Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
When the morning was come, all the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death:XXVII.
(1) Took counsel.—Better, held a council. (Comp. the use of the word in Acts 25:12.) Another formal meeting was held (according to the Jewish rule that the sentence of the judges was not to be given at the same sitting as the trial) to confirm the previous decision, and probably to determine on the next step to be taken. It ended, as the next verse shows, in sending our Lord to Pilate, and leaving to him the responsibility of punishing. They entered, as the sequel shows, on a kind of diplomatic struggle as to the limits of the ecclesiastical and imperial powers, the former seeking to make the latter its tool, the latter to avoid the responsibility of seeming to act in that character.
And when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor.(2) Pontius Pilate.—It may be well to bring together the chief known facts as to the previous history of the Governor, or more accurately, the Procurator, of Judæa, whose name is conspicuous as occupying a solitary prominence in the creeds of Christendom. He must have belonged, by birth or adoption, to the gens of the Pontii, one of whom, C. Pontius Telesinus, had been the leader of the Samnites in their second and third wars against Rome B.C. 321-292. The cognomen Pilatus means “armed with the pilum or javelin,” and may have had its origin in some early military achievement. As applied, however, to Mount Pilatus in Switzerland, it has been conjectured that it is a contracted form of Pileatus, from pilea a cap, and is applied to the mountain as having for the most part, a cloud-capped summit. When Judæa became formally subject to the empire, on the deposition of Archelaus, a procurator, or collector of revenue, invested with judicial power, was appointed to govern it, subject to the Governor of Syria (Luke 2:2), and resided commonly at Cæsarea. Pontius Pilate, of whose previous career we know nothing, was appointed, A.D. 25-26, as the sixth holder of that office. His administration had already, prior to our Lord’s trial, been marked by a series of outrages on Jewish feelings. (1) He had removed the head-quarters of his army from Cæsarea to Jerusalem, and the troops brought their standards with the image of the emperor into the Holy City. The people were excited into frenzy, and rushed in crowds to Cæsarea to implore him to spare them this outrage on their religion. After five days of obstinacy and a partial attempt to suppress the tumult, Pilate at last yielded (Jos. Ant. xvii. 3, §§ 1, 2; Wars, ii. 9, §§ 2-4). (2) He had hung up in his palace at Jerusalem gilt shields inscribed with the names of heathen deities, and would not remove them till an express order came from Tiberius (Philo, Leg. ad Caium, c. 38). (3) He had taken money from the Corban, or treasury of the Temple, for the construction of an aqueduct. This led to another tumult, which was suppressed by the slaughter not of the rioters only, but also of casual spectators (Jos. Wars, ii. 9, § 4). (4) Lastly, on some unknown occasion, he had slain some Galileans while they were in the very act of sacrificing (Luke 13:1), and this had probably caused the ill-feeling between him and the tetrarch Antipas mentioned in Luke 23:12. It is well to bear in mind these antecedents of the man, as notes of character, as we follow him through the series of vacillations which we now have to trace.
Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders,(3) Then Judas, which had betrayed him.—Better, the betrayer. The Greek participle is in the present tense. The narrative which follows is found only in St. Matthew, but another version of the same facts is given in Acts 1:18. Here, too, as in the case of Peter, we have to guess at motives. Had he looked for any other result than this? Was he hoping that his Lord, when forced to a decision, would assert His claim as the Christ, put forth His power, and triumph over His enemies, and that so he would gain at once the reward of treachery and the credit of having contributed to establish the Kingdom? This has been maintained by some eminent writers, and it is certainly possible, but the mere remorse of one who, after acting in the frenzy of criminal passion, sees the consequences of his deeds in all their horror, furnishes an adequate explanation of what follows.
Repented himself.—The Greek word is not that commonly used for “repentance,” as involving a change of mind and heart, but is rather “regret,” a simple change of feeling. The coins which he had once gazed on and clutched at eagerly were now hateful in his sight, and their touch like that of molten metal from the furnace. He must get rid of them somehow. There is something terribly suggestive in the fact that here there were no tears as there had been in Peter’s repentance.
Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that.(4) I have sinned in that I have betrayed.—More accurately, I sinned in betraying.
What is that to us?—We instinctively feel, as we read these words, that deep as was the guilt of Judas, that of those who thus mocked him was deeper still. Speaking after the manner of men, we may say that a word of sympathy and true counsel might have saved him even then. His confession was as the germ of repentance, but this repulse drove him back upon despair, and he had not the courage or the faith to turn to the great Absolver; and so his life closed as in a blackness of darkness; and if we ask the question, Is there any hope? We dare not answer. Possibly there mingled with his agony, as has been suggested by one at least of the great teachers of the Church (Origen, Horn. in Matt. 35), some confused thought that in the world of the dead, behind the veil, he might meet his Lord and confess his guilt to Him.
And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.(5) He cast down the pieces of silver in the temple.—The Greek word for “Temple” is that which specially denotes (as in Matthew 23:16; Matthew 26:61; John 2:19), not the whole building, but the “sanctuary,” which only the priests could enter. They had stood, it would seem, talking with Judas before the veil or curtain which screened it from the outer court, and he hurled or flung it into the Holy Place.
Hanged himself.—The word is the same as that used of Ahithophel, in the Greek version of 2Samuel 17:23, and is a perfectly accurate rendering. Some difficulties present themselves on comparing this brief record with Acts 1:18, which will be best examined in the Notes on that passage. Briefly, it may be said here that the horrors there recorded may have been caused by the self-murderer’s want of skill, or the trembling agony that could not tie the noose firm enough.
And the chief priests took the silver pieces, and said, It is not lawful for to put them into the treasury, because it is the price of blood.(6) It is not lawful for to put them into the treasury.—The Greek for the last word is the Corban, or sacred treasure-chest of the Temple, into which no foreign coins were admitted, and from which the Law (Deuteronomy 23:18) excluded the unclean offerings of the price of shame, which entered largely into the ritual of many heathen nations. By parity of reasoning, the priests seem to have thought that the blood-money which was thus returned was excluded also.
And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in.(7) And they took counsel.—As before, they held a council.
The potter’s field.—In Jeremiah 18:2 we read of the “potter’s house” as being outside the city, probably, from Jeremiah 19:2, in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna), on the south side of Jerusalem. It is probable that it had been worked out in course of time, and was now in the state of a disused quarry. It was necessary, now that Roman soldiers were often stationed in the city, and men of all nations came to it, to provide some burial-place for them; but no Jew would admit their bones into the sepulchre of his fathers. On the other hand, every devout Jew would shrink from the thought of burying his dead in the foul and hateful spot which had become the type of the unseen Gehenna. (See Notes on Matthew 5:22.) There was, therefore, a subtle fitness of association in the policy which the priests adopted. The place was itself accursed; it was bought with accursed money; it was to be used for the burial of the accursed strangers.
Wherefore that field was called, The field of blood, unto this day.(8) The field of blood.—St. Luke (Acts 1:19) gives the Aramaic form, Akeldama, but assigns the death of Judas in a field which he had bought as the origin of the name. It is possible that two spots may have been known by the same name for distinct reasons, and the fact that two places have been shown as the Field of Blood from the time of Jerome downwards, is, as far as it goes, in favour of this view. It is equally possible, on the other hand, that Judas may have gone, before or after the purchase, to the ground which, bought with his money, was, in some sense his own, and there ended his despair, dying literally in Gehenna, and buried, not in the grave of his fathers at Kerioth, but as an outcast, with none to mourn over him, in the cemetery of the aliens.
Unto this day.—The phrase suggests here, as again in Matthew 28:15, an interval, more or less considerable, between the events and the record. (Comp. the Introduction as to the date of the Gospel.)
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was valued, whom they of the children of Israel did value;(9) Then was fulfilled.—Three questions present themselves, more or less difficult:—(1) The words cited are found in our present Old Testament, not in Jeremiah, but in Zechariah 11:13, and there is no trace of their ever having occupied any other place in the Hebrew Canon. How is this discrepancy to be explained? (a) Are we to assume an early error in transcription? Against this, there is the fact that MSS. and versions, with one or two exceptions, in which the correction is obviously of later date, give Jeremiah and not Zechariah. (b) May we fall back upon the Jewish notion that the spirit of Jeremiah had passed into Zechariah; or that Jeremiah, having, at one time, stood first in the Jewish order of the Prophets, was taken as representing the whole volume, as David was of the whole Book of Psalms? This is possible, but it hardly falls within the limits of Probability that the writer of the Gospel would deliberately have thus given his quotation in a form sure to cause perplexity. (c) May we believe that the writer quoted from memory, and that recollecting the two conspicuous chapters (18 and 19) in which Jeremiah had spoken of the potter and his work, he was led to think that this also belonged to the same group of prophecies? I am free to confess that the last hypothesis seems to me the most natural and free from difficulty, unless it be the difficulty which is created by an arbitrary hypothesis as to the necessity of literal accuracy in an inspired writing. (2) There is the fact that the words given by St. Matthew neither represent the Greek version of Zechariah 11:13, nor the original Hebrew, but have the look of being a free quotation from memory adapted to the facts; and this, so far as it goes, is in favour of the last hypothesis. (3) It is hardly necessary to dwell on the fact that the words as they stand in Zechariah have an adequate historical meaning entirely independent of St. Matthew’s application of them. This, as we have seen again and again (Matthew 1:23; Matthew 2:15-18; Matthew 4:15; Matthew 8:17; Matthew 12:18), was entirely compatible with the Evangelist’s manner of dealing with prophecy. It was enough for him that the old words fitted into the facts, without asking, as we ask, whether they were originally meant to point to them. The combination in one verse, as he remembered it, of the thirty pieces of silver and the potter’s field, was a coincidence that he could not pass over.
And Jesus stood before the governor: and the governor asked him, saying, Art thou the King of the Jews? And Jesus said unto him, Thou sayest.(11) And Jesus stood before the governor.—We may infer from the greater fulness with which St. John relates what passed between our Lord and Pilate, that here, too, his acquaintance with the high priest gave him access to knowledge which others did not possess. We learn from him (1) that in his first conversation with the accusers, Pilate endeavoured to throw the onus of judging upon them, and was met by the ostentatious disavowal of any power to execute judgment (John 18:28-32); (2) that the single question which St. Matthew records was followed by a conversation in which our Lord declared that, though He was a King, it was not after the manner of the kingdoms of the world (John 18:33-38). The impression thus made on the mind of the Governor explains the desire which he felt to effect, in some way or other, the release of the accused.
And when he was accused of the chief priests and elders, he answered nothing.(12) He answered nothing.—Here, as before in Matthew 26:63, we have to realise the contrast between the vehement clamour of the accusers, the calm, imperturbable, patient silence of the accused, and the wonder of the judge at what was so different from anything that had previously come within the range of his experience.
Now at that feast the governor was wont to release unto the people a prisoner, whom they would.(15) The governor was wont to release.—It is not known when the practice began, nor whether it was primarily a Jewish or a Roman one. The fact that the release of criminals was a common incident of a Latin lectisternium, or feast in honour of the gods, makes the latter the more probable. If introduced by Pilate (and this is the only recorded instance of the practice) it was, we may believe, a concession intended to conciliate those whom his previous severities had alienated. Before this stage of the proceedings we have to place (1) the second conference between Pilate and the priests after his dialogue with our Lord (Luke 23:4-5), and their definite charge of sedition, now urged for the first time; and (2) his attempt, catching at the word “Galilee” as the scene of our Lord’s work, to transfer the responsibility of judging to Herod (Luke 23:6-12).
And they had then a notable prisoner, called Barabbas.(16) A notable prisoner, called Barabbas.—There is considerable, though not quite decisive, evidence in favour of the reading which gives “Jesus Barabbas” as the name of the prisoner. The name Bar-abbas (=son of Abbas, or of “a father”), like Bar-timseus and Bartholomew, was a patronymic, and it would be natural enough that the man who bore it should have another more personal name. We can easily understand (1) that the commonness of the name Jesus might lead to his being known to his comrades and to the multitude only or chiefly as Barabbas; and (2) that the reverence which men felt in after years for the Name which is above every name, would lead them to blot out, if it were possible, the traces that it had once been borne by the robber-chief. Of Barabbas St. John (John 18:40) tells us that he was a robber; St. Luke (Luke 23:19) and St. Mark (Mark 15:7) that he had taken a prominent part with some insurgents in the city, and that he, with them, had committed murder in the insurrection. The last recorded tumult of this kind was that mentioned above (Note on Matthew 27:2), as connected with Pilate’s appropriation of the Corban. It is so far probable that this was the tumult in which Barabbas had taken part; and the supposition that he did so has at least the merit of explaining how it was that he came to be the favourite hero both of the priests and people. As the term Abba (=father) was a customary term of honour, as applied to a Rabbi (Matthew 23:9), it is possible that the sobriquet by which he was popularly known commemorated a fact in his family history of which he might naturally be proud. “Jesus, the Rabbi’s son “was a cry that found more favour than “Jesus the Nazarene.”
Therefore when they were gathered together, Pilate said unto them, Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ?(17) Whom will ye that I release unto you?—This, we must remember, was all but the last attempt of Pilate to shift off from himself the dreaded burden of responsibility.
For he knew that for envy they had delivered him.(18) He knew that for envy.—Pilate knew enough of the accusers to see through the hollowness of their pretended zeal for their own religion, or for the authority of the emperor. He found their real motive in “envy”—fear of the loss of influence and power, if the work of the new Teacher was to continue.
When he was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.(19) The judgment seat.—The chair of judgment was placed upon a Mosaic pavement, and was indispensable to the official action of any provincial ruler. (Comp. Note on John 19:13.)
His wife sent unto him.—Under the old regime of the Republic provincial governors were not allowed to take their wives with them; but the rule had been relaxed under the Empire, and Tacitus records (Ann. iii. 33, 34) a vain attempt to revive its strictness. Nothing more is known of the woman thus mentioned; but the Apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus (ii. 1) gives her name as Procula, and states that she was a proselyte to Judaism. The latter fact is probable enough. About this time, both at Rome and in other cities, such, e.g., as Thessalonica and Berœa (Acts 17:4; Acts 17:12), Jews had gained considerable influence over women of the higher classes, and carried on an active work of proselytism.
With that just man.—The word is striking, as showing the impression which had been made on Pilate’s wife by all she had seen or heard. As contrasted with priests and scribes, He was emphatically the “just,” the “righteous “One.
In a dream because of him.—Questions rise in our minds as to the nature of the dream. Was it, as some have thought, a divine warning intended to save her husband from the guilt into which he was on the point of plunging? Did it come from the Evil Spirit, as designed to hinder the completion of the atoning work? Was it simply the reflection of the day-thoughts of a sensitive and devout woman? We have no data for answering such questions, but the very absence of data makes it safer and more reverential to adopt the last view, as involving less of presumptuous conjecture in a region where we have not been called to enter. What the dream was like may be a subject for a poet’s or—as in a well-known picture by a living artist—for a painter’s imagination, but does not fall within the province of the interpreter.
But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus.(20) The chief priests and elders.—Brief as the statement is it implies much; the members of the Sanhedrin standing before Pilate’s palace, mingling with the crowd, whispering—now to this man, now to that—praises of the robber, scoffs and slander against the Christ. As the next verse shows, they did their work effectively.
Pilate saith unto them, What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ? They all say unto him, Let him be crucified.(22) Let him be crucified.—It may be noted that this was the first direct intimation of the mode of death to which the priests destined their prisoner. It was implied, indeed, in their fixed resolve to make the Roman governor the executioner of their sentence, as shown in the dialogue recorded by St. John (John 18:31); but now the cry came from the multitude, as the result, we may believe, of the promptings described in Matthew 27:20, “Crucify Him!”—punish Him as the robber and the rebel are punished.
And the governor said, Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out the more, saying, Let him be crucified.(23) Why, what evil hath he done?—The question attested the judge’s conviction of the innocence of the accused, but it attested also the cowardice of the judge. He was startled at the passionate malignity of the cry of the multitude and the priests, but had not the courage to resist it. We find from Luke 23:22. that he had recourse to the desperate expedient of suggesting a milder punishment—“I will chastise,” i.e., scourge, “Him, and let Him go;” but the suggestion itself showed his weakness, and therefore did but stimulate the crowd to persist in their demand for death.
When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.(24) He took water, and washed his hands.—The act belonged to an obvious and almost universal symbolism. So in Deuteronomy 21:6 the elders of a city in which an undiscovered murder had been committed were to wash their hands over the sin-offering, and to say, “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.” (Comp. also Psalm 26:6.) Pilate probably chose it, partly as a relief to his own conscience, partly to appease his wife’s scruples, partly as a last appeal of the most vivid and dramatic kind to the feelings of the priests and people. One of the popular poets of his own time and country might have taught him the nullity of such a formal ablution—
“Ah nimium faciles, qui tristia crimina cædis
Flumineâ tolli posse putetis aquâ.”
“Too easy souls who dream the crystal flood
Can wash away the fearful guilt of blood.”
Ovid, Fast. ii. 45.
Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.(25) His blood be on us, and on our children.—The passionate hate of the people leads them, as if remembering the words of their own Law, to invert the prayer—which Pilate’s act had, it may be, brought to their remembrance—“Lay not innocent blood to Thy people of Israel’s charge” (Deuteronomy 21:8), into a defiant imprecation. No more fearful prayer is recorded in the history of mankind; and a natural feeling has led men to see its fulfilment in the subsequent shame and misery that were for centuries the portion of the Jewish people. We have to remember, however, that but a fractional part of the people were present; that some at least of the rulers, such as Joseph of Arimathæa, Nicodemus, and probably Gamaliel, had not consented to the deed of blood (Luke 23:51), and that even in such a case as this it is still true that “the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father” (Ezekiel 18:20), except so far as he consents to it, and reproduces it.
Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.(26) When he had scourged Jesus.—The word used by St. Matthew, derived from the Latin flagellum, shows that it was the Roman punishment with knotted thongs of leather (like the Russian “knout” or the English “cat”), not the Jewish beating with rods (2Corinthians 11:24-25). The pictures of the Stations, so widely used throughout Latin Christendom, have made other nations more familiar with the nature of the punishment than most Englishmen are. The prisoner was stripped sometimes entirely, sometimes to the waist, and tied by the hands to a pillar, with his back bent, so as to receive the full force of the blows. The scourge was of stout leather weighted with lead or bones. Jewish law limited its penalty to forty stripes, reduced in practice to “forty stripes save one” (2Corinthians 11:24; Deuteronomy 25:3), but Roman practice knew no limit but that of the cruelty of the executioner or the physical endurance of the sufferer.
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers.(27) The common hall.—Literally, the Prætorium, a word which, applied originally to the tent of the prætor, or general, and so to the head-quarters of the camp. had come to be used, with a somewhat wide range of meaning, (1) for the residence of a prince or governor; or (2) for the barracks attached to such a residence (as in Philippians 1:13); or (3) for any house as stately. Here (as in Acts 23:35) it appears to be used in the first sense. Pilate’s dialogue with the priests and people had probably been held from the portico of the Tower of Antony, which rose opposite the Temple Court, and served partly as a fortress, partly as an official residence. The soldiers now took the prisoner into their barrack-room within.
The whole band of soldiers.—The word used is the technical word for the cohort, or sub-division of a legion.
And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe.(28) A scarlet robe.—Here again we have a technical word, the chlamys or paludamentum, used for the military cloak worn by emperors in their character as generals, and by other officers of high rank (Pliny, xxii. 2, 3). St. Mark and St. John call it purple (Mark 15:17; John 19:2); but the “purple “of the ancients was “crimson,” and the same colour might easily be called by either name. It was probably some cast-off cloak of Pilate’s own, or, possibly, that in which Herod had before arrayed Him (Luke 23:11). Philo records a like mockery as practised upon an idiot at Alexandria, who was there made to represent Herod Agrippa II. (in Flacc. p. 980). It was but too common a practice to subject condemned prisoners before execution to this kind of outrage. Here the point of the mockery lay, of course, in the fact that their Victim had been condemned as claiming the title of a King. They had probably seen or heard of the insults of like kind offered by Herod and his soldiers (Luke 23:21), and now reproduced them with aggravated cruelty.
And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!(29) A crown of thorns.—The word is too vague to enable us to identify the plant with certainty, but most writers have fixed on the Zizyphus Spina Christi, known locally as the Nebk, a shrub growing plentifully in the valley of the Jordan, with branches pliant and flexible, and leaves of a dark glossy green, like ivy, and sharp prickly thorns. The likeness of the crown or garland thus made to that worn by conquering kings and emperors, fitted it admirably for the purpose. The shrub was likely enough to be found in the garden attached to the Prætorium.
A reed in his right hand.—Here also the word is vague, and it may have been the stalk either of a sugar-cane, a Papyrus, or an Arundo. It represented, of course, the sceptre which, even under the Republic, had been wielded by generals in their triumphs, and which under the Empire, as with Greek and Eastern kings, had become the received symbol of sovereignty.
They bowed the knee before him.—We have to represent to ourselves the whole cohort as joining in the derisive homage. The term in Mark 15:19 implies a continued, not a momentary act—the band filing before the mock-king, and kneeling as they passed.
And they spit upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head.(30) They spit upon him.—See Note on Matthew 26:67.
And after that they had mocked him, they took the robe off from him, and put his own raiment on him, and led him away to crucify him.(31) They took the robe off from him.—At this point we have to insert the account which St. John gives (John 19:4-5) of Pilate’s last attempt to rescue the “just Man” whom he had unjustly condemned. He showed the silent Sufferer in the mock insignia of royalty, as if asking them, Is not this enough? The cries of “Crucify Him!” were but redoubled, and once again the cowardly judge took his place in the official chair, and passed the final sentence. The “raiment” which they put on Him again included both the tunic and the cloak, or over-garment. In this case, the former was made without seam or opening (John 19:23), and the mere act of drawing it roughly over the lacerated flesh must have inflicted acute agony.
And as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name: him they compelled to bear his cross.(32) They found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name.—There seems at that time to have been a flourishing settlement of Jews in Cyrene, and members of that community appear as prominent in the crowd of the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10), among the disputants who opposed Stephen (Acts 6:9), and among the active preachers of the Word (Acts 11:20). Why, we ask, out of the whole crowd that was streaming to and fro, on the way to the place of execution, did the multitude seize on him? St. Mark’s mention of him as the father of Alexander and Rufus (see Note on Mark 15:21), suggests the thought that his sons were afterwards prominent as members of the Christian community. May we not infer that he was suspected even then of being a secret disciple, and that this led the people to seize on him, and make him a sharer in the humiliation of his Master? He was coming, St. Mark adds, “out of the country.”
Him they compelled.—The word is the technical term for forced service (see Note on Matthew 5:41). The act implied that our Lord was sinking beneath the burden, and that the soldiers began to fear that He might die before they reached the place of execution.
And when they were come unto a place called Golgotha, that is to say, a place of a skull,(33) A place called Golgotha.—The other Gospels give the name with the definite article, as though it were a well-known locality. It is not mentioned, however, by any Jewish writer, and its position is matter of conjecture. It was “nigh unto the city” (John 19:20), and therefore outside the walls (comp. Hebrews 13:12). There was a garden in it (John 19:41), and in the garden a tomb, which was the property of Joseph of Arimathæa (Matthew 27:60). A tradition, traceable to the fourth century, has identified the spot with the building known as the Church of the Sepulchre. One eminent archaeologist of our own time (Mr. James Fergusson) identifies it with the Dome of the Rock in the Mosque of El Aksa. Both sites were then outside the city, but were afterwards enclosed by the third wall, built by Agrippa II. The name has been supposed by some to point to its being a common place of execution; but it is not probable that the skulls of criminals would have been left unburied, nor that a wealthy Jew should have chosen such a spot for a garden and a burial-place. The facts lead rather to the conclusion (1) that the name indicated the round, bare, skull-like character of the eminence which was so called; and (2) that it may have been chosen by the priests as a deliberate insult to the member of their own body who had refused to share their policy, and was at least suspected of discipleship, and whose garden, or orchard, with its rock-hewn sepulchre, lay hard by (Mark 15:43; Luke 23:51; John 19:38). A later legend saw in the name a token that the bones of Adam were buried there, and that as the blood flowed from the sacred wounds on his skull his soul was translated to Paradise. The more familiar name of Calvary (Luke 23:35) has its origin in the Vulgate rendering (Calvarium=& skull) of the Greek word Kranion, or Cranium, which the Evangelist actually uses.
They gave him vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink.(34) Vinegar to drink mingled with gall.—In Mark 15:23, “wine mingled with myrrh.” The animal secretion known as “gall” is clearly out of the question, and the meaning of the word is determined by its use in the Greek version of the Old Testament, where it stands for the “wormwood” of Proverbs 5:4, for the poisonous herb joined with “wormwood” in Deuteronomy 29:18. It was clearly something at once nauseous and narcotic, given by the merciful to dull the pain of execution, and mixed with the sour wine of the country and with myrrh to make it drinkable. It may have been hemlock, or even poppy-juice, but there are no materials for deciding. It is probable that the offer came from the more pitiful of the women mentioned by St. Luke (Luke 23:27) as following our Lord and lamenting. Such acts were among the received “works of mercy” of the time and place. The “tasting” implied a recognition of the kindly purpose of the act, but a recognition only. In the refusal to do more than taste we trace the resolute purpose to drink the cup which His Father had given Him to the last drop, and not to dull either the sense of suffering nor the clearness of His communion with His Father with the slumberous potion. The same draught was, we may believe, offered to the two criminals who were crucified with Him.
And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots.(35) They crucified him.—The cross employed in capital punishment varied in its form, being sometimes simply a stake on which the sufferer was impaled, sometimes consisting of two pieces of timber put together in the form of a T or an X (as in what we know as the St. Andrew’s cross); sometimes in that familiar to us in Christian art as the Latin cross. In this instance, the fact that the title or superscription was placed over our Lord’s head, implies that the last was the kind of cross employed. In carrying the sentence of crucifixion into effect, the cross was laid on the ground, the condemned man stripped and laid upon it. Sometimes he was simply tied; sometimes, as here, nails driven through the hands and feet; sometimes a projecting ledge was put for the feet to rest on; sometimes the whole weight of the body hung upon the limbs that were thus secured. The clothes of the criminal were the usual perquisites of the executioners, and in this case included (as we find from John 19:23) the tunic worn next the body as well as the outer garment. It was as the soldiers were thus nailing Him to the cross that He prayed, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34).
They parted my garments among them.—St. John (John 19:24) emphatically records a yet more literal fulfilment of the words than that noted by St. Matthew. The thoughts of both disciples, we may believe, were turned to Psalm 22:18 by our Lord’s utterance of its opening words (Matthew 27:46), and thus led to dwell on the manifold coincidences of its language with the facts of the Passion.
And set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.(37) THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.—This was what was technically known as the titulus—the bill, or placard, showing who the condemned person was, and why he was punished. Each Gospel gives it in a slightly different form—Mark (Mark 15:26), “The King of the Jews;” Luke (Luke 23:38), “This is the King of the Jews;” John (John 19:19), “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” The variations are, perhaps, in part, explicable on the assumption of corresponding differences in the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin forms of the inscription, which reproduced themselves in the reports upon which the Gospel narratives were based. But in part also they may reasonably be ascribed to the natural variations sure to arise even among eye-witnesses, and à fortiori among those who were not eye witnesses, as to the circumstantial details of events which they record in common. On grounds of ordinary likelihood St. John’s record, as that of the only disciple whom we know to have been present at the crucifixion (John 19:25), may claim to be the most accurate.
There was, apparently, a kind of rough tenderness towards the Man whom he had condemned in the form which Pilate had ordered. He would at least recognise His claims to be in some sense a King. The priests obviously felt it to imply such a recognition, a declaration, as it were, to them and to the people that One who had a right to be their King, who was the only kind of King they were ever likely to have, had died the death of a malefactor, and therefore they clamoured for a change, which Pilate refused to make (John 19:20).
Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left.(38) Then were there two thieves crucified with him.—Better, robbers, the word being the same as that used of Barabbas (John 18:40). It would seem, as there is no record of their trial, as if they were already under sentence of death; and it is probable enough that they were members of the same band, and had been sharers in the same insurrection. The legends of the Apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemns (i. 10), give their names as Dysmas and Gysmas, and these names appear still in the Calvaries and Stations of Roman Catholic countries.
And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads,(39) They that passed by.—The words bring before us the picture of a lounging crowd, strolling from one cross to the other, and mocking the central sufferer of the three. Rulers and chief priests were not ashamed to take part in the brutal mockery of a dying man. The spoken taunts were doubtless often repeated, and not always in the same form, but their burden is always the same.
And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross.(40) Thou that destroyest the temple.—Our Lord had not been formally condemned on this charge, the evidence being insufficient, but it had clearly impressed itself on the minds of the people, and was probably that which most worked upon them to demand His death. The other words, “If thou be the Son of God,” referred to the actual condemnation on the ground of blasphemy (Matthew 26:64-65). We may reverently think of the form of the taunt as having recalled that of the Temptation in the Wilderness. Then, as now, the words “If thou be the Son of God” were as a challenge from the Power of Evil. Now, as then, they were met by the strength of Faith. To accept the challenge would have been to show that He did not trust the Father, just as it would have been not faith, but want of faith, to have cast Himself from the pinnacle of the Temple, and therefore to disown His Sonship in the very act of claiming it.
Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said,(41) The chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders.—It would seem as if all, or nearly all, the members of the Sanhedrin—those, at least, who had taken part in the condemnation—had come to feast their eyes with the sight of their Victim’s sufferings.
He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him.(42) He saved others.—The mockers, as before (comp. John 11:50-51), bear unconscious witness to the truth. They referred, it may be, to the works of healing and the raising of the dead which had been wrought in Galilee and Jerusalem, but their words were true in a yet higher sense. He had come into the world to save others, regardless of Himself.
He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God.(43) Let him deliver him now.—It seems at first hardly conceivable that priests and scribes could thus have quoted the very words of Psalm 22:8, and so have fulfilled one of the great Messianic prophecies. But (1) we must remember that they, ignoring the idea of a suffering Christ, would not look on the Psalm as Messianic at all, and (2) that their very familiarity with the words of the Psalm would naturally bring its phraseology to their lips when occasion called for it. Only they would persuade themselves that they were right in using it, while David’s enemies were wrong.
The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth.(44) The thieves also . . . cast the same in his teeth.—Literally, reviled Him. On the change which afterwards came over one of them, see Note on Luke 23:40.
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour.(45) From the sixth hour.—The first three Gospels agree as to time and fact. Assuming them to follow the usual Jewish reckoning (as in Acts 2:15; Acts 3:1; Acts 10:3; Acts 10:9) this would be noon, the fixing to the cross having been at the third hour, 9 A.M. (Mark 15:25), and the darkness lasting till 3 P.M. St. John names the “sixth hour” as the time of our Lord’s final condemnation by Pilate, following apparently (see Note there and on John 4:6) the Roman or modern mode of reckoning from midnight to noon. Looking to the facts of the case, it is probable that our Lord was taken to the high priest’s palace about 3 A.M. (the “cock-crow” of Mark 13:35). Then came the first hearing before Annas (John 18:13), then the trial before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, then the formal meeting that passed the sentence. This would fill up the time probably till 6 A.M., and three hours may be allowed for the trials before Pilate and Herod. After the trial was over there would naturally be an interval for the soldiers to take their early meal, and then the slow procession to Golgotha, delayed, we may well believe, by our Lord’s falling, once or oftener, beneath the burden of the cross, and so we come to 9 A.M. for His arrival at the place of crucifixion.
Darkness over all the land.—Better so than the “earth” of the Authorised version of Luke 23:44. The degree and nature of the darkness are not defined. The moon was at its full, and therefore there could be no eclipse. St. John does not name it, nor is it recorded by Josephus, Tacitus, or any contemporary writer. On the other hand, its appearance in records in many respects so independent of each other as those of the three Gospels places it, even as the common grounds of historical probability, on a sufficiently firm basis, and early Christian writers, such as Tertullian (Apol. c. 21) and Origen (100 Cels. ii. 33), appeal to it as attested by heathen writers. The narrative does not necessarily involve more than the indescribable yet most oppressive gloom which seems to shroud the whole sky as in mourning (comp. Amos 8:9-10), and which being a not uncommon phenomenon of earthquakes, may have been connected with that described in Matthew 27:51. It is an indirect confirmation of the statement that about this time there is an obvious change in the conduct of the crowd. There is a pause and lull. The gibes and taunts cease, and the life of the Crucified One ends in a silence broken only by His own bitter cry.
And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?(46) Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.—The cry is recorded only by St. Matthew and St. Mark. The very syllables or tones dwelt in the memory of those who heard and understood it, and its absence from St. John’s narrative was probably due to the fact that he had before this taken the Virgin-Mother from the scene of the crucifixion as from that which was more than she could bear (John 19:27). To the Roman soldiers, to many of the by standers, Greeks or Hellenistic Jews, the words would be, as the sequel shows, unintelligible. We shrink instinctively from any over-curious analysis of the inner feelings in our Lord’s humanity that answered to this utterance. Was it the natural fear of death? or the vicarious endurance of the wrath which was the penalty of the sins of the human race, for whom, and instead of whom, He suffered? Was there a momentary interruption of the conscious union between His human soul and the light of His Father’s countenance? or, as seems implied in John 19:28, did He quote the words in order to direct the thoughts of men to the great Messianic prophecy which the Psalm contained? None of these answers is altogether satisfactory, and we may well be content to leave the mystery unfathomed, and to let our words, be wary and few. We may remember (1) that both the spoken words of His enemies (Matthew 27:43) and the acts of the soldiers (Matthew 27:35) must have recalled the words of that Psalm; (2) that memory thus roused would pass on to the cry of misery with which the Psalm opened; (3) that our Lord as man was to taste death in all its bitterness for every man (Hebrews 2:9), and that He could not so have tasted it had His soul been throughout in full undisturbed enjoyment of the presence of the Father; (4) that the lives of the saints of God, in proportion to their likeness to the mind of Christ, have exhibited this strange union, or rather instantaneous succession, of the sense of abandonment and of intensest faith. The Psalmist himself, in this very Psalm, is one instance; Job (Job 19:6-9, Job 19:23-26) and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:7-9; Jeremiah 20:12-13) may be named as others. Conceive this conflict—and the possibility of such a conflict is postulated in John 12:27 and in the struggle of Gethsemane—and then, though we cannot understand, we may in part at least conceive, how it was possible for the Son of Man to feel for one moment that sense of abandonment, which is the last weapon of the Enemy. He tasted of despair as others had tasted, but in the very act of tasting, the words “My God” were as a protest against it, and by them He was delivered from it. It is remarkable, whatever explanation may be given of it, that as these words are recorded by the first two Gospels only, so they are the only words spoken on the cross which we find in their report of the Crucifixion.
Some of them that stood there, when they heard that, said, This man calleth for Elias.(47) This man calleth for Elias.—There is no ground for looking on this as a wilful, derisive misinterpretation. The words may have been imperfectly understood, or some of those who listened may have been Hellenistic Jews. The dominant expectation of the coming of Elijah (see Notes on Matthew 16:14; Matthew 17:10) would predispose men to fasten on the similarity of sound, and the strange unearthly darkness would intensify the feeling that looked for a supernatural manifestation of His presence.
And straightway one of them ran, and took a spunge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink.(48) Took a spunge, and filled it with vinegar.—The “vinegar” was the sour wine, or wine and water, which was the common drink of the Roman soldiers. and which they at an earlier stage, and as in derision (Luke 23:36), had offered to the Sufferer. The sponge had probably served instead of a cork to the jar in which the soldiers had brought the drink that was to sustain them in their long day’s work. Some one, whether soldier or Jew we know not, heard, not only the cry, “Eli, Eli, . . .” but the faint “I thirst,” which St. John records as coming from the fevered lips (John 19:28), and prompted by a rough pity, stretched out a cane, or stalk of hyssop (John 19:29), with the sponge that had been dipped in the wine upon it, and bore it to the parched lips of the Sufferer. It was not now refused (John 19:30).
And gave him to drink.—The Greek verb is in the imperfect tense, as implying that while he was doing this, the others tried to interrupt him.
The rest said, Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him.(49) Let us see whether Elias will come.—Here again we have eager expectation rather than derision. Was the “great and dreadful day” (Malachi 4:5) about to burst on them? Would the long-expected prophet at last appear? The sponge and vinegar would seem to minds thus on the stretch an unworthy interruption of the catastrophe of the great drama of which they were spectators.
Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.(50) When he had cried again with a loud voice.—It is well that we should remember what the words were which immediately preceded the last death cry; the “It is finished” of John 19:30, the “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit” of Luke 23:46, expressing as they did, the fulness of peace and trust, the sense of a completed work.
It was seldom that crucifixion, as a punishment, ended so rapidly as it did here, and those who have discussed, what is hardly perhaps a fit subject for discussion, the physical causes of our Lord’s death, have ascribed it accordingly, especially in connection with the fact recorded in John 19:34, and with the “loud cry,” indicating the pangs of an intolerable anguish, to a rupture of the vessels of the heart. Simple exhaustion as the consequence of the long vigil, the agony in the garden, the mocking and the scourging, would be, perhaps, almost as natural an explanation.
Yielded up the ghost.—Better, yielded up His spirit. All four Evangelists agree in using this or some like expression, instead of the simpler form, “He died.” It is as though they dwelt on the act as, in some sense, voluntary, and connected it with the words in which He had commended His spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46).
And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;(51) The veil of the temple was rent in twain.—Better, the veil of the sanctuary, or, if we do not alter the word, we must remember that it is the veil that divided the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies that is here meant. The fact, which the high priests would naturally have wished to conceal, and which in the nature of the case could not have been seen by any but the sons of Aaron, may have been reported by the “great multitude of the priests” who “became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). The Evangelist’s record of it is all the more significant, as he does not notice, and apparently, therefore, did not apprehend, the symbolic import of the fact. That import we learn indirectly from the Epistle to the Hebrews. The priests had, as far as they had power, destroyed the true Temple (comp. John 2:19); but in doing so they had robbed their own sanctuary of all that made it holy. The true veil, as that which shrouded the Divine Glory from the eyes of men, was His own flesh, and through that He had passed, as the Forerunner of all who trusted in Him, into the sanctuary not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (Hebrews 10:20-21). All who fulfilled that condition might enter into that holiest place, but the visible sanctuary was now made common and unclean, and there too all might enter without profanation.
The earth did quake, and the rocks rent.—Jerusalem was, it will be remembered, situated in the zone of earthquakes, and one very memorable convulsion is recorded or alluded to in the Old Testament (Isaiah 24:19; Amos 1:1; Zechariah 14:5). Here, though the shock startled men at the time, there was no widespread ruin such as would lead to its being chronicled by contemporary historians.
And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,(52) Many bodies of the saints which slept arose.—It is scarcely, perhaps, surprising that a narrative so exceptional in its marvellousness, and standing, as it does, without any collateral testimony in any other part of the New Testament, should have presented to many minds difficulties which have seemed almost insuperable. They have accordingly either viewed it as a mythical addition, or, where they shrank from that extreme conclusion, have explained it as meaning simply that the bodies of the dead were exposed to view by the earthquake mentioned in the preceding verse, or have seen in it only the honest report of an over-excited imagination. On the other hand, the brevity, and in some sense simplicity, of the statement differences it very widely from such legends, more or less analogous in character, as we find, e.g., in the Apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, and so far excludes the mythical element which, as a rule, delights to show itself in luxuriant expansion. And this being excluded, we can hardly imagine the Evangelist as writing without having received his information from witnesses whom he thought trustworthy; and then the question rises, whether the narrative is of such a character as to be in itself incredible. On that point men, according to the point of view from which they look on the Gospel records, may naturally differ; but those who believe that when our Lord passed into Hades, the unseen world, it was to complete there what had been begun on earth, to proclaim there His victory over death and sin, will hardly think it impossible that there should have been outward tokens and witnesses of such a work. And the fact which St. Matthew records supplies, it is believed, the most natural explanation of language hardly less startling, which meets us in the Epistle, which even the most adverse critics admit to be from the hands of St. Peter. If he, or those whom he knew, had seen the saints that slept and had risen from their sleep, we can understand how deeply it would have impressed on his mind the fact that his Lord when “put to death in the flesh” had been “quickened in the spirit,” and had “preached to the spirits in prison” (1Peter 3:19), so that glad tidings were proclaimed even to the dead (1Peter 4:6). Who they were that thus appeared, we are not told. Most commentators have followed—somewhat unhappily, I venture to believe—the lead of the Apocryphal Gospel just named, and ι have identified them with the Patriarchs and Prophets of the Old Testament. It is clear, however, that St. Matthew’s statement implies that they were those who came out of the opened graves, who had been buried, that is, in the sepulchres of Jerusalem; and, remembering that the term “saints” was applied almost from the very first to the collective body of disciples (Acts 9:13; Acts 9:32; Acts 9:41), it seems more natural to see in them those who, believing in Jesus, had passed to their rest before His crucifixion. On this supposition, their appearance met the feeling, sure to arise among those who were looking for an immediate manifestation of the kingdom—as it arose afterwards at Thessalonica (1Thessalonians 4:13)—that such as had so died were shut out from their share in that kingdom; and we have thus an adequate reason for their appearance, so that friends and kindred might not sorrow for them as others who had no hope. The statement that they did not appear till after our Lord’s resurrection, is from this point of view significant. The disciples were thus taught to look on that resurrection, not as an isolated phenomenon, but as the “firstfruits” of the victory over death (1Corinthians 15:20), in which not they themselves only, but those also whom they had loved and lost were to be sharers.
Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.(54) Truly this was the Son of God.—St. Luke’s report softens down the witness thus borne into “Truly this Man was righteous.” As reported by St. Matthew and St. Mark (Mark 15:39), the words probably meant little more than that. We must interpret them from the stand-point of the centurion’s knowledge, not from that of Christian faith, and to him the words “Son of God” would convey the idea of one who was God-like in those elements of character which are most divine—righteousness, and holiness, and love. The form of expression was naturally determined by the words which he had heard bandied to and fro as a taunt (Matthew 27:43); and the centurion felt that the words, as he understood them, were true, and not false, of the Sufferer whose death he had witnessed. That the words might have such a sense in the lips even of a devout Jew, we find in the language of a book probably contemporary, and possibly written with some remote reference to our Lord’s death—the so-called Wisdom of Solomon (Wisd. ii. 13, 16-18). In the last of these verses, it will be noted, the terms “just man” and “son of God” appear as interchangeable.
And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him:(55) Many women were there beholding.—The group was obviously distinct from that of “the daughters of Jerusalem,” of Luke 23:28, but was probably identical with that mentioned in Luke 8:2-3, as accompanying our Lord in many of His journeyings.
Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's children.(56) Mary Magdalene.—This is the first mention of the name in St. Matthew. The most natural explanation of it is that she came from the town of Magdala, or Magadan (the reading of the chief MSS.), not far from Tiberias, on the western side of the Sea of Galilee. The two prominent facts in her history prior to her connection with the Resurrection are, (1) that our Lord had cast “seven devils out of her” (Mark 16:9, Luke 8:2)—i.e., had freed her from some specially aggravated form of demoniacal possession—and that she followed Him and ministered to Him of her substance. The question whether she was identical (1) with Mary the sister of Lazarus, or (2) with the “woman which was a sinner” of Luke 7:37, will be better discussed in the Notes on the latter passage. It may be enough to intimate here my conviction that there is not the shadow of any evidence for either identification.
Mary the mother of James and Joses.—In St. Mark (Mark 15:40) she is described as the mother of “James the Less” (or, better, the Little) “and Joses,” the epithet distinguishing the former from James the son of Zebedee, and possibly also from James the son of Alphæus. She may, however, have been identical with the wife of Clopas (possibly another form of Alphæus) mentioned in John 19:25 as standing near the cross with the mother of the Lord, and, according to a natural construction of the words, described as her sister. In this case, the word “Little” would attach to the son of that sister. Whether the two names, which occur also in the list of the “brethren of the Lord” (Mark 6:3), indicate that she was the mother of those brethren, is a point which we have no evidence to settle. The presumption seems to me against it, as on this supposition the “brethren” would be identical with the three sons of Alphæus in the list of the Twelve, a view which we have seen reason to reject (see Note on Matthew 12:46).
The mother of Zebedee’s children.—St. Mark (Mark 15:40) gives her name as Salome, and she, and not the wife of Clopas, may, on a perfectly tenable construction of John 19:25, have been identical with the sister of our Lord’s mother there mentioned. St. Luke notes the fact that with the women were those whom he describes as “all His acquaintance,” i.e., friends and disciples of, or at that time in, Jerusalem (Luke 23:49).
When the even was come, there came a rich man of Arimathaea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus' disciple:(57) A rich man of Arimathæa.—The place so named was probably identical with the Ramah of 1Samuel 1:19, the birth-place of the prophet. In 1Samuel 1:1 the name is given in its uncontracted form as Ramathaim-zophim, and in the LXX. version it appears throughout as Armathaim, in Josephus as Armatha, in 1 Maccabees 11:34 as Ramathem. It was a city of the Jews, in the narrower sense in which that word meant the people of Judæa (Luke 23:51). The site is more or less conjectural, but if we identify the Ramah, or Ramathaim, of 1Samuel 1:1 with the modern Nebby Samuel, about four miles north-west of Jerusalem, we have a position which sufficiently fits in with the circumstances of the history. Of Joseph we are told by St. Mark (Mark 15:43) that he was “an honourable counsellor,” i.e., a member of the Sanhedrin, and that he was looking for the kingdom of God; by St. Luke (Luke 23:50-51), that he was “a good man, and a just” (see Note on Romans 5:7 for the distinction between the two words); by St. John ( John 19:38), that he was “a disciple, but secretly for fear of the Jews.” He was apparently a man of the same class and type of character as Nicodemus, respecting our Lord as a man, admiring Him as a teacher, half-believing in Him as the Christ, and yet, till now, shrinking from confessing Him before men. For us the name has the interest of being one of the few New Testament names connected with our own country. He was sent, it was said, by Philip (the Apostle) to Britain. There, in the legend which mediæval chroniclers delighted to tell, he founded the Church of Glastonbury; and the staff which he stuck into the ground took root and brought forth leaves and flowers, and became the parent of all the Glastonbury thorns from that day to this. We have to place the piercing of the side, narrated by St. John only (John 19:31-37), before Joseph’s application.
He went to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered.(58) He went to Pilate.—Assuming the death of our Lord to have been soon after the ninth hour (3 P.M.), Joseph would seem to have hastened at once to the Prætorium, and asked Pilate’s permission to inter the body. St. Mark records Pilate’s wonder that death should have come so soon (Mark 15:44). In his compliance with the petition we trace, as before, a lingering reverence and admiration. As far as he can, he will help the friends and not the foes of the righteous Sufferer.
And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth,(59) A clean linen cloth.—The word for “linen cloth,” Sindôn, points, according to different derivations, to a Sidonian or an Indian fabric. It was probably of the nature of muslin rather than linen, and seems to have been specially used by the Egyptians for folding round their mummies, but sometimes also for the sheet in which a man slept (Herod. ii. 82, 95). In the New Testament it appears only in the account of our Lord’s burial and in the strange narrative of Mark 14:51.
And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.(60) Laid it in his own new tomb.—The garden, or orchard, was therefore the property of Joseph (see Note on Matthew 27:33). All the first three Gospels dwell on the fact of its not being, as so many graves were, a natural cavern, but cut, and, as St. Luke’s word implies. to some extent, smoothed and polished. Like almost all Eastern graves, it was an opening made in the vertical face of the rock. Neither of the two localities which have been identified with the sepulchre (see Note as above) presents this feature, and, so far as this is not an argument against the identity of either with the actual tombs, we must assume that the rock has been so cut and shaped in the course of centuries as to lose its original form. St. John (John 19:39) notes the singularly interesting fact that Nicodemus shared with him in these reverential offices. The hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes which he brought must have been bought beforehand, and may have been stored up from the time when he knew that the leading members of the Council had resolved upon the death of Jesus. St. Luke and St. John give the reason for the speed with which the entombment was hurried on. It was now near sunset. The Sabbath was on the point of beginning, and there was no alternative but that of leaving the body on the cross for another twenty-four hours, and this, though common enough as a Roman practice (which commonly, indeed, left the corpse for birds of prey to feed on), would have shocked Jewish feeling, especially at the Paschal season, as a violation of their law (Deuteronomy 21:23).
And there was Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre.(61) And there was Mary Magdalene.—The words imply that they remained by the cross while the body was taken down, and watched its entombment: then returning to the house where they lodged, they prepared their spices and ointment before the Sabbath began, for a more complete embalmment, so that they might be ready by the earliest hour of dawn on the first day of the week (Luke 23:56).
Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate,(62) The next day, that followed the day of the preparation.—The narrative that follows is peculiar to St. Matthew, and, like the report of the rending of the veil of the Temple, may, perhaps, be traced to the converted priests of Acts 6:7. This was, as we find from what follows, the Sabbath. The “preparation” (Paraskeuè) was a technical term, not, as is sometimes said, in reference to preparing for the Passover, but, as in Mark 15:42, to a preparation for the Sabbath (Jos. Ant. xvi. 6, § 2, is decisive on this point), and the use of the term here leaves the question whether the Last Supper or the Crucifixion coincided with the Passover, still an open one. It may be noted that the Jewish use of the term passed into the Christian Church, and that at least as early as Clement of Alexandria (Strom. vii. § 76) it was the received name for the Dies Veneris, or Friday, the anniversary of the Crucifixion being the “great” or “holy” Paraskeue. On either view, however, there is something strange in the way in which St. Matthew describes the day as coming, “after the preparation,” instead of saying simply, “the Sabbath.” It is a possible solution of the difficulty thus presented, on the assumption that the Last Supper was a true Passover, that the day of the Crucifixion as being on the Passover, was itself technically a Sabbath (Leviticus 23:7; Leviticus 23:24). Two Sabbaths therefore came together, and this may have led the Evangelist to avoid the commoner phrase, and to describe the second as being “the day that followed the preparation,” i.e. the ordinary weekly Sabbath. The precise time at which the priests went to Pilate is not stated; probably it was early on the morning of the Sabbath when they had heard from the Roman soldiers of the burial by Joseph of Arimathæa. The fact that the body was under the care of one who was secretly a disciple aroused their suspicions, and they would naturally take the first opportunity, even at the risk of infringing on the Sabbath rest, of guarding against the fraud which they suspected.
Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again.(63) We remember that that deceiver said . . .—It appears, then, that though they had deliberately stirred up the passions of the people by representing the mysterious words of John 2:14 as threatening a literal destruction of the Temple (Matthew 26:61; Matthew 27:40), they themselves had understood, wholly or in part, their true meaning. We are, perhaps, surprised that they should in this respect have been more clear-sighted than the disciples, but in such a matter sorrow and disappointment confuse, and suspicion sharpens the intellect.
That deceiver.—They had used the cognate verb of Him before (John 7:12), and this was, perhaps, their usual way of speaking of Him.
Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first.(64) Until the third day.—The phrase is worth noting as indicating the meaning which the priests attached to the words “after three days.” They were looking for the fraud which they anticipated as likely to be attempted at the beginning of the third day from the death.
The last error.—Better, deceit, to connect the word, in English as in the Greek, with the “deceiver” of Matthew 27:63.
Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can.(65) Ye have a watch.—Better, Take ye a guard. The Greek verb may be either imperative or indicative. The former gives the better meaning. The “watch,” or “guard,” was a body of Roman soldiers (St. Matthew uses the Latin term custodia), who could not be set to such a task without Pilate’s permission. If the priests had had such a “guard” at their disposal before, there would have been no need for them to apply to Pilate.
So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch.(66) Sealing the stone.—The opening of the tomb had been already closed by the stone which had been rolled so as to fill, or nearly fill, it. The sealing was probably effected by drawing one or more ropes across the stone and fastening either end to the rock with wax or cement of some kind.
And setting a watch.—Better, with the guard. What is meant is that the priests were not content to leave the work to the soldiers, but actually took part in it themselves.