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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : CHAPTER XXV. DEATH OF JESUS.

The Life Of Jesus by Ernest Renan

CHAPTER XXV. DEATH OF JESUS.

Although the real motive for the death of Jesus was entirely religious, his enemies had succeeded, in the judgment-hall, in representing him as guilty of treason against the state; they could not have obtained from the sceptical Pilate a condemnation simply on the ground of heterodoxy. Consistently with this idea, the priests demanded, through the people, the crucifixion of Jesus. This punishment was not Jewish in its origin; if the condemnation of Jesus had been purely Mosaic, he would have been stoned. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment, reserved for slaves, and for cases in which it was wished to add to death the aggravation of ignominy. In applying it to Jesus, they treated him as they treated highway robbers, brigands, bandits, or those enemies of inferior rank to whom the Romans did not grant the honor of death by the sword. It was the chimerical |King of the Jews,| not the heterodox dogmatist, who was punished. Following out the same idea, the execution was left to the Romans. We know that amongst the Romans, the soldiers, their profession being to kill, performed the office of executioners. Jesus was therefore delivered to a cohort of auxiliary troops, and all the most hateful features of executions introduced by the cruel habits of the new conquerors, were exhibited toward him. It was about noon. They re-clothed him with the garments which they had removed for the farce enacted at the tribunal, and as the cohort had already in reserve two thieves who were to be executed, the three prisoners were taken together, and the procession set out for the place of execution.

[Footnote 1: Jos., Ant., XX. ix.1. The Talmud, which represents the condemnation of Jesus as entirely religious, declares, in fact, that he was stoned; or, at least, that after having been hanged, he was stoned, as often happened (Mishnah, Sanhedrim, vi.4.) Talmud of Jerusalem, Sanhedrim, xiv.16. Talm. of Bab., same treatise, 43 a, 67 a.]

[Footnote 2: Jos., Ant., XVII. x.10, XX. vi.2; B.J., V. xi.1; Apuleius, Metam., iii.9; Suetonius, Galba, 9; Lampridius, Alex. Sev., 23.]

[Footnote 3: John xix.14. According to Mark xv.25, it could scarcely have been eight o'clock in the morning, since that evangelist relates that Jesus was crucified at nine o'clock.]

The scene of the execution was at a place called Golgotha, situated outside Jerusalem, but near the walls of the city. The name Golgotha signifies a skull; it corresponds with the French word Chaumont, and probably designated a bare hill or rising ground, having the form of a bald skull. The situation of this hill is not precisely known. It was certainly on the north or northwest of the city, in the high, irregular plain which extends between the walls and the two valleys of Kedron and Hinnom, a rather uninteresting region, and made still worse by the objectionable circumstances arising from the neighborhood of a great city. It is difficult to identify Golgotha as the precise place which, since Constantine, has been venerated by entire Christendom. This place is too much in the interior of the city, and we are led to believe that, in the time of Jesus, it was comprised within the circuit of the walls.

[Footnote 1: Matt. xxvii.33; Mark xv.22; John xix.20; Heb. xiii.12.]

[Footnote 2: Golgotha, in fact, seems not entirely unconnected with the hill of Gareb and the locality of Goath, mentioned in Jeremiah xxxi.39. Now, these two places appear to have been at the northwest of the city. I should incline to fix the place where Jesus was crucified near the extreme corner which the existing wall makes toward the west, or perhaps upon the mounds which command the valley of Hinnom, above Birket-Mamilla.]

[Footnote 3: The proofs by which it has been attempted to establish that the Holy Sepulchre has been displaced since Constantine are not very strong.]

[Footnote 4: M. de Voguee has discovered, about 83 yards to the east of the traditional site of Calvary, a fragment of a Jewish wall analogous to that of Hebron, which, if it belongs to the inclosure of the time of Jesus, would leave the above-mentioned site outside the city. The existence of a sepulchral cave (that which is called |Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea|), under the wall of the cupola of the Holy Sepulchre, would also lead to the supposition that this place was outside the walls. Two historical considerations, one of which is rather strong, may, moreover, be invoked in favor of the tradition. The first is, that it would be singular if those, who, under Constantine, sought to determine the topography of the Gospels, had not hesitated in the presence of the objection which results from John xix.20, and from Heb. xiii.12. Why, being free to choose, should they have wantonly exposed themselves to so grave a difficulty? The second consideration is, that they might have had to guide them, in the time of Constantine, the remains of an edifice, the temple of Venus on Golgotha, erected by Adrian. We are, then, at times led to believe that the work of the devout topographers of the time of Constantine was earnest and sincere, that they sought for indications, and that, though they might not refrain from certain pious frauds, they were guided by analogies. If they had merely followed a vain caprice, they might have placed Golgotha in a more conspicuous situation, at the summit of some of the neighboring hills about Jerusalem, in accordance with the Christian imagination, which very early thought that the death of Christ had taken place on a mountain. But the difficulty of the inclosures is very serious. Let us add, that the erection of a temple of Venus on Golgotha proves little. Eusebius (Vita Const., iii.26), Socrates (H.E., i.17), Sozomen (H.E., ii.1), St. Jerome (Epist. xlix., ad Paulin.), say, indeed, that there was a sanctuary of Venus on the site which they imagined to be that of the holy tomb; but it is not certain that Adrian had erected it; or that he had erected it in a place which was in his time called |Golgotha|; or that he had intended to erect it at the place where Jesus had suffered death.]

He who was condemned to the cross, had himself to carry the instrument of his execution. But Jesus, physically weaker than his two companions, could not carry his. The troop met a certain Simon of Cyrene, who was returning from the country, and the soldiers, with the off-hand procedure of foreign garrisons, forced him to carry the fatal tree. Perhaps they made use of a recognized right of forcing labor, the Romans not being allowed to carry the infamous wood. It seems that Simon was afterward of the Christian community. His two sons, Alexander and Rufus, were well known in it. He related perhaps more than one circumstance of which he had been witness. No disciple was at this moment near to Jesus.

[Footnote 1: Plutarch, De Sera Num. Vind., 19; Artemidorus, Onirocrit., ii.56.]

[Footnote 2: Mark xv.21.]

[Footnote 3: The circumstance, Luke xxiii.27-31, is one of those in which we are sensible of the work of a pious and loving imagination. The words which are there attributed to Jesus could only have been written after the siege of Jerusalem.]

The place of execution was at last reached. According to Jewish custom, the sufferers were offered a strong aromatic wine, an intoxicating drink, which, through a sentiment of pity, was given to the condemned in order to stupefy him. It appears that the ladies of Jerusalem often brought this kind of wine to the unfortunates who were led to execution; when none was presented by them, it was purchased from the public treasury. Jesus, after having touched the edge of the cup with his lips, refused to drink. This mournful consolation of ordinary sufferers did not accord with his exalted nature. He preferred to quit life with perfect clearness of mind, and to await in full consciousness the death he had willed and brought upon himself. He was then divested of his garments, and fastened to the cross. The cross was composed of two beams, tied in the form of the letter T. It was not much elevated, so that the feet of the condemned almost touched the earth. They commenced by fixing it, then they fastened the sufferer to it by driving nails into his hands; the feet were often nailed, though sometimes only bound with cords. A piece of wood was fastened to the upright portion of the cross, toward the middle, and passed between the legs of the condemned, who rested upon it. Without that, the hands would have been torn and the body would have sunk down. At other times, a small horizontal rest was fixed beneath the feet, and sustained them.

[Footnote 1: Talm. of Bab., Sanhedrim, fol.43 a. Comp. Prov. xxi.6.]

[Footnote 2: Talm. of Bab., Sanhedrim, l.c.]

[Footnote 3: Mark xv.23; Matt. xxvii.34, falsifies this detail, in order to create a Messianic allusion from Ps. lxix.20.]

[Footnote 4: Matt. xxvii.35; Mark xv.24; John xix.23. Cf. Artemidorus, Onirocr., ii.53.]

[Footnote 5: Lucian, Jud. Voc., 12. Compare the grotesque crucifix traced at Rome on a wall of Mount Palatine. Civilta Cattolica, fasc. clxi. p.529, and following.]

[Footnote 6: Jos., B.J., VII. vi.4; Cic., In Verr., v.66; Xenoph. Ephes., Ephesiaca, iv.2.]

[Footnote 7: Luke xxiv.39; John xx.25-27; Plautus, Mostellaria, II. i.13; Lucan., Phars., vi.543, and following, 547; Justin, Dial. cum Tryph., 97; Tertullian, Adv. Marcionem, iii.19.]

[Footnote 8: Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., ii.24; Justin, Dial. cum Tryphone, 91.]

[Footnote 9: See the graffito quoted before.]

Jesus tasted these horrors in all their atrocity. A burning thirst, one of the tortures of crucifixion, devoured him, and he asked to drink. There stood near, a cup of the ordinary drink of the Roman soldiers, a mixture of vinegar and water, called posca. The soldiers had to carry with them their posca on all their expeditions, of which an execution was considered one. A soldier dipped a sponge in this drink, put it at the end of a reed, and raised it to the lips of Jesus, who sucked it. The two robbers were crucified, one on each side. The executioners, to whom were usually left the small effects (pannicularia) of those executed, drew lots for his garments, and, seated at the foot of the cross, kept guard over him. According to one tradition, Jesus pronounced this sentence, which was in his heart if not upon his lips: |Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.|

[Footnote 1: See the Arab text published by Kosegarten, Chrest. Arab., p.64.]

[Footnote 2: Spartianus, Life of Adrian, 10; Vulcatius Gallicanus, Life of Avidius Cassius, 5.]

[Footnote 3: Matt. xxvii.48; Mark xv.36; Luke xxiii.36; John xix.28-30.]

[Footnote 4: Dig., XLVII. xx., De bonis damnat., 6. Adrian limited this custom.]

[Footnote 5: Matt. xxvii.36. Cf. Petronius, Satyr., cxi., cxii.]

[Footnote 6: Luke xxiii.34. In general, the last words attributed to Jesus, especially such as Luke records, are open to doubt. The desire to edify or to show the accomplishment of prophecies is perceptible. In these cases, moreover, every one hears in his own way. The last words of celebrated prisoners, condemned to death, are always collected in two or three entirely different shapes, by even the nearest witnesses.]

According to the Roman custom, a writing was attached to the top of the cross, bearing, in three languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, the words: |THE KING OF THE JEWS.| There was something painful and insulting to the nation in this inscription. The numerous passers-by who read it were offended. The priests complained to Pilate that he ought to have adopted an inscription which would have implied simply that Jesus had called himself King of the Jews. But Pilate, already tired of the whole affair, refused to make any change in what had been written.

[Footnote 1: John xix.19-22.]

His disciples had fled. John, nevertheless, declares himself to have been present, and to have remained standing at the foot of the cross during the whole time. It may be affirmed, with more certainty, that the devoted women of Galilee, who had followed Jesus to Jerusalem and continued to tend him, did not abandon him. Mary Cleophas, Mary Magdalen, Joanna, wife of Khouza, Salome, and others, stayed at a certain distance, and did not lose sight of him. If we must believe John, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was also at the foot of the cross, and Jesus seeing his mother and his beloved disciple together, said to the one, |Behold thy mother!| and to the other, |Behold thy son!| But we do not understand how the synoptics, who name the other women, should have omitted her whose presence was so striking a feature. Perhaps even the extreme elevation of the character of Jesus does not render such personal emotion probable, at the moment when, solely preoccupied by his work, he no longer existed except for humanity.

[Footnote 1: John xix.25, and following.]

[Footnote 2: The synoptics are agreed in placing the faithful group |afar off| the cross. John says, |at the side of,| governed by the desire which he has of representing himself as having approached very near to the cross of Jesus.]

[Footnote 3: Matt. xxvii.55, 56; Mark xv.40, 41; Luke xxiii.49, 55; xxiv.10; John xix.25. Cf. Luke xxiii.27-31.]

[Footnote 4: John xix.25, and following. Luke, who always adopts a middle course between the first two synoptics and John, mentions also, but at a distance, |all his acquaintance| (xxiii.49). The expression, [Greek: gnostoi], may, it is true, mean |kindred.| Luke, nevertheless (ii.44), distinguishes the [Greek: gnostoi] from the [Greek: sungeneis]. Let us add, that the best manuscripts bear [Greek: oi gnostoi auto], and not [Greek: oi gnostoi autou]. In the Acts (i.14), Mary, mother of Jesus, is also placed in company with the Galilean women; elsewhere (Gospel, chap. ii.35), Luke predicts that a sword of grief will pierce her soul. But this renders his omission of her at the cross the less explicable.]

[Footnote 5: This is, in my opinion, one of those features in which John betrays his personality and the desire he has of giving himself importance. John, after the death of Jesus, appears in fact to have received the mother of his Master into his house, and to have adopted her (John xix.27.) The great consideration which Mary enjoyed in the early church, doubtless led John to pretend that Jesus, whose favorite disciple he wished to be regarded, had, when dying, recommended to his care all that was dearest to him. The presence of this precious trust near John, insured him a kind of precedence over the other apostles, and gave his doctrine a high authority.]

Apart from this small group of women, whose presence consoled him, Jesus had before him only the spectacle of the baseness or stupidity of humanity. The passers-by insulted him. He heard around him foolish scoffs, and his greatest cries of pain turned into hateful jests: |He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God.| |He saved others,| they said again; |himself he cannot save. If he be the king of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him! Ah, thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself.| Some, vaguely acquainted with his apocalyptic ideas, thought they heard him call Elias, and said, |Let us see whether Elias will come to save him.| It appears that the two crucified thieves at his side also insulted him. The sky was dark; and the earth, as in all the environs of Jerusalem, dry and gloomy. For a moment, according to certain narratives, his heart failed him; a cloud hid from him the face of his Father; he endured an agony of despair a thousand times more acute than all his torture. He saw only the ingratitude of men; he perhaps repented suffering for a vile race, and exclaimed: |My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?| But his divine instinct still prevailed. In the degree that the life of the body became extinguished, his soul became clear, and returned by degrees to its celestial origin. He regained the idea of his mission; he saw in his death the salvation of the world; he lost sight of the hideous spectacle spread at his feet, and, profoundly united to his Father, he began upon the gibbet the divine life which he was to live in the heart of humanity through infinite ages.

[Footnote 1: Matt. xxvii.40, and following; Mark xv.29, and following.]

[Footnote 2: Matt. xxvii.44; Mark xv.32. Luke has here modified the tradition, in accordance with his taste for the conversion of sinners.]

[Footnote 3: Matt. xxvii.45; Mark xv.33; Luke xxiii.44.]

The peculiar atrocity of crucifixion was that one might live three or four days in this horrible state upon the instrument of torture. The haemorrhage from the hands quickly stopped, and was not mortal. The true cause of death was the unnatural position of the body, which brought on a frightful disturbance of the circulation, terrible pains of the head and heart, and, at length, rigidity of the limbs. Those who had a strong constitution only died of hunger. The idea which suggested this cruel punishment was not directly to kill the condemned by positive injuries, but to expose the slave nailed by the hand of which he had not known how to make good use, and to let him rot on the wood. The delicate organization of Jesus preserved him from this slow agony. Everything leads to the belief that the instantaneous rupture of a vessel in the heart brought him, at the end of three hours, to a sudden death. Some moments before yielding up his soul, his voice was still strong. All at once, he uttered a terrible cry, which some heard as: |Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit!| but which others, more preoccupied with the accomplishment of prophecies, rendered by the words, |It is finished!| His head fell upon his breast, and he expired.

[Footnote 1: Petronius, Sat., cxi., and following; Origen, In Matt. Comment. series, 140 Arab text published in Kosegarten, op. cit., p.63, and following.]

[Footnote 2: Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., viii.8.]

[Footnote 3: Matt. xxvii.46; Mark xv.34.]

[Footnote 4: Matt. xxvii.50; Mark xv.37; Luke xxiii.46; John xix.30.]

Rest now in thy glory, noble initiator. Thy work is completed; thy divinity is established. Fear no more to see the edifice of thy efforts crumble through a flaw. Henceforth, beyond the reach of frailty, thou shalt be present, from the height of thy divine peace, in the infinite consequences of thy acts. At the price of a few hours of suffering, which have not even touched thy great soul, thou hast purchased the most complete immortality. For thousands of years the world will extol thee. Banner of our contradictions, thou wilt be the sign around which will be fought the fiercest battles. A thousand times more living, a thousand times more loved since thy death than during the days of thy pilgrimage here below, thou wilt become to such a degree the corner-stone of humanity, that to tear thy name from this world would be to shake it to its foundations. Between thee and God, men will no longer distinguish. Complete conqueror of death, take possession of thy kingdom, whither, by the royal road thou has traced, ages of adorers will follow thee.

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