and it might keep him alive a little longer, in case Elijah did indeed return.

The only way they could give it to Jesus was in a sponge raised on a stick. They (or the soldiers) would only have had to lift it a little way above their heads.

Read the blue Gospel text at bottom of page

Signs and wonders in Nature

The gospels record that there were a number of strange, frightening events at the moment Jesus died, as if Nature itself was screaming out in anguish at the death of Christ.

Illustration of Jesus hanging on the cross, with storm clouds and lightning in the background

  • The sky darkened in an unnatural way, as if the Cosmos was out of balance. It was not a normal eclipse, which would have been impossible at Passover when the moon was full. Neither was it a unique occurrence. Virgil and the Jewish historian Josephus both record a similar event at the death of Julius Caesar: ‘Who dares to say the sun tricks us? He often warns us that hidden troubles threaten… He pitied Rome when Caesar was killed, and hid his shining face in gloomy darkness… and pale ghosts in strange forms were seen in the dark of night.’ Virgil, Georgics 1.466-9 …those who were the authors of great injustice towards men, and of great wickedness towards the gods; for the sake of which it was that the sun turned away his light from us, as unwilling to view the horrid crime they were guilty of in the case of Caesar.’ Josephus, Antiquities, 14:309
  • The curtain of the great Temple in Jerusalem was torn from top to bottom. According to Josephus (Wars of the Jews 6.5.288-315), there were a series of unexplained occurrences in the Temple that were seen as omens of destruction. Temple worship was already being replaced by prayer and study in the local synagogues, and would cease altogether after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. But the torn curtain in the Temple may have symbolised something more simple: Jews tore their main garment when they heard that someone they loved had died; God tore his garment, the curtain of the Temple, when his Son died. Moreover, the curtain was a barrier between God and worshippers; now, at the death of Jesus, people had access to God.
  • An earthquake, not unusual in this part of the world
  • The opening of the tombs as a result of the earthquake
  • The rising of saints/the dead, who walked the streets of Jerusalem

Photograph of violent storm cloudsDid the land really turn dark?
Did corpses walk the streets of Jerusalem?
Was there a terrible earthquake?

If you worry about this, you are missing the point.

This is apocalyptic language, symbolic, similar to the Book of Revelations. The writers of the gospel were familiar with this type of writing, and assumed that their audience would be too. Chaos in Nature was an apocalyptic image.

The gospel-writers wanted to convey the cosmic tragedy of Jesus’ death.

Read the green Gospel text at bottom of page

The centurion

Jesus’ crucifixion was supervised by a Roman officer, a centurion. What did he see when he looked at Jesus? Not just a man who trusted God even through dreadful suffering, but one who forgave all those responsible for his death. This was true nobility – and courage that a Roman soldier could appreciate.

And a Good Friday was had by all by Bruce Dawe

You men there, keep those women back
and God Almighty he laid down
on the crossed timber and old Silenus
my off-sider looked at me as if to say
nice work for soldiers, your mind’s not your own
once you sign that dotted line Ave Caesar
and all that malarkey Imperator Rex
Well this Nazarene
didn’t make it any easier
really – not like the ones
who kick up a fuss so you can
do your block and take it out on them

Silenus held the spikes steady and I let fly
with the sledge-hammer, not looking
on the downswing trying hard not to hear
over the women’s wailing the bones give way
the iron shocking the dumb wood.

Orders is orders, I said after it was over
nothing personal you understand – we had a
drill-sergeant once thought he was God but he wasn’t
a patch on you

then we hauled on the ropes
and he rose in the hot air
like a diver just leaving the springboard, arms spread
so it seemed
over the whole damned creation
over the big men who must have had it in for him
and the curious ones who’ll watch anything if it’s free
with only the usual women caring anywhere
and a blind man in tears.

Tintoretto, Crucifixion, Scuola di San Rocco

Read the red Gospel text at bottom of page

The women at Jesus’ death

Crucified men were often surrounded by relatives and friends.

At the Foot of the Cross, painting by Macha ChmakoffIn Jesus’ case, these were mostly women: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome who was the wife of Zebedee and mother of James and John. As a precaution they stood at a distance from the cross.

They had followed Jesus – literally (to Calvary) and as his disciples in the years before his death. Faithful to him during his ministry, they were faithful to the bitter end. They stood in stark contrast to the male disciples who fled – though it must be said that the women were in less danger than the men.

Why do the gospel writers mention the women, when they largely ignored them during Jesus’ ministry? Because these women were direct witnesses to the three major events of Christianity: the death of Jesus, his burial, and the resurrection.

Read the black Gospel text at bottom of page

Mary, Jesus’ mother, and John the disciple

The Crucifixion, by Matthias GrunewaldIn the ancient world, a dying person could entrust his female relations, especially his mother, to the care of another person. The ancient writer Lucian records a last will and testament where a man called Eudamidas

‘left behind him an aged mother and a daughter of marriageable years;–the will, then, was as follows: To Aretaeus I bequeath my mother, to tend and to cherish in her old age: and to Charixenus my daughter, to give in marriage with such dowry as his circumstances will admit of.’ Lucian, Toxaris, 22.

Even a crucified man had the right to do this.

Now, even in this desperate moment as Jesus hung on the cross, he was concerned for his mother Mary. He asked his closest friend, ‘the disciple whom he loved’, to care for her after he was gone. A woman alone in the ancient world was easy prey, and clearly he did not wish his mother to come to harm.

The name of the disciple is not given and the incident appears only in John’s gospel. Commentators have suggested that this may be because it was a memory of someone who was there, who remembered what was said but told it as a personal anecdote, not wanting to mention his own name.

Read the purple Gospel text at bottom of page


There is a deep vein of irony running through the Passion narrative. For example

  • sinful people try to thwart Jesus, but their actions merely help him to accomplish the purpose he came for, and so they end up fulfilling God’s purpose
  • Judas, one member of the Twelve, betrays Jesus, while the others, who have insisted that they will always be loyal, end up abandoning him
  • the Sanhedrin trial and the hearing before Pontius Pilate are supposed to represent justice, but they condemn an innocent man to death
  • a number of people mock Jesus by sarcastically calling him Son of God and King of Israel (Caiaphas, Pilate, the people at the cross), without realising they are speaking the truth
  • when so many have failed to recognise Jesus for who he truly is, it is a Roman centurion who says that ‘this was truly the Son of God’.

What happened next? See Burial of Jesus

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What  the  Gospels say

1. Jesus’ last words. Read the blue text

2. Signs and wonders. Read the green text

3. The centurion. Read the red text

4. Witnesses to Jesus’ death. Read the black text

5. Jesus’ mother Mary and John the disciple. Read the purple text

Matthew 27:45-56

45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put in on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him. ” 50 And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.

51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; 52 the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

54 When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

55 There were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him; 56 among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

Mark 15:33-41

33 And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “E’lo-i, E’lo-i, la’ma sabach-tha’ni?” which means, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36 And one ran and, filling a sponge full of vinegar, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last.

38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.

39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

40 There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome, 41 who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.

Luke 23:44-49

44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.

46 Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.

47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, and said, “Certainly this man was innocent!”

48 And all the multitudes who assembled to see the sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance and saw these things.

John 19:28-34

25 But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.

28 After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the scripture), “I thirst.” 29 A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished”; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

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Mary of Nazareth

Food in ancient times


Jesus is nailed to a wooden cross

Questions for Bible study groups

  • What happened at a crucifixion?
  • Where was Calvary (Golgotha)?
  • What crimes was Jesus accused of?

Crucifixion: the punishment

The Centurion by Cyril Edward Power, circa 1929Crucifixion was a shameful punishment inflicted on slaves, criminals and rebels. No Roman citizen could be crucified without the personal authorization of the emperor himself. The suffering in this form of execution is still reflected in the English word ‘excruciating’.

For a Jew, crucifixion had an extra, terrifying dimension: according to Deuteronomy 21:22-23 a man who was crucified was cursed by God: ‘And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death and you hang him on a tree his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God…’

The crucified man was tortured and demeaned in every possible way. Throughout the Roman world, men were crucified naked – though this may not have been the case when Jesus died. Jewish laws stipulated that if a man was stoned to death he must be allowed to wear a loincloth. Did the Romans respect Jewish law when Jesus was crucified, and allow him to wear a loincloth? There is no way of knowing.

Calvary (Latin) Golgotha (Greek)

After a battle, the Romans hung a cuirass on a horizontal pole as a sign of victory

The exact location of Calvary is unknown, but Jewish and Roman practice was to perform executions outside the walls of a city or town. The site of Jesus’ death must have overlooked a main road outside Jerusalem, since the gruesome spectacle was meant to frighten as many people as possible.

The site of execution was called the ‘place of the skull’, but not because there were skulls or bones lying on the ground there, as is sometimes shown in paintings. The Jewish people were scrupulous in their treatment of human remains, and would not have allowed such a thing.

The Aramaic name suggests a rounded bare hill, like the rounded top of a skull. The hill could not have been a high one, since passers-by who mocked Jesus must have been close enough to read the inscription placed above his head.

What the cross looked like

There was some variety in the shape of crosses, but the one used for Jesus was probably similar to the traditional cross shown in Christian paintings.

The main upright beam was permanently fixed in the ground; it had a detachable cross-beam which the condemned man was forced to carry to the place of execution.

Crucifixion, drawing by Charles PickardThe cross-beam was fixed so that the victim’s feet were off the ground. There might be a small wooden projection which he could straddle, though in Jesus’ case this does not seem to have been the case: the projection was meant to prolong a man’s life and suffering, but Jesus died quickly.

Both the cross-bar and the upright were re-used many times, and they and the whole area would have been covered with blood and body-fluids, a magnet for flies and vermin.

Jesus, as he died, was tormented not only by his wounds but by swarms of biting flies.

Jesus nailed to the cross

A metal nail is driven through the hand of Jesus as he is nailed to the cross. From the film The Passion of the ChristJesus would have been made to lie with his back on the ground and his arms stretched out so that the soldiers could nail through his lower forearm or wrist into the wooden cross-beam.

In the case of Jesus, they may have damaged the Ulnar artery running down his forearm, causing severe loss of blood: this would explain why Jesus died relatively quickly.

After this the cross-beam was hauled up, with Jesus attached, and fixed to the upright beam of wood. Then a nail was pounded through his foot or ankle, anchoring it to the upright wood behind. Finally the inscription detailing his crime was placed above his head.

For hours, and sometimes days, a condemned man was trapped in this position, naked and struggling to breathe. His position made his lungs constrict, but if he pushed himself up to make breathing easier the pain in his hands and feet was unimaginable. He eventually died through a combination of heart failure, suffocation and brain damage caused by lack of oxygen.

The Tortured Christ, Guido Rocha, 1975, Brazil

The Tortured Christ, Guido Rocha, 1975, Brazil

Pilate’s notice/inscription on the cross

Transcript of the words written on a board and placed above Jesus' head as he hung on the crossOn his way to the place of execution, a condemned man carried a wooden board, whitened with chalk or gypsum, on which was written his crime.

In Jesus’ case, this notice bore the inscription ‘King of the Jews’ – written in Aramaic, Greek and Latin. Jesus was thus named as a political rebel against the authority of imperial Rome. The ‘INRI’ in traditional paintings was a shortened version of the Latin Iusus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum – Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

Almost all 1st-century Jewish men could read, and many could write, so the passers-by had no trouble in understanding what was written on the sign.

Some of the Jewish leaders objected to the words ‘King of the Jews’. They thought it should read ‘he claimed to be King of the Jews’. But Pilate was tired of being hounded by them and refused to co-operate with their wishes.

Spanish statue of Jesus on the Cross


Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, have often concentrated on the sufferings of Jesus on the cross, but if you read the gospel accounts you will see that the evangelists did not. They recorded the facts of what happened, and did not dwell unduly on Jesus’ sufferings. It was his redemptive death that mattered.

What happened next? See Jesus Died

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What  the  Gospels say

Matthew 27:33 …they came to a place called Golgotha, which means Place of a Skull…

Mark 15:22 Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha, which means the place of a skull.

Luke 23:32 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.

John 19:17 So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross by himself he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew (Aramaic) is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him with two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

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