The Last Words from the Cross

The gospels appear to give several different accounts of what Jesus said in the last moments before he died. Here are his last words as reported in each gospel:

Matthew 27:46 and Mark 25:34:

Jesus cried out in a loud voice "Eloi, Eloi, lama, sabachthani?" which means "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Luke 23:46:

Jesus called out in a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."

John 19:30:

Jesus said "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Matthew and Mark agree, but the statements in Luke and John aren't found anywhere else in the New Testament. Is there a plausible way to explain these differences?

Most biblical scholars believe that Mark was the earliest gospel, closest in time to the actual events. And there is evidence that its author got much of his information from an even earlier source known as the Lost Passion Narrative. Although this document no longer survives, Mark did have a copy of it, and used it when writing his description of the crucifixion. Because his account may derive from such an early source, many scholars think that his description of what Jesus said is probably the most reliable, especially since the words are first given in the Aramaic language that Jesus himself spoke.

The author of Matthew apparently copied most of his account of the crucifixion directly from Mark. Thus, it isn't surprising that the two gospels agree on Jesus' last words.

There is evidence that Luke also copied most of his account from Mark. But the statement he gives for Jesus' last words isn't found in Mark, or anywhere else in the gospels. Many scholars think that Luke decided to substitute a different statement because he didn't like what he saw in Mark, since it implies that Jesus thought God had forsaken him. Luke appears to have made such substitutions in other parts of his gospel, so he could very well have made one here as well.

John's description of the crucifixion contains several elements that aren't in the other gospels, and this indicates that the author had a unique source of information. Traditionally, this other source has been identified as the un-named "beloved disciple", who was said to be an eyewitness. Perhaps for this reason, none of Jesus' crucifixion statements in John are in the other gospels, and none of his statements in the other gospels are in John. This isn't necessarily a contradiction, since different witnesses could have remembered different statements. On the other hand, there obviously can only be one last statement.

Because the author of Luke appears to have made a substitution, most scholars think that the final choice is between the statement in John and the statement in Matthew and Mark. Since Mark's account is probably closest in time to the actual events, many consider it to be the most reliable. But the extra details in John's account have led some scholars to regard it as the most trustworthy.

One way to try to resolve the issue is to look at the words themselves. Some people think they detect a "ring of truth" in the words:

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

It seems unlikely that a gospel writer would have invented this type of statement, because it implies that Jesus felt that God had deserted him. Thus, it probably wouldn't have gotten into the story unless Jesus actually said it.

But some scholars have noted that this same statement is also found in the Old Testament (Psalm 22), and therefore Jesus could have simply been quoting old scripture.

The statement in John, "It is finished," puzzles some people. If Jesus knew that he would be resurrected, why would he imply that everything was finished? Unless perhaps he was only referring to the crucifixion itself.

Thus, because of the various uncertainties, there is no way to make a final choice. Unless new information becomes available, the matter will probably never be resolved.

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