"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 13 The Passion, Death, and Burial of Jesus (Jn 18.1-19.42)

Jesus' Crucifixion and Death (John 19.16b-30)


In this section, the earthly story of Jesus comes to a bloody and tragic end. He is killed by the Romans, executed on (false) charges of making himself a king - of insurrection. That he will come to his death at the hands of the Romans, and even be turned over to them by members of the Council, is foreshadowed (implicitly if not explicitly) by the Council meeting described in Jn 11.47-57. There the Council was debating what to do about Jesus, since he was likely to bring the Romans down upon all Judaeans by making claims that the Romans will understand as political. Joseph Caiaphas, apparently angered and frustrated beyond bearing by what he sees as the Council's dithering, said, “You understand nothing! Nor do you understand that it is to your advantage for one man to die on the people’s behalf and for the whole nation not to to be destroyed” (Jn 11.49b-50). Caiaphas and his faction felt that in order to protect the people and the nation from destruction, Jesus must be executed. But since the Council could not lawfully put any prisoner to death, that execution had to be carried out by the Romans. So Caiaphas and his faction on the Council had to somehow manoeuvre Jesus into the hands of the Romans and get him charged with a capital crime, such as insurrection. The evangelist, reflecting on Caiaphas' words and actions after a lifetime of teaching and preaching the Word, concluded that "But he did not say this on his own but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not only for the nation but so that he might assemble the dispersed children of God into one." (Jn 11.51-2). Caiaphas' words had the force of prophecy in John's eyes, because he spoke them as high priest in that year. So John considers that it was in accordance with that prophecy that the Council determined that Jesus must die.

Hence the plot to arrest Jesus, bring him before the Council, and send him from the Council to Pilate for punishment. The high priest Caiaphas and some of the Council members accompanied Jesus, to insure that Pilate carried out the sentence and the nation was protected. As far as they are concerned, the only way for this trial to end is with the condemnation of the prisoner to death and, as Jesus was neither a Roman citizen or a person of influence, the sentence was carried out by crucifixion (already alluded to in the previous section (eg in Jn 19.6, 10, 15, 16a)).

Crucifixion was the most vile form of execution administered in Roman law, a brutal punishment that was recognised as such even in a brutal age. This was deliberate. It was intended to cause shame and suffering to the condemned criminal, so that others would be deterred from committing the same crime. Originally it was administered only to slaves and continued to be called the supplicium servile (slavish punishment). It was normally reserved for slaves, foreigners, traitors, and insurrectionists. Roman citizens were crucified only under extraordinary circumstances. The punishment was not banned until the Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor, did so after 320.

It was a form of hanging in which the guilty party was suspended by the wrists or hands on the crossbar (patibulum in Latin) attached to an upright stake (the stipes) in the ground in the shape of a Greek letter tau (t in the Roman alphabet): τ. The crossbar might also be placed a little below the top of the shaft. An inscription (Latin titulus) was placed above the victim stating his crime. The stake might have a footrest or little seat, which helped to prolong the victim's life (and suffering) by allowing the victim to press up with feet or buttocks to permit deeper breaths to be taken. If the stipes of Jesus' cross had this feature, it would help to explain how he might have been able to breathe well enough over the course of his ordeal to utter the Seven Last Words attributed to him.

The shaming of the condemned criminal was a particularly strong factor in a Jewish environment because the nakedness of the victim was much more culturally offensive to Jews than it was to the Gentiles in a Greco-Roman society. We are accustomed to see Jesus minimally covered, with some sort of loincloth, in religious art, but it is clear from the description of Jesus' clothing that he was crucified naked, as was usual. The undertunic woven in one piece would have been worn as underclothing next the skin.

The condemned man (women were very rarely crucified) could take anywhere from 3-4 hours to 3-4 days to die, depending on the circumstances.1 Because the Roman soldiers detailed to supervise a crucifixion (normally a centurion and two soldiers) had to remain at the scene until the victim died, they often did things to hasten the death, unless there was some compelling reason to draw out the public display. They might break the legs of the victim with blows from heavy mallets, or piece the victim's heart.2

John's account of the crucifixion refers to several of these circumstances. Jesus carries his patibulum from the pretorium to the place of execution (Jn 19.17), a standard practice; there is a titulus on his cross (Jn 19.19-22). The normal military detatchment has apparently been increased to a total of four men - no doubt a centurion and three soldiers - as indicated by the fact that they divided Jesus' clothing four ways (Jn 19.23). This was perhaps in response to the number of condemned criminals that day: three. In our next section, allusion is made to the practice of hastening the condemned men's death by breaking their legs or piercing their sides (Jn 19.31-34).

Return to Gospel


According to John, Jesus was apparently able to carry the patibulum of his cross himself, that is, without the help of a third party. This seems to be a correction to Mark, in whose gospel the soldiers compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross for him (Mk 15.21, || Matt 27.32, Lk 23.26). Although it is not possible to know for certain, it seems probable that Mark is right here. We don't know whether John and Luke are right that Jesus was beaten twice on the day of his Crucifixion, but we know from the fact that he died in 3-6 hours that he had likely suffered very severe treatment in his beating or beatings. This suggests in turn that he may not have been able to carry the patibulum without help.

Return to Gospel

There is no exact agreement about the site of Jesus' crucifixion. Scholars generally seem to fall into one of two groups: those who think the traditional location (now within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) is likely correct, and those like New Testament scholar Joan Taylor who think that, although a case can be made for the traditional site, a better case can be made for another, nearby location. She argues that Golgatha is the name of an area within which the two specific sites referred to in John's Gospel (the site of the crucifixion and the site of the tomb) are located. This area she identifies with a large quarry near the walls of the city. She places the site of the crucifixion at the southern end of the quarry, near the Gennath Gate, while locating the tomb in its traditional site near the northern end of the quarry, about 200 metres from the proposed crucifixion site.3

Return to Gospel

Taken together verses 19 and 21 show Pilate still rather passive-aggressively expressing the Council's charges against Jesus in terms to which they are opposed. He labelled Jesus as the King of the Jews yet again, and when the Council retorted, no, say that this fellow said he was King of the Jews, Pilate replied in v22 with the unanswerable, "What I have written, I have written." Unspoken but surely not unheard is the conclusion, "and I will change it for no-one"!

Pilate does not speak again in this gospel. He is referred to a few times (giving permission for Joseph of Arimatheia to take Jesus' body, for example (Jn 19.38)) but "What I have written, I have written" is Pilate's last word in the Fourth Gospel. It seems fitting that it should be so: Pilate has used the honorific "King of the Jews" throughout his conversation with the Council in an unfriendly way and the passive-aggressive nature of that usage continues right up to this last word. Why does the man with all the apparent power in the relationship appear to have been unable to effectively combat the Council? John seems to want us to see an unexpected power imbalance here that was tilted away from the Roman governor and toward the Judaean high priest. He portrays Caiaphas as the one in control, manipulating the situation and Pilate himself so as to fulfil his unwitting prophecy in Jn 11.47-57 about Jesus's death and bring it to its terrible and mistaken fulfillment. Pilate's refusal to change the wording of the charge, a small thing but one surely within his grasp, emphasised again this imbalanced relationship between Pilate and Caiaphas. If John here is reflecting the reality of the relationship between those two men, it certainly explains why Caiaphas held on to his office for the whole length of Pilate's governorship.

Return to Gospel

Jesus's clothing would have been mostly removed for the flogging that preceded his crucifixion - note that in John's telling Jesus was apparently beaten twice that morning. He was beaten first as part of Pilate's attempt to punish him for a lesser crime than insurrection but would also have been beaten again after the sentence of crucifixion was pronounced. In any case, his clothing would have been all or mostly removed for the flogging, as I have said. The soldiers would have kept the clothing as a perquisite of their being on crucifixion detail.

Jesus' clothing here can be divided into the outer wear - which is parcelled out in four parts to, presumably, four men, the centurion and three soldiers - and the underwear, which is the seamless tunic. This they quite understandably wanted to keep in one piece and so they cast lots, ie, threw dice, for it.

A note on Jn 19.23 in the Oxford Annotated Bible identifies the four items of clothing that were divided rather than diced for as head gear; a cloak (the outer garment that covered the tunic) belt, and shoes. With the addition of the tunic, the enumeration of the usual clothing would be complete.

Practically speaking, the lack of seams in an undertunic seems likely to be due to considerations of comfort - seams would have made it uncomfortable because it was to be worn next to the skin. However, the seamlessness of Jesus' tunic has attracted symbolic interpretations as well. For example, the garment has been seen as a symbol of the unity of the Church - just as Jesus' seamless garment is undivided by the soldiers, so Chist's church should be indivisible - or the unity of divine and human in Jesus. These interpretation go back a long way in Christian teaching and preaching, being first found in the church fathers.

In a note to her article, 'The Seamless Garment: A Note on John 19.23-24', archaeologist Elizabeth Pemberton quotes from a personal communication by the textile historian Elizabeth Barber to explain how a seamless tunic might have been woven using technology contemporary with Jesus. Dr Barber writes:

On a 2-beam loom, you can make a circular warp, weave it, then turn the cloth sideways so that the warp goes around the body, and pin it at the shoulders. That way you don't even have to cut neck and arm holes. Or, on pretty much any kind of large loom with a twill tie -up, you can treat the possible sheds as two tabby sheds, one in front and one in back, and pass your weft through them in a circle. This produces a tube which can be placed so that the weft goes around the body. You can even weave in openings for the arms, and finish one end in such a way as to close the shoulder and open the neck.4

Return to Gospel

All four gospels quote or allude to Ps 22.- Matthew and Mark show Jesus as quoting the first line of the Psalm on the Cross, although this is not found in Luke or John. All four refer to the verse quoted here, Ps 22.19 (LXX; v18 in the more familiar numbering of our English translations from the Hebrew Bible). The Evangelist's concern for how these events fulfil the prophecy of the Tanakh is so strong that he even extends this fulfullment to explain the actions of the crucifixion detail in dividing their perks of clothing.The soldiers both divide the clothes according to the Evangelist and also gamble for the clothing.

Return to Gospel

Scholars are divided over how many women there were at the foot of the cross according to this verse. Grammatically, it could be two, three, or four.

If there are two, then we must read it as "his mother and his mother's sister (adelphē), ie, Mary of Clopas and Mary Magdalen". This is unlikely. As difficult as the idea that Mary Magdalen was Jesus' aunt is to reconcile with the rest of the traditions recorded about her in the New Testament, it would be far more difficult to imagine any gospel writer referring to the mother of Jesus as "Mary of Clopas". Usually this way of referring to a person as A of B is used when the first person has a very common name, such as Simon or Mary, but a connection with a person well known in the community for which the author is writing. When A is a woman, B is usually her father if she is unmarried, her husband if she is married, or a son, if she had a well-known one.

In the case of the mother of Jesus, we know that Clopas is neither the name of her husband or the name of one of her sons, so it could only be being used here as the name of her father. But why would Mary the mother of Jesus be distinguished from other women of the same very common name by the name of a completely obscure father rather than by the name of her extremely well known elder son? It is simply incomprehensible that Mary the mother of Jesus would be known in any Christian community as Mary of Clopas.

That leaves the question of three names versus four - that is, is John saying that the mother of Jesus; his mother's sister, that is, Mary of Clopas; and Mary Magdalen were present, or that the mother of Jesus; his mother's sister; Mary of Clopas; and Mary Magdalen were present. The difference is whether "Mary of Clopas" is being given as the name of Jesus' aunt, or whether it is the name of a third woman. The frequency with which Mary (Miriam) is found as a woman's name at the time does not help with the problem.5 It is difficult to decide how to approach this conundrum, but Richard Bauckham offers a way forward with his identification of Clopas as the brother of Joseph, Mary's husband6. In that case, as the sister-in-law of Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary of Clopas could be identified as Mary's adelphē, that is, her sister, sister-in-law, step-sister, or half-sister.

What is even more difficult to explain is what occurs in the two following verses (Jn 19.26-7). The dying Jesus entrusts his (probably widowed) mother to the care of his close friend the Beloved Disciple. But he had living brothers - true, there had been an estrangement, but the rapidity with which Jesus' brother James assumed a leadership role in the Jerusalem church suggests that he at least was a disciple of Jesus by the time of the Crucifixion - and other male family members (such as Clopas). So why overlook family and entrust his mother to the BD? Perhaps it demonstrates the extent to which the new ties of relationship within the fellowship of Jesus and his disciples has replaced family ties (as hinted at in Mk 3.33-35 and parallels). Perhaps Jesus did so because the BD was right there, on the scene, whereas no male family members were, and the BD or his family likely had a home either in Jerusalem or nearby to which Mary could be safely taken.

Return to Gospel

This beverage (ozos in Greek, acetum in Latin) does not refer to vinegar here, as it is sometimes mistranslated. Rather it refers to ordinary, cheap wine. The acidic quality of such wine is the reason for the names - in Greek it is literally something sharp and in Latin, what has turned or gone off. This was the "plonk" of the common soldier, no doubt supplied for the crucifixion detail as they guarded the convicted criminals.

Return to Gospel

It is not certain what plant is designated by the Greek word hussōpos here. In the First Testment, this Greek word is used to translate the Hebrew word ezob -- a plant that is also difficult to identify. Biblical hyssop may refer to Syrian hyssop (Origanum syriacum; also known as Bible hyssop and wild marjoram), an aromatic herb still used in the Middle East as part of the herb and spice blend za'atar. What we can be fairly sure of is that hussōpos does not refer to European hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), since that plant does not grow in Palestine or Egypt. Another possiblity is the caperbush (Capparis spinosa). Whatever the evangelist was referring to here must have had branches or stems of sufficient strength to support the weight of a sponge soaked in wine and lifted up from the ground to the lips of a crucified man. (see The Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. hyssop)

Return to Gospel

Jesus is aware that he is dying and uses some of his remaining strength to ask for something to drink so as to fulfil the Scripture (probably a reference to Ps 69.3a, 21). Having done so, he gave over his spirit, that is, gave it over in death into the keeping of the Father who sent him. Those who know the outcome of this story will appreciate the image of Jesus giving over his spirit, implicitly, to the Father's care, since that same Father will restore it to him in the Resurrection, in the following chapter. The use of this euphemism for dying does not at all suggest that Jesus did not die, as the next section shows.

Return to Gospel

Return to the Outline

Return to the opening menu.

1 According to Retief and Cilliers 2003 p 940 the main cause of the victim's death "in the majority of victims would have been asphyxiation from severely hampered respiration with secondary cardiovascular collapse. Hanging from the arms made expiration very difficult, and when muscle cramps set in, spasmodic contraction of the arms probably became impossible. Respiratory assistance from leg extension would also have been progressively more difficult, and eventually respiration was purely diaphragmatic, and asphyxiation inevitable.

2 For further details about the cause of death, et al, please see Retief and Cilliers 2003 and 2005

3 See Taylor 1998 and 2002 and Von Wahlde 2018

4 Elizabeth Pemberton, 'The Seamless Garment: A Note on John 19.23-24' Australian Biblical Review 54 (2006) 54-4, n19.

5 See Bauckham 2006 p 58 for a chart of frequency of women's names in Palestine during the period.

6 See Bauckham 2002 ch 6 pp 203-224.